Frugal Scholar, who must read everything of value on the entire Internet, stumbled upon an amazing remark in, of all places, the Wall Street Journal. In one article, Seventh Generation founder Jeffrey Hollender remarks that it’s surprising most people use laundry detergent at all: “You don’t even need soap to wash most loads,” he says. The truth is, it’s the action of the agitator, not the chemicals, that gets most clothes clean.
Uhmmm… Say what, my Captain of Industry?
Most of us have figured out that we need only a fraction of the amount we were brought up to pour into the washer, partly because newer detergents are far more efficient and partly because you don’t really need even the recommended amount. But…no detergent at all?
Well, of course, the gantlet was down.
Straightaway to the garage, stately home of the washer and dryer! Mustering all my nerve, I laundered two small loads with zero detergent, one of whites and one of coloreds. The whites load included a few pieces of underwear; the colored, a shirt I’d worn for a day of gardening.
The result? Pretty interesting.
Everything came out looking clean. Minor stains that I thought would come through unscathed actually washed out. This pair of fluffy cotton socks, which I wear around the house and patio as slippers, was pretty grimy when I put them in the washer. They came out looking exactly the same as they do when they’re washed with detergent.
These socks, which are three or four years old, always have a little gray on the bottom—no amount of detergent or bleach gets it out. If anything, they actually look a little better than the last time I ran them through the washer.
Peeking into the machine during the “wash” cycle, I found the water looked exactly as dirty as it does when I’ve added detergent, only without the suds:
The “rinse” cycle ran clear as tapwater.
The Sniff Test: By and large, all of the freshly washed clothing came out with an odor: it smelled of clean water! Because I didn’t want to heat-set any residual stains into the whites, I line-dried those; the coloreds went into the dryer. When fully dry, most of the pieces were fresh-smelling and free of either body odor or yukky commercial factory perfume. I use a perfume-free detergent, anyway, so there was no way the clothes would have retained any scent from previous launderings.
A couple of pairs of undies retained a very slight odor. I ran one of these through again with the colored clothing, and after a second drubbing in the washer, it came out completely odor-free.
Isn’t that something!
Conclusion: Because I’m not willing to consume the amount of water needed to run my underwear through the wash twice each week, I would put a small amount of detergent in with those. But apparently most outer clothes that have not absorbed much B.O. and that are not excessively dirty can indeed be washed in plain, clean water, without benefit of factory chemicals.