Safe Laundry Detergent Guide

I can’t stand cologne, but I find a man who emits the intoxicating scent of Tide to be irresistible. Of course these days, Daylon’s clothes usually smell like Tandi’s Naturals laundry soap—which is to say they smell like essentially nothing, although that’s better than smelling dirty!

The Problem with Most Detergents

All laundry detergents leave a residue on clothing, which is absorbed by our skin (and inhaled). The ill effects of some of the chemicals in detergents range from skin or eye irritation to possibly much more serious, such as endocrine disruption (some ingredients are even considered potential carcinogens, but I’m not going to suggest that if you don’t give up your Tide you’ll get cancer).

What’s in Tide?

Because of “trade secrets,” manufacturers are not required to disclose what’s in their detergent, so the ingredient list is usually vague and not very helpful. Conventional laundry soap generally contain the following:

  • synthetic detergents, which are often made of petrochemicals
  • phenols (established endocrine disruptors, of which BPA is the most notorious)
  • beloved, delicious, and totally toxic fragrance (which usually contains phthalates)
  • optical brighteners, which are often made from benzene, a definite carcinogen
  • bleach, which contains chlorine (an environmental toxin–and possibly a carcinogen and endocrine disruptor)
  • phosphates, which break down minerals and render detergent more effective, but with harmful environmental ramifications 

Dirty Detergents

A 2008 study found that of all the top selling laundry detergent brands tested, each contained at least one ingredient considered hazardous under federal law. None of these ingredients was listed on the label and the study didn’t disclose which brands were tested—annoying, I know!

Do You Need a Special Detergent for Baby Clothes?

When I was pregnant and setting up a nursery that would never be used (Felix slept with us), everyone told me to wash all of his clothes in Dreft. After a bit of research I decided against it (see below, under “The Bad Stuff”).

I’m sure there are people who separate baby linens from other household laundry–probably the same people who make their bed in the morning even if no one is coming over. While I envy such organization, I personally feel successful if a cloth diaper is washed separately from a cashmere sweater.

More importantly, if my detergent is an irritant for my babies’ skin (or worse), I don’t want to use it on my clothes! My own health aside, when my boys are infants I spent about 30 percent of my day snuggling their little naked bodies to my clothed one.

Who Uses Powder Detergent?

I used to think no one did, but then I tried it and it turns out it works just as well as liquid. The only one I use now is Tandi’s, since almost every natural brand is not natural at all. Tandi’s contains nothing concerning and works so much better than the Sneaky Stuff we used to use (I remember washing Felix’s bibs in Seventh Generation detergent and then pulling them out of the dryer and seeing food still stuck on the fronts).  I didn’t think I could fall in love with a tallow-based, powder detergent, but there you go.

The Good Stuff


Sonett Laundry Liquid

This is my favorite liquid detergent. It’s made in Germany, smells delish (although it’s also available in an unscented Neutral), and gets our clothes super clean. Of course it contains none of the questionable ingredients listed above.

Where to Buy: Our online store! (We sell them in 2-packs)

$43.00 Select options

green shield detergentGreenShield Laundry Detergent

This awesome detergent has a totally safe ingredients list, with the main cleaning agent being saponified organic coconut oil. The unscented variety is great for even those with the most sensitive skin (like babies). EWG score: A

Where to Buy: Select Whole Foods, Amazon.

Eco-Me Vanilla Bean Laundry DetergentEco-Me Laundry Detergent

This is my favorite liquid laundry detergent–it’s got a safe ingredients list, works well, and smells nice. EWG score: A

Where to Buy: Select supermarkets, Amazon.

laundry soap 2

Tandi’s Naturals

Tandi’s concentrated laundry soap that is suitable for regular and HE washers. Tandi uses tallow as the basis for this soap, which she blends with natural cleaners like baking soda, plus essential oils for a delicate scent. This soap does not contain borax or SLS/SLES, and is a very effective option.

Where to Buy: Good Stuff Store!

$17.00$28.00 Select options

grab green detergentGrabGreen Laundry Detergent

If you love a detergent pod, here is your safest bet. GrabGreen contains a few mildly concerning ingredients (such as sodium metasilicate, which may have respiratory effects), but only in small concentrations. EWG score: B

Where to Buy: Amazon.

Zum Clean Laundry Soap

Zum Clean Laundry Soap

Almost all of Zum’s formulas are safe, with three primary ingredients: vegetable glycerin, saponified coconut oil, and baking soda. Avoid the Frankincense & Myrrh formula as it contains synthetic fragrance (although it is free of phthalates). EWG score: B-C, depending on formula

Where to Buy: Amazon.

