The Best Detergents for Hand-Washing Clothing
by Emily DeLong
05 December 2016
It's no secret that we are a bit obsessed with garment care over here at Margu. (We even have a whole webpage devoted to it!) Taking good care of your clothes not only means they will last longer and won't look dingy after only a few wears, but it also ends up reducing waste and saving you money as you won't have to replace your clothes as often.
A few ground rules for picking out a suitable detergent:
- For any detergent you pick, you want to look for something free of optical brighteners, chlorine, phthalates, and phosphates.
- If you're interested in reducing your water footprint, look for no-rinse detergents. These are specially formulated to not require rinsing, which uses less water (duh) and is also gentler on delicates like silks and fine wools.
- For washing protein fibers (wool and silk), you want to avoid soaps that contain the enzyme protease, as it breaks down protein fibers. A lot of manufacturers will just list "enzymes" on the bottle and don't specify which ones they use, so if a bottle lists "enzymes" and doesn't explicitly state that it works for wool or silk, you should steer clear of it. Protease is fine for washing any non-protein fiber (such as cotton or linen), however!
- If you wash a lot of wool, you may want to seek out a separate detergent just for your wool garments containing lanolin, an oil naturally occurring in sheep's wool that strengthens and conditions wool as it washes. (You don't want to wash any non-wool garments with lanolin, however, as it can make them grimy.)
There are a lot of options out there when it comes to finding a hand-wash detergent. You can seek out a high-end or specialty brand, you can make your own with a teaspoon or so of castille soap, you can use the same soap you use to machine-wash clothes, or you can even use shampoo to wash your clothes in a pinch. The end goal is getting your clothing clean, and there are a lot of routes to get there. If you're in the market for a new detergent and don't know what to pick, I've rounded up some of my favorite laundry soaps for hand-washing clothes, separated by fiber:
The Laundress is a line of super-chic, eco-friendly laundry detergents built around the idea that (almost) anything can be washed at home rather than dry cleaned (something I totally agree with). Their 100% biodegradable Signature Detergent is really powerful stuff — I always use it whenever I need to hand wash a particularly grimy cotton or linen garment. A $19 bottle lasts 32 washes, making it pricier than the options below, although I have found that I can often get away with using less than their recommended amount of soap.
Roux Maison is a brand that makes laundry soaps that are both super effective and super sustainable (a feat much easier said than done!) But what really won me over is their scents, alluring but not overpowering and made with 100% essential oils. A $17 bottle of their Delicate Detergent provides 80+ hand washes, so assuming you wash a sinkful of delicates once every week or so, it should last you more than a year.
Beloved by knitters and crocheters everywhere, Eucalan is the gold standard when it comes to washing wool. It is a no-rinse wash, which saves you water and is extra gentle on the most delicate of sweaters. A ~$9, 16.9-ounce bottle lasts about 95 washes (i.e., a very long time), so it's pretty cost-effective too. Eucalan does contain lanolin, so make sure you don't use it for anything other than wool.
Soak, another no-rinse formula, is my favorite all-purpose hand-wash soap. It was the first no-rinse detergent I ever tried, and I was super skeptical that it would actually work until I saw just how clean my clothes came out! Soak works well on all fibers, it's made in a handful of great scents (I'm partial to Lacey), and one bottle ($16) lasts 75 washes. If, unlike me, you only want to keep one bottle of hand-wash detergent around, I recommend it be this one.
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