Environmentally friendly detergents: Are they for you?

Choosing environmentally friendly detergents can make a difference to the environment and save you money.

Young Kwak/AP/File
A store employee helped Arlette Popiel find a bottle of natural dishwasher rinse at the Huckleberries Fresh Market area inside a Spokane, Wash., supermarket. Dishwasher detergents containing phosphates have been banned in Spokane County since July 2008.

When it comes to laundry, Aileen Reid doesn't reach for Tide, Cheer, or Seventh Generation. The environmentally conscious college student uses a homemade detergent mixed up by one of her housemates.

Yes, she says, it really works. "I don't know what's in it, but I trust him that the ingredients are fairly basic and won't hurt the environment," says the Michigan State University student, who lives in a vegetarian co-op with 18 other students in Bower. Plus, she says, the savings are impressive. "It costs like 25 cents whenever he makes a bottle of detergent."

Rachel Sarnoff goes Reid one better: Most of the time, she doesn't use detergent at all to wash her laundry. Instead, she uses a GreenWashBall, which has ceramic chips inside. "It sounds slightly ludicrous, but it works," says the Los Angeles-based founder of EcoStiletto, an environmental website.

While most consumers are probably not ready to go detergent-free, more are seeking brands that are both effective and environmentally friendly. In 2008, sales of green cleaners quadrupled to $64.5 million from five years earlier, according to market research by Mintel. Consumers' reasons for making the switch range from environmental to health and safety concerns.

But the array of choices and claims can be almost enough to send a consumer back to a washboard and lye soap.

What's in that detergent?

Finding a trustworthy manufacturer is key. "I think at the end of the day, you have to trust the reputation of the company," says Ms. Sarnoff, who recommends brands that list their ingredients.

And therein lies a major concern for consumers who buy cleaning products. "Part of the problem with detergents is that [firms] don't have to disclose their ingredients," says Urvashi Rangan, director of GreenerChoices.org, which is owned by Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y.

Product disclosure would help consumers "tremendously," Dr. Rangan says. Making choices is tough when you don't know what you're buying. "We are pushing the government to require them to list ingredients. They ought to. That's what consumers want," she says, adding, "We don't like claims like 'nontoxic' or 'hypoallergenic.' They don't mean anything."

She also wonders if it's fair to place an organic label on any manufactured detergent. "In large part, these are product lines that are chemically based – it requires chemistry to make them. That's not to say that we can't do better and use the least toxic ingredients," says Rangan. But she believes consumers should bear in mind that "this isn't something you're squeezing from an orange and washing your clothes with it. At the end of the day, these are very synthetic products."

All the experts interviewed believe that homemade detergents will remain the realm of hard-core "frugalistas" and committed environmentalists. "Really, you're talking dual-income families – Mom and Dad are both working, the kids are really busy," says Donna Smallin, author of "One Minute Cleaner."

What about dishwasher detergents?

When it's time to wash the dishes, she uses Shacklee's Get Clean. "I heard someone raving about it. It was a man, and I thought, 'Well this has to be good.' "

Over the dish towel is precisely where the next cleaning battle is occurring. Phosphates, which deplete oxygen in rivers and lakes, have been banned in laundry detergents since 1993.

Now lawmakers are turning their attention to the kitchen: Ten states are mandating phosphate-free dishwasher detergent starting this year.

Here, performance may be an issue. Method by Target was the only phosphate-free detergent that scored a "very good" when Consumers Union tested dishwasher detergents in 2009. (None of the phosphate-free options rated an "excellent.")

Several interviewed consumers who call themselves environmentally conscious say that phosphate-free dishwasher detergents don't get their dishes clean. And last year, there were reports of residents of Spokane, Wash., the first US city to enact a ban, heading to Idaho to buy their Cascade.

But Sarnoff thinks it's unfair to dismiss all phosphate-free dishwasher detergents. Her website tested several options. Her favorites are the detergent tablets: "I would dare you to wash my dishes with a non-ecobrand and then wash the dishes with those and be able to tell any difference," she says.

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