Laundry Detergents

Ethical and environmental rankings for 29 laundry washing powders and laundry detergents.

Finding an eco-friendly laundry detergent, vegan or cruelty free laundry detergent. We look at animal testing, packaging, plastics, chemicals, palm oil, highlight the ethics of Smol and give our recommended buys.

About 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.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying laundry detergent:

  • Is it available as a refill? Options to avoid using single use plastic packaging are now much more widely available, in zero waste, wholefood and farm shops all over UK.

  • Is it cruelty-free and vegan? Although animal testing for finished household products has been banned in the UK, lots of companies still use ingredients that are tested on animals. Go for a company with a clear cruelty-free policy and one that doesn't use any animal ingredients.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying laundry detergent:

  • Does it contain toxics? The long and complex ingredients lists in household products for cleaning often include toxic chemicals. These are bad for the environment as well as health.

  • Does it contain palm oil? At its most unsustainable, palm oil is linked to massive deforestation and serious violations of human rights. Look for brands that commit to sourcing palm oil sustainably or avoid it completely.

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

There are lots of things to consider if you want to do laundry in the most eco-friendly way.

This guide mainly focuses on the ethical and sustainability credentials of the detergent products we use, and the companies that make them, such as:

  • is your laundry liquid vegan?
  • is your laundry liquid cruelty free or does the company tests on animals?
  • does your washing detergent come in sustainable packaging?
  • what chemicals are in your laundry detergent?
  • are there polymers and microplastics in your detergent?

Also see our guide to environmentally-friendly washing machines

Packaging and refills – what are the eco friendly options?

Most laundry liquid still comes in single-use plastic bottles. Another option for laundry liquids is pods or pouches. Our dishwasher detergent guide will feature what’s wrong with pods and pouches. Suffice to say, none of these packaging options are recommended.

Laundry powder usually comes loose or as tablets in a cardboard box, which, if not from a recycled source, is at least renewable and biodegradable.

But new in this guide are several companies which gained a Company Ethos mark for having a business model that was all about refills. All have gone beyond the first step of the ‘waste hierarchy’ of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Refill-focused businesses

SESI has refill stations for its laundry liquid in zero waste, farm and wholefood shops across the UK, and picks up the 5l and 20l containers for reuse. Use their ‘Find a Stockist’ page to search your area.

Fill Refill sells bags which you can return to them for refilling with laundry liquid (5l or 10l) or powder (10kg). Or they sell glass bottles you can refill at stations around the country. For more information about Fill Refill see the  'Companies behind the brands' box at the end of this guide.

Miniml sells 500ml glass/ PET bottles, 5L and 20L containers which you can return for reuse, or refill from zero waste, health food and farm shops across the UK.

Splosh posts out concentrated refill pouches of laundry liquid (which they say reduce plastic by 95%) that can be returned and will either be reused or reprocessed for future products.

Bulk options

Of the brands which mainly sell single-use bottles, some offer bulk sizes that you can use to refill, using less plastic per ml. Bulk sizes are often much cheaper per ml too, but the outlay on the biggest sizes can be a bit much for you alone, or might take you years to get through, unless you share with others.

As well as the refill companies SESI, Fill Refill and Miniml, other brands which offer bulk options are: ATTITUDE, Bio-D, ecoleaf, Eco-max, Ecover, Faith in Nature, Greenscents, and Sonett. Of these only Faith in Nature and Greenscents take the bottles back for reuse.

Refill stations

Several of these bulk brands are also available from refill stations in alternative shops around the country. Some list these stations online so you can search for one near you. Some supermarkets have even experimented with refill stations.

As well as the refill companies SESI, Fill Refill and Miniml, other brands offered at refill stations include: Bio-D (list), ecoleaf, Ecover (list), Faith in Nature (list) and Greenscents.

Shelf in shop with refill bottles of detergent

Vegan laundry detergent

Most of the products in this guide are either marketed or certified as vegan. They are marked with [Vg] on the score table and include: Bide, Greenscents, Bio-D, Friendly Soap, SESI, Faith in Nature, Fill Refill, Planet Detox, Sodasan, ATTITUDE, Miniml, Smol, ecoleaf, Ecozone, Splosh, Astonish, Sonnet, Eco-max, Ecover and Method.

Brands that do not claim to be vegan including Unilever (Persil and Surf), Procter & Gamble (Ariel, Bold, Daz, Fairy), McBride (Surcare), Reckitt Benckiser (Woolite), SC Johnson (who own Ecover and Method) and Easy.

Our Company Ethos scores highlight the vegan companies which use no animal ingredients right across their business. Our Product Sustainability marks also show which individual products are vegan.

Cruelty-free laundry detergent

Company Ethos scores also show which companies are certified as cruelty-free. These were ATTITUDE, Astonish, Bio-D, ecoleaf, Ecozone, Faith in Nature, Fill Refill, Friendly Soap, Greenscents, Miniml and Smol.

We have introduced a new exemption in the Animal Testing column for small vegan companies which may not be certified but are clearly committed to avoiding animal testing. Our summary article on eco issues and detergents has more information about this.

What are all these ingredients in my laundry liquid?

Enzymes

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

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. The Allergy UK-approved laundry products in this guide are: Bio-D, Ecover Zero, Ecozone, Fill Refill and Surcare.

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. 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, these chemicals do not biodegrade. They pass through the sewage treatment works and are easily detected in our rivers and seas.

Stilbenes are also suspected hormone disruptors, are toxic to fish, and may cause allergic reactions when in contact with the skin. 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.

Surfactants and biodegradability

‘Surface-active agents’ (surfactants) are the main active ingredient in detergents. They work by keeping dirt suspended in the water. 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 aerobically biodegradable (it will biodegrade if oxygen is present) and break down by 60% within 28 days.

The main surfactant used by the detergent industry is LAS (Linear Alkylbenzene Sulfonate) which is derived from crude oil and is ‘ultimately biodegradable’ but not ‘anaerobically biodegradable’ (i.e., it will not biodegrade unless oxygen is present). The alternative surfactants used by companies such as Bio-D are plant-based and ‘readily’ biodegradable.

Polymers and plastics in detergent

As well as potential microplastics, there may be liquid polymers in your cleaners. Liquid polymers are not plastics, but they are also poorly biodegradable and remain for years in our ecosystem with unknown consequences.

Dr. Ruta Almedom at CodeCheck told us: “In the EU and UK, surfactants used in cleaning products have to be biodegradable. Interestingly all other substances (such as liquid polymers and microplastic) which are not biodegradable, which are even persistent, do not fall under this rule. And there is no intention yet to implement a rule for those. [Polymers’] job is often to merely make a detergent look more opaque or milky, or even just as a‘filling’ or bulking agent which makes the product look more than it really is.”

Our rating for microplastics and liquid polymers found the following:

Which companies use palm oil in washing powder?

Some of the brands we reviewed are completely palm oil free across all products. They were: Bide, Greenscents and Planet Detox, with Greenscents certified as palm oil free by the International Palm Oil Free Certification Trademark POFCAP.

Several others (Bio-D, Faith in Nature, Fill Refill, Miniml, SESI, Sodasan, Smol and Splosh) scored our best rating for stating that all of their palm ingredients, including derivatives, were certified by the RSPO.

Several small or medium companies scored a worst rating if they had no information on palm-based ingredients, or if they only seemed to use certified palm in one brand but not another, or if they talked about palm oil but not
derivatives: Astonish, ATTITUDE, Easy, Ecozone, and Prism (Eco-Max).

Cartoon of clothes drying on line but with footprints on them
Cartoon by Andy Vine

Low impact laundry and alternatives to buying detergents

If you’re looking to reduce the environmental impact of your laundry washing, 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.
  • Dry laundry on the line or a clothes horse, not in a tumble dryer.
  • Try soapnuts or making your own cleaner (see below).

Several of these tips also help reduce the shedding of microfibres from synthetic clothes such as nylon and polyester. This plastic waste is damaging water sources and the animals that live in rivers, lakes and oceans.

Eco alternatives to buying laundry detergent

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 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. Anecdotal advice suggests that they only work at 30°C if you boil them for 10-20 minutes first.

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. 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.

Make your own

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, but also easy to do. There are multiple recipes online for laundry powder which are based on a few simple and easily available ingredients:

  • liquid soap flakes
  • washing soda or soda crystals
  • borax substitute
  • essential oils (if not already included in the bar soap)
  • oxygen booster (optional).

Companies behind the brand

Smol is said to be the fastest growing UK homecare brand, being used for 10 million washes a month. May 2021 marked three years since it was launched by two consumer product experts who used to work for Unilever. Its home delivery model, with packages that can fit through a letterbox, has increased its popularity during the pandemic, and its focus on concentrated formulations and using less plastic has given it sustainability credentials.

However, on our ratings system it scored relatively badly and we are not recommending it. No information was found on its website about workers’ rights in its supply chain, nor about its approach to toxic chemicals, palm oil or liquid polymers. It has just secured a $34 million investment from Google Ventures, Jam Jar and other investors to expand its range and launch in new markets.

Fill Refill manufactures all its products in its own factory in Northamptonshire and has grown out of a family business called Ideal Manufacturing which began in 1980. It is working with the University of Northumbria on a way to enable professional laundries to wash at low temperatures without chlorine bleach or aggressive chemistry and to reduce microfibre shedding. It donates 1% of its turnover to environmental causes as part of its membership of ‘1% for the Planet’.

Want more information?

See detailed company information, ethical ratings and issues for all companies mentioned in this guide, by clicking on a brand name in the Score table.  

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