Image of woman holding wicker laundry basket with laundry, stain remover bottle, wool dryer ball with 2 kids peeking inside the basket

The Ultimate Guide to Doing Laundry — Naturally.

Last Updated: September 26, 2022

Doing laundry isn’t always necessarily great for your health or the environment, but greening up your routine reduces the impact on both. Here’s how to do natural laundry right.

If your household, like so many others, is inching toward a more sustainable lifestyle, your laundry routine is a good place to start making small changes that will add up to big benefits for the health of your family and the environment. This epic guide to natural and eco-friendly laundry covers it all — it’ll help you lower your carbon footprint and pad your pocketbook.

Doing your laundry probably doesn’t strike a lot of joy in your heart. But good hygiene and looking good unfortunately require moderately clean clothes, so it looks like you’re in it for the long-haul — to the tune of nearly eight loads of laundry a week, which probably sounds laughable if you have kids who play sports.

But if you’re an average American, you’re looking at doing roughly 3,120 loads of laundry in the coming decade, which will use 127,920 gallons of water and almost 49 gallons of detergent. Together, Americans’ residential laundry practices account for 179 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year — equivalent to the total annual energy use of 21 million homes.

Since you’re pretty much sentenced to a lifetime of laundering, why not green up your routine? It’s not hard, and you’ll be a part of a fast-growing movement of earthlings trying to do better by the planet.

The washing machine

A green, healthy laundry routine starts with the washing machine — the kind of shape it’s in and how you use it.

Your washing machine’s age, make, and model has a lot to do with how much water and energy you use doing laundry. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that 26 million washing machines being used in the U.S. are at least 10 years old, which means they’re significantly less efficient than newer models, costing consumers $4.7 billion each year in water and energy. If your washing machine is getting up there in age, investing in a newer machine will save you money while lowering your carbon footprint.

How you use your washing machine has a major impact on how environmentally friendly — and expensive — your laundry routine is. Here, we look at how to spin those dials — or push those buttons — for the lowest environmental impact.

Thermometer illustration

Hot or cold water?

The jury is in, and it turns out that doing the vast majority of your laundry in cold water has lots of benefits over using hot or even warm water. And that’s good news, since 90 percent of the energy used by your washing machine goes toward heating the water.

Our guide to cold water laundry lays it all out in detail with the help of Grove’s own Clement Choy, Ph.D., senior director of science and formulation. Here’s a quick lowdown:

  • Cold-water natural laundry detergents work exceptionally well in water temps as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit — typical cold-water washes are around 60 degrees.
  • Some stains will set in warm and hot water, but not cold water.
  • Cold water washing is better for your clothes.
  • You’ll save 864 pounds of carbon emissions annually by doing four out of five loads in cold water.
  • Use hot water for diapers, bedding, and washable items used by someone who is sick.
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Wash cycle settings

Standard washing machines have three main cycle options:

Regular (a.k.a. normal, cotton): Fast agitation, fast spin, long cycle. Meant for removing stains and washing durable items like jeans and towels.

Permanent press: Fast agitation, slow spin, shorter cycle than regular. Meant for everyday clothes and items that wrinkle easily, like casual shirts and lightweight pants.

Delicate (a.k.a. gentle): Slow agitation, slow spin, shortest cycle. Meant for delicate pieces like hosiery and cashmere sweaters — the gentle cycle is the equivalent of hand-washing.

The delicate cycle using cold water is the most energy-efficient setting, and it’s generally sufficient for clothes that aren’t very dirty. For moderately soiled clothes, use the permanent press setting. Save the regular cycle for super-filthy duds.

Washing machine illustration

(Load) size matters

Matching load size to water level is fundamental for getting the cleanest clothes and most efficient machine performance. A load that’s too large for the water level reduces your machine’s efficiency and lifespan, results in poor rinsing and draining, produces more lint, and wears out your clothes faster. A load that’s too small for the water level causes imbalanced (and loud!) spin cycles and wastes water, energy, and detergent.

