The Best Eco-Friendly Ways to Get Clothes Really Clean

Doing laundry has a significant environmental impact. The energy used to heat water is staggering, as is the pollution when our dirty laundry water — suds and all — goes out into the wastewater stream from our homes.

When phosphates were part of virtually all laundry detergents (they have since been banned in almost all states of the United States), the resulting algae bloom choked the life out of lakes and streams.

Yet while phosphates have been phased out, your choice of detergent is still crucial because detergents differ in their biodegradability and their ingredients. Some ingredients are endocrine disrupters, others pollute the air environment in other ways, and many wreak havoc for anyone with sensitive skin, allergies or other reactions to chemicals. If we all choose environmentally safe laundry products, the positive impact will be enormous and many of us will be far more comfortable!

Here’s a guide to how you can do this yet still get really clean clothes.

Detergent or soap?

Many people are confused about the difference between soap and detergent — with good reason. Often manufacturers will call a detergent a soap when it is, in fact, a detergent.
Soap used for washing laundry went out of favor in World War II, at least for much of the world. Detergents were developed during World War II when fats and vegetable oils to make soap were scarce. Petroleum oil was cheap and readily available, so oil became a mainstay for the household cleaning products industry.

Soap is better for your health and the environment than detergents. Soaps are made of materials found in nature. Detergents are mostly synthetic, and they can be toxic to fish and wildlife.

But when soap and minerals react in water, it leaves an insoluble film that can turn clothes a dull gray and leave a soap-scum residue. Detergents were specifically designed not to react with the minerals in hard water that cause soap scum.

  • Detergent formulas change quickly, and the changes are often due to the price of the raw ingredients. Buy from a company that you know has very high integrity for environmental quality and a proven track record of initiating product innovation to protect health and the environment. A great public relations record isn't enough.
  • For all practical purposes, detergents are the product of choice for laundry if you have hard water.
  • If you’re lucky enough to have soft water, you can use soap flakes for laundry.
  • Health food stores [and online retailers like Gaiam carry a number of brands of laundry detergents made with renewable materials rather than petroleum-based ingredients; some manufacturers, like Seventh Generation, are formulating eco-friendly detergents made from natural, sustainable vegetable oils. Environmentally conscious detergents often have natural essential oil fragrances and are made without dyes. Some retailers also sell liquid vegetable-oil soaps called castile soap. Add 1 ounce of castile soap to an average laundry load or follow the manufacturer's instructions.
  • Liquid laundry detergent is always phosphate free, and many states ban phosphates in powdered detergents. Not only do phosphates cause algae bloom in lakes and streams, but they are also often contaminated with heavy metals — arsenic, in particular.
  • When fabric is very dirty, such as after floods or with clay and ground-in dirt, you may want to choose a powdered laundry detergent. If the laundry isn't full of soil and dirt, liquid laundry detergent is the better choice; it's less likely to leave mineral residue on the clothes if you have hard water. When washing really dirty clothes, wash whites separately (even if they're dirty, too) because they will turn gray in dirty water.
  • If you use soap flakes or powdered detergent, add the soap or powdered detergent to the washing machine before the water and clothing have been added. This helps to fully dissolve the cleanser. If you want to wash the clothes with cool water, you can dissolve the soap or powdered detergent in a cup of hot water first; however, hard water combined with cool water temperature can result in some mineral residue on fabric from the powdered detergent. If you have very hard water, add 1⁄2 cup of vinegar to your rinse water to minimize mineral staining.

What water temperature is best?

  • The lower the temperature of the water, the more detergent you need. If the temperature of the water is below 60°F, no soap or detergent performs well. But don't make the water too hot. Washing heavily soiled articles with hot water can set stains. For heavily soiled clothes, prewash them in cool water with powdered laundry detergent, then wash them again in water that is 130°F or higher.
  • For whites, typical dirty clothes, and diapers, use hot water (130°F or above). For man-made fibers, knits, and silks, use warm water (90°F). And for dark, bright colors that bleed, use cold water (80°F).
  • The rinse water can always be cold without any harmful effects on the wash load. If you rinse fabric in cold water, it will reduce wrinkling and save energy, and it won't set stains.

