What Can I Use Instead of Laundry Detergent? [Safe Alternatives]

Most of us wait a bit too long to do a load of laundry on the best of days. Discovering there is no detergent left just before a stained or dirty outfit needs to be worn is a crisis. Most people have a few items that they can substitute in a pinch, but some household problems can cause more damage than you may think.

Vinegar and baking soda both serve as safe alternatives to laundry detergent in a pinch. Add ½ cup of baking soda or vinegar to the washing machine to do a full load.  Do not mix the two. Neither product should be used long-term because they will prematurely age clothes by wearing out the fibers. 

Alternatively, hand wash items with any skin-safe soap available. Hand soap, body soap, and shampoo all make good choices for hand-washing laundry. However, they will not do well in the washing machine and can cause a real mess.

Detergents and soaps with different intended uses have very different chemical makeups. Because of this, putting the wrong soap in the wrong machine can harm the machine and clothes.  

Before throwing just any soap in and hoping for the best, read this article to learn the best and worst alternatives to laundry detergent. 

What Safe Alternatives Can I Use Instead of Laundry Detergent?

Most detergents, whether meant for laundry, dishes or other cleaning tasks have a lot in common. The differences lie in the pH levels, types of surfactants, and the presence of bleach. 

The pH levels most impact skin, and bleach most impacts the fabric. Surfactants, which cause the suds and loosens oil and dirt, can have unpleasant consequences when put in machines for which they are not intended. 

Choose a detergent alternative with the safety of your body and your clothes in mind. Having clean clothes will do you no favors if the substitute soap ruins the fibers or irritates your skin. 

Washing one or two items by hand is the most effective way to survive this situation. If a whole load really is needed, most people do have some decent options around the house.

Baking Soda

Baking soda, also called sodium bicarbonate, is the most widely recommended alternative to laundry detergent. It is a simple, cheap ingredient that has many uses in the home. However, it should not be a long-term replacement.

Baking soda will be fine for most people’s skin for the short term; in fact, people use it for acne spot treatments. Extended use can disrupt the skin’s pH because baking soda is more alkaline than the skin.

This is the best option for clothes that are stinky. Add the baking soda directly to the drum of the machine. Wash on the warmest setting safe for the fabrics being washed.

What Can I Use Instead of Laundry Detergent

Vinegar

Another pantry staple, vinegar, also substitutes for laundry detergent. Add ½ cup to the machine’s liquid detergent dispenser. 

Distilled white vinegar is the best option, but apple cider vinegar will also work to clean clothes. Dark vinegars like balsamic or red wine can stain clothes.

Vinegar has a lot of great properties that make it worthy of the occasional laundry addition even if you are not out of detergent. Add ½ cup to the rinse cycle to reduce static and get rid of pet hair and lint on clothes. 

Adding ½ cup on a regular basis also helps clothes stay bright and soft. Or, washing with two cups of vinegar can be just the trick for extra stinky clothes or those with mildew.

Unfortunately, the high acidity of vinegar will prematurely wear out fabric fibers. Long-term use will also erode the rubber parts of the washing machine. 

As a result, limit the vinegar to the times when it really is the last resort.

Do not add both baking soda and vinegar to a washing machine. It probably will not turn your washing machine into a fizzy volcano, but neither will it clean the clothes.

Baking soda and vinegar neutralize each other. By combining them, you don’t get the cleaning benefits of either product.

Borax

Borax is a common household cleaner in the United States. Some people recommend using a cup in the wash as either a detergent booster or in place of detergent.

Borax is banned in the European Union and Canada because research indicates it may cause reproductive harm.

Bleach

Before reaching for a spare bottle of bleach, double-check the label.  Chlorinated bleach will discolor anything that is not white.

Never add straight chlorinated bleach to laundry. It can unevenly discolor the fabrics. Detergent is key for successfully using chlorine bleach.

Oxygen bleach, also called color-safe bleach, is safe for all colors of clothes. It is more similar to hydrogen peroxide than chlorine bleach.

Oxygen bleach can be used independently in the washer. Follow the instructions for your particular product. The packaging often instructs you to add the powdered product directly to the drum and the liquid to the detergent dispenser.

Don’t Forget the Remnants

Did your husband leave the empty detergent box or bottle on the shelf (again)? Add 1 cup of warm water to the empty container and sluice it around. Then, add that mixture to the liquid detergent dispenser of your machine.