The size of a small, medium, or large load of laundry depends on the capacity of your machine, which came with a load-size chart — in pounds. Instead of trying to figure out how to weigh your laundry, use these handy rules of thumb:

  • Small load/low water level: Fill the drum less than one-third full of clothes.
  • Medium load/medium water level: Fill the drum one-third to one-half full of clothes.
  • Large load/high water level: Fill the drum one-half to two-thirds full of clothes.

A clean machine is a cleaning machine

Washing clothes in a filthy, moldy washing machine is pretty gross, and it can make your clothes smell like you washed them in a frog pond. Mold, mildew, and a brown, waxy substance called scrud may build up in machines, leaving unsightly stains and spots on your clothes.

Your machine is probably dirtier than you think — much of the mold and mildew inhabiting the washer is hidden under the ledge around the drum on a top-loader and around the door gasket on a front-loader.

A clean washing machine will last longer, work more efficiently, and get your clothes cleaner than a dirty one. Our guide to cleaning the washing machine tells you everything you need to know about cleaning and disinfecting your machine naturally, including step-by-step instructions and plenty of tips and tricks to help you get — and keep — your washer clean.


Why choose ENERGY STAR?

ENERGY STAR is a Department of Energy program that certifies consumer products that meet strict energy-efficiency standards. ENERGY STAR-certified washing machines use 25 percent less energy and 33 percent less water than regular washers. The DOE estimates that if every washing machine in the U.S. was an ENERGY STAR model, consumers would save more than $3.3 billion on water and energy bills annually and keep more than 19 billion pounds of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere each year.

Detergents & tools

A natural, eco-friendly laundry routine involves detergents that aren’t toxic to the environment, as most conventional laundry detergents are. Our guide to natural laundry detergent gives you the rundown of harmful chemicals in the popular, brand-name laundry detergents we all grew up with — which end up in our water systems — and the natural alternatives that are just as powerful.

In a nutshell, natural laundry detergents are made with plant-based surfactants and stain-busting enzymes — those powerful organic proteins that break down the soils in your clothes — rather than toxic, petroleum-derived surfactants and other harmful ingredients. Quality natural detergents are non-toxic to the environment, and they’re free of synthetic fragrance chemicals — like phthalates and parabens — that can cause health problems with prolonged exposure.

Other natural laundry tools:

Napkin illustration


Don’t reach for the bleach when your clothes are dingy — instead, try a natural whitener that’s free of chlorine, ammonia, sulfates, parabens, and fragrances. Natural whiteners use sodium percarbonate to get clothes bright, and they’re hypoallergenic and cruelty-free.

Scent boosters

Natural scent boosters use powerful plant-based fragrances to keep your clothes smelling fresh long after they’re washed. Free of triclosan, parabens, and other harmful chemicals, natural fragrance boosters are generally hypoallergenic and not tested on animals.

Bunny with ears forming a heart illustration

Fabric softeners

Natural fabric softeners are made with plant-based ingredients that make your clothes soft and your towels fluffy. Natural scents, also derived from plants, make your laundry smell delightful for days. Natural fabric softeners are generally biodegradable and safe for sensitive skin.


Don’t mesh around with your delicates

A zipper-closure mesh bag is your best friend in the laundry room. This versatile piece of equipment comes in several different sizes and:

  • Protects delicates from tearing as they’re agitated around in the drum.
  • Prevents bras and hosiery from stretching and getting straps or legs tangled up with other clothes.
  • Keeps all your socks together — no more mismatches, no more wayward socks peeking out of your pant leg at work.

Preparing your laundry

Laundry items illustration with green background

The exact wrong way to do laundry is to turn your hamper upside down and dump the whole shebang in the washing machine. You’ve got to take a gentle approach to getting your laundry clean, and that involves some prep work — which is instrumental in reducing the environmental impact of clean skivvies.

The time you take to properly prepare your clothes for laundering pays off in clothes that take less energy to clean and last much longer.

