Trying Detergent-Free Laundry

I am trying different ways to reduce the damage I do to the earth. Little things…no ambitious projects yet. So, when I saw a thing called a washing ball that was advertised as cleaning clothes with no detergent, I was intrigued. I am afraid that I did little up-front research, I just read all the glowing recommendations on the web. I calculated the savings of not using detergent for 1000 washes, the suggested life of the washing balls, and decided it was worth a shot. I decided to order them and figure out the chemistry after-the-fact.


A few days later, they arrived. I put both of them in the wash with a load of lights and set the washer for warm wash and cold rinse. When they came out of the dryer, they smelled like nothing. They literally had no smell what-so-ever. I was pleasantly surprised. I have overly-sensitive sinuses and “fragrance free” and “unscented” are adjectives on many of my personal care and cleaning products. Finding something that had no smell, no chemicals added to mask or “remove” smells, that appealed to me.

At first, my daughter declared that she would not wear anything washed without detergent because it was yucky. I informed her that she was free to do her own laundry. Somehow she survived the detergent-free clothing and towels.

I decided that I may as well get wool dryer balls to complement my washing balls. These are six tennis-ball sized balls of compressed wool from New Zealand. I tossed them in the dryer and started washing and drying my clothing with nothing but water and lots of agitation. My clothing came out of the dryer very soft, but with some static electricity, especially if the load was mostly towels and fleece.

Things hummed along nicely for weeks. My clothing was clean and soft. But one day, I put on a shirt and it had a smell. It wasn’t a bad smell in the usual sense. It wasn’t sour or musty, but it had a smell. All day long, I could smell this smell that wasn’t dirty, but wasn’t clean. I was suddenly inspired to look at the supposed chemistry behind the washing balls.

It turns out, there is little to support the use of washing balls. They may help due to adding some agitation to the wash. Some studies show no difference between using washing balls and using detergent. So, why use detergent? My experience and opinion is that water alone is not enough. I normally use about half the recommended amount of detergent and have never had any problems with that. Perhaps I can get by with even less.

So, why did my clothes get so clean and smell-free for so long? I suspect that this is due to residual detergent that wasn’t completely washed-out of clothes in a normal washing cycle. But as more and more of our clothes were washed multiple times, the residual detergent was eventually rinsed away.

A lesson-learned for me. I got so excited about a way to help the environment and help my budget, that I leaped before I looked. I didn’t check out the science, which was non-existent, before I decided to try something new. That’s ok. I did learn something from the experience and now I am going to try a more eco-friendly detergent and try using even less detergent for each wash.

Find the Joy in the Journey and don’t be afraid to try something new!