It may sound a bit crazy, but washing clothes without detergent – the store-bought, not-so-eco-friendly variety at least – is possible. It is preferable in case you want to save money on laundry, protect the environment, and spare your family budget of some inter-connected expenses. Let’s see today how to wash clothes without detergent and learn more about laundry detergent alternatives!

Why Are Laundry Detergents an Environmental Problem?

If we listen to the experts, around 40% of our water footprint comes from the laundry. Moreover, there is a strong connection between household detergents, water pollution, and marine life endangerment. If you’ve heard about the European Commission’s intentions to limit some compounds in laundry detergents, you know the situation is quite severe.

While the ecological impact of detergents (household or industrial) makes the interest of another article, it is safe to say that the fewer detergents we use at home to wash our clothes, the better it is for the environment and us. So let’s see today a few ways to wash clothes without detergent – in its traditional sense.

How to Wash Clothes without Detergent?

laundry detergent alternatives

As we said, the idea itself sounds crazy, especially during the fall/winter season when the weather is messy and we tend to wear more clothes and accessories than during the other months of the year. So how do you remove stains and clean your family’s clothes without using entire boxes or bottles of detergents?

The simplest answer here is finding a substitute for laundry detergent. Well, finding more than one laundry detergent alternative, because they are many and most of them are already in your home!

Most Efficient Laundry Detergent Substitutes

According to some surveys, the average American family runs 4 to 5 loads of laundry (in the washing machine) per week. Of course, we all want clean clothes, but such routine amounts to heavy water usage, loads of detergents, and plenty of waste. In case you are considering sustainability and zero-waste approaches in the home, let’s see some of the best laundry detergent substitutes.

1. Soap Nuts

soap nuts wash clothes without detergent

These berries are the go-to choice for eco-conscious people who want to cut down on commercial detergents. Containing saponin – a natural surfactant – soap nuts can help you get rid of the usual grime on clothes, oils, stains, dirt, and so on. The best part is that you can use the same batch of soap nuts for a few consecutive washes (up to 10) and compost them when they get soft shells and a grayish color.  

Another great advantage of soap nuts, besides their generous lather and foam, is that they are gentle for the skin and usually used as an alternative to regular shampoos and body washes for people with sensitive skin and dermatological problems. Non-toxic, sustainable, and affordable, soap nuts make an excellent laundry detergent alternative.

How to Wash Your Clothes with Soap Nuts

  • Fill a muslin bag with 5-6 soap nuts and insert it in the washing machine;
  • Set the machine on the desired water temperature – as you know, you need higher temps to clean heavily soiled clothes and remove bacteria;
  • Once the wash cycle is over, take the bag out and let the nuts dry in the fresh air, just as you do with your clothes.

2. Borax

borax and washing soda wash clothes without detergent

Borax is a natural mineral that people use to enhance the power of their laundry detergents. However, you can use Borax as a substitute when you have mildly soiled clothes to wash. It is an excellent solution if you want to make your whites whiter and brighter. Borax will also remove stains, odors, fungi, mold, and soap residue from previous washes.

It also acts as a water softener, turning the water slightly alkaline – an ideal choice for cleaning clothes. Borax breaks down acidic food stains (mustard, tomatoes) and oily food stains as well.

For heavily soiled clothes and linen, you can use Borax in combination with half the laundry detergent amount you’d put normally to such a wash.

How to Wash Your Clothes with Borax

  • For best results, pre-soak your clothes for half an hour in a solution of 1 tablespoon of Borax per 1 gallon of warm water;
  • Add 1/2 cup of Borax to the regular cycle of your washing machine.

As a general rule, do not mistake Borax for washing soda, which is a lot stronger and can cause skin damage if not manipulated with care.

3. Eco-Friendly Laundry Balls

laundry balls laundry detergent alternatives

One of the most interesting and efficient laundry detergent alternatives, eco-friendly laundry balls are gaining a lot of hype lately, and for the right reasons. Non-toxic and coming in improved designs, a laundry ball can wash your clothes between 300 and 1,500 times – which, you must admit, amounts to serious money savings on laundry detergent.