The Bad Stuff

  • Tide has a section of its website devoted to product ingredients, and a quick scan reveals that it’s made up of lots of stuff that the EWG’s Skin Deep Database scores as moderately to highly hazardous—such as benzisothiazolinone, fragrance, FD&C Yellow 3, and laureth-9. EWG score: D-F, depending on formula.
    Most other big name and generic laundry detergents have the same bad stuff in them; if a bottle doesn’t list its specific ingredients on the label, I wouldn’t use it.
  • Dreft, as we all know, is marketed as being special for babies and  recommended by many pediatricians. Amazingly, nowhere on are ingredients mentioned. The closest they come is under their FAQ:
    Q: How is Dreft formulated for my baby’s laundry needs?
    A: The Dreft® formula is designed to not only help fight tough baby and toddler stains, but also provide a gentle clean for baby.
    With a bit more sleuthing, I was at last able to dig up a list of Dreft ingredients. Fragrance, propylene glycol, ethanolamine, ethanol, sodium hydroxide, diethylene glycol, polyethylene glycol 4000 (which Skin Deep scores as 5-8), and about a dozen other ingredients make up the “gentle” clean of Dreft.  EWG score: D-F, depending on formula.

The Sneaky Stuff

  • Green Works Free & Clear Detergent. Contains a number of bad ingredients, including synthetic preservatives. EWG score: F.
  • BabyGanics Loads of Love Laundry Detergent. Contains SLES and undisclosed conditioning agents. I like that they are relatively transparent about all of their ingredients, and while nothing sounds particularly horrid, when I asked for more details on what was meant by “naturally derived plant based cleaning agents,” they admitted: “Our products do not contain SLS however some our products do have SLES in them.” Yuck! I’ve often made my peace with SLS, but definitely not with its more sinister cousin, which is sometimes contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a well-established carcinogen. EWG Score: F.
  • Mrs. Meyers Clean Day Laundry Detergent. Contains synthetic fragrance (though phthalate-free), and preservatives such as methylisothiazolinone, a suspected neurotoxin. EWG Score: F.
  • Seventh Generation Liquid Formulas. Also contains methylisothiazolinone. The powder formulas are okay, but not quite Good Stuff. EWG Score: D.
  • Caldrea Laundry Detergent. Also contains neurotoxic methylisothiazolinone and sodium laureth sulfate. EWG score: F.
  • Charlie’s Soap is the perennial favorite on tons of natural living blogs, and having used their powder formula, I can attest to its effectiveness. Like other producers, Charlie’s is unwilling to provide their exact ingredients, and would only say this when I probed them further: “Our formulas are what make us special. They have been fully tested for toxicity (Duke University) and biodegradability (Japan Food Research Labs) and effectiveness (SGS US Testing Labs). They are unique and (following the practices of Coca-Cola) secret. Their formula is secret too, but that doesn’t keep folks from drinking it.” Hmmm, comparing themselves to Coke probably isn’t Charlie’s savviest PR move—The Coca-Cola Company is not exactly exemplary when it comes to concern for the health of its consumers. While Charlie’s denies using SLS or SLES, one of the ingredients they disclosed is sodium metasilicate–which Skin Deeps considers moderately hazardous and which the Journal of Reproduction and Fertility found to show reproductive effects in animals at low doses. EWG Score: D
  • Citra-Suds has also been moved from Good Stuff to Sneaky Stuff. One of my readers suspected that their laundry detergent contains sodium laureth sulfate and I followed up to discover that it does. When doing the initial review I had an email exchange with a company representative and I asked twice if their laundry detergent contained SLES and was told that it did not. I suspect that the woman I talked to was just uniformed, but this is no excuse. In addition, some Citra products (laundry and otherwise) contain limonene, a potential carcinogen and definite respiratory irritant. I was told they used orange oil for fragrance, which is a misleading answer as orange oil is technically a different (and harmless) ingredient. It also contains neurotoxic methylisothiazolinon. EWG Score: C.
  • Tide Free & Gentle contains optical brighteners and 1,4-dioxane, a probable carcinogen. (A recent New York Times blog post discussed Tide Free & Gentle specifically.) EWG Score: F.

A Note on Drycleaning

Be wary of organic dry-cleaning establishments. These are almost always sneaky! Learn how to find truly safe professional cleaning services in our recent blog “The Truth About Organic Drycleaning.”

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