Sorting: It’s about more than color

Sorting your clothes is the first important step to doing laundry — if you skip the sorting and toss everything in the machine together, there’s often heck to pay. You can sort your clothes a lot of different ways, depending on your wardrobe, but here’s the most common sorting method:

Sort by category

Separate out towels, bedding, and clothes. Washing towels with normal clothes causes heavier wear and tear on your wardrobe and leaves your clothes covered in hair and lint. Since bedding should be washed in hot water (and your clothes shouldn’t) washing bedding with clothes does a disservice to one or the other. And washing towels and bedding brings the lint problem again — and the heavier towels and lighter sheets often end up twisted together in the washer and the dryer.

Sort by color

Whites: If you don’t have a lot of whites, you can combine them with lights.
Lights: light neutrals, ivory, pastels, etc.
Brights: bright green, yellow, magenta, etc.
Darks black, navy, dark gray, forest green.

Many of your darker colors — especially jeans — will bleed a little dye each time they’re washed, eventually making lighter clothes look dingy after a few washings. And if you don’t pre-soak extra-filthy items, your laundry water will be dirtier, and the soil may get on your other clothes.

Sort by fabric type

If you're still looking to reduce load size, consider fabric items. Separate all "heavy" items from lightweight items. If you have a lot of jeans, make denim its own pile. And if you have a lot of delicates — including washable silks — sort them into their own load.

Heavy items, like jeans and sweatshirts, take longer to dry than lightweight items like a t-shirt or button-up, which means that your lightweight items will dry faster. The prolonged heat exposure — plus all that unnecessary tumbling against heavier items — wears out your clothes much faster than necessary.

As you sort:

  • Check pockets for chapstick, dollar bills, and winning lottery tickets, then turn the pockets inside out.
  • Inspect your clothes as you sort. Set aside items with stains to pre-treat before washing. Look for tears, and don’t wash a torn item until it’s mended — agitation and friction can make them worse.
  • Remove safety pins, buckles, and decorative pins and brooches from items.
  • Zip the zippers, snap the snaps, hook the hooks, and secure all velcro to prevent snags.
  • Unfurl socks, unroll sleeves and cuffs, and unbutton everything to prevent stress on buttons and buttonholes during washing.
  • Put bras, stockings, and other delicates in zippered mesh bags.
  • Tie sashes, hoodie pulls, and other strings to keep them from getting tangled with clothes or caught in the agitator.
  • Turn inside out: jeans and other items that fade easily; items with embellishments like iron-ons, decals, and sequins; and clothes that pill easily, such as sweaters and cotton t-shirts.
  • Check the care symbols of items you aren’t sure about to ensure they can be machine washed and dried.

Deciphering care symbols for washing

The care symbols on your clothing labels are trying to tell you something important.

Ignore them, and you risk stretching, shrinking, felting, melting, or otherwise ruining your favorite threads. The international care symbols for washing come in three shapes:

  • Wash tub = washing
  • Triangle = bleaching
  • Circle = dry cleaning

Modifications to these shapes inform the laundry-doer what can go in the washer, at what temperature, and on which cycle — and then some. Now, you don’t always have to follow the symbols exactly. If it says wash in hot water, you can — and usually should — opt for cold, but if it says wash in cold, don’t wash it in hot. Default to the least intensive treatment.


Pretreating stains

The first thing you should do when you drop a meatball or dribble wine down the front of your shirt is immediately soak the stain in lukewarm water. If you’re out and about, get water on it ASAP. Ideally, you’ll treat the stain pronto and wash the garment right after, but if it’s a few days before you get around to it, you’ll want to pretreat the stain before you toss the item in the wash.

Stains are tricky little beasts, composed of different substances — fats and oils, proteins, and starchy foods — that respond to different treatments, which may vary depending on the type of fabric the stain is on and how long the spot has been there. And that’s a whole lot of science to conquer when you just want the offending spot gone with as little effort as possible. So here’s a sort of universal guide to pretreating stains in general before you wash.

