Laundry Detergents


Ethical shopping guide to washing powder & liquid, From Ethical  Consumer

Ethical shopping guide to washing powder & liquid, From Ethical Consumer


This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

What’s in your detergent and how you can reduce the environmental impact of your weekly wash.

This product guide to Laundry Detergents includes:

  • Ethical and environmental ratings for 40 washing powders and liquids
  • Best Buy recommendations
  • What's in your laundry detergent
  • Alternative laundry cleaners
  • Liquid or powder?
  • Bottle or box?

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Related Content

Read our Special Report into Cleaning Products

 

Last updated: February 2017

 

 

 

Washing Detergent

 

From the big names to the eco alternatives, Joanna Long looks at what’s in your detergent and how you can reduce the environmental impact of your weekly wash.

 
Making an ethical choice when it comes to laundry detergent and conditioner is no straightforward matter. Detergent manufacturers, campaigners and the government have been drilling consumers for years on the environmental advantages of setting their washing machines at 30°C to use less energy.

But the impacts of this everyday household product go much further. 

 

Image: laundry detergents



Score table highlights


Over half of the companies in the laundry market have positive Company Ethos and/or Product Sustainability marks, meaning that consumers have lots of opportunities to buy from companies offering environmental or social alternatives to the mainstream. Many of these are small, independent companies, so Anti-Social Finance, Oppressive Regimes and political lobbying aren’t big issues in this guide.

Good corporate social responsibility reporting isn’t a given, however: few companies achieved best ratings for environmental reporting and/or supply chain management, and many performed poorly on pollution and toxics due to the substandard (or absent) policies on the use of parabens, phthalates and triclosan, although these are less commonly used in laundry detergent than other cleaning products.


Animal testing policy


In October 2015, the UK Government banned the testing of ‘finished’ household products on animals and introduced a ‘qualified ban’ on testing the ingredients on animals. But it’ll make little difference to animal welfare. This is because no animals have been used for testing ‘finished’ household products in the UK since 2010. It’s usually the ingredients not the ‘finished’ products that are tested on animals. Ecover has been targetted for animal testing in recent years, find out more in our feature 'Should I Buy Ecover?' 

Animal testing policy scores are polarised, with only four (Sodasan, Attitude,Traidcraft, Sonett) getting a middle rating while all the others get either a best or a worst rating. The household giants (McBride, Reckitt Benckiser, Procter & Gamble, Unilever) occupy the bottom rungs.

For more information see our animal testing article in our wider report into Cleaning Products. 

 

Toxic chemicals ratings
 

There are thousands of ingredients used in household products and many of them have negative environmental impacts and health effects ranging from skin irritation to carcinogenicity.

 

Best rating: Greenscents, Ecos, Faith in Nature, Bio-D, Traidcraft, Ecozone, Lilly's Eco Clean and Traidcraft.

Middle rating: Sodasan, Sonett, Skagen Holdings (Ecover, Method), Unilever (Persil, Surf,
Comfort), PZ Cussons (Morning Fresh)

Worst ratiing: Triangle Wholefoods (Ecoleaf), Enpac (Simply), Astonish, Dri-Pak, Delta Pronatura (ACDO, Dr. Beckmann), McBride (Surcare), Jeyes Holdings (Easy), SC Johnson & Son (Shout), Reckitt Benckiser (Dettol, Vanish, Woolite), Henkel AG (Dylon), Procter & Gamble (Ariel, Bold, Daz, Fairy, Lenor)

We discuss the three toxic chemicals, Parabens, Triclosan and Phthalates in more detail in our wider report into Cleaning Products. 

 

Palm oil ratings

Only five companies achieved our best rating for their palm oil policy (Sodasan, Earth Friendly Products, Triangle Wholefoods, Sonett, Traidcraft). Of these, Earth Friendly Products (ECOS brand) is palm oil free and Traidcraft used fair trade palm oil.

Of the big brands, Unilever managed a middle rating, whereas Reckitt Benckiser and Procter and Gamble received our worst rating, along with many other brands covered in this guide.

