Written by Grove Collaborative

Your guide to natural laundry detergent — and why you’ll love it.

Last Updated: February 9, 2021

If you think natural laundry detergent can’t get your clothes as clean as the brand you grew up with, think again! Natural laundry detergents have come a long way in the past decade. Here, we explore the wonderful world of natural laundry detergents — including how they work and why you should make the switch.

Here at Grove Collaborative, we’re big believers in the power of natural products — both for ourselves and for the planet. But we know making the switch can be daunting, especially if you’re accustomed to conventional products and are new to the world of natural, eco-friendly alternatives. That’s why we’ve created Beginner’s Guides to Natural. Each week, we’ll give you a primer on the ins and outs of transitioning to a natural version of a common household item, plus a few of our favorite brands for making the switch. Let’s get to swapping!

Doing laundry is a never-ending task, whether you love it or loathe it. The average American household does eight loads of laundry each week — and that adds up to a lot of detergent moving through our washing machines each year. Unfortunately, the harmful chemicals in conventional laundry detergents find their way into the environment, and many are detrimental to human health.




Is laundry detergent toxic?

The short answer is, yes. Conventional laundry detergents are full of toxic chemicals that sound more like something you’d find in the lab of Dr. Frankenstein than in the cleaning section of your local grocery store. To find the safest laundry detergent, eschew these particularly harmful ingredients we like to call the Frightening Four:

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate

You may try to avoid sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) in your shampoo, but it’s also used as a cleaning agent in your laundry detergent — as well as in industrial engine degreasers (yes — like your car engine!). SLS is toxic to aquatic life, and it’s associated with a range of health problems in humans. As if you need more reasons to avoid SLS, it’s also been shown to cause blackheads and hair loss over prolonged periods of use.

1,4-dioxane

1,4-dioxane is not an ingredient in detergents, but rather a by-product of emulsifiers and solvents used in laundry detergent. This chemical has been shown to cause cancer in animal studies, and the Environmental Protection Agency has classified it “likely carcinogenic” to humans(1). 1,4-dioxane can be identified in a product if any of the following are listed in the ingredients: PEG, polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, or polyoxyethylene.

Formaldehyde

Your eyes do not deceive you — the same chemical used to embalm cadavers is actually in a wide array of common household items such as nail polish, makeup, and — you guessed it — laundry detergent. This strong antimicrobial and preservative is not only irritating to your lungs and eyes, but it can cause contact dermatitis and eczema.

Fragrance (parfum)

Fragrances are perhaps the sneakiest of all toxic chemicals because companies are legally allowed to keep them as “trade secrets.” This means they don’t have to disclose to consumers what ingredients go into their particular scent. Up to 95% of most fragrances are made up of numerous harmful synthetic chemicals. Simply put, this means your detergent exposes you to a long list of undisclosed allergens, irritants, and possible carcinogens. Your favorite scented detergent may not be so sweet after all.

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Stain treaters

What the laundry detergent industry calls “stain treaters” are actually just chemicals that create an optical illusion by coating your clothes in a synthetic material that reflects light, hiding your stains but not actually getting rid of them. Certain brighteners — or ‘whiteners,’ as they’re sometimes called — are thought to have harmful developmental and reproductive effects.

What is the most toxic laundry detergent?

You want the safest laundry detergent for you and your family, but weeding out the good from the bad can be an arduous task. An easy place to start is to stay away from any products that tout brightening abilities or which are heavily fragranced. Check the ingredients to see if any of the Frightening Four above are listed.

Why is natural laundry detergent better?

Natural laundry detergents are gentler on your clothes while still being workhorses when it comes to cleaning. Conventional detergents have harsh chemicals that damage fabric fibers, but going natural will keep your garments and linens alive and lookin’ good longer. Natural, eco-friendly laundry detergents use greener suds to remove dirt without toxic chemicals that end up in our waterways and wildlife — and our bodies.

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Don’t be fooled by labels that tout a detergent as “fragrance-free” or “naturally scented.” These terms are not regulated, which means they can be used on packaging even if the claim isn’t exactly true — many companies use artificial scents in their products, even if the advertising says otherwise. In general, you’ll do well to avoid most of the conventional laundry detergent brands, which are fraught with artificial fragrances full of harmful chemicals.

How does organic laundry detergent work?

Many organic laundry detergents contain enzymes as a way of cleaning your clothes without hazardous chemicals. “Enzymes” may conjure up images of microscopic squiggly things from your high school science lab — and believe us, these little guys really pack a punch when it comes to cleaning your clothes. Enzymes are powerful organic proteins that break down stains and dirt. Different enzymes work on different types of stains.

Lipases

Lipases break down fats — grease, butter, lipstick — into fatty acids and hydrolyze fatty materials trapped in fibers, making them less hydrophobic and easier to remove.

Amylases

Amylases digest starchy stains — gravy, potatoes, ice cream — and leave behind water-soluble carbohydrates that detach easily and wash down the drain.

Cellulases

Cellulases prevent dirt-loving pills and bristly cellulose microfibrils (a.k.a. “fuzz”) from dulling your colors — and they modify the surface of fibers to better release stains.

