Let’s get down and dirty … about your laundry habits. You may think you’re in the clear, but every time you use your conventional, chemical-filled detergent, you could be affecting your health — as well as the health of waterways downstream.

That doesn’t sound so fresh (and so clean, clean), so I decided to seek out green laundry detergents and find out which one performs best.

Lean, green, cleaning machines?

Photo: Sarah van Schagen

While shopping, I kept an eye out for the nasty stuff — the surfactant nonylphenol ethoxylate or NPE, an endocrine disruptor and estrogen mimic; phosphates, which help remove minerals and food bits but cause harmful algal blooms in waterways (these have been phased out by U.S. companies); and bleach, which gets it white, but doesn’t treat your lungs right. The problem is, most detergents don’t so much list ingredients in that sort of detail — and they’re not required by law to disclose their ingredients to consumers even when asked. Instead, they use more vague terms like “surfactant” or “washing soda” or “brightener,” so I found myself looking at their various eco-claims — that is, what they say their products don’t contain.

I also decided to go with detergents “free and clear” of dyes and perfumes, because why bother with possible irritants and allergens if you have the option? A number of the bottles proudly announce that their contents are biodegradable or petroleum-free. According to the Seventh Generation bottle, if every U.S. household replaced one bottle of petroleum-based detergent with a plant-based one, 149,000 barrels of oil could be saved — enough to heat and cool 8,500 homes for a year.

GRIST’S PICK

Seventh Generation Free & Clear
32 fl. oz./2X ultra concentrated
$6.99

I chose relatively small bottles of detergent as well. Normally, I’m a fan of buying in bulk to save packaging, but I knew I’d be lugging them all home in a backpack, by foot, uphill both ways in the rain. Most of them are also labeled as “concentrated” — an important distinction because, as the Method bottle states, over 400 million gallons of water are used to dilute conventional laundry detergents. The concentrated formulas use less water but still rinse clean — and work in both conventional and high-efficiency machines.

To test the detergents, I planned to do a load of clothes with each. But my clothes don’t usually get very dirty — me working a posh desk job and all — so I wanted to do some elaborate stain experimenting like they do in all the commercials.

This is where I went wrong.

Using cotton T-shirts that were headed to the Goodwill anyway, I applied six-inch stains of ketchup, balsamic vinaigrette, blueberries, and red wine to the front side, and then rubbed the back of each shirt in mud. All without thinking about how detergents on their own aren’t really meant to get out stains that tough, and if I were really doing laundry, I’d use vinegar and club soda and whatever else until I was sure it would wash clean. Instead, all I did was follow the instructions on each bottle for pre-treatment.

Do you know how hard it is to get blueberries out? I’m no Lady Macbeth, but by the end of the trial, I was pretty close to cursing those damned spots and washing my hands of the entire project. That hitch aside, the rest of my clothes came out just fine with each load — so the real differences lie in the eco-claims, the smell, and the bang for your buck.

Here are the results:

Biokleen Free & Clear Laundry Liquid
64 fl. oz./1 oz. per load/64 loads/3X concentrated
$9.99
Eco-claims: Fragrance free; clear of dyes and brighteners; environmentally friendly with no negative effects on rivers, streams, plants, or wildlife; kind to those with chemical sensitivities and allergies; no artificial fragrance, colors, or preservatives; rapidly biodegrades and ozone safe; no animal testing and no animal ingredients; contains no phosphate, chlorine, ammonia, petroleum solvents, alcohol, butyl, glycol ether, SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate) or SLES (sodium laureth sulfate), EDTA (ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid), DEA (diethanolamine; no SARA Title III, CA 65, or EPA priority pollutants; no material listed by the ACGIH (American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists) as hazardous.
Ingredients: Surfactants and conditioners from coconut and/or corn, grapefruit seed and pulp extract, linear sulfonate, filtered water.
Stain instructions: Pre-treat stains by applying directly to stain, gently rub in and launder as directed.
Actual smell: Soapy, like a bottle of bubbles, but not overpowering.

This bottle is the least exciting looking of all of them, but it has some hefty eco-cred. The laundry list of chemicals it doesn’t contain makes me wonder about what all is in the other detergents I tested. Still, this is a performance review, and with that in mind, I have to comment on the claim that this one “removes the toughest dirt, grease, stains, and odors.” It just didn’t happen. Most of the dirt is gone from the back of the shirt and the ketchup and vinaigrette are hardly visible, but the blueberries and red wine did this one in.

The winner is clear as mud.

Photo: Sarah van Schagen

Earth Friendly Products Ultra ECOS Free and Clear All Natural Laundry Detergent
100 fl. oz./1 oz. per load/100 loads in HE machines, 50 in non-HE machines
$12.99
Eco-claims: Phosphate-, formaldehyde-, and petrochemical-free; kind to sensitive skin; neutral pH; plant-based, non-polluting ingredients; septic safe and gray-water safe; 100 percent biodegradable; sodium lauryl sulfate-free and free of non-ionic surfactants derived from SLS; not tested on animals and no animal ingredients.
Ingredients: 100 percent natural anionic coconut kernel oil-based surfactant, soap bark, chamomile, horsetail plant, and purified water.
Stain instructions: Pour some directly onto stained area, rub lightly, and wash as usual.
Actual smell: Slight vinegary scent.

