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Green Detergents vs Conventional: What’s The Difference?

Eco-friendly detergents or regular ones? Does it really matter? What are the harmful effects of laundry or dishwasher detergents on the environment?

Before diving into the difference between Green Detergents vs Conventional Detergents. We need to understand the basics.

What is A Detergent?

Just like soaps, shampoos, and hair softeners detergent belongs to a big group of chemicals called surfactants. Among most people, a detergent will refer to laundry detergents and dishwashing detergents.

A detergent is basically a material with the ability to connect with water and oil at the same time. Since water and oil strive to go separately it’s an important quality.

In other words, detergents connect water and oil. and this makes them very good for cleaning.

Detergents can be made from natural materials (green detergents) or from unnatural materials than they are regarded to as conventional Detergents.

Green Detergents vs Conventional Detergents

If you’re looking to make your laundry routine more sustainable you might appreciate our article with 18 practical and easy tips on how to make your laundry more eco-friendly.

Why Detergents Are Used For Cleaning?

Detergents make good cleaners. We use them to clean our clothes, our hands, our dishes, our hair, and much more. They are good cleaners because they have the ability to connect oil and water together.

When oily molecules get attached to our clothes or dishes, water will not be enough to wash them off (water and oil will not connect) And this is where the detergent comes in handy by connecting the dirty oil with the clean water and forcing it to wash off with the stream, leaving our clothes/dishes fresh and clean.

Green Detergents vs Conventional Detergents

So in recent years, we see more detergents that mark themselves as “Green” or “Bio-degradable” or “Eco-friendly” However, the difference between Green Detergents vs Conventional Detergents is not always clear.

Green detergentsConventional detergents
Derived from plants
(natural sources)
Derived from petrochemicals
(un-natural source)
Bio-degradableNot bio-degradable
Does not pollute.
“Eco friendly”
Pollutes rivers and soils and harms
fishes skin
Just like regular soaps.
Has no known hazards.
Not healthy to breathe.
Not healthy for the skin,
can cause a rash on sensitive skin.

These are the basic differences between Green Detergents vs Conventional Detergents but now let’s get into each segment with more details.

Green Detergents vs Conventional Detergents

What are green detergents?

So green detergents are made from natural materials derived from plants, just like soaps.

Therefore