How dirty is your laundry?

Responsible fashionistas are already cutting back on dry cleaning and washing their everyday clothes at 30°C. We thought it worth taking a closer look at the ethics of that washday.

Choosing the best available detergent, and reconsidering how you use it, can make a huge difference. A 2009 Defra study recommends using concentrated bottled liquid rather than powder, and dosing frugally is an easy way to cut the impact of each load. Liquids generally use fewer chemicals per wash and perform better across most environmental indicators. Tablets and capsules require extra packaging and production, and prevent you from using a little less than the recommended dose. Unfortunately, liquids come in plastic bottles, but look out for 5 litre or even 20 litre refills. Eco-pioneer Ecover is also working on packaging alternatives including plastic made from sugar cane.

Fabric softeners leave a positive charge on the fabric, making it feel soft. They may also leave traces of many potentially toxic chemicals, including irritants, allergens and neurotoxins. Ditch the ‘softener’ and add 1/4 cup of white vinegar during the rinse cycle to remove any detergent residue, eliminating that scratchy feel. Cooler and less frequent washing will also keep a garment looking better.

Tumble-drying uses more than twice as much electricity as washers. Line-dry whenever possible – it’s great for removing smells. The UV in sunlight has a biocidal, bleaching effect, so you can also ditch the chlorine bleach (or use peroxide bleach instead).

What’s in laundry liquid?

The main active ingredient of any detergent is surfactant, which keeps the dirt suspended in the water. EU law now requires them to break down by 60% within 28 days in the presence of oxygen. Since this only applies to the detergent ingredient, (typically 3- 20% of a laundry liquid), and most biodegradation happens in the absence of oxygen, many approved laundry liquids are still far from fully biodegradable. Most use LAS (Linear Alkylbenzene Sulfonate), synthesised from crude oil and not biodegradable without oxygen. By contrast, companies like Ecover and Bio-D say their own renewable alternatives, made from plant oils or sugar, are 100% biodegradable within a week.

Ecover was the first to produce laundry detergents without phosphates (or phosphonates) – which, when released into waterways can lead to algal blooms that stifle fish and other aquatic life. In 2012, the EU limited the amount of phosphates permitted in household laundry detergent to 0.5 grams per standard dose. All our detergents are now, therefore, either phosphate-free or contain only negligible quantities.

Biological versions contain enzymes to break down protein, starch and fat. Naturally occurring and biodegradable, these boost stain removal, particularly at 30°C, but may aggravate skin conditions like eczema. Allergy UK endorses Bio-D, Ecover Zero and Greenscents products.

The word ‘Fragrance’ or ‘Parfum’ on a label covers various chemicals and ingredients, potentially including hormone-disrupting phthalates, synthetic musks and ethylene oxide. ‘Fragrance’ has been associated with allergies, dermatitis and asthma attacks. The big brands use them freely, and heavily in fabric conditioners. ‘Eco’ products tend to be fragrance free or use only essential oils.

Optical brighteners use reflective chemicals called stilbenes to create the illusion of dazzling cleanliness. Non-biodegradable, and now common in rivers and seas, they are suspected hormone disruptors, toxic to fish, and may cause allergic skin reactions. Greener detergents avoid them, which is why they don’t perform well on ‘whiteness’ in Which? tests.

Best avoided in terms of both pollutants and potential irritants are McBride (Surcare, most supermarkets’ own brand detergents), Jeyes Holdings (Easy), SC Johnson & Son (Shout), Reckitt Benckiser (Dettol, Vanish, Woolite), Henkel AG (Dylon), Procter & Gamble (Ariel, Bold, Daz, Fairy, Lenor) Delta Pronatura (ACDO, Dr. Beckmann) and Dri-Pak. Less obvious culprits include Ecoleaf, Enpac (Simply) and Astonish. Greenscents, Ecos, Faith in Nature and Bio-D, are all better in this respect than either Ecover or Method. Greenscents is also certified organic by the UK’s Soil Association.

The UK Government’s 2015 ban on testing ‘finished’ household products on animals will make little actual difference, since it’s ingredients that are tested on animals. Even Ecover has been called out for animal testing, and in 2007, admitted testing on both daphnia (microscopic water fleas, controversially not animals under EU law) and farmed rabbit blood. It no longer tests on either, and has been endorsed by Cruelty Free International since 2012. Products made by giants McBride, Reckitt Benckiser, Procter & Gamble or Unilever are best avoided by anyone who cares about animal welfare. Greenscents, Bio-D and Faith in Nature all do particularly well in this respect.

Earth Friendly Products (ECOS) is palm oil free and Traidcraft uses fair trade palm oil. Other exemplary palm oil policies are held by Sodasan, Triangle Wholefoods (Ecoleaf), and Sonett, Reckitt Benckiser and Procter and Gamble have much to learn from them on this issue. In 2014, plans to replace the palm oil in Ecover products with an oil produced by genetically engineered algae provoked criticism from environmental NGOs led by Canadian anti-GM group ETC, and they dropped the idea. This same oil is, however, now used in Unilever’s soaps. The pros and cons of manipulating algae using “synthetic biology” are likely to be further argued as proponents explore its potential as a low-carbon biofuel.

An Ethical Consumer analysis – based on either the recommended dosage or 50ml where there is none – found some of the better performers according to their range of criteria also scored well on price per wash. Astonish was significantly cheaper than any alternative, Faith in Nature did well at 20p per dose. Method and Bio-D are cheaper than either Persil or Bold at a middling 24p.

Greenscents, Bio-D and Faith in Nature seem to do well on most of the issues, but there’s no perfect option, and spending more doesn’t automatically help.

Avoiding detergent altogether is still the greenest option, and laundering less often also helps. Air clothes between wears to keep them smelling fresh, and don’t wash until you have a full load. Machine washing in water alone can freshen a lightly-soiled load, but for stain removal, you’re probably going to have to add something.

Natural, compostable and renewable, Soapnuts, from the Asian soapnut tree, contain a detergent called saponin. They work best at 60°C. Pre-soaking them, or boiling them and using the resulting ‘stock’ may help for a cooler wash. They’re available online at

Plastic wash balls, filled with pellets with ‘ionic cleaning power’, require no rinse cycles. However, a 2009 Which? test found them barely more effective than just water. Adding an eco-friendly stain remover may help.

It’s actually cheap and easy to make your own soap-based detergent powder from grated soap and washing soda. The simpler the soap, the more effective this will be (skin soaps contain unhelpful ingredients), so home-made soap actually works best. There are recipes here:

We hope there’s an idea here to help you make your clothing care regime even a little bit kinder, on both the planet and you!

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