I have a four year old and my husband and I are very active people – running, hiking, biking etc. Needless to say, we do a lot of laundry. I realized recently that I always read the ingredients on any pre-packaged food that I buy, but I’ve never read the list of ingredients on my laundry detergent. I’ve taken the marketing claims on the label at face value. It claims to be ‘future friendly’, use plant-based enzymes and it’s designed for cleaning at low temperatures to reduce energy consumption. Nowhere, however, does it claim to be a natural laundry detergent.
So, what is it that I’m pouring down the drain besides hopefully some dirt, sweat and food stains?
Main ingredients: A look at the label indicates that it’s mainly surfactants (up to 45% by weight). These are organic compounds that essentially improve the likelihood that the water is going to latch on to the dirt, sweat etc.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, surfactants biodegrade readily into compounds with low toxicity. However, they can prove toxic to aquatic organisms, particularly if they break down into components that persist in the environment.
Next ingredient: Phosphonate…hang on, that sounds awfully close to phosphate! Phosphates were alive and well in laundry detergents from the 1940s and peaking in the disco era, reaching 150,000 tons per year in New York City wastewater in 1970. Phosphates released into freshwater systems can promote algae blooms that deplete the surrounding water of dissolved oxygen. At best they disrupt the natural balance of the ecosystem, and at worse they cause death in many aquatic organisms.
Don’t panic though, phosphonates are not phosphates. In laundry detergent they work as scale inhibitors and bleach stabilizers. They have a low level of toxicity to aquatic organisms and natural bacteria degrade them in the environment.
The last few things on the list of ingredients:
Plant enzymes. Better than animal alternatives.
Optical brighteners. Again, according to the US EPA they have a low toxicity to humans and the environment. But, in the next sentence they state there is potential toxicity to humans – some may cause developmental and reproductive effects, though additional testing is required. Hmm…not sure I want to be involved in that test!
Essential oils to make the laundry smell nice.
So, I would say my laundry detergent is satisfactory, though there is always room for improvement. As a sure fire way of insuring your laundry detergent makes the grade, you can make it at home, using simple, all natural ingredients.
A recipe for an all natural laundry detergent
- 3.1 oz bar of Ivory soap or a natural soap of your choice
- 1 cup of borax (this varied between recipes between ½ cup and 1 cup; it acts as a whitener and deodorizer, so I suppose it depends on how much whitening and deodorizing you feel you need)
- ½ cup of washing soda (NOT baking soda)
- 5 gallon container
- Pot large enough to hold 5 cups of water
- A long stirring stick or spoon that reaches the bottom of your 5 gallon container
Use the knife to very carefully shave the soap into small strips into the pot with 5 cups of water. Bring it nearly to the boil and stir until the soap is nearly all melted. Pour 3 gallons of hot water into the 5 gallon container and let it sit. Return to your pot of melting soap and once it is all melted pour it into the 5 gallon container and stir. Add the washing soda and stir until dissolved. Next, pour in the borax and stir until dissolved.
At this point, add any essential oils that you may want to fragrance your detergent.
Cover the container and let it sit overnight. It will gel as it cools. It’s not a uniform gel, so it isn’t terribly pretty, but it’s all natural and it works.
Transfer to smaller storage containers and use ½ cup per laundry load. It’s not a bad idea to stir it up before you use it to break up any lumps. It’s a low sudsing detergent, so don’t be alarmed if you don’t see a lot of bubbles. It doesn’t mean it’s not working. (Source)
TIP: Add ½ a cup of vinegar to your wash as a laundry softener. Don’t worry, you won’t end up smelling like a fish and chips shop, apparently the vinegar aroma disappears after drying.
Dr. Mercola, a health practitioner, runs down the list of things to look for when purchasing a natural laundry detergent in this video.