Proteases

Proteases break down proteins into peptides and water-soluble amino acids. They’re effective on common protein stains, including grass, wine, and blood.

Why is homemade laundry soap bad?

Getting your clothes truly clean requires a detergent — a water-soluble surfactant that breaks up dirt and grease — and homemade laundry soap just doesn’t cut it in most cases. The stuff made at home isn’t actually detergent — it’s soap, which isn’t very effective at getting dirt and stains out of clothes. Another good reason to ditch the DIY is that common ingredients in homemade laundry soaps can react poorly with minerals in the water and end up leaving residue on your clothes instead of getting them clean.

What is the most environmentally friendly way to wash clothes?

The average washing machine uses around 41 gallons of water per load, and clothes dryers account for around six percent of your home’s total energy use. Adding insult to environmental injury, detergents and dryer sheets are riddled with artificial fragrances and other dangerous chemicals that are hazardous to the environment — and to your health. But fear not! Going green and healthy with your laundry routine is a simple endeavor:

Wash your clothes in cold water

There are so many benefits to washing clothes in cold water. It makes colors last longer, prevents shrinkage, and maintains the shape of your clothes over time. Cold water washing also saves you money on your electricity bill and reduces carbon emissions — a whopping 90 percent of the energy used to wash a load of laundry goes to heating the water, whereas only 10 percent is used to run the motor. Yikes!

Use the best natural laundry detergents

Laundry detergent really gets around—it doesn’t disappear into thin air after your load is done. Quite the opposite — the contaminated waste water from your washing machine finds its way from the sewers into rivers and other waterways, where harmful chemicals negatively affect aquatic life and can contaminate our drinking water. By the simple act of choosing a natural laundry detergent, you’re keeping your share of all those nasty toxins out of the environment.

Hang your clothes to dry

Drying an average load of laundry every couple of days emits nearly 1000 pounds of carbon dioxide in a year. Carbon dioxide is poisonous in large amounts and can cause a laundry list of negative effects to humans and the environment. Hanging your clothes to dry — whether outside on a clothesline or on a drying rack in your laundry room — is an eco-friendly way to dry your clothes.

Use dryer balls

Dryer balls are another great eco-friendly option for reducing the impact of drying your clothes. Wool dryer balls keep air circulating around your clothes, drying them more evenly and cutting down on drying time. Dryer balls also help get wrinkles out of your clothes, making them a great alternative to scented, disposable dryer sheets. You can even scent your dryer balls with a few drops of your favorite essential oils to make your clothes smell fragrant and wonderful — naturally.

The best natural laundry detergents

What is the best natural laundry detergent brand?

We can’t pick just one, so here are our Fabulous Four:


Mrs. Meyer’s.

We love Mrs. Meyer’s laundry detergents, which are 98% naturally derived and compatible with all washing machines. Scented with pure essential oils, Mrs. Meyer’s offerings have heady scents like basil, honeysuckle, and lemon verbena — just to name a few.


Seventh Generation.

You won’t find any artificial dyes or synthetic fragrances in Seventh Generation’s safe and eco-friendly laundry detergents, which are super-concentrated so you can clean more with less — and they work like a charm in cold water!


Molly’s Suds.

This is a female-owned business whose wonderful products are totally vegan and cruelty-free. Molly’s Oxygen Whitener is free from chlorine, bleach, and ammonia — this formula uses sodium percarbonate to get your whites looking their whitest and your colors shining their brightest.


Grove Collaborative.

Our own popular laundry detergents come in recyclable packaging and utilize plant-derived enzymes and natural essential oils to get your clothes super clean and smelling dreamy while doing no harm to you or the environment. Use our detergents in high-efficiency or standard washing machines.

What is the best zero-waste laundry detergent?

Seventh Generation Zero Plastic Laundry Detergent Tablets are made without water, and they’re non-toxic. They come in a canister made of steel — the most recyclable and recycled material in the world.


Grove Collaborative laundry detergents are formulated with enzymes that perform best in cooler temperatures, allowing you to reduce your footprint without sacrificing cleanliness. Our starter kits include a reusable dispenser, and our detergent refills come in recyclable pouches.

What is the best natural laundry detergent for babies?

Grab Green Newborn Laundry Detergent Pods are biodegradable and sulfate-free. This natural laundry detergent has a specially formulated combination of essential oils to target tough stains — from breast milk to diaper explosions — and it’s gentle as a bunny on baby’s skin.


Mrs. Meyer’s Baby Laundry Detergent is made with plant-derived ingredients and scented with essential oils — this safe laundry detergent is super gentle on your little one’s skin. Mrs. Meyers is concentrated, so you’ll only need half a capful to get your baby’s clothes clean.

Shop natural laundry detergents


Looking for more cleaning how-tos and other sustainable swaps you can make at home? Grove has you covered with our buying and cleaning guides. And let us know how if you have any cleaning questions (or share your own tips using #grovehome) by following Grove Collaborative on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

If you're ready to make the transition to natural cleaning products, shop Grove Collaborative's cleaning essentials for the cleaning tools to tackle the job.

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