Keep whites white with oxygen bleach

Dry oxygen bleaches contain ingredients that become hydrogen peroxide, and liquid oxygen bleaches are simply hydrogen peroxide and stabilizers. These are not chlorine bleaches and are preferable for the environment because they naturally degrade into oxygen and water.

"Natural oxygen bleaches" are commercially available and are found primarily in the health food store marketplace. They are based on hydrogen peroxide. It's best to buy commercial nonchlorine bleaches instead of making your own version using store-bought 3 percent hydrogen peroxide. The commercial brands include oxygen bleach stabilizers to help reduce the product's reactivity in the environment.

  • When you bleach with oxygen bleach, the hotter the water, the less time it takes for the bleach to work its magic. If the water temperature is below 130°F, you need to allow soaking time for the bleach to work.
  • If using liquid bleach, put a few drops directly onto an inside seam to see if there is any color change. For dry oxygen bleach, mix a teaspoon to 1 cup of hot water and test the same way.
  • Oxygen bleach is a good choice to remove mildew. If your clothes have visible mold or a mildew smell, soak them in oxygen bleach and hot water before washing as usual.
  • Read clothing labels; some direct you to dry your clothes out of direct sunlight. On the other hand, though, storing whites in the dark can cause yellowing. A rule of thumb is that most natural fibers love the sun, and hanging them outside to dry on the line is your best bet. Well-washed whites actually have a yellow undertone. Most commercial detergents contain fluorescent whitening agents called optical brighteners, but optical brighteners do not degrade in the environment.
  • Try blueing. In the olden days, blueing was widely used, and it is still available in many grocery and department stores. You just mix 3 cups of baking soda with 1⁄2 teaspoon of Prussian blue, and add 1 teaspoon per load of laundry.
  • To brighten whites if you don't have hard water, add either 1⁄2 cup of borax or washing soda to a medium load of laundry. Borax and washing soda are available in the laundry section of your supermarket.

Use natural fabric softeners

The smell of fabric softeners is on the minds of many Americans, or so I assume from the volume of e-mail I receive on the subject. Many are frantic to get the fabric-softener smell out of their clothes.

A recent study from Anderson Laboratories gives a clue as to why this particular household product has become a bee in so many people's bonnets. Their chemical analysis of the airborne emissions of five different kinds of mainstream fabric softeners revealed that the fabric softeners emitted many toxic chemicals, many of which cause acute respiratory tract irritation and inflammation.

Fabric softeners were developed in response to the pummeling fabrics get in washing machines. After all that agitation, a fabric often needs to be "softened." A dryer can help fabric soften on its own, but if you don't use a dryer, a natural softener is helpful. Fabric softeners also reduce static cling by coating fabric with a waxy film that fluffs up clothes and by removing the electrical charge from the detergent.

If you want to use a fabric softener but are sensitive to the smell and/or you want to make eco-friendlier choices …

  • Buy "green" fabric softeners — made of vegetable-based surfactants, salt, and natural fragrances — are now on the market. Many chemical fabric softeners are made with animal fat as well as harsh synthetic chemicals.
  • Buy natural fabric clothing. Interestingly, natural fabrics don't develop static the way synthetics do. If you can, switch to all-natural fabrics, such as organic cotton, a little at a time.
  • Try water to cut static. When I was visiting my sister in New York City, my skirt kept sticking to my tights. She suggested I just sprinkle my tights with a bit of water. It worked! I felt I could leave her apartment and step out onto busy New York streets without my skirt stuck to my legs. What's easier than water?

Eco-friendly washing tips for three popular fabrics


  • Most linens can be washed in the washing machine, and washing linen actually softens it. The older, more frequently washed the linen, the less it wrinkles. Make sure to wash linen separately from synthetic fibers such as polyester because the linen can pick up the "pills" that surface on synthetic fabric.
  • Eco-friendly detergents are best for linen because detergents with optical brighteners can cause the linen's colors to change. Plain linen can be washed at 103°F, although hand-embroidered linen should be washed separately at a cooler temperature, such as 100°F. Soaking linen in a weak hydrogen peroxide bleach solution can remove mildew. Avoid chlorine bleach on linen because it can weaken and harm the fibers.
  • The sun will lighten linen, and it will be wrinkle free if line-dried when damp. You can also dry linens in the dryer on a tumble dry air cycle with no heat.


