Over the past couple of decades, a plethora of eco-friendly laundry detergents has 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 at our laundry labs in Cambridge, MA.
We spent three weeks evaluating 14 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.
Since the first incarnation of this roundup, we've upgraded our labs with new washers, a new photospectrometer, and improved methodology. As a result, the rankings and our conclusions about the various detergents have changed, we believe, for the better.
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 more significant overall carbon footprint than traditional, petroleum-derived alternatives. And some detergents may be all-natural, but don't get clothes very clean.
These are the best eco-friendly laundry detergents we tested ranked, in order:
Seventh Generation Free & Clear Laundry Detergent
Method 8X Free & Clear Laundry Detergent
The Laundress Sport Detergent
Method 4x Concentrated Laundry Detergent
Defunkify Active Wash Laundry Detergent Powder
Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day Laundry Detergent
Biokleen Laundry Liquid
Ecos Free & Clear
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Seventh Generation is one of the most popular eco-friendly brands on the market, producing everything from facial tissue to diapers. The company’s Free & Clear detergent impressed us with both its greenness and stain removal. In our original roundup, this detergent did not claim the top spot. However, in our retest, we put more consideration in the corporate culture surrounding Seventh Generation and think its Free and Clear detergent is the best overall. Not only does the detergent pack above-average stain-fighting power, the company that makes it seems to actually care about the environment.
Biological and planted-based ingredients make up 97 percent of what’s inside the bottle and the bottle itself is 80 percent recycled plastic. Seventh Generation also has a good track record with transparency and environmental advocacy–including being a certified B-Corporation, and partnerships with the Rainforest Alliance and Forest Stewardship Council.
We tested the Free-and-Clear version of the detergent. Our testers remarked at the near lack of scent–a smell that has nearly universal appeal. During the stain removal rounds, this detergent came in third overall. We found that it removes 5 percent fewer stains than traditional Tide, which is impressive considering how much greener the Seventh Generation is. At about 24 cents a load, you don’t need to compromise on price, sustainability, or cleaning power.
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 32-load bottle of PurClean Walmart for $9.99, which means each load of laundry will cost you 32 cents—more than most 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.
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 Maytag MVWC565FW top-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.
Aside from effectiveness, we also looked at the companies that made each detergent. We looked for companies that cared about the environment and created a detergent that could get your clothes clean for a good price. So while Seventh Generation Free and Clear did not take first place in the stain removal contest, the company that made it has demonstrated policies that are very environmentally friendly. It's relative cost-effectiveness also gave it a lot of points. Detergents like Method 8X and Laundress Sport removed more stains, but they cost way more per load.
What You Should Know About Eco-Friendly Laundry Detergents
Testing eco-friendly detergents can be a minefield. One reason is that it’s tough to define what is eco-friendly and what’s greenwashing. For example, ethanol-based detergents may have a greater environmental impact than petroleum-based soaps until better technologies emerge. Also, coconut and palm oil may be renewable, they may encourage deforestation. And the green practice of making a biodegradable or recyclable bottle may be offset by the transportation costs of moving a more watery detergent.
Aside from purely looking at the product, we also took a reviewed the corporations that created them. The detergents we tested got points if the companies that made them were B-types or use LEED-certified facilities.
Other Detergents We Tested
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 detergent 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 and can wind up costing you more money if you're prone to using too much. However, the bottle's unique design may end up saving you money in the long run.
The Laundress is a brand that graces high-end retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue. The price definitely reflects that: 49 cents a wash, nearly twice the average.
However, the price is partially justified, as the Laundress Sport detergent came in fourth overall in our stain removal tests. We also liked the fact that the bottle is compact and sturdy, making it a perfect travel companion. The highly concentrated formula means you're paying for soap, not water. We also liked the fresh scent it left on clothes, though it does smell like shampoo.
If Method's 8X detergent is too expensive, the 4X formula might seem like a better idea. It's 30 percent cheaper, costing between 20-23 cents per load. But you'll lose the no mess pump bottle and some stain removal power. That's because the 8X primarily uses ethanol, while the less-concentrated 4X lists water as its first ingredient. This change in the formula translates to only a four percent difference in the amount of stains removed, but in the detergent world, it's a war of inches.
Even though a less-concentrated detergent wastes energy in the shipping process by moving water, at least 4X is somewhat environmentally sound. By our count, nearly all of the contents in the bottle are either biodegradable or plant derived. Even the container itself is made from 100 percent recycled plastic.
Defunkify defied our expectations. After testing, this is our favorite scent-free detergent in this roundup. In terms of overall cleaning ability, it came in the middle of the pack. However, its ranking rose shapely when we looked at the sweat and blood stain removal scores. Defunkify is an activewear wash that advertises getting out post-workout grime. We like the fact that this detergent lived up to its name got the funk out of our test laundry.
We also liked the fact that this detergent is relatively affordable. A quick perusal of sale prices shows that the average cost per wash is around 21 cents a load. A year's supply of detergent that's made from EPA Safe Chemical list ingredients for $20 sounds pretty okay.
It turns out that Thelma A. Meyer–the real person behind Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day cleaning products—really knows her stuff. The liquid laundry detergent that bears her name came in sixth overall. Since you can buy Mrs. Meyer's in bulk, it's more cost-effective than traditional detergent. Although it's more expensive per bottle, Mrs. Meyer's only costs 23 cents per load, while regular 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.
In our original roundup, Mrs. Meyer's took the top spot. Since our retest with our upgraded equipment, we found several other eco-friendly detergents that remove more stains.
Common Good detergent is unique in that it relies on refill stations located throughout the country. This means you can reuse the recyclable bottle over and over again. The detergent itself is made from 100 percent biodegradable compounds.
On the cleaning front, Common Good was on the weaker side, leaving behind eight percent more stains than regular Tide. Also, at 35 cents a load, it's pretty expensive—especially if you have to go out of your way to refill it.
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.
Go Greenshield has changed since our initial roundup. In the intervening years, the company has revamped its look and commitment to sustainability. They’ve ditched the plastic bottle and have gone to one made of biodegradable sugarcane.
While the outside has gotten an upgrade, our testing shows the inside hasn’t gotten the same treatment. This detergent removed 13 percent fewer stains than original Tide. We did find the lavender scent appealing. It has a light floral scent made from essential oils.
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 in a water-and-detergent-filled bucket.
Look at the ingredient list for Boulder Clean Natural Laundry Detergent and you'll see just ten items. It's made of things like citrus oil and salt. The only compound we found suspect was methylisothiazolinone, a synthetic preservative. While it's found in many types of mouthwash and cosmetic products, there is a concern that it may lead to contact dermatitis in individuals who are allergic.
While Boulder Clean is weaker than regular Tide, at only 15 cents a wash it's way more cost effective. It's a good trade-off since this detergent uses no artificial perfumes—it just smells refreshing.
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.
Jonathan Chan currently serves as the Senior Lab Technician at Reviewed. If you clean with it, it's likely that Jon oversees its testing. Since joining the Reviewed in 2012, Jon has helped launch the company's efforts in reviewing laptops, vacuums, and outdoor gear. He thinks he's a pretty big deal. In the pursuit of data, he's plunged his hands into freezing cold water, consented to be literally dragged through the mud, and watched paint dry. Jon demands you have a nice day.
We use standardized and scientific testing methods to scrutinize every product and provide you with objectively accurate results. If you’ve found different results in your own research, email us and we’ll compare notes. If it looks substantial, we’ll gladly re-test a product to try and reproduce these results. After all, peer reviews are a critical part of any scientific process.