Alternatives to laundry detergent?
July 25, 2010 5:49 AM   Subscribe

Looking for effective clothes washing methods that avoid allergic reactions to conventional detergents?

My partner may react to substances in soap and conventional washing powder especially in clothes in close contact with skin (sodium lauryl sulphate gets mentioned). We have been using green spiky wash balls, except for bedding and towels, but I am not convinced these things work after the first time, if they work at all. The most recent issue of Which? - a UK consumer review magazine - essentially says a couple of leading brands of these gizmos are no better than using water alone.

I don't want brightening agents just clean clothes, nice smelling is good but a couple drop of fragrance to the wash will help there.

Some home brew detergent recipes would be good as well.
posted by epo to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Hmm, apologies for the question mark at the end of the summary, I can't see how to edit my post.
posted by epo at 5:52 AM on July 25, 2010

You can't edit once the post has gone live, sadly.

I'm a little confused by the use of "may" in your post. I think it would be beneficial to figure out whether or not your partner is actually allergic to detergents. It could just be form of urticaria - perhaps the irritation is caused by heat and/or friction and therefore clothes in general are the cause, not the detergent. I would suggest that you just use trial and error to determine which detergents, if any, are causing the allergic reactions, and weeding out the ones that are causing fault. What are his/her symptoms and when do they crop up?
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 5:59 AM on July 25, 2010

I find eco-friendly variants of washing powders/liquids to be less irritating to my skin. Also, consider trying non-bio variants.
posted by Solomon at 6:02 AM on July 25, 2010

Response by poster: I used "may" deliberately because cause and effect is somewhat vague. Using special soap and avoiding laundry detergent for clothes certainly stops skin irritation occurring so finding an effective alternative to these eco-ball thingies would keep us both happy.
posted by epo at 6:09 AM on July 25, 2010

posted by pised at 6:41 AM on July 25, 2010

Rockin' Green?
posted by k8t at 6:48 AM on July 25, 2010

My wife is allergic to some detergents and liquid fabric softeners, but sticking to dryer sheets and fragrance-free detergents seems to eliminate problems for her.
posted by jon1270 at 6:54 AM on July 25, 2010

Best answer: The eco-ball thingys only work the first time because of detergent residue left in your clothing. Water, hoever, is the universal solvent, so it does get most of the filth out on its own.

SLS is a foaming agent, and irritating to the skin. I am sensitive to it, and have to avoid it in laundry soap, toothpaste, and shampoo. Bar soaps also usually contain this chemical.

Most eco-friendly laundry soaps don't contain SLS, but you will be best off checking the labels. I am not sure about the UK, but in the US, even the big box stores are carrying environmentally friendly products now.

Try double rinsing, if nothing else. That will get more of the detergent rinsed out.
posted by annsunny at 6:56 AM on July 25, 2010

Best answer: I asked a similar question here on behalf of a friend. He tried rinsing his clothes with plain white vinegar after reading those responses and it did the trick for him.
posted by zadcat at 6:57 AM on July 25, 2010

I've been making my own laundry detergent for the past few years because it's cheaper and doesn't bother my allergies - I'm not sure if your partner is allergic to the same things I am, but you might take a look at this:

1 cup of shaved or grated fels-naptha soap (sold in bar form at most stores)
1/2 cup of 20 mule team borax
1/2 cup of arm & hammer washing soda

Stir until it's all well mixed, and use a tablespoon in each load of laundry.
posted by BZArcher at 6:58 AM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

I like to use Zote, which is a Mexican brand of laundry soap. But you can use basically any old soap. The key is that it has to be actual soap and not detergent, so if you can't find soap in the laundry section, look in the body wash section, but go with Ivory soap and not Zest, for example. Or you can make your own soap if you like, though that adds to the granola factor exponentially. (I don't know about UK labeling requirements, but in the US, detergents are legally cosmetics and thus must list their ingredients, whereas soap is exempt and can just say "soap." So a "body bar" or "beauty bar" is not soap, and is likely to contain either sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate. If your soap does list its ingredients, look for things like "sodium xxx-ate," like "sodium tallowate" or "sodium cocoate," which are soaps made from beef tallow or coconut oil, respectively. A liquid soap product would likely contain "potassium xxx-ate" instead, being made with potassium hydroxide rather than sodium hydroxide. And finally, some more "luxurious" soaps, like handmade soaps, may have free fats in the soap which is great for your skin, but not so much your laundry. So, generally speaking, cheaper is better.)

