If you're like most people, you've probably gone through life not giving laundry soap much thought. And yet, as we pivot more toward sustainability, mindfulness and eco-conscious living, natural laundry detergent is gaining some much-deserved attention.
From the health of your loved ones to the environment and the integrity of your fabrics, there are many reasons to make the switch — more on this in a moment. But first, what does "natural" mean when it comes to detergent, and how does it differ from the regular stuff? Find answers to these questions below, as well as a rundown of the benefits, care tips and what to look for when buying natural laundry detergent.
What is Natural Laundry Detergent?
Natural laundry detergent is a cleaning agent used to wash clothes, bedding and other fabrics. It comes in liquid, powder or pods and consists of all (or mostly) earth-sourced ingredients. While the recipe varies among brands and formulas, you'll often find options containing naturally derived surfactants,¹ emulsifiers and stain-fighting enzymes.
Natural vs. Regular Laundry Detergent
There's no such thing as "chemical-free laundry detergent" because, well...everything is made of chemicals — as in, chemical compounds. It's important to note, though, that there are natural (earth-sourced) and synthetic (lab-made) chemicals, both of which can be used in soaps. Unless you're a scientist, it can be hard to tell the difference between the two when reading an ingredients list.
Having said that, all-natural laundry detergent might contain:
Decyl glucoside (a gentle, plant-derived surfactant)
Lauryl glucoside (a natural surfactant found in palm or coconut oil)
Subtilisin, amylase, lipase or protease enzyme blends² (naturally derived stain-lifters)
Coconut acid (a cleansing agent)
Lactic acid (a softening agent found in natural sugars and corn)
Citric acid (a water softener found in sugar, corn or wheat)
Sodium citrate³ (a plant-derived cleaning aid and water softener)
Sodium oleate⁴ (an emulsifying organic compound)
Sodium chloride (a mineral-based gentle washing agent)
Essential oils for fragrance
The main difference between natural and regular laundry soap is that the latter contains all (or mostly) synthetic ingredients, and some might be harmful to humans or the planet. This includes 1,4-dioxane,⁵ polyoxyalkylene alkyl ether,⁶ petroleum distillates, linear alkylbenzene sulfonates, nonylphenol ethoxylate, diethanolamine, ethylene oxide and phosphates.⁷
In addition to emulsifiers, cleaning agents and stabilizers, traditional detergents often contain dyes and synthetic fragrances. For the most part, bluing agents are mixed in for aesthetic purposes, though they're sometimes used as optical brighteners (to make fabrics appear whiter and brighter).
While many people are accustomed to cobalt-colored soap, it can actually discolor your linens if too much is used or when it doesn't dissolve properly. To be sure, there's nothing wrong with nice-smelling laundry soap, but the lab-made variety can be overwhelming at best and irritating at worst.
Does Natural Laundry Detergent Work as Well as Regular Detergents?
Lots of folks are hesitant to switch to natural cleaning products out of concern they don't work as well as their synthetic counterparts. If you're on the fence about natural laundry detergent, you'll be glad to hear it's actually super effective at cleaning clothes, bed linens and other fabrics.
Those enzyme blends and earth-sourced surfactants mentioned above? They're workhorses in the washer, surrounding dirt, oils and other residues and pulling them away from your fabrics.
Benefits of Using Natural Laundry Detergent
Why should you use natural laundry detergent? Let us count the ways! It's gentle on sensitive skin, suitable for babies, better for the planet, better for your washing machine and easy on your clothes. Here's what you should know.
Gentle on Sensitive Skin
While laundry soap is mostly rinsed away in the wash, residues can remain on the fabrics after drying. So, when you get dressed, dry yourself off with a towel or sleep in laundered bedding, your skin is coming into contact with the ingredients.
People with eczema⁸ and other skin conditions may experience reactions to formulas containing synthetic dyes, optical brighteners and fragrances. Also, anyone with sensitive skin might benefit from using a pared-down laundry detergent made with natural ingredients to avoid itching, rashes and other irritations.
Suitable for Babies
Until about 24 months of age, a child's skin is roughly 20% thinner⁹ than an adult's. For this reason, virtually all babies and toddlers have sensitive skin. If you have a little one at home, reach for a non-toxic laundry detergent, preferably unscented, when cleaning their clothes, bedding and towels. With a natural formula, you won't have to worry about harsh chemicals irritating your baby's delicate, vulnerable skin or causing a rash.