  • Silk is an acidic fabric and sensitive to alkaline materials; avoid using baking soda, borax or washing soda. Any harsh lye-based soap with a pH above 10 will destroy silk. Wet-wash silk in a sink by gently swirling the clothes in cool water; never twist or wring silk. A mild liquid castile soap, such as Dr. Bronner's soap, is best for cleaning silk because it won't strip the natural oils.
  • Shampoo — with its ability to remove body oils and its neutral pH — can be a good choice for washing silk that has been stained; just a little dab is needed. Gently press water from the fabric after washing and hang silk to dry.
  • You can spot-clean silk with vinegar or lemon juice, but test for color fastness first.


  • Wool is an acidic material. Wet-wash wool in a sink by gently swirling the clothes in cool water; never twist or wring out wool. Use a mild detergent with a pH below 7 for wool, such as Ecos Delicate Wash. If necessary, spot-clean with vinegar or lemon juice, but test for color fastness first.
  • After washing, gently press water from the fabric. Block and shape wool before drying by laying it flat on a towel and stretching it to the correct size and shape. Wool is resilient and recovers quickly from wrinkling if you hang it. (Hanging sweaters may leave hanger marks around the shoulders, though.)
  • Sunlight helps wool's loft and helps repel pests; the ultraviolet rays deodorize the wool.

Bonus: Check out Eco-Friendly Secrets to Removing 15 Common Stains for more green laundry care and cleaning tips

Get more do-it-yourself nontoxic home tips and how-to's in Annie Bond's Gaiam blog.

Home Enlightenment: Create a Nurturing, Healthy, and Toxin-Free Home by Annie B. Bond

From Home Enlightenment: Create a Nurturing, Healthy, and Toxin-Free Home by Annie B. Bond. © 2008 Rodale. Republished with permission.



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Alison's picture
User offline. Last seen 8 years 9 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 12/18/2007

I'm really surprised that this article is suggesting people use hot water for some laundry...this goes against everything you always hear about being eco-conscious (e.g.

jamfhall1's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 15 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 05/05/2009

I am very surprised too that Gaiam is suggesting the use of hot water. What's next? An article entitled "Let's all dust off our electric dryers and save our own energy lugging all that laundry outside to hang up"'? As for me, I wash EVERYTHING in cold water and shop at the second-hand store. If I ruin a nice silk or linen item, I've paid a maximum of $3.00 anyway. I have found so many incredibly nice clothes at every second-hand store I've been in from San Fran to Hickville, MT. I go by what fits, not size. A nice size XL wool sweater means that someone washed it hot or warm water and it shrank (shrunk?). The sweater fits and is nice and extra thick from the weave tightening up in the hot water. My water is so cold it hurts my fingers, but my husband's work clothes and my dress clothes come out just fine. I even turned off the hot water to my washer. I use an indoor dryer rack instead of the brand new dryer my mother-in-law bought. My husband and I found a metal T-post clothesline at his work's scrapyard. With his employer's permission, we brought it home. When it quits raining, we'll concrete in the other "T" and string up the line. I found the erecting instructions online. Easier than I thought: $5.00 for a 60lb bag of just-add-water cement. We bought 2, employer bought 1, father-in-law bought 1. Two bags per hole. Clothes line rope/string is I'm sure about $5.00. The little eye hooks that the line goes thru about $5.00 too? Total $30.00. Our electric bill went down $20.00 one month after I quit using that brand-new dryer.

Cindy Kay
Cindy Kay's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 14 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 05/14/2009

This was an enlightening article, BUT, I have a front loader. I can't fill and dissolve my soaps or add powdered anything. Any tips for front loading (water saving) machines?

pinas pinas
pinas pinas's picture
User offline. Last seen 2 years 20 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 04/03/2014

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