How To Make Your Laundry More Sustainable

Laundry product consumers beware! From toxic detergents to polluting microplastics, learn how to spot imposters and make your laundry routine greener.

Our editors and experts handpick every product we feature. We may earn a commission from your purchases.

I used to love the smell of clean laundry. Unfortunately, I associated “clean” with the chemicals manufacturers put into detergent and dryer sheets, suggesting what clean laundry should smell like.

Thing is, those chemicals are not so clean. They’re bad for our health, the environment and the people who live near the manufacturing plants.

From a home-health standpoint, it’s especially important to remedy this, because we spend nearly every moment of our lives immersed in the residual chemicals embedded in our clothing and bedding. Our laundry also releases microplastics into the environment while consuming excess water and energy. With the average U.S. household doing 300 loads a year, that really adds up.

But there are easy ways to mitigate most of these problems. Here are some ideas for making your laundry more sustainable.

Use Cold Water

Roughly 90% of your washer’s energy consumption comes from heating up the water. Using cold water reduces your household CO2 emissions while being more gentle on your clothes and your budget.

  • Look for soaps that work effectively in cold water.
  • Reserve warm and hot water loads for clothing that needs disinfecting, or those with heavy stains from grease, dirt and grass.

Use Less Soap

Most of us use more detergent than we need, which means we then use more water to get it out of our clothes.

“Washing machines have extra rinse cycles on them just to remove the excess detergent that people put in,” says Justin Reinke, vice president of marketing at Beko Home Appliances. “If you use the right amount to start with, you can skip the extra rinse.”

Wash Items Less Often

“Aside from items like socks and underwear that should be washed after each use, most items of clothing don’t need to be washed as often as we think,” says Tonya Harris, an environmental toxicity specialist and author of The Slightly Greener Method. Levi’s recommends washing jeans once every 10 wears at most.

  • Wash clothes when they’re visibly dirty or start to smell, of course.
  • Freshen clothes between wearings by hanging them outside, ironing them or just hanging them outside of your shower.

Choose Natural Clothing and Get a Microplastic Filter

Many of our clothes are made at least partially from plastic. When we wash and dry them, tiny fibers (microplastics) break off and go down the drain. Because most water treatment plants can’t filter them out, they end up in streams, wetlands and the ocean where they harm wildlife.

  • Choose clothing, towels and bedding made from natural fibers like cotton, wool, linen and hemp.
  • Line dry synthetic fabrics.
  • Use a microplastic filter in your wash, which will cut down but not eliminate the problem. Harris recommends Planet Care, Guppyfriend and Cora Ball.

Use a Clothes Line

The most sustainable drying choices are sunlight and a nice breeze.

“Clothes lines and drying racks save lots of energy,” says Leslie Reichert, a podcaster and author of The Joy of Green Cleaning. “You can even use them in the cold. The clothes freeze and the water evaporates.”

Line drying is also usually easier on your clothes as well.

Use Non-Toxic Laundry Products

Many laundry detergents, stain removers, fabric softeners, dryer sheets and fragrances contain ingredients that are harmful to us and the environment.

“Most laundry detergents stay in your clothes,” says Reichert. “It’s the science behind ‘detergents.’ The chemicals stay in the fabric and deter the dirt. Hence the name.”

  • Look for formulations that list all their ingredients. Particularly avoid synthetic musks, the term “fragrance” if the manufacturer doesn’t specify what that is, fluorescent whitening agents and bron-containing (borate) products, says Samara Geller, EWG senior director of cleaning science.
  • Choose products with third-party certifications from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Safer Choice, Green Seal, Ecologo and EWG Verified.
  • Refillable concentrated laundry detergent and non-liquid laundry soaps cut down on plastic waste from jugs and shipping emissions.
  • New evidence shows the dissolvable plastics (PVAs) surrounding washer pods and infused in laundry sheets are causing ecological harm. Some products that include PVAs falsely claim to be plastic free.

A few trusted brands to try: Molly’s Suds, Blueland and Pardo Naturals.

Better yet, Reichert says, make your own laundry soap. “DIY cleaning products are safer and much more affordable,” Reichert says. “I have a recipe book with over 100 recipes that really work.”

Ditch Dryer Sheets

Dryer sheets are bad for the environment. Most release VOCs and/or contain hormone-disrupting chemicals.

“Instead, I recommend wool dryer balls,” says Harris. “They help prevent static electricity and can help clothes dry faster. Add white vinegar to the fabric softener compartment of the washing machine as a sustainable alternative for softening clothes.”

Choose New Appliances Wisely

Washer and dryer technology has come a long way in the last decade or two. New washers use about three-quarters less energy and water, and heat pump dryers are vastly more efficient.

  • Front-loading washers are almost always more energy and water efficient than top-loaders.
  • Washers with steam options loosen dirt without using excess energy or soap.
  • Heat pump dryers are the most efficient type, and there are rebates and tax incentives available for them.
  • When buying a washer or dryer, get one with an Energy Star rating.
  • Choose brands making sustainability efforts and innovations. Beko makes one of the most energy-efficient washerdryer sets, with a washtub in the washer called RecycledTub partly made from recycled bottles and carbon-neutral manufacturing.

Don’t Get Greenwashed

Some companies use buzzwords like non-toxic, gentle, biodegradable, natural and eco-friendly, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually safe for you and the environment. This practice, called greenwashing, is often just a marketing tactic. Again, look for third-party verification and packaging that includes full disclosure of a product’s ingredients.

Karuna Eberl
A freelance writer and indie film producer, Karuna Eberl covers the outdoors and nature side of DIY, exploring wildlife, green living, travel and gardening for Family Handyman. She also writes FH’s Eleven Percent column, about dynamic women in the construction workforce. Some of her other credits include the March cover of Readers Digest, National Parks, National Geographic Channel and Atlas Obscura. Karuna and her husband are also on the final stretch of renovating an abandoned house in a near-ghost town in rural Colorado. When they’re not working, you can find them hiking and traveling the backroads, camping in their self-converted van.