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We don't need no stinking laundry detergent

The co-founder of Seventh Generation says detergent is often unnecessary. She does a test.

By Karen Datko Feb 9, 2010 4:56PM

This guest post comes from “vh” at Funny about Money.


"Frugal Scholar," who must read everything of value on the entire Internet, stumbled upon an amazing remark in, of all places, The Wall Street Journal. In an article, Seventh Generation co-founder Jeffrey Hollender remarks that it’s surprising most people use laundry detergent at all: “You don’t even need soap to wash most loads,” he says. The truth is, it’s the action of the agitator, not the chemicals, that gets most clothes clean.


Uhmmm …. Say what, my Captain of Industry?


Most of us have figured out that we need only a fraction of the amount we were brought up to pour into the washer, partly because newer detergents are far more efficient and partly because you don’t really need even the recommended amount. But … no detergent at all?


Well, of course, the gantlet was down.


Straightaway to the garage, stately home of the washer and dryer! Mustering all my nerve, I laundered two small loads with zero detergent, one of whites and one of colors. The whites included a few pieces of underwear; the colors, a shirt I’d worn for a day of gardening.


The results? Pretty interesting.


Everything came out looking clean. Minor stains that I thought would come through unscathed actually washed out. A pair of fluffy cotton socks, which I wear around the house and patio as slippers, was pretty grimy when I put them in the washer. They came out looking exactly the same as they do when they’re washed with detergent.


The socks, which are three or four years old, always have a little gray on the bottom -- no amount of detergent or bleach gets it out. If anything, they actually look a little better than the last time I ran them through the washer.


Peeking into the machine during the wash cycle, I found that the water looked exactly as dirty as it does when I’ve added detergent, only without the suds. The rinse cycle ran clear as tap water.


The Sniff Test: By and large, all of the freshly washed clothing came out with an odor: It smelled of clean water! Because I didn’t want to heat-set any residual stains into the whites, I line-dried those; the colors went into the dryer. When fully dry, most of the pieces were fresh-smelling and free of either body odor or yukky commercial factory perfume. I use a perfume-free detergent, anyway, so there was no way the clothes would have retained any scent from previous launderings.

A couple of pairs of undies retained a very slight odor. I ran one of these through again with the colored clothing, and after a second drubbing in the washer, it came out completely odor-free.


Isn’t that something?


Conclusion: Because I’m not willing to consume the amount of water needed to run my underwear through the wash twice each week, I would put a small amount of detergent in with those. But apparently most outer clothes that have not absorbed much B.O. and that are not excessively dirty can indeed be washed in plain, clean water, without benefit of factory chemicals.


Related reading at Funny about Money:

Oct 19, 2010 10:20AM
I have used 20 mule team borax since the late '70s.  It softens hard water and acts as a natural deodorant.  Having read the manufacturers directions on my first washer {use 1/4 the detergent when washing rugs as it is difficult to rinse all the detergent out of heavy items...} I have never used more than half the detergent called for.  My husband was in the U S Navy for 22 years.  He used even less detergent, and still does.  If you have really grimy clothes {we do as we now live on a small ranch} use a pre spotter and Borax with no detergent.  Your clothes will come out clean and smell great.  Line dry what ever you can {except for towels, they get very rough and scratchy} for even better smelling clothes.
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