Better for the Planet
Cleaning products made with synthetic cleaning agents and phosphates may be toxic to the environment when they get into the soil and water supply. To avoid potentially polluting the earth, poisoning fish and disrupting the ecosystem, your best bet is an eco-friendly laundry detergent formulated with natural ingredients. Sustainable laundry detergents are biodegradable, meaning they break down quickly and go back into the earth without causing any harm.
For resources on the quintessential eco-friendly products for around the house, read on:
Better for Your Washing Machine
Biodegradable laundry detergent (sometimes called green laundry detergent) is also better for your washer. It dissolves quickly and completely in cold, warm or hot water and is perfectly safe for your drain and septic system. What's more, natural formulas simultaneously clean the drum while laundering your linens.
Easy on Your Clothes
Though natural laundry detergent is ruthless on dirt and stains, it handles your clothes with care. Synthetic additives aren't very kind to the earth, and the same goes for your fabrics. Naturally derived ingredients, on the other hand, are super gentle with fabric fibers, plus they're unlikely to cause fading, so your linens will look newer longer. What's not to love?
What to Look for in a Natural Laundry Detergent
As you're probably aware, not all laundry detergents are created equal — yep, even the natural variety. When browsing options, you'll want to consider the ingredients, concentration and scent.
As mentioned above, some plant-sourced ingredients found in environmentally friendly laundry detergents have synthetic-sounding names. You don't need to have them all memorized, but some of the all-stars include decyl glucoside, subtilisin enzymes, amylase enzymes, lipase enzymes, coconut acid, lactic acid and citric acid.
Concentrated formulas are ideal for a few reasons. For one, they dissolve quickly without excessive foaming. Also, you don't need to use as much, so you'll get more bang for your buck. And lower volumes of soap can be packaged in smaller containers, which is better for the planet.
For some, the smell of fresh laundry is comforting. And for others, fragrance makes them feel like their clothes are cleaner, even if it has nothing to do with cleaning power. In any case, switching to natural laundry detergent doesn't mean you have to forgo a scent. Natural formulas are often scented with essential oils. The natural laundry detergent you’ll find at Parachute is scented with calming lavender oil (appearing as lavandula angustifolia on the ingredients list).
You might also consider using a natural mist, like the Rest Linen Mist from Parachute, a soothing herbal blend free of synthetic ingredients and toxins. If you're not big on fragrances, have sensitive skin or suffer from allergies, look for one of Parachute’s popular unscented options.
Tips for Using Natural Laundry Detergent
Using natural detergent isn't really any different from using regular laundry soap. That said, to maintain the integrity of your fabrics, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Always read the care instructions on your clothes, bedding and towels before tossing them in the wash. You'll want to look over the directions listed on the laundry soap bottle, too, to make sure you're using the correct amount. (With concentrated formulas, a quarter-cup is usually plenty).
Put the laundry soap in the drum before adding your clothes. This will give it a chance to dissolve and distribute evenly.
Try not to overload the drum, as overloading can cause tangling and may affect how well your fabrics are cleaned.
Run the cycle with cold or warm water to avoid damaging the fibers, prevent shrinking and preserve the color.
Avoid using bleach to whiten your laundry, as it can weaken the fabric. Adding distilled white vinegar and baking soda to the wash can help with brightening.
Dealing with stubborn stains? Parachute recommends OxiClean.
Consider hanging your clothes and linens instead of throwing them in the dryer. It's better for the environment since it reduces energy, plus it's gentler on your fabrics.
If you do tumble-dry your laundry, always use a low heat setting. Also, instead of dryer sheets, consider using wool dryer balls, which cut down drying time and make fabrics extra fluffy.
For more tips on fabric care, check out our guide on How to Wash and Properly Care for Bedding.
Best Natural Laundry Detergent - In Conclusion
When it comes down to it, natural laundry detergent is healthy laundry detergent. It's good for you, good for your family and good for the planet. The 100% biodegradable laundry soap from Parachute comes in a subtly soothing lavender scent or an unscented option.
It's made up of mostly plant-derived ingredients, and thanks to the 3X concentrated formula, you can rest assured it has a smaller carbon footprint than regular laundry detergent.
Parachute is committed to promoting sustainability and offers sustainable and ethically-manufactured organic bed sheets and other natural home goods. Shop our full list of products for natural and eco-friendly goods around the house.
Read on for more about the best natural and organic essentials for your laundry room and home: