Detergent that doesn't smell like cat pee? (I'm looking at you, Tide)
September 18, 2015 3:02 PM   Subscribe

Over the last year or so, I've noticed my shirts smelling a little funky after the wash. After some experiementing in the lab that is my bathroom/laundromat, I've come to the conclusion it is my Tide HE ActiLift "Original" powder detergent. WARNING: long

Process: I use a portable washing machine that fits about 1/3 a regular load (or maybe 1/2 a high-efficieny washer load as those things are tiny) and hang dry with a floor fan to speed up the drying process. My clothes are fully dry within a couple hours.

I leave my clothes to soak for 1/2 hour to 1 hour before washing. I rinse extra well before drying to make sure all the detergent is out of my clothes. I don't overload the washer and I use proportional detergent to load size, after experiementing with different amounts. I feel like my clothes should have a light detergent smell or smell like nothing when the laundry process is complete. Instead, they smell a little stale/something that I can best describe as ammonia-like.

I've tried adjusting load size, both up and down.
I've tried adjusting detergent serving size, both up and down.
I've tried rinsing extra-extra well before drying.

At one point I thought it was me, that I had superhuman sweat that defies the laws of laundry, but I've washed new, unworn shirts and they come out smelling like that. The smell also will prevade the entirety of a shirt, not just armpit areas.
I also use deodorant, not anti-perspirant, so aluminum is not an issue when it comes to my clothes.
I'm not athletic and don't have many exercise clothes, just a few tank tops that get washed separately from everyday clothes.
Most of my clothes are 100% or close to it made of cotton. No synthetics.

I don't think mildew is a factor when my clothes take only a few hours to dry, not all all-day moisture-fest. I also run the bathroom fan or AC while my clothes dry in the bathroom to make sure humidity is kept down.
My washer drum is kept clean. I also manually pour water into it instead of using the faucet hose, so there's no chance it's getting mildewy water if it were adding water through a hose.

I add a bit of color safe bleach to all my loads. It has no effect on the smell.
I tried using borax for a while as an addition to the detergent, but it doesn't seem to dissolve well. That's when I switched to color-safe bleach.
I am 100% not interested in adding vinegar or ammonia to my laundry process.

Tide, you bastard: I bought Tide because I heard what a great detergent it was. Apparently, this was right around the time Tide changed their "Original" to a different formula. This new formula is what I have. It has a lot of similar complaints online.

So I realized my detergent might be the culprit and after checking online, it looks like the Tide HE with ActiLift causes a funky ammonia smell for many people, including "Tide smells like cat pee" being a common search phrase. I'm guessing people who don't seem to smell it use either fabric softener or scented dryer sheets to mask the true smell that it results in. I don't use either. I am almost certain Tide is to blame for the smell that lingers on my clothes.

Knowing my laundry process and knowing that I don't/won't use additional scents in my laundry, will the intelligent people of Metafilter please suggest a detergent, liquid or powder - I don't mind either, that I can use that will leave my clothes smelling mildly pleasant or like nothing much? Most online reviews don't take into account that some people use only detergent and no other scents in the mix. A lot of detergents are apparently changing their formulas and I am overwhelmed by the decision to switch detergents.

I am located in the US if that makes a difference and have Wal-mart and chain grocery stores available to buy detergents from. I am not interested in detergent alternatives like soap nuts or grating my own soap or whatever. Also, are my older clothes salvagable after being washed in stinky Tide over and over, or is this smell forever and should I get some new clothes for my new detergent? I don't have a lot of expensive/cannot part with clothes other than a few t-shirts I would hate to get rid of.
posted by atinna to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I use 7th Generation free or unscented. Whatever it's called now. Smells like nothing.

If you decide to try vinegar in the rinse cycle it's good but no points off for not doing it. Also might want to hit up Jolie Kerr on Twitter.
posted by Medieval Maven at 3:16 PM on September 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

You want some Charlie's Soap. It's perfume-free and dye-free, it gets out EVERYTHING, and it only uses a very small amount per wash, so it lasts a long time and is great for HE washers. We tried it years ago after hearing about it online somewhere, and I would never use anything else in my laundry ever again.
posted by briank at 3:16 PM on September 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

These new detergents are all fucked up. They are formulating them to purposely leave a residue on your clothes so the dirt won't stick. I just went through this with Tide HE. Not only that but optical brighteners, oils to soften the ends of the fibers of the fabric, etc. All this crap has a smell of its own and it's logical to assume that it also holds odors. I switched to Planet Ultra and am happy. I also have some Atsko Sensi-Clean that I got off Amazon. Both of these are unscented, no-residue detergents. I'm sure there are others. My clothes actually look and feel cleaner now. Maybe the stain removal powers are not as great but that's what stain stick is for.
posted by HotToddy at 3:19 PM on September 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Arm & Hammer Washing Soda (different than baking soda) to get funk out, and there are any number of unscented detergents. Odd smells can also result when your machine isn't draining properly.
posted by sageleaf at 3:20 PM on September 18, 2015

Seconding 7th Generation free & clear laundry detergent. I used to use the lavender scent and it didn't seem to leave a scent in my clothes either.

You could try a baking soda soak to get out the Tide funk, as a one-time thing. Then launder like normal with a new detergent.

