Laundry Detergents

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 40 laundry washing powders and liquid brands.

We also look at animal testing, toxic chemicals, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Sonett 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.

What to buy

What to look for when buying laundry detergent:

  • Is it organic? Looking for organic is a fail-safe way to avoid most of the nasty, artificial chemicals that are in so many household products. And thereby help the environment as well as yourself.

  • 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. 

Best Buys

Our Best Buys are all vegan [A] and / or organic [O]:

Recommended Buys

Sonett, Ecozone and Dri-Pak for making your own detergent.

Ecover and Method are best of the widely available brands although since their takeover they have a boycott call against it for being owned by a non cruelty-free company, SC Johnson.

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying laundry detergent:

  • Does it contain toxics? The long and complex ingredients lists of household products 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.

Companies to avoid

Not only does Reckitt Benckiser score near the bottom of our table, one of its disinfectants is said to have caused over 100 deaths in South Korea between 2001 and 2011. Avoid its laundry detergent brands:

  • Dettol
  • Vanish
  • Woolite

Score table

Updated live from our research database

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

Greenscents laundry detergents [O,A]

Company Profile: Greenscents Ltd
16.5

Sodasan washing powder and liquid [O,A]

Company Profile: Sodasan Wasch- und Reinigungsmittel GmbH
16

Bio-D laundry detergent [A]

Company Profile: Bio-D Company
15.5

Faith in Nature laundry detergent [A]

Company Profile: Faith in Nature Ltd
15.5

ECOS Laundry Detergent [A]

Company Profile: Earth Friendly Products
15

Ecozone laundry liquid [A]

Company Profile: Ecozone (UK) Ltd
14.5

ecoleaf laundry liquid [A]

Company Profile: Triangle Wholefoods Collective Ltd
14.5

Sonett washing powder and liquid [A,S]

Company Profile: Sonett GmbH
13.5

Lilly's Eco Clean laundry liquid

Company Profile: Lilly's Eco Clean Ltd
13

Traidcraft Clean & Fair [F,A]

Company Profile: Traidcraft plc
13

ATTITUDE laundry detergent [A]

Company Profile: Bio Spectra
12.5

Astonish laundry detergent [A]

Company Profile: The London Oil Refining Co Ltd
12

Simply washing powders [A]

Company Profile: Enpac Ltd
12

Dri Pak cleaning ingredients [A]

Company Profile: Dri-Pak Ltd
11.5

ACDO laundry detergent [A]

Company Profile: ACDOCO
10

Dr. Beckmann stain removers & whiteners

Company Profile: ACDOCO
9

Morning Fresh laundry

Company Profile: PZ Cussons PLC
8.5

Easy laundry detergent

Company Profile: Jeyes Group Plc
8

Method laundry liquid [A]

Company Profile: Method Products Ltd
8

Ecover laundry detergent

Company Profile: Ecover NV
7.5

Surcare laundry detergent

Company Profile: McBride plc
7.5

Dylon Fabric Care Renovator White

Company Profile: Henkel AG & Co. KGaA
7

Shout stain remover

Company Profile: SC Johnson & Son Inc
7

White n Bright + Oxi Stain Removal

Company Profile: Henkel AG & Co. KGaA
7

Ariel laundry detergent

Company Profile: Procter & Gamble Company
5

Bold laundry Detergent

Company Profile: Procter & Gamble Company
5

Cheer laundry detergent

Company Profile: Procter & Gamble Company
5

Daz laundry detergent

Company Profile: Procter & Gamble Company
5

Downy fabric conditioner

Company Profile: Procter & Gamble Company
5

Dreft laundry detergent

Company Profile: Procter & Gamble Company
5

Era laundry detergent

Company Profile: Procter & Gamble Company
5

Fairy laundry detergent

Company Profile: Procter & Gamble Company
5

Gain laundry detergent

Company Profile: Procter & Gamble Company
5

Lenor fabric softener

Company Profile: Procter & Gamble Company
5

Dettol antibacterial laundry supplement

Company Profile: Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC
4.5

Vanish cleaning products

Company Profile: Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC
4.5

Woolite laundry liquid

Company Profile: Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC
4.5

Comfort fabric softener

Company Profile: Home & Personal Care Division
1.5

Persil laundry detergent

Company Profile: Home & Personal Care Division
1.5

Surf laundry detergent

Company Profile: Home & Personal Care Division
1.5

What is most important to you?

Animals
Environment
People
Politics
Product sustainability

Our Analysis

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: Dishwasher detergents Ethical Consumer guide

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.

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.

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 feature. 

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.

  Price per wash
Astonish 11p
Surcare 17p
Daz 18p
Ecoleaf (BB) 20p
Faith in Nature (BB) 20p
Ariel 22p
Surf 22p
Sodasan 23p
Fairy 23p
Method 24p
Bio-D (BB) 24p
Greenscents (BB) 27p
Persil 28p
Dylon White-n-Bright 29p
Woolite 29p
Ecover 30p
Bold 34p
Sonett 35p
Attitude 52p

(BB) = brands with the Best Buy label

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.

In 2012, the EU limited the amount of phosphates permitted in household laundry detergent to no more than 0.5 grams per standard dose.[1] 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.

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. 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.

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: 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.

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). 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.

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, they do not biodegrade. They pass through the sewage treatment works and are easily detected in our rivers and seas.[3] Stilbenes are also suspected hormone disruptors, are toxic to fish, and may cause allergic reactions when in contact with the skin.[3] 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.

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.[3]

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.

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). 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.

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. 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.

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 2009[5} 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.

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 ... laundry detergents

 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. There are multiple recipes online by Wellness MamaMommypotamus and DIY Natural, as well as The Guardian. All of these recipes are for laundry powder, which is simpler to make and to store than liquid detergent, and are based on a few simple and easily available ingredients:

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

Laundry brightener: Add 1/2 cup of strained lemon juice during the rinse cycle.

Fabric rinse/softener: Add 1/4 cup of white vinegar during the washing machine’s rinse cycle to remove detergent completely from clothes, eliminating that scratchy feel. (Note: This will not leave your clothes smelling like vinegar).

Bleach: Use hydrogen peroxide instead of chlorine bleach. Sunlight is also an effective bleaching agent.

Dry cleaning: Many delicate “dry clean only” items can be washed at home by hand. In general, it’s best to use cool water and a mild liquid soap. Squeeze or wring gently and lay flat to dry.

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.”

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.

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References:

  1. EU Regulation No. 259/2012 14 March 2012
  2. 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
  3. What’s in this stuff? Pat Thomas, 2006
  4. Reducing the environmental impact of clothes cleaning, Defra, December 2009
  5. Which? January 2009