  1. Re-wet the stain, and apply an absorbent — like salt, cornstarch, or talcum powder — over the spot. Let it sit for 15 minutes, then brush or scrape it off and rinse what’s left with water.
  2. Apply an appropriate natural stain remover (see below) to the back of the fabric to break up the stain and move it toward the surface instead of deeper into the fibers. Dab the stain with the solution — don’t rub!
  3. Lay the stained area face down on a clean paper towel, which gives the stain something to move onto — otherwise, it’s still there, just diluted. Leave it there for about an hour, but make sure it doesn’t dry, or you’ll end up worse off than before.
  4. Rinse the affected area in water, and wash the garment immediately.
Footprint illustration

Natural solutions for pre-treating stains

Mild acid (vinegar, lemon juice): Treats coffee, tea, grass, and mildew stains and sticky adhesive residues. Don’t use acids on wool.

Mild, natural laundry detergent: Works on grease, oil, and chocolate stains. Mix a few drops of detergent in a small cup of lukewarm water, and apply to the stain.

Hydrogen peroxide: Ideal for highly pigmented stains, like makeup, grass, and markers. Test the solution on an inconspicuous area first, and don’t use it on delicate fabrics.

Glycerin: Works well on dye, ink, mustard, and berry stains — and stains that have hardened or set — by breaking them up and pulling them away from the fabric.

Natural stain removers: Natural liquid and bar stain removers on the market work on most stains, powered by either enzymes or plant-based ingredients like coconut oil and lye — which, when combined, cause a chemical reaction called saponification, and the end result is natural soap, plus glycerin.


To dry clean, or not to dry clean?

Often, manufacturers add the dry-clean symbol or the words “dry clean” to labels on clothes made of fabrics like wool, cashmere, silk, and rayon. But unless the label says “dry-clean only,” you can get away with washing by machine it as long as it’s made of a single fabric type, is simply constructed, and is color-fast — dampen an area of the item, and press a white cloth against it to test. Wash these clothes in cold water on the gentle cycle, and hang or lay flat to dry. Save the powerful, toxic dry-cleaning chemicals for the dry-clean only group, which can’t be cleaned with water under any circumstances.

Washing your clothes

Illustration with laundry items on blue background

The proper order of events

Now that you’ve done all that prep work, it’s time to toss the load in the wash. But there’s a right way and a not-quite-as-right way to do that.

For a top-loading machine:

  1. Start filling the empty tub with water.
  2. Add the detergent.
  3. Put your clothes in.

For a front-loading washer:

  1. Put the clothes in the washer.
  2. Add the detergent to the dispenser.
  3. Start the machine to fill the drum with water. The machine will add the detergent at the right time.

How much detergent?

When it comes to laundry detergent, more is definitely not better. Using too much detergent, in fact, is very bad for your machine and your clothes, causing problems like:

  • A slimy wash basin, which occurs when your machine isn’t breaking down the detergent properly.
  • Soap scum buildup, which stinks to high heaven and can make your clothes smell bad.
  • Improper draining due to an abundance of suds.
  • Damage to your washing machine as it works harder to remove excess suds — which can shut down a high-efficiency washer.
  • Leaving your clothes looking dingy and feeling itchy.
  • Spending more on detergent than is necessary.
  • More environmental pollution if you use conventional detergent.

So, how much detergent should you use? The big caps on some detergent bottles are misleading, and the measuring marks for small, medium, and large loads are often very hard to see. The detergent fill line on the cap isn’t exactly the end-all and be-all for proper measuring anyway, since a normal load in a lower-capacity machine is smaller than a normal load in a higher-capacity machine.

The type of detergent you use matters, too — concentrated and high-efficiency detergents call for smaller amounts than regular-strength varieties. And finally, the type of water you wash in makes a difference. For hard water, add about a half-tablespoon more detergent than called for. If you have soft water, use about a half-tablespoon less.

Since measuring detergent is far from an exact science, follow these rules of thumb for the best results:

  • Check your washer’s manual for information about what type of detergent to use and how much to use per load size.
  • See if the machine manufacturer’s recommendations jibe with the instructions on the detergent bottle. If not, default to the machine’s info, and mark your measuring cap accordingly.
  • If the recommendations match, mark hard-to-see fill lines on the cap with permanent marker for more accurate measuring.
  • Never fill a large detergent cap half-full or full, even if the bottle recommends it for larger or heavily soiled loads. You will never need a large capful of detergent.

