Ethical Substitutes for Laundry Detergent

The only thing worse than staring down a pile of eight loads of laundry is getting through load number seven and realizing you’ve run out of laundry detergent! Trying to get the kids dressed and ready and into the car so you can battle through traffic and parking lots and then long supermarket lines just to finish that last load is no one’s idea of a fun Sunday. 

But the good news is, you don’t have to! Most kitchens and laundry rooms are already full of substitutes for laundry detergent that have been lying right underneath our noses. Not only are they powerful cleaners, but they are also cheaper and more environmentally friendly than most of the regular laundry detergents out there!

These laundry detergent alternatives are great to use in your washing machine, but can also be used for hand-washing clothes as well!

Here are 10 household products you can substitute for laundry detergent right now so you can get your clothes clean and get back to enjoying your day:

1. Distilled White Vinegar

You can use white distilled vinegar to clean almost EVERYTHING, including your laundry. To clean and fight odors, add one half cup directly to your washer drum or detergent dispenser, and if it’s really tough odors and dirt stains you’re trying to tackle, you can add one more cup of vinegar to the wash cycle. 

Because of vinegar’s strong acidity, it’s a powerful cleaner for removing dirt, stubborn stains, and odors, and it’s even strong enough to kill bacteria. Vinegar can also soften your laundry, which you can achieve by adding it to the fabric softener compartment. And for really tough odors and stains, you can presoak fabrics in a diluted vinegar bath before tossing them into the wash cycle. 

Make sure not to add or mix vinegar with bleach—doing so emits a dangerous chlorine gas.

2. Baking Soda

Baking soda is actually found in many cleaning supplies already, including kitchen and bathroom cleaners, carpet fresheners, dishwasher soap, toothpastes, and even laundry detergent. 

Baking soda is natural and environmentally friendly and is a great ethical laundry detergent substitute. It helps to neutralize and deodorize tough smells (like your stinky gym clothes), it brightens and whitens, and it’s scent free. It’s also slightly abrasive, which helps scrub away unwanted dirt and debris, and it’s great for people who have allergies or skin sensitivities too. 

Washing soda is VERY similar to baking soda, so if you have that in your home already, you can use it in the same way.

To use baking soda or washing soda in place of regular laundry detergent, add about a half cup right into the water in the washer drum, let it dissolve, and proceed to wash clothes as normal. For more heavily soiled items, you can add in a whole cup of baking soda to help with removing stains. 

3. Friction

Back in the day, people would clean their laundry by beating it with wooden paddles and sticks and scrubbing it with rocks and coarse sand. I’m not telling you to go outside and rub rocks into your jeans, but using your hands to rub the fabric back and forth on itself in warm water is enough friction to help clean. 

This is a more tedious substitute for laundry detergent, so ideally this method would be better suited to hand-washing one to two garments in your bathroom sink rather than a whole load in your washer.

4. Hot Water

If you’re not tackling huge messes and set in stains, washing in just hot water alone can be enough. Hot water has the ability to clean and disinfect your laundry and the hotter the water, the cleaner it will be! 

To work well as a laundry detergent alternative, the water has to be at least 140°F (60°C) to disinfect and remove bacteria and viruses from your laundry. You can add to the germ-fighting power even more by putting damp clothing in the dryer afterwards—the hot air helps to kill even more bacteria.

5. Lemon Juice

It’s not just for lemonade! Lemon juice naturally cleans and whitens while adding a nice fresh scent to your laundry. Use fresh lemons or bottled lemon juice—whatever you have on hand is fine. For super tough and stubborn stains, you can even use lemon juice to pretreat before washing by adding it directly to key soiled areas. 

And not only lemon juice, but lime juice can also be used in all the same ways. 

Just as with vinegar, never use or mix lemon/lime juice with hydrogen peroxide or bleach.

6. Natural Shampoo/Body Wash

Shampoo and body wash are forms of liquid soap just for a person’s body and hair, not clothing. But in a pinch, soap is soap! 

When it comes to these products, a little goes a long way. You should start with only one teaspoon, and if you feel it’s not as many bubbles as regular detergent, you can add more. The idea of a laundry room filled to the brim with bubbles might sound fun, but cleaning it up is far from it and the effect it can have on your high-efficiency washer is not a positive one either. Just the tiniest amount in your wash cycle should be enough for washing clothes, but if you find there are still a lot of bubbles, don’t hesitate to run a second rinse cycle. 

Natural, gentle shampoo and body wash are best for laundry detergent alternatives. You want to avoid soaps with added oils and skin softeners, like combination shampoos. They may be nice for our hair and skin, but not for our clothing!

7. Vodka

Vodka is great for eliminating odors and refreshing your clothing. It’s best for items that aren’t necessarily dirty but need a refresher. In a spray bottle, pour in equal parts vodka and water and mix. 

You can use this concoction to mist over your clothing and hang them to dry. On more delicate items and materials, you may wish to turn them inside out first before spraying. Once dry, smells and odors will be magically eliminated. And don’t worry, there will be absolutely no alcohol scent left behind, you’ll be left with nothing but freshness! 

8. Hydrogen Peroxide 

Want to get your laundry bright and stain free? Try hydrogen peroxide. Not only will this stuff bubble the dirt right out of a cut, but it will also use those same bubbles to get the dirt out of your laundry. 

Hydrogen peroxide can be added directly into your washing machine to help clean, eliminate odors, and kill bacteria. Add one cup into the washing machine before adding clothes, or even dab a little bit on a set-in stain before throwing it in the wash to amp up the cleaning power even more.

9. Natural Bar Soap

You can’t just throw a whole bar of soap in the washing machine. This one takes a little bit more work as a laundry detergent alternative, but it is definitely achievable. 

Using a vegetable peeler or cheese grater, make little soap flakes that can be easily tossed into the washing machine, but a little does go a long way. Bar soap tends to suds up a lot, which sounds good, but too many bubbles are actually hard on your high-efficiency washer and also make it hard to rinse out completely. Therefore, either use less soap flakes or make sure to put your laundry through an extra rinse cycle. Soap residue left in clothing contributes to irritations for those with sensitive skin and there’s no need to be itchy all day if you don’t have to be.

Bar soap can also be great for removing stains by applying it directly to the laundry and rubbing key soiled areas before tossing it into the washing machine.

10. Make Your Own

Now that we’ve gone through the list of powerful yet convenient products for cleaning your laundry, why not make your own? There are plenty of different homemade laundry detergent recipes out there on the internet for you to try. Or now that you know all the best ingredients, put some together and make your own laundry detergent alternative!

In Summary

Who would’ve thought that we had all these laundry detergent substitutes in our homes already? In case you’re determined to commit to more sustainable laundry options in the future and you’re looking for the perfect brand, check out my article on the best laundry detergent sheets.

Hopefully, out of the products on this list, you can find something that will help you finish that last load of laundry and prevent you from having to make that dreaded trip to the market. And who knows, you might fall in love with one of these more ethical laundry detergent alternatives and end up sticking with it! 

So, maybe running out of laundry detergent is a good thing after all. These detergent alternatives can help us open our eyes to new possibilities, avoid harsh chemicals, clean better, and save some money at the same time!