Laundry Detergent, Part 2: Homemade versus Commercial (Biokleen)

In the last post, I took a look at laundry detergent pods, concluding that they are a step backwards in terms of environmental impact. I believe that there are a few detergents that deserve a high Green Stars rating and that supporting one of these is a happy medium between the extremes of buying one of the bestselling brands (from P&G, Unilever, etc.) and making your own.

Is it worth making your own laundry detergent?

After writing my first Daily Footprint post on toothpaste, I started brushing my teeth with a little baking soda to avoid toothpaste tube waste (it also creates a healthier alkaline oral pH). In the case of laundry detergent, I’m not sure that there’s such a strong case for making your own. Here are a few thoughts on the idea:

Ingredients. Of course, if you make your own you should consider the impact of the ingredients you use. To take one example, if you use the Arm and Hammer baking soda or washing soda  to make your own laundry detergent then you’re supporting a company (Church and Dwight) that still contracts animal testing.

Packaging and Transport. A box of highly concentrated laundry powder is likely to have a pretty small footprint – perhaps smaller than the ingredients for a homemade version. A commercial powder that contains microbial enzymes and an efficient surfactant requires a very small amount per laundry load.

Energy use. Homemade detergent usually requires warm water washes, while many commercial detergents work well in cold water. As mentioned in the post on calculating the carbon footprint of home appliances, a water heater is often the biggest energy hog at home. A detergent that allows you to do cold water washes can make a big difference to your footprint.

Performance. If your homemade laundry detergent doesn’t work so well as commercial detergent then you should consider that your clothes (which have a high social and environmental impact relative to detergent) may not last as long.

Having said all of that, if you feel that you can make a detergent from ethical ingredients that works well in your machine using cold water, then go for it! 😉

Soapnuts: a good alternative to making your own?

Soapnuts may be a more promising option for addressing the issues above (except, perhaps, performance). They don’t work so well in cold water, but you can immerse them in a little bowl of warm water to release some of the natural detergent (saponins) and then throw it all in with your laundry.

Soapberries from Sapindus trees, commonly known as soapnuts, are rich in a natural detergent and can be used for laundry (Image source).

Review of Biokleen laundry detergent.

If you want to buy laundry detergent in minimal packaging from an ethically-minded company, there are several to choose from, including Biokleen, Ecover, and Seventh Generation. I’ve written a review of the Biokleen laundry powder that I use, and will go through some of the factors that I considered.

Biokleen powder.PNG

Laundry detergent ingredients

Unlike some of the mainstream brands, the ingredients for Biokleen are fairly minimal and also low impact. An eco-friendly brand should be transparent on their ingredients, listing all components and providing some information on sourcing and downstream impact. As mentioned in my last post, you can usually find basic information on ingredient safety by doing a quick search on Wikipedia. Also, a key idea of the Green Stars project is that we share information (product critiques) from our area of expertise. So if you have a science background you might share your opinion on ingredients. Quote from my Green Stars review of Biokleen:

The proteases are produced by fermentation (of yeast or bacteria) and are not harmful to the environment. The oxygen bleach is sodium percarbonate, which is made by combining sodium carbonate and hydrogen peroxide. The sodium carbonate is made from salt and limestone and is environmentally safe, while hydrogen peroxide is manufactured from water and air using a catalyst (which is recycled) and then breaks down into water during your wash.

Laundry detergent footprints

Packaging and Transport Footprint. The Biokleen powder comes in a bag inside a small recycled cardboard box. Because it’s highly concentrated, the 5 lbs (2.3 kg) box contains enough powder for 108 washes, or about a year of use. So there is the downside of a plastic bag, but one bag per year is not a huge impact. If you’d rather avoid it, then soapnuts may be your best option, depending on the packaging used for the variety you buy.  

Energy Use and Performance. As mentioned above, choosing detergent that can work in cold water is one of the most significant things you can do to reduce your laundry impact. The microbial enzymes, surfactant, etc., make this possible.

Company Operations. As mentioned in the previous post, some of the larger detergent manufacturers have shady track records on various aspects of company operations, ranging from animal testing practices and toxic ingredients to price-fixing scandals. Biokleen is a smaller, family-run company that was an early pioneer in responsible manufacturing of concentrated detergents. Here’s a quote from the Green Stars review:

Biokleen is one of the most socially and environmentally responsible laundry detergents out there. They purchase wind power credits to offset their energy usage and use cold water for their manufacturing process in Washington State. They also contribute to a water restoration project and their ingredients and final products are not tested on animals.

Overall, I thought that Biokleen laundry powder deserves 5/5 Green Stars. You can read the full review here. Also, in case you’re ever tempted to buy laundry detergent pods, take a look at this post!

20 thoughts on “Laundry Detergent, Part 2: Homemade versus Commercial (Biokleen)

    1. Hey Mira! Thank you! Microbial enzymes are proteases and amylases that are made by microbes (usually bacteria) in a fermentor (like brewing beer). They help to get rid of protein and starch stains, respectively, and help the detergent to work in cold water. Similarly, surfactants help the detergent to work in small doses and at room temperature. They can be made from plant oils such as coconut. This article may be a little one-sided, but points out why a grated bar of soap doesn’t work so well for doing laundry.
      It’s pretty similar to the idea of washing your hair with a bar of soap instead of shampoo (which contains surfactants) – it can work, but you can get a build up of soap residue (unless you rinse with vinegar). On clothes this can build up over time and actually trap grime (again, see the link above).

