You want a laundry detergent that really cleans your clothes and smells great, but you don’t want it to do the job with a bunch of unnecessary chemicals. After all, whether you’re washing bedding or clothing, you’re literally going to be touching this stuff all day long.
Laundry detergent makers, like all cleaning product makers, aren’t required by the FDA to list everything that’s in the bottle or box on the label the way food, beverage, cosmetics, and other personal care product makers are, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Working Group (EWG). You can check how your laundry detergent stacks up on the EWG website.
That’s why we prefer plant-based detergents that tell you what’s inside. Many commercial detergents are petroleum based instead, and list very little on the label that you can understand. The best clean detergents use powerful natural ingredients to remove laundry stains and freshen fabric, whether they’re scented or unscented. And what’s maybe more important than what’s in them is what’s not: no synthetic fragrances, VOCs, chemical brighteners, sulfates, or phosphates.
If some laundry detergents irritate your skin or a family member’s, you probably already pay attention to this. If you haven’t thought about it before, consider how many loads of laundry the average American household does a year. It’s about 300, according to the U.S. National Park Service. That’s a lot of big capfuls of chemicals draining into our water supply. And studies have shown that dryer vents disperse volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including the carcinogens acetaldehyde and benzene, into the air as well. Better detergents are better for your clothes and you.
We love these EWG-approved natural laundry detergents because they clean powerfully and smell great, or simply fresh if you go unscented. Even better: They’re super concentrated, so spoonful’s all you need.
1. Best Overall: Charlie’s Soap Powder or Liquid
Back when we carried laundry detergent, this biodegradable formula regularly sold out. It’s unscented and hypoallergenic, and the powder version contains only four ingredients: Sodium Carbonate (aka carbonic acid or washing soda, which softens water and helps remove stains); C12-16 Pareth-9 (a safe emulsifier), C10-14 Alcohol Ethoxylate (a detergent), and Sodium Metasilicate (a bonding agent). Powder’s also a great choice because it’s lighter to ship—you’re not taking up valuable cargo space with water.
2. Best for Delicates: Soak Wash Liquid Laundry Wash
Knitters use this plant-based formula to soak and block (aka shape) their new creations. It gently clean store-bought sweaters and any other delicates just as thoroughly. One reason it’s so gentle is that there’s no need to rinse it out, so there’s less wear on your laundry. We love that you can hand wash with it or use it in your machine; just skip the rinse cycle. Not rinsing really helps blouses and sweaters hold their shape, and won’t tug or stretch out details as much. The unscented version works wonderfully well, but the Fig, Yuzu, and Celebration scents in particular smell amazing.
3. Best for Babies: Noodle & Boo Ultra-Safe Laundry Detergent
This formula is pediatrician-approved and hypoallergenic to be extra-gentle on babies’ sensitive skin. But it’s also designed to powerfully lift away stains and odors—your second priority when washing baby clothes.What the company calls its signature Crème Douce fragrance is tough to put into words, but if there’s anything that might smell even nicer than a baby’s skin, it’s this. Gift it to new moms and dads—they’ll appreciate the tiny uplifting moment as they’re folding, and always associate the sweet, delicate scent with their newborn.
4. Best for Bedding: Miele Detergent for Down
The maker of one of our best washer and dryer developed this detergent to keep pillows, comforters, sleeping bags, coats, vests, and anything else you might have that’s puffy looking that way. It maintains down’s elasticity and prevents clumping, so your fluffy items come out just as fluffy as they were before you washed them. If you’re someone who’s added tennis balls to the dryer to dry to beat the loft back into your comforters, mostly in vain, you’ll appreciate this. So will people who usually take these items to the dry-cleaner. Buy this Miele detergent for winter, and it’ll save you all that trouble.
5. Best Smelling: The Laundress & Le Labo Rose 31 Signature Detergent
The Laundress makes plant-based clothing care products. Le Labo makes hand-blended perfumes and, originally, candles. When the two got together, it was a match made in laundry heaven. They collaborated on a duo of detergents, and this one is our favorite. They describe it as “a chorus of warm, spicy, woody notes such as cumin, olibanum, and cedar, touched by a hint of amber, surrounding a centifolia rose scent.” We think it’s too good for words. Use it for special items, or whenever you need a lift. Or for your bedding to feel like you’re sleeping in a literal bed of roses.
Bonus Pick: Molly’s Suds Wool Dryer Balls
We also recommend skipping liquid fabric softener and dryer sheets. Like laundry detergents, they can have chemicals we’d rather not subject our skin to. Did you know there’s some truth to the old wives’ tale that you can use dryer sheets to repel mosquitos? Or that fabric softener and dryer sheets alike don’t actually soften your clothes? What they do instead is coat it, making it feel soft but actually making our clothes and towels less absorbent. For natural softness and static prevention, toss in a few wool dryer balls. The wool’s natural oils will soften your clothes. Missing the scent? Add a drop of an essential oil you like to the ball first.
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SIDENOTE. This post was last modified on October 8, 2021. However, we regularly update our content as we test more products and new models are released. We also listen to the feedback of our customers and make changes to our product recommendations based on their experiences. So don’t be surprised if you see some old comments below! Since reader comments contribute to the topic, we have decided not to delete them.