NOLA's zero waste refill shop, Vintage Green Review, celebrated its 1-year shop anniversary last month. With your help, our community continues to grow with more new people visiting the shop every week!
There've been a lot of good conversations, data to collect, seasonal events to note, and much to learn about being a retail business, too. But there's one thing I never expected would be part of the job description...
Giving laundry advice.
Being asked How To Clean Clothes never even crossed my mind.
Yet after a year of conversations with customers & other zero waste shop owners around the country, here are the collected thoughts on the shop's number one question:
"Do natural detergents work as well as big-name synthetic brands we're used to?"
Now, here's the little secret I've learned over the past year:
Just because clothes SMELL clean, doesn't mean they ARE clean.
Duh, right. But really, how much have we questioned that?
Traditional big-box detergents with synthetic fragrances often act as scent boosters (essentially perfume) that cling to fabrics longer, and can contain endocrine-disrupting ingredients.
So do they actually clean better, or just smell better?
Many of these traditional products contain extra water, whereas natural detergents have no added perfumes or synthetic fragrances and contain minimal water. It's tempting to think that pouring a whole cup of synthetic detergent into the wash would be more effective than just 1 tablespoon of a concentrated plant-based detergent, but that's not the whole story.
So what actually makes a detergent work? Surfactants
(Here's my understanding as a non-chemist average person with access to the internet for entertainment purposes only)
Surfactants are "surface-acting agents" that increase the cleansing power of water by reducing its surface tension, loosening the bond between dirt and your clothes. It holds the dirt in suspension to be removed through rinsing, which is why stains generally rinse out of fabrics agitated in detergent and water by your washer.
Products noted as "sulfate-free" typically refer to Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), which are types of surfactants revealed as problematic in recent years for their animal testing and irritation to skin, eyes, and lungs.
These are the main "sulfates" people are commonly trying to avoid when they're looking for "sulfate-free."
Synthetic surfactants are among the most-produced industrial chemicals: from oilfield, aerosol, and agricultural chemicals to pharmaceuticals, textiles, cosmetics, personal care, food, paper processing, and more. To fulfill such widespread demand, they're often made from petrochemicals, making them toxic, nonbiodegradable, and damaging to the environment.
However, there are natural, plant-derived surfactants, too: ingredients used in the plant-based detergents sold in the shop, with coconut being one common source.
"Does it work?"
As one dear refill shop owner I know said quite bluntly, "It's delusional to think that just the detergent can do ALL the work. Detergent is supposed to clean lightly." This is where oxygen brighteners, bleach alternatives, stain sticks, vinegar, and baking soda come into play.
Natural detergents work, but sometimes they need a little extra help, like ALL dirty laundry does. Synthetic detergents should be used in combination with these little helpers too, but often because they SMELL stronger, we think clothes are cleaner when they really aren't.
Get to know your washer settings. For gnarly, super stinky, really dirty laundry, also consider the following nontoxic zero waste laundry products:
White vinegar and/or baking soda: Soak clothing like sports gear or other items with lingering smells in vinegar or 1/2 cup baking soda added to a sink full of water before washing. You can also try adding these to your actual wash after soaking to clear any lingering odor (with the caveat to always spot-test any fabrics that are delicate or of concern first)
Pre-wash stain bars:
treat hard stains like oil, blood, grass stains with stain sticks before washing. I've also found that hydrogen peroxide works well on natural stains, so long as the fabric isn't something delicate, as it can work as a bleaching agent.
tumble a set of 6 in the drying cycle to soften crunchy fabrics, cut down on dry time, and help reduce static. Add essential oil drops to a ball or two for added scent, or throw a lavender sachet in while drying.
Warm or hot water: We know that as much as 60% of greenhouse gas emissions from doing laundry comes from the heating the water for it, so using hot water should be done sparingly. But for super dirty clothes, a warm wash or extra rinse may be all it takes to get the job done, rather than dumping in more synthetic detergent.
The existence of all these products is hearty evidence that "doing laundry" is more than just throwing everything in the tumbler with a large cupful of Tide.
Especially with newer HE machines that are designed to use less water for simple loads. If you've got something more complex, use some of these helpers, along with the washer's special settings, included by the manufacturers for a reason!
Laundry used to take an entire day, so how did we make the leap to expecting clean clothes in just minutes?
I suspect through the power of advertising dollars. We've been trained to believe you toss in the wash, slam the door shut and voila... 'more bubbles, more clean.' But the synthetic fragrances and chemicals may be tricking us into thinking our clothes are really cleaner than they are.
Washboards aren't used for much but music these days, and most of us don't line dry our clothing either, but it still seems we've convinced ourselves that getting truly clean laundry should be easier than it really is.
When's the last time you used the pre-soak function on your washer, by the way?
With a little extra help from items above, which are all nontoxic and plant-based laundry products, you CAN get the clean, fresh, and chemical-free laundry you've been looking for.
Disclaimer: the information contained in this blog post is not meant as a substitute for professional medical or healthcare advice. For all questions health related and otherwise, please consult the appropriate professionals.