Experiment with reducing the amount of detergent you use. The chances are good that if you use half of what’s recommended, your clothes will still get beautifully clean. If not, try three-fourths of the recommended amount.

Drying your clothes

Illustration of laundry items with orange background

Like the washing machine, your clothes dryer’s energy expenditure depends on the type of machine you have and how you use it. Dryers use more energy than any other household appliance, including the refrigerator, and using inappropriate settings wastes energy, damages your clothes, and reduces the lifespan of your machine. Don’t set it and forget it — rather, adjust the settings based on the load you’re drying.

Deciphering care symbols for drying and ironing

If you didn’t check your care labels before washing, you’ll definitely want to do it before you put something you’re not sure about in the dryer. The international care symbols for drying and ironing come in two shapes:

  • Square = drying
  • Iron = ironing

As with the washing symbols, modifications to these shapes tell you what can go in the dryer, at what temperature, and on which cycle — and then some. And as with washing symbols, you don’t always have to follow them exactly. If it says dry on high heat, you can — and usually should — opt for medium or low heat, but if it says dry on low heat, don’t use high heat. Default to the least intensive treatment.


Temperature settings

Air dry or air fluff: No heat—the dryer pulls in air from the room while tumbling clothes to fluff them up and remove lint and pet hair — but this setting won’t dry clothes efficiently. Use this setting to freshen up dry-clean only clothes between cleanings.

Regular (a.k.a. heavy, cottons): The hottest setting—this cycle uses the most energy and will set stains that weren’t removed during the wash. It’s rough on fabrics and can damage or melt embellishments, so save this setting for heavy-duty loads like towels — as well as for bedding and diapers, since the high heat kills germs and dust mites.

Medium (a.k.a. casuals, permanent press): Medium heat. This cycle is less damaging to clothes than the regular cycle, and it’s more energy efficient, safer for most fabrics, and causes less wrinkling.

Low (a.k.a. delicates): Low heat. Use this setting for your delicate fabrics. You can also use it for small, lightweight loads to save more energy.

Cycle settings

Different dryer models have different cycle settings — and some have more options than others. These are the most common settings and when to use them.

Timed dry

The timed drying cycle lets you choose how long the dryer runs. On some machines, the timed cycle defaults to high heat, but you can override the temp setting.

Standard preset drying cycles

The regular/heavy/cottons cycle uses high heat. The medium/permanent press/casuals cycle uses medium heat, and the low/delicates cycle uses low heat. Within each option, you may be able to set the dial to “more dry,” “less dry,” or “optimum dry.”

Automatic cycles

Automatic cycles use sensors to determine how long to run based on the moisture content in the clothes. Some dryers have multiple automatic heat settings, which you can override.

Soften, scent, and speed up drying

Natural dryer sheets

Plant-based dryer sheets soften and scent your laundry just as well as conventional sheets, but they don’t contain synthetic fragrances and other toxic substances that can irritate your skin and pollute your air. Most natural dryer sheet brands are vegan, cruelty-free, non-toxic, and compostable or biodegradable.

Dryer balls

Quality wool dryer balls help reduce wrinkles and shorten drying time by 25 percent. Pop two or three balls in the dryer with your clothes — add a few drops of your favorite essential oil to the ball if you like scented laundry. Dryer balls last for around 1,000 loads, and when they’re kaput, they’re biodegradable. Learn more about these wooly wonders in our guide to dryer balls.

Top 10 energy-saving drying tips

  1. Dry longer at a lower temperature.
  2. Start with the shortest cycle and add time as needed.
  3. Use the automatic drying cycle if your machine has it.
  4. Toss in a couple of dry towels or dryer balls to speed up drying.
  5. Hang your laundry out to dry whenever you can.
  6. Dry heavier items, like sweatshirts, on a drying rack.
  7. Clean the lint trap after every load.
  8. Clean the vent hose every few months.
  9. Dry full loads.
  10. Turn the buzzer on so you’ll know when a load is done — adding time while the dryer is already hot is more efficient than adding it when damp clothes have cooled off.

Looking for more laundry 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.