Designed for environmentally conscious families, the laundry balls work well with small loads, heavy loads, all types of washing machines, and all types of temperatures. We recommend you get ones with a slightly softer shell that does not damage your clothes. Moreover, for a fully sustainable bathroom, make sure you get laundry balls with a non-toxic outer shell.

Laundry balls can also save some water in the process of clothes maintenance, as they render useless extra rinsing. Reusable, recyclable, non-toxic, and eco-friendly, laundry balls may be the next best thing when it comes to washing clothes without detergent.

How to Wash Your Clothes with Laundry Balls

  • Put the laundry balls together with the clothes in the washing machine;
  • Once the cycle is over, take the balls out and let them dry.

Other Laundry Detergent Alternatives

vinegar substitute for laundry detergent

Ask any eco-conscious person about washing clothes without detergent and they will start by mentioning baking soda and, most likely, vinegar.

Now, baking soda does a great job of removing stains and odors. It works great with sweaty gym gear, soiled baby clothes, musty towels, old linens, grayish whites, and more. Baking soda removes vomit and urine stains, crayon stains, all sorts of odors, and so on.

  • However, to use baking soda as a substitute for laundry detergent you need to set the washing machine to very high temperatures – which is not the sustainable way to wash clothes, as it consumes a lot of energy.
  • You will also need to use an entire box of baking soda on each such wash – and while it is affordable, at the end of the year, you may not be so happy about it.

Concerning vinegar, it is probably one of the greatest household items to keep around the house. Mix it with water and refresh the colors on your carpets while removing stains and odors as well. Put it into a washing machine and it will also remove stains, odor, mold, bacteria, pet hair and lint from your clothes. It makes your whites whiter and brighter while boosting the faded colors of your clothes.

It also cleans up your washing machine entirely, as it removes mineral and soap deposits.

But is washing clothes without detergent possible as you replace any cleaning agent with vinegar alone? For normal and heavily soiled clothes, you will need very hot water to begin with and copious amounts of vinegar.

Washing Clothes without Detergent in the Hi-Tech Era: The Magnets System

Some people swear on magnets being able to wash clothes miraculously – without any type of detergent added to the load.

While the science of magnets is quite clear, there is still little understanding of how two magnets stuck inside the washing machine (metal) drum can alter the very nature of water to wash clothes. Some magnet experts got inconclusive results, so the jury is still out on this one. Nobody can say, so far, in good faith, that Magnetic Laundry Systems work 100% as promised or are 100% a hoax.

We will gladly accept your take on them if you ever used such laundry detergent alternatives.

Eco-Friendly Laundry Solutions

Those who want to take sustainability a step further have other solutions at hand when it comes to laundry. Here are some tips you probably know by now but worth a mention:

  • Wash clothes with as much cold water as you can. The hotter the water is, the greater the energy consumption;
  • Dry clothes on a line in fresh air and sun as often as you can to cut down the energy costs involved by your dryer;
  • Test your water for hardness and impurities. Next, install a home water softener. You may not know this, but hard water alters the efficiency of your detergent. Soft water, on the other hand, helps you reduce the amount of detergent you use, as it will simply lather, foam, and clean better.

How to Wash Clothes without Detergent: The Compromises

washing clothes without detergent

Sometimes, realistically speaking, we cannot eliminate laundry detergents completely from our lives. What we can do, however, is to compromise where and when we can. It means that we can cut down our detergent consumption by mixing half of the amount with more sustainable solutions. They include baking soda, vinegar, lemon juice for stain removal, and so on.

Reducing the amount of laundry detergent and finding the best laundry detergent alternatives are sure ways of protecting the environment and live healthier lives. Washing clothes without detergent is possible as long as we do things right. As we said before, each small step can make a huge change as long as we are all making changes together.

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