What Safe Alternatives Can I Use Instead of Laundry Detergent

Hand-Washing Garments

Hand-washing the needed garments opens a new world of safe alternatives. When the machine is removed from the mix, there are many skin and fabric-safe options.

Always gauge the durability of the fabric and proceed with caution. Fabrics like cotton and synthetic athletic fabrics are very hardy. 

For these, use your favorite hand soap, dishwashing soap, or even shampoo. Essentially, you want something with surfactants that you can apply to the fabric. Friction is key with hand-washing.

For more delicate fabrics, add the soap to a basin of water. Allow the garment to soak rather than scrubbing it. 

What Happens If You Wash Clothes with Dishwashing Soap?

Using dishwasher detergent, whether liquid or powder, can damage the washing machine. The dishwasher detergent is meant to be used at much higher temperatures than the washing machine. As a result, the detergent does not fully break down and coats the washing machine.

These products also have a high pH and a lot of bleach, meaning they will not feel good on your skin. 

Liquid dishwashing soap, on the other hand, is very mild. Soaps like Dawn or others meant for hand-washing dishes usually have no bleach and a low pH.

They are also meant to touch human skin, so these products are the least likely to cause skin irritation. However, they do not have stabilizers to prevent them from producing mass amounts of suds.

A tiny amount, about a tablespoon, in top-loading washing machines should be fine. Any more and  you risk an overflowing machine worthy of a rom-com.

Does Hand-Washing Clothes Kill Germs?

Just as with washing our hands, the agitation is really the aspect of cleaning clothes that takes care of germs. Vigorous scrubbing actually washes away the pathogens.

None of the laundry substitutes in this list make the EPA list for disinfectants or sanitizers. While vinegar is often touted as a natural germ killer, it requires over 30 minutes of exposure to do so.

Vinegar’s active ingredient is acetic acid, but it is not a fast-working or highly effective cleaner. 

Does Hand-Washing Clothes Kill Germs

How to Hand Wash Clothes When Out of Detergent?

Ideally, only a few items have to be washed right away. If so, the easiest way to deal with it is by simply washing them in the sink after filling the basin with water and soap.

Friction is the key to removing stains. For visible stains, apply soap directly to the stain and then vigorously rub the fabric together. Rinse and hang to dry.

If you need to do an entire load by hand, expect it to be a more laborious process. There is a reason washing machines were invented.

Find two buckets or basins deep enough to accommodate the entire load. Fill one bucket with soapy water and dirty clothes. Agitate the water and rub the clothes together.

Then, fill the other bucket with clean water. Dunk each item in clean water to rinse it out.  You will likely have to empty and refill this bucket several times to get all the soap out. 

What If My Machine Requires HE Detergent?

High-efficiency laundry detergent is specially formulated for use in high-efficiency machines that use less water. The HE detergent limits the amount of suds so that the machine is not overwhelmed. It also cleans at a lower temperature than regular laundry detergent.

Using regular detergent in high-efficiency washing machines can cause several bad consequences. Quite simply, it creates way too many suds in the machine because the machine is meant to do more with less. 

The worst-case scenario is that the soap suds overflow the machine. More realistically, your clothes will not be adequately rinsed. It can also clog the washing machine over time.

Using baking soda or vinegar in a high-efficiency machine will be fine because neither product creates suds. 

Does Homemade Laundry Soap Really Clean Clothes?

Instagram and Pinterest may leave you wondering whether you can just whip up your own batch of laundry soap. Unfortunately, this will not solve the no-detergent problem.

Homemade laundry soap recipes usually include ingredients most people do not have on hand, like borax. They also require the addition of some type of commercial soap. 

Homemade laundry soaps do lack the chemical water softeners that help commercial laundry soap perform so well. Using them can cause leftover residue to remain on clothes, and in the washer. Ultimately, this can ruin both.

Do You Really Need Laundry Detergent?

Laundry detergent should be your long-term clothes-washing solution rather than any of the fixes on this list. Laundry detergent brands reformulate their products every year to make sure they work ideally in today’s machines.

They are also tested to avoid damage to clothes and skin irritation. Homemade detergents lack this rigorous testing.

Final Words About Laundry Detergent Alternatives

Running out of laundry detergent is a surprisingly fixable problem. Most people with stocked pantries will have either baking soda or vinegar on hand. 

Be sure to replenish your laundry detergent as soon as possible. Baking soda and vinegar, when used long-term, each cause unneeded wear to clothes and the washing machine.

Clothes without visible stains will most benefit from a gentle hand wash to freshen them up. For this, use any liquid or bar soap that is safe for human skin.

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