It's a little effort-intensive to turn a bar of laundry soap into convenient laundry liquid soap, but it works. Here's what I do -- First, get a bar of Zote, which is like $2US. Shred it into little tiny bits (probably easier if you have a food processor, but I use a cheese grater). Put the soap in a large, heat resistant bowl. Add boiling water, 1 c borax (boric acid) and 1 c washing soda (sodium carbonate), stir until you have a thick, viscous goop. When it cools, it'll be a thick, grainy paste. I store this in a half-gallon glass jar. To make "detergent," I dilute the paste with more boiling water, until it's a thick solution (it gels when cool into a sort of gloppy slime, so if it's weird, you know you're doing it right!). I store the diluted solution in an old detergent bottle, and add when washing like normal detergent, before I load the clothes. I think it works better with a warm wash rather than cold, but that may just be me worrying too much about dissolution. It is very low-foaming so it should work ok in a front-loading or high-efficiency machine, though I have a conventional top-loader myself. Some folks use vinegar in the rinse, but I don't bother because I don't have hard water - if you have soap scum in the shower (again, when using actual soap and not detergent bars) you might want to try the vinegar.

It's a pretty cheap thing to try, if you want to give it a shot. Hope it helps!
posted by sldownard at 7:12 AM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Have you tried a baby detergent? Those are pretty stripped of irritants. (The US brand most people like is Dreft.)

Personally, I use Tide Free, which has no scent or color, which has worked very well for my very sensitive skin. And I always double rinse, and use less detergent than suggested.

If it were me, I'd try eliminating the scents and dyes first, then move on to things like SLS.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:48 AM on July 25, 2010

I had the same problem. Double rinse as somebody above suggested but add vinegar. That was recommended to me by an allergist. Worked. Try the simple stuff first.
Good luck.
posted by PickeringPete at 8:04 AM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

After I started having weird reactions to even the dye- and scent-free detergents, we started using Soap Nuts and love them.
posted by ThatSomething at 10:04 AM on July 25, 2010

I love Charlie's Soap, which is very effective and quite affordable.
posted by judith at 11:26 AM on July 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

An important factor in laundering is rinsing. Years ago, tests proved that front loading machines are superior cleaners besides being water savers. If you can set a front loader to add an extra rinse, all the better.
posted by Cranberry at 1:42 PM on July 25, 2010

Oh, and follow the manufacturer's directions about how much and what kind of soap/detergent to add. A front loader's efficiency is impeded by lots of bubbles. If you have seen Mr. Roberts, you might remember Ensign Pulver's suds disaster.
posted by Cranberry at 1:46 PM on July 25, 2010

My dermatologist recommended double-rinsing and completely eliminating fabric softener, even fragrance-free. I'm sensitive to SLS, but I'm not sure laundry detergent contains it-- its purpose is to provide suds, which you don't want in a washing machine.
posted by Shoeburyness at 2:42 PM on July 25, 2010

Whatever detergent you use, use far LESS. A lot of the time plain water might suffice, but generally we could use a tiny fraction of the amount that laundry detergent manufacturers recommend.

I use a fragrance-free detergent (usually Arm and Hammer) and add what is probably a couple tablespoons. The clothes smell fine.

Extra rinsing (or a whole second wash with nothing but water) might also help.
posted by wjm at 2:57 PM on July 25, 2010

Seconding Charlie's Soap - it's fantastic! (Although I don't know how easy it is to get in the UK) I am definitely allergic to SLS - dry, itchy skin, and acne on my cheek where it was pressed into the pillow all night. A few weeks of Charlie's Soap and my skin was back to normal and I haven't looked back!
posted by bahama mama at 5:07 PM on July 25, 2010

Try using one Fairy (or supermarket own-brand) non-bio tablet (not a two-tablet pack) per wash. Or try Ecover, I prefer the powder over the liquid stuff but YMMV. Whatever you use, put it through for an extra rinse afterwards, and don't use any fabric softener or dryer stuff .
posted by Lebannen at 5:19 PM on July 25, 2010

Response by poster: Many apologies for the delay in getting back to this. These are ALL good suggestions, I have marked as best the first to mention double rinsing, vinegar and less detergent, we will try and put some into practice and I'll post a follow up.
posted by epo at 7:13 AM on September 24, 2010

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