Best Eco-Friendly Laundry DetergentsBy Jonathan Chan
Over the past couple decades, a plethora of eco-friendly laundry detergents have bubbled up out of the suds, promising to clean your clothes without harming the environment.
But with so many green labels promising plant-based this and carbon-offset that, it can be hard to separate facts from marketing-speak. That's why we cut through the greenwash and put eco-friendly detergents to the test in our Cambridge, Massachusetts laundry labs.
We spent three weeks evaluating ten of the most popular soaps—from plant-based soap nuts to "hybrid" liquid detergents—on how well they remove stains, how affordable they are, how transparent they are about the ingredients they contain, and how many plant-based ingredients they include.
But before we get into the results, it's important to acknowledge that there's no such thing as a perfectly "green" detergent. For instance, the harvesting and processing of some plant-based ingredients have a greater overall carbon footprint than traditional, petroleum-derived alternatives. And some detergents may be all-natural, but don't get clothes very clean.
With those caveats in mind, here are the best eco-friendly detergents you can buy—and a few you should avoid.
Updated June 14, 2016
Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day Laundry DetergentBest Overall
It turns out that Thelma A. Meyer–the eponymous figure behind Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day cleaning products—really knows her stuff. The liquid laundry detergent that bears her name is our overall favorite, because it cleans 96 percent as well as regular Tide, and 97 percent of its ingredients are derived from plants.
It's also more cost-effective than traditional detergent. Although it's more expensive per bottle, Mrs. Meyer's only costs 23 cents per load, while Tide is going to run you around 28 cents a load.
The only thing our testers didn't love about Mrs. Meyer's is the scent it left on laundry. Some of our reviewers were fans of the lemon verbena scent, but others thought it smelled like citrusy shampoo. You may prefer one of the seven other scents, but you won't find a perfume-free option.
Tide PurCleanBest Cleaning
Tide PurClean is a brand-new detergent with a familiar name and a reduced environmental impact. It claims to clean as well as conventional Tide, and our tests proved that claim to be 100 percent true. In fact, it's far and away the best-cleaning eco-friendly detergent we tested.
However, there are two drawbacks: cost and content. We found a 48-load bottle of PurClean on Amazon for $19.99, which means each load of laundry will cost you a whopping 41 cents—more than twice as much as some of the other detergents we tested.
PurClean could also be described as a hybrid detergent—only 65 percent of its ingredients are plant-based, and some of the rest are petroleum-derived. Compared to Mrs. Meyers and Seventh Generation—each 97 percent plant-derived—it's less green. But if you don't want to sacrifice performance and want to do Mother Earth a small favor, PurClean is the best choice for clean laundry.
Method 8X Free & Clear Laundry Detergent
We really liked the no-mess bottle Method's ultra-concentrated detergent came in. You just aim the nozzle at your washer's detergent dispenser, press the pump four times, and you're good to go. By design, it keeps you from overusing detergent; that's good, because overused detrgent can build up on clothes and make colors look dingy.
In terms of stain removal, this ethanol-based detergent came in third. On the eco-friendliness front, 85 percent of the listed ingredients are plant-based and biodegradable. On the downside, Method is a little pricey at 30 cents a wash—higher than many leading detergents. If you're prone to using too much, however, the bottle's unique design may end up saving you money in the long run.
Seventh Generation Free & Clear Laundry Detergent
Seventh Generation is one of the most popular brands for eco-friendly products, also known for its tissues, paper towels, and diapers. In our testing, the company's Free and Clear detergent provided a comparable clean to conventional detergents. On top of that, it's popular for its lack of perfumes and dyes, and its many trusted certifications. It meets the EPA Safer Product Standard and is USDA certified to be 97 percent plant-based. It's even kosher.
But as powerful and eco-friendly as Free and Clear is, it's also pricier than the competition. We paid around $13 for 50 ounces, which works out to around 33 cents a wash. If you have sensitive skin or want an unscented option, it's still a good choice.
Green Works is Clorox's foray into the eco-friendly detergent market. Among the big brand-name detergents we tested, Green Works was one of the most affordable—the bottle we tested cost about 19 cents a load. Not only is it inexpensive, but 96 percent of its formula is derived from what Clorox calls "natural sources" which it helpfully lists on its website.
That's great, but in our stain removal tests, Green Works landed right in the murky world between acceptable and better-than-average cleaning. Ultimately, we think its most compelling asset is its low price.
Biokleen Laundry Liquid
Biokleen touts its Citrus Essence Laundry Liquid as 100 percent plant-based, and its citrus-scent is like a tall glass of Florida orange juice. Most of our reviewers loved both the scent and the price: just 11 cents per load.
However, in our stain removal tests it couldn't stand up to the best "green" suds or traditional detergents that use harsher chemicals. It had a particularly tough time with grease stains. That being said, it's important to remember that most clothes just aren't that dirty. If you work in agriculture or construction, you might want to steer clear, but this could be a fine choice for folks who just need to spruce up their laundry and enjoy smelling like oranges.
Every bottle of GreenShield laundry soap is stamped with a big USDA organic sticker, but that's about all that this one has going for it.
Stain removal left a lot to be desired, falling a full 10 percent behind conventional Tide. That's likely because GreenShield relies on soapberries rather than a synthetic surfactant. Our reviewers also agreed across the board that GreenShield has an off-putting scent. Overall, this product did not impress us.
Charlie's soap—the only powdered detergent in our roundup—came third-to-last in the overall rankings. We think it's is a great alternative for cleaning clothes in the great outdoors—think extended camping trips—but far from the best bet for your laundry room.
At 20 cents a load, it wasn't the cheapest we tested, and it had real trouble removing any of the stains it faced. But to be fair, we skipped some of Charlie's more onerous suggestions, like pretreating laundry overnight with in a water-and-detergent-filled bucket.
Ecos Free & ClearAvoid
Although popular on Amazon, Ecos Free and Clear was the weakest of the liquid detergents we tested, struggling to remove every kind of stain. On the plus side, it contains coconut oil, so it smells pretty good.
But a good smell and built-in fabric softener weren't enough to win us over. Our verdict? Skip Ecos in favor of something else.
Popularized on Shark Tank, Eco Nuts are about as natural as a detergent can be. Each box is full of dried soapberries, which contain a soap-like substance that foams up in the wash. They're also reusable and exceptionally affordable.
Unfortunately, they don't clean as well as other detergents, leaving 15% more stains behind than Tide. In fact, they were pretty much obliterated by all the other detergents we used.
How We Tested
To test stain removal, we pitted all detergents against standardized cloth test strips coated with carbon, body oils, blood, cocoa, and red wine. We put them through a Normal cycle in the Whirlpool WFW90HEFW front-load washer—along with eight pounds of towels, pillowcases, and sheets—closely following each manufacturer's instructions for a medium load.
After waiting 12 hours for the stain strips to dry in a dark room, we used a piece of lab equipment called a photospectrometer to determine exactly how much of each stain had been lifted.
For more information about our testing process, read our in-depth explainer.
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