      I haven’t looked fully into Ecover. Ethical Consumer gives them a medium-high rating, with ECOS and a few others getting a higher score (and Persil, Surf, etc., getting the lowest scores).
      I could point out a few pros and cons of Ecover.

      No animal testing.

      Packaging for liquid detergents is a mix of plant-based plastic and recycled plastic.

      Ethical Consumer give them a low rating for transparency on environmental reporting. However, they seem to be making headway. Their new plant in the US is the first LEED Platinum certified plant in the industry.
      Also, here’s a useful glossary to their ingredient benefits.

      One thing that seemed like a bit of a red flag is that, under ingredients, they cite several of the surfactants as coming from “plant oils such as coconut oil.
      In reality, it seems that they were using not just coconut oil, but also palm oil, They are a member of the RSPO but I’d rather they just didn’t use it. However, the Guardian recently reported the Ecover is working on using algae to make their surfactants.

      Overall, they could be a bit more transparent and specific about their ingredients.

      They are a certified B-Corporation. Here’s a GSP post that explain what a B-Corp is.

      Bottom line, I’d probably rate them at 4/5 Green Stars. (I would need to spend a little bit more time looking into them but I’m pretty sure they are above average in terms of sustainability). The main thing for me is that I’d prefer simpler ingredients and more transparency on exactly what’s inside and where it comes from (they are a bit vague when they need to be).

      1. Wow thank you so much for taking the time to write such a detailed answer. I always wondered why hair washed with a bar of soap feels so bad. The low transparency on environmental reporting is interesting. Could it potentially refer to production itself?

        1. No worries – glad to have a discussion about it 🙂
          In an early post on soap I took the example of Dr. Bronner as a good example of transparent reporting. Ecover’s website does a pretty good job at explaining their efforts towards sustainability, but there are still some things left unsaid. Perhaps this is reflected by their high score for Environment but lower score for Governance and Community on CSRHUB. A CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) report is what’s lacking. One of the things that Ethical Consumer dinged them on was tax-avoidance by their parent company, Skagen (unfortunately you can’t access this without subscribing to their service and I’m not sure if that info is still current). Having said that, Ecover products have a lot of positive attributes and some of them speak for themselves. The lack of transparency on some things (production, as you say; some aspects of ingredient sourcing; and social impact) is why I had wavered between 4/5 and 5/5 green stars.

  1. Nice, because I currently use Ecos (because it’s pretty cheap, truthfully), but it’s sometimes hard to know what’s “greenwashed” (no pun intended *laugh*) and what’s not. Thanks for this!

    1. Interestingly, Ecos have published their company-wide minimum wage ($17 per hour) – it just shows you that you can make a product that’s affordable and still meet good ethical standards. Also their ingredients are simple (surfactants are made from coconut oil), vegan, cruelty-free, and their manufacturing plants are carbon-neutral and aim to be zero waste.

  2. Thanks for this article, really interesting. It was timely as I was just out to buy my first detergent free washing experience, in the form of Ecozone’s eco balls – have you heard of them? There’s also Eco-egg but I don’t know anything about that apart from the ads. What are your thoughts, if you have any, on these? Supposedly, you get 1000 washes from them but I’m not convinced yet. They seemed to take all the smells out of my washing though, without any extra perfume.

    1. Hey Tasha (Can I call you Tasha?).
      Your question led me down a rabbit hole 😉
      I hadn’t heard of them before, so I’m just catching up now. Here are my thoughts so far:
      1. Oh, they look interesting! You can even reduce your rinse cycle and save water because they don’t contain detergents.
      2. Watching the EcoBalls video a second time I realize that they’re not actually saying that it’s detergent-free.
      3. And, hold on, they do actually contain detergents! (ingredients list)
      4. According to this irate reviewer on Amazon, the company (Ecozone) appeared to originally claim that there was no detergent inside, but have since then released the ingredient list (and there is indeed some surfactant).
      5. Other ingredients include Epoxy Resin and Polyamide Resin. The function of the resins is to hold the pellets together through all those washes and release the active ingredients slowly. I’m not 100% comfortable with the presence of the resins (either their manufacture, which sometimes involves bisphenol A, or their release into water systems).
      6. The EcoEgg has pretty similar ingredients.
      7. Then I read the general Wikipedia article on Laundry Balls and it’s not promising :/
      8. It seems that you are still using some detergent (although smaller amounts) and that the end result may be not that different to throwing a few plastic or rubber balls in with your laundry (Could you try that and compare results?!).
      9. There’s also the issue of the balls being made out of plastic (if that’s something you want to avoid). What’s the product packaging made of?
      10. Overall, I was optimistic at first but now I’m pretty skeptical. I’d be more tempted to go with soapnuts (or a concentrated powder).
      But I’ve only been looking into them for an hour. Please share your thoughts on their effectiveness and/or sustainability.

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