Which laundry detergent works best?

I have a secret love of all things laundry (which may be why this post is a little long).

As a teenager coming

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back from boarding school I would spend days washing, line-drying and ironing my clothes. And even now, I suspect that the only reason people choose to vacation with me is because they know I will do the laundry.

Having kids introduced me to the real challenges of cleaning clothes and the power of seemingly innocuous fruits (such as watermelon and banana) to mess things up for good. There is no joy in laundry when clothes come out of the washer still stained and grungy.

So, I have spent the last 12 years of my life dedicated to the hunt for the perfect eco-detergent. Sadly, I have not yet alighted upon the holy grail, but I can say that some products are a lot better than others.

I can also say that the typical north American top-loading machine does a terrible job of getting clothes clean (at least that is my experience, using eco-detergents). Front-loaders use far less water (about 40% less, saving around 15 gallons per wash cycle), far less energy (partly because much of the energy is used to heat all that excess water) and wring more water out of clothes (which makes for more effective line drying/less time in the dryer). They also agitate more, so wash better.

You do, though, have to be careful of over-sudsing in front-loading machines: over time this can mess up the internal electronics of an expensive washing machine as I discovered recently after too many soap experiments.

So what about that soap? I tested 5 eco-detergents on a cocktail of stains, including tomato sauce, red wine, sesame oil, marker pen, ground-in dirt, watermelon juice and banana. I washed items the way I normally do: warm (40C) and short (38 mins) as opposed to my machine’s full cycle which is over an hour and a half.

The laundry detergent I have been using for a while (Ecos) – largely because it is cheap, available at Costco and has quite a nice smell – did the worst job, hands down.

The other detergents I tried were Sunlight Green Clean (which, it turns out, is not very green at all and though it does a reasonable job is a terrible over-sudser), Bio-vert, Method and Seventh Generation. All are recommended for HE (high-efficiency = front loading) machines, with Bio-vert being the only company to make a separate detergent for such machines (so make sure you get the right one for your machine). I should say that I did not, at this time, try Natureclean detergent, though this is an Ontario product. I have used the powder in the past and not had much success (with this or any other of their products).

Which detergent will I choose from henceforth? For me, the answer is Bio-vert as it gets things pretty clean

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(nothing really handled the banana and watermelon, but I did not soak or pre-treat), is produced reasonably close-by (Quebec) and the price is right (23c per wash).

Bio-vert generally makes good products. I always use their dishsoap and their dishwasher tabs are also effective. And I like that this is a small company (30 employees) with a strong commitment to eco-oriented product and packaging development (though there is room for improvement with the laundry soap bottles as they are only 25% post consumer recycled content).

Method is also a fascinating company in that it embraces cradle to cradle design principles and its products are really different. Packaging is generally exciting: 50% recycled and pump action for the laundry detergent (which comes in 4 enticing fragrances as well as perfume-free). You use very little (a few pumps or about 12ml as opposed to the 40-50mls recommended for Bio-vert and Seventh Generation).

If you live near Indiana, where the laundry soap is made, that would have a significant impact upon the carbon-intensity of your wash. But I live around 900km from Indiana as the crow flies (as opposed to about 150km from Laval where Biovert is made), so the calculation is less clear. In Ottawa the only real source for Method products is Shoppers Drug Mart. Shoppers has good and frequent sales, but the base price is high at nearly 40c per wash.

If you have difficulty lifting heavy items (or are headed to the laundromat), and don’t wash enough for the price differential to matter, this could be the product for you. Oh, and Method did an adequate job on stains, though overall slightly worse than Biovert and Seventh Generation (and hopeless on watermelon). I found the pump to be a better idea in principle than in practice: though it is non-messy, you always have the tricky issue of tilting and incomplete pumps.

Seventh Generation generally makes great products and has super environmental credentials.

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Their laundry liquid is no exception. Of all the soaps, it washed the best in my test and did a particularly good job on the red wine (less good on bananas). For me the downsides are price (at 35c per wash it is nearly 50% more expensive than Bio-vert) and the fact that it comes from further afield. Although the company manufactures powders at its plant in Toronto, all laundry liquids are all imported from the US. Oddly enough, the laundry powder that is made (along with dishwasher powder) in Toronto is available only in the US.

The upside of Seventh Generation (apart from the quality of the wash) lies in their commitment to move to 90% post-consumer recycled bottles for laundry products in the very near future and the fact that the products are more widely available near me (at Loblaws, Metro, etc.). Like Method they claim their laundry detergent is about about 95% natural.

So there you have it. I had become a little lazy on detergents (no hope of finding the holy grail with that attitude). Now I have put several to the test and was, frankly, disappointed that one did not blow me away. So I will continue testing as new products are developed and keep you posted. Do you have any suggestions for me?

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3 comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    One thing no one every thinks too much about is whether the soap is best under hard water or soft water conditions. I use one called VIP which is made for Vancouver's soft water and it works excellent and is cheap.

    Detergents perform under all sorts of water condition but soap works best under soft water. Coconut oil and their derivatives will work under both water conditions and even with salt water.

    You might try looking at Etsy if you want hand crafted laundry soaps and ask them under what conditions they tested their soaps. PS I am a soap maker hobbist.

  2. Cat-in-a-Box says:

    I'm so glad I found your website! I recently relocated to Ontario and have been meaning to look into greener local options (I love Seventh Gen products) – and everything and more is right here.

    I really wish refillable laundry/dish/etc detergent was an option – I see there are some such things in the US but nothing that I can find locally.

    Keep up the wonderful blog!!! :)

  3. Karen says:

    That’s great to hear about your Bio-Vert experience. I’ve been using Bio-vert for about 7 years now & will not change because they work so amazingly well. I certainly have put it to the test with my horse laundry, my hubby’s greasy work laundry & our 4 year old son (enough said lol!). The laundry detergent goes a long way which makes it even more affordable than the chemical detergents. Despite all the laundry I do, a big bottle of Bio-vert lasts me about 6 months. That was before with old top load washer. Now that we have a front load, it should last a year, if not more. :)
    We also use the dishwasher tabs by Bio-vert & the hand dishsoap. All are amazing. :)

    Thank you for putting them through your test. I too found similar results when I decided for whatever reason to try one of the other Eco-brands.

    Karen Burrows

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