Last but not least make sure your washer drum gets a good chance to dry too, though I doubt a mold/mildew issue in the drum is your problem, based on your review of the issue. (Even a clean washer can get stinky if moisture sits in it for days, especially in more humid climates.)
posted by purple_bird at 3:34 PM on September 18, 2015

Before I figured out that I'm allergic to many, many perfumes, I used Method detergent in 'Fresh Air'. Now I use Tide Free & Clear. I can't smell anything with the Free & Clear, but maybe you're suffering from a super-smeller situation.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 3:35 PM on September 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have been a dedicated user of Seventh Generation HE detergent for years and I think you will quite like it.
posted by joan_holloway at 3:44 PM on September 18, 2015

Trader Joe's detergent!
posted by k8t at 3:48 PM on September 18, 2015

Try Tide "Free and Clear". No smell left behind.
posted by saradarlin at 4:06 PM on September 18, 2015

Charlie's Soap and White Vinegar.
posted by tilde at 4:30 PM on September 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

I use Free and Clear from Tide or All (depending on which is on sale at the time). I sometimes also just use baking soda, especially when the clothes aren't really that dirty. I use a very very small amount of detergent: for a full-size, top-loading machine with a large load, I use about half a tablespoon of liquid detergent. For hand-wash items, I like Forever New (you can also use this in a machine) - again, not very much used: about 1/4tsp per gallon of water.
posted by melissasaurus at 4:30 PM on September 18, 2015

I make my own laundry soap with a recipe that's popular online (it's very easy to Google, and the recipes vary). You can make it with or without scented fabric softener. I've been using my altered recipe (I use Ivory soap instead of Fels-Naptha soap) for over a year now. I hang my clothes to dry, but Mr. Makenpace prefers his dried in the dryer. It doesn't seem to make a difference in how the clothes smell, and they always come out clean. You could try that. I'm not sure how well homemade soap will work in your washer, but I thought I'd mention it as an alternative.
posted by MildredMakenpace at 4:38 PM on September 18, 2015

I use All Free & Clear. Have never experienced a smell.

I've also had success getting rid of a smell (smelled like BO and mildew and I don't know what all) on some towels that were left wet for too long, by using white vinegar in the rinse. I used 1 cup for a full-sized top-loading washer; you'd probably want to use 1/4 - 1/3 cup (or whatever is proportional to the amount of water you use). The towels had gone through multiple washes with Oxyclean and hot water, and had been dried on high each time, and had no visible mold or mildew on them, but still smelled. One rinse with vinegar and the smell was gone. It surprised me how well it worked. So vinegar in the rinse might help. It's certainly unlikely to hurt anything.
posted by snowmentality at 5:46 PM on September 18, 2015

Nthing using a Free & Clear detergent - I use 7th Generation, but have also heard great things about All Free & Clear.
posted by echo0720 at 6:14 PM on September 18, 2015

If your washer is a front loader, it could have its own special funk, too. I started using machines at the laundromat near me while waiting for a new dryer to be delivered, and noticed that most of my clothes started to have a funk. I guess the trick is (after you run a cycle using some special cleaner) that you must leave the door open after washing so that it thoroughly dries.
posted by clone boulevard at 6:41 PM on September 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

I went through the same thing with Tide, and switched to Method. I've been using Method for years, but have noticed that if clothes sit for a while after they've been washed and dried (like when I switch out seasons), they get a nasty, nasty funk to them.

I recently discovered Persil the other day in Shoprite (it's been at Walmart for a while but I won't shop there for Reasons). It's been sold in Germany for years and according to Consumer Reports, kicks Tide's ass.

The original scent was a little too sickly for me when I checked it out in the store (think piney cologne), but the "intense fresh" flavor was really quite nice once my sheets dried.

Also, one other thought - what temp water are you using? I was never successful at the whole cold water wash thing with powdered detergent. That may be part of your problem.
posted by dancinglamb at 8:36 PM on September 18, 2015

I've been using the Method free and clear for years without a problem. My husband picks up All free and clear when he can't find the Method and it works just as well, I think.

I haven't tried any of the scented formulas, as dyes or perfumes or something turns me into a giant itchy rash.
posted by MuChao at 9:30 PM on September 18, 2015

The Sweethome on laundry detergent (although their first two recommendations are Tide brand). They test products and have extensive discussion/analysis so you can make your own decisions.
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 5:40 AM on September 19, 2015

I used generic unscented laundry detergent, either powder or liquid. I can get the store brand. I also use about half the amount of detergent recommended but I also wash most of my clothes after only one wearing and sometimes do two rinses.

The generic unscented detergents do smell like mild chemicals, but the smell doesn't linger in clothes.

Consider storing your dry clothes in something that will give them a scent, such as a cedar chest or with natural potpourri.

Consider switching to dish detergent if the range of detergent available in your area is not good. Dish detergents tend to do a fine job on clothes but have different chemicals in them, so might leave out the one that is causing you problems.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:31 AM on September 19, 2015

Unless you're using an unscented laundry detergent, your clothes are going to smell like the detergent no matter what you do. My favorite is Arm and Hammer Free and Clear.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:45 AM on September 19, 2015

If you have a Costco membership, Kirkland's unscented detergent works very well and leaves no perfumes (or other odors) behind. I usually throw in 1/2 c of borax too; it seems to make any detergent work better.
posted by workerant at 9:49 AM on September 19, 2015

We use All Free and Clear and like it a lot, but you might also have luck searching for cloth diaper-friendly detergents since this is precisely what you do not want to have happen to cloth diapers. I see Charlie's Soap was listed above - that's an excellent choice. We used Rockin' Green and had really good luck with it. Here is a chart of a ton of detergents that might help you narrow down a variety that works for you - it lists which ones have additives like optical brighteners and other things you want to avoid.
posted by meggan at 11:15 AM on September 20, 2015

thanks everyone for the suggestions and helpful answers!
posted by atinna at 1:48 PM on September 20, 2015

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