 


Supermarket own brands
 

Many supermarkets sell their own brands of laundry detergent.

McBride (scoring 7.5 on the table for its brand Surcare) generally makes most of the own brand detergents for supermarkets. See our ethical guide to supermarkets for the rating of supermarkets. 

 


Price Comparison
 

Price per wash based on the recommended dosage or 50ml per wash. 
 

 

 

 

What's in your laundry detergent

 

 

Phos-phased out
 

The biggest development for laundry detergent since we last covered it in 2012 is that phosphates are no longer an issue. Phosphates (and phosphonates) are water softeners, but their release into waterways can lead to algal blooms that stifle fish and other aquatic life.[2]

In 2012, the EU limited the amount of phosphates permitted in household laundry detergent to no more than 0.5 grams per standard dose.[3] All detergents are now, therefore, either phosphate-free or only use phosphates in negligible quantities.

 

 

Enzymes

 

Biological detergents contain enzymes that break down protein, starches and fat. Taken from micro-organisms such as algae or bacteria, these enzymes are naturally occurring and biodegradable. Under testing, enzyme-containing (‘biological’) detergents are better at removing stains and are more effective at low temperatures, compared with non-biological detergents.[7]

Some people find that biological detergents aggravate skin conditions, such as eczema, although a study published in the British Journal of Dermatology in 2008 found no link between biological detergents and skin allergies.[8] The independence of this study appeared compromised by the fact that one of the authors was a former employee of Unilever, and two others had received consultancy fees from Unilever.[9]

Those with sensitive skin who are concerned about enzymes can look for the Allergy UK ‘Seal of Approval’, which indicates products efficient at reducing or removing allergens, or with a significantly reduced allergen or chemical content.[10] The Allergy UK-approved laundry products in this guide are: Surcare, Bio-D, Dettol, Ecozone, Ecover Zero and Greenscents.

 

 

Surfactants

 

‘Surface-active agents’ (surfactants) are the main active ingredient in detergents. They work by keeping dirt suspended in the water. There are three main types: anionic (negatively charged), non-ionic (no charge) and cationic (positively charged). Surfactants can be made from plant oils such as coconut oil, or sugar, or can be synthesised from waste materials from the petroleum industry. EU law requires that surfactants used in domestic detergents must be “ultimately biodegradable” which actually means they must break down by 60% within 28 days. However, this only applies to the detergents (which form 3% to 20% of the total product), and only under conditions where oxygen is present. Most biodegradation actually happens in conditions without oxygen present, so these detergents may be unable to break down fully, which can be a problem for waste water treatment plants.[11]

The main surfactant used by the industry is LAS (Linear Alkylbenzene Sulfonate) which is derived from crude oil and is not ‘anaerobically biodegradable’ (i.e it will not biodegrade unless oxygen is present).2 The alternative surfactants used by companies such as Ecover and Bio-D are plant-based and are claimed to be 100% biodegradable within seven days or less. They are typically sourced from coconut or rapeseed oil, or sugar, all renewable sources. Ecover claims that this biodegradability means that detergents with plant-based surfactants need less water to neutralise their impact on the water supply.[12]

 

 

Perfume and fragrances

 

Synthetic fragrances are used in most mainstream detergents. The word ‘Fragrance’ or ‘Parfum’ on a label represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients, potentially including hormone-disrupting phthalates, synthetic musks, and ethylene oxide. Fragrance mixes have also been associated with allergies, dermatitis and respiratory problems.[13] Alternative products are commonly either fragrance-free or they use essential oils.

 

 

Optical brighteners

 

Optical brighteners make clothes look cleaner than they are by using chemicals called stilbenes which reflect light. However, they do not biodegrade. They pass through the sewage treatment works and are easily detected in our rivers and seas.12 Stilbenes are also suspected hormone disruptors, are toxic to fish, and may cause allergic reactions when in contact with the skin.[14] Eco detergents don’t tend to use optical brighteners which is why they don’t perform well in Which? tests where ‘whiteness’ is a ratings category.

 

 

Fabric softeners

 

Fabric softeners are made from mild detergents and ‘cationic’ surfactants which leave a positive charge on the fabric making it feel soft. They basically work in the same way as hair conditioners.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, fabric softeners and tumble dryer sheets contain an enormous number of potentially toxic chemicals, many of which are left on your clothes. These chemicals may include irritants, can cause allergic reactions and can affect the central nervous system.[15]

Fragrance is one way that manufacturers try to differentiate their products and the regular off-gassing of perfume chemicals from fabric softeners can be a significant trigger for asthma and other breathing problems.[16]

 

War of the ecolabels

 

Two companies in this guide, Greenscents and Sodasan, are certified as organic. Greenscents is certified by the UK’s Soil Association and Sodasan by EcoCert, a French organic label originally applied to food products but more recently certifying the ingredients of household products.[1]

Sonett carries the EcoGarantie label. EcoGarantie is a Belgium-based trademark for ‘sustainable commodities’. According to the Austrian consumer label comparison website, www.bewusstkaufen.at, the EcoGarantie label appears to be weaker than the EcoCert label, which covers a wider range of criteria. 


 

Liquid or powder?
 

A key decision when buying laundry detergent is choosing between liquid and powder. A 2009 Defra study into the environmental impact of laundry detergents recommended using concentrated liquid detergents, avoid using too much, and washing at 30°C.[4] The study found that:

  • Concentrated powders and liquids perform better over a range of environmental indicators largely due to the use of fewer chemicals per wash.
  • Liquids tend to perform better than powders across most indicators (acidification, human toxicity, climate change, ozone depletion and photochemical smog), apart from eutrophication and aquatic toxicity.
  • Tablets and capsules tend to perform worse than loose versions because of packaging and because their production requires more energy. Loose versions also help you to use less detergent than the manufacturers recommend.



 

Bottle or box?
 

The downside of liquid detergents is that they are packaged in plastic bottles rather than paper or cardboard. You can reduce packaging waste by buying in bulk. Bio-D, Faith in Nature, Traidcraft and Ecover do 5 litre refills, and Ecoleaf and Sonett liquid detergents are both available in 20 litre canisters.

Ecover is packaging its products in a blend of 75% Plantplastic® and 25% post-consumer recycled plastic (PCR).[5] Plantplastic® is a polyethylene derived from sugarcane that is certified by Bonsucro, a global multi-stakeholder non-profit organisation co-founded by Cargill Inc., a grain multinational with a poor reputation among social justice campaigners. Bonsucro claims it is dedicated to reducing the environmental and social impacts of sugar cane production.[6]

 

 

The alternatives

 

Leaving out the detergent altogether is the greenest option for laundry. The movement of water and clothes inside a washing machine is enough to release some dirt and freshen up a lightly-soiled load. However, water alone cannot compete with detergents – even the worst that Which? tested – when it comes to stain removal.

Soapnuts

Soapnuts contain a completely natural detergent called saponin, and can be composted after use. Soapnuts come from the soapnut tree which grows naturally in India and Nepal, so are a renewable resource.

Which? tested soapnuts in 200917 and found that at 30°C, the soapnuts were no better than water alone. In response, a reader’s letter later that year said: “I have found that the nuts only work well if I wash at 60°C. At 40°C, I recommend soaking them in hot water for a while or, even better, overnight in cold water. If I’m doing the washing at 30°C, I use only ‘nut stock’ – prepared by boiling the nuts for 10 to 20 minutes.”

Soapnuts are available from www.soapnuts.co.uk and www.inasoapnutshell.com

 

Wash balls

Wash balls are plastic balls filled with pellets which claim to unleash ‘ionic cleaning power’ so you don’t have to use detergent. They are fragrance free and rinse cycles aren’t needed as there is no traditional detergent to wash away. Ecozone’s Ecoballs claim to be reusable for up to 1,000 washes.

There has been much debate about whether they actually work or not or whether they are any more effective than plain water.

Which? tested wash balls in 2009.[17] They found that they washed less effectively at 30°C than traditional laundry detergents. Most barely cleaned better than water alone. In every case in their tests, the wash balls removed more dirt with extra help from stain removers.

 

DIY detergent

A quick and easy way to ensure a more ethical wash is to make your own. This is not only cheaper than buying ready-made detergent, it is also easy to do.

See our DIY non-toxic cleaning kit >

 

Low-impact laundry

If you’re looking to reduce the environmental impact of your laundry, some or all of the following can help:

  • Wash at 30°C.
  • Wash less! Air your clothes after wearing to make them last longer, and wait for a full load.
  • Use soapnuts or make your own.
  • Dry laundry on the line as much as possible to reduce or eliminate dryer time. A 2010 study found that 71% of electricity used in the laundry cycle was used by dryers.[24] The UV in sunlight also has a biocidal effect on any germs remaining in your laundry, and air-drying is great for getting even your stinkiest gym clothes smelling sweet again.
     

 

Company Profile

 

Sonett is a German company making household products, from laundry and dishwasher detergent to disinfectant and hand soap, as well as child-friendly soaps and bubble liquids.

The company’s shares are owned by the non-profit Freie Stiftung Sonett (Sonett Foundation), which “promotes water research, develop[s] alternative testing methods that do not involve experiments on animals, train[s] in connection with research in formative forces, as well as other ecological, cultural and artistic initiatives embodying the spirit of anthroposophy.” [7]

At the company’s plant near Lake Constance in southern Germany, much of the labelling is carried out by residents of the nearby Camphill community, providing socio-therapeutic employment and income for adults with learning disabilities.

 

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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References:
1 www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/11/palm-oil-global-brands-profiting-from-child-and-forced-labour
2 actions.sumofus.org/a/procter-and-gamble-covergirl-head-and-shoulders-modern-slavery-there-is-no-escape-palm-oil-nightmare
3 www.beatthemicrobead.org
4 www.pg.co.uk/our_brands/product_safety/ingredient_safety/microbeads
5 www.greenpeace.org/eastasia/news/blog/microbeads-how-did-companies-respond/blog/57339
6 www.forbes.com/billionaires/list/#version:static 
7 www.sonett.eu, viewed 19 January 2017

8 www.nhs.uk/news/2008/05May/Pages/Biowashingpowderrashesamyth.aspx, viewed 11 January 2017
9 Basketter, D A ; English, J S C ; Wakelin, S H ; White, I R ‘Enzymes, detergents and skin: facts and fantasies’ The British journal of dermatology, June 2008, Vol.158(6), pp.1177-81
10 www.allergyuk.org/seal-of-approval/seal-of-approval, viewed 11 January 2017
11 Guardian website www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/mar/16/ecover-q-a-questions-debate-green-cleaning, viewed 19 January 2017
12 Cleaner Planet plan: a green wash or greenwash? The Ecologist, 18 August 2009
13 Campaign for Safe Cosmetics website www.safecosmetics.org, viewed 19 January 2017
14 Is turning to 30°C enough? The Ecologist, 27 July 2009
15 What’s in this stuff? Pat Thomas 2006
16 Behind the Label: Comfort Fabric Softener, The Ecologist, 12 February 2009
17 Which? January 2009
18 wellnessmama.com/27059/high-efficiency-laundry-detergent/, viewed 11 January 2017
19 www.mommypotamus.com/homemade-natural-laundry-detergent-made-easy/, viewed 11 January 2017
20 www.diynatural.com/homemade-laundry-detergent-soap/, viewed 11 January 2017
21 www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/oct/06/how-to-make-your-own-laundry-detergent-and-help-save-the-planet, viewed 11 January 2017
22 www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/queen-of-green/2016/08/how-safe-is-borax/, viewed 11 January 2017 23 wellnessmama.com/26407/borax-safe/, viewed 19 January 2017
24 center.sustainability.duke.edu/resources/green-facts-consumers/heating-water-really-biggest-laundry-impact, viewed 17 January 2017

 


 

 

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