Interestingly, this one says it’s “designed to quickly remove ground-in dirt and stains” — a claim I’d have to question, seeing as how the dirt that I ground in is still very much visible and the blueberry stain still looks good enough to eat. The ketchup and vinaigrette stains are mostly faded, though, so perhaps this one works better on grease.

Method Free + Clear Laundry Detergent
32 fl. oz./1 oz. per load/32 loads/3X concentrated
$9.99
Eco-claims: Contains no perfumes or dyes; phosphate-free; biodegradable; never tested on animals.
Ingredients: Anionic and non-ionic surfactants, enzymes, buffering agents, stabilizer, stain penetrant, brightener, and foam control agents.
Stain instructions: If heavily soiled, add an extra 1/2 oz. of detergent.
Actual smell: Like baby powder and rubber, or the inside of a latex balloon.

The Method-washed shirt still has about half its dirt, maybe all of its red wine, and visible amounts of the ketchup, vinaigrette, and blueberries — though the blueberries are more faded than some detergents left them. This one does come in one of the more stylish bottles, though, which I applaud — but performance is key.

Mountain Green Skin Sensitive Free & Clear All Natural Ultra Laundry Detergent
32 fl. oz./1 oz. per load/32 loads/3X concentrated
$11.99
Eco-claims: No harsh perfumes, alcohol, dyes, chlorine bleach, petroleum-based ingredients, enzymes, optical brighteners, SLS, or parabens; neutral pH; cruelty-free; readily biodegradable, nontoxic, 100 percent phosphate and phosphorus free; safe for septic systems and for gray-water use.
Ingredients: Purified mountain water, vegetable-based cleaning agents (derived from coconut/palm oil), mild preservatives (food grade).
Stain instructions: Apply directly onto stained area, rub gently, and soak before normal wash.
Actual smell: Like a lemon pie, a slight sugary lemon scent.

All of the stains on this tester are still visible, though a bit fainter. The vinaigrette seems to have given it the most trouble, while the red wine is the most faded. If you can look past the stain-fighting abilities of this one, it does have an impressive list of eco-claims and the scent was by far the sweetest.

Planet Ultra Liquid Laundry Detergent
50 fl. oz./4 oz per load/12.5 loads
$6.49
Eco-claims: Certified biodegradable, no added dyes or fragrances, not tested on animals, 100 percent phosphate free, hypoallergenic.
Ingredients: Coconut oil based cleaners, salt, washing soda, ethoxylated alcohol (an alternative to NPE).
Stain instructions: If heavily soiled, add an extra 1 oz. of detergent.
Actual smell: Almost odorless, very slight vinegar scent

I recommend eating your balsamic vinaigrette verrry carefully if you’ll be using this detergent to clean your soiled shirt. This oily stain stands out the most among the faded blueberries, ketchup, and, to a lesser degree, red wine. Half the dirt remains as well.

Seventh Generation Free & Clear Natural Laundry Detergent
32 fl. oz./1.6 oz. per load/20 loads/2X ultra concentrated
$6.99
Eco-claims: No optical brighteners, no dyes or fragrance, no phosphates; safe for septic and gray-water systems; no animal derived ingredients; all ingredients disclosed.
Ingredients: A low-foaming blend of naturally derived cleaning agents (coconut-derived surfactants, glycerin), natural water softeners, alkalinity builders, anti-redeposition agents (sodium citrate, borax), non-animal derived enzymes to remove protein and starch stains and protect fabrics, plant derived anti-foaming agents (glycerol monooleate, oleic acid), cleaning enhancer (calcium chloride), preservative (less than 0.05 percent), water.
Stain instructions: Sort and pretreat (pour directly on stained fabric and rub gently; allow to soak before washing); use a full cap for heavily soiled loads.
Actual smell: Like Play-Doh.

Of all the detergents, this is the only one that claims to disclose all of its ingredients and appears to do so — even if that means listing chemicals we can’t pronounce. It also does a great job of explaining what that all means. In terms of the stains, the dirt is only visible upon close examination and the ketchup is gone. The remaining vinaigrette, blueberries, and red wine are pretty well faded — this detergent was the best at removing most of all of the stains.

All Small & Mighty Free & Clear
32 fl. oz./1 oz. per load/32 loads/3X concentrated
$7.45
Eco-claims: Free of perfume and clear of dyes, No. 1 recommended by dermatologists and allergists, safe for septic tanks, does not contain phosphorus, surfactants are biodegradable.
Ingredients: Cleaning agents (anionic and non-ionic surfactants), buffering agent, stabilizer, and brightening agent.
Stain instructions: Rub a small amount directly into the stain before washing.
Actual smell: Virtually odorless, faint scent of clay

I added this detergent into the mix after all the rest of my trials came back with stains. I wanted to make sure my experiment wasn’t just taking the eco-brands to the cleaners. This one still couldn’t make a clean sweep of it, though. The dirt and ketchup are gone, and the red wine is mostly faded, but the vinaigrette and the blueberries are still causing trouble.

The bottom line: It’s a wash — none of the detergents fully removed all of the stains, but they all produced otherwise-clean clothes. And though all claimed to be free of perfumes, each had a singular scent. For maximum eco-claim and stain removal with the lowest price and least-perfumy scent, we suggest Seventh Generation Free & Clear.