These laundry solutions are better for your clothes, the planet, and you
A better way to clean
Emily Nathan

Clean clothes, it turns out, are about a lot more than stain removal. White whites and bright colors are all well and good, but what about energy efficiency, water use, and those pesky chemical residues?


1. New habits

You may have heard it before, but it bears repeating: Wash full loads, using cold water when possible (heating water uses energy) and resisting the temptation to use more detergent than instructions recommend (extra just washes down the drain, increasing the amount of undesirable chemicals ending up in wastewater). And line-dry whatever you can. Not only does air-drying save energy, but it also saves your clothes. And the sun-kissed smell ― yum!

2. New products

News flash: Eco-friendly detergents are not necessarily more expensive. Choose detergents and other products that are plant-based, concentrated, and biodegradable. Go for oxygen bleach instead of chlorine bleach to get whites bright, and try white vinegar in place of fabric softener.

3. New appliances

Matt Golden of San Francisco–based Sustainable Spaces, which advises homeowners on greening their homes, recommends upgrading to an energy-efficient washer ― even if your current machine still works. “The amount of water consumed in older machines is significant. And energy-efficient washers remove more water, which makes for less dryer time,” Golden says. Look for models with Energy Star certification (not just front-loaders); these models save 7,000 gallons of water each year per household and use one-third less energy than conventional machines. The up-front cost is higher, but the savings over the appliance’s lifetime make up for it. Visit energystar.govfor a list of qualified washers.


Traditional fabric softeners and dryer sheets contain ingredients derived from animal tallow; chlorine bleach can irritate skin and lungs; and the primary solvent used in conventional dry cleaning is a water pollutant and probable human carcinogen. The good news is that eliminating the ick is as easy as switching to greener products. Try Ecover fabric softener, Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day oxygen bleach stain remover, and Shaklee Get Clean dryer sheets.


Blood: Rub salt into the stain and run under cold water. Repeat as needed, then wash in cold water. Note: We also love Ecover Stain Remover for this task.

Next: getting the grease out 

Grease: Rub a new spot with a drop of dishwashing liquid, and launder as usual. On set grease stains, generously sprinkle baby powder on the dry spot, let sit, shake, and launder as usual.

Fruit juice: With sturdy fabrics like cotton, stretch the material over a bowl and use a teakettle to rapidly but carefully pour boiling water on the stain.


The ingredient responsible for that just-dry-cleaned scent ― a solvent called perchloroethylene, or perc ― is nasty stuff. “Perc is a harsh chemical that’s not only bad for your health but will eventually start to break down fabric,” says Bill Alber of SF Green Clean, a nontoxic wet-cleaning service in San Francisco.

An alternative is water-based technology, which Alber says gets clothes just as clean and leaves no harmful residue. “It’s better for your clothing, the environment, and your health,” he says.

The price tag? A blouse costs $8.75. Other eco-amenities offered by many green cleaners include reuseable bags, wooden hangers, and paperless receipt systems. Visit to search for a green cleaner near you.


Our staff washed what felt like a million towels stained with red wine and coffee in 11 eco-friendly laundry detergents and 1 grocery-store standard. We were surprised to find no significant difference in stain removal.


Ingredients: Words you might see: all-natural, plant-derived, biodegradable, concentrated, essential-oil fragrance

Of note: We loved the light lavender scent of Trader Joe’s liquid laundry detergent ( for locations), and we were thrilled that its price debunks the assumption that eco-friendly products cost more. Our favorite splurge was Caldrea’s Sweet Pea laundry detergent.

Cost: Trader Joe’s: 9¢ per load, Caldrea: 50¢ per load


Ingredients: Conventional detergents are not required to list their ingredients, so it’s hard to know what you’re getting.

Of note: If you’re committed to your grocery-store standard, many conventional brands are now offering ultra-concentrated detergents for high-efficiency machines. (Concentrated cleaners mean less packaging and transportation energy.)

Cost: 2X Ultra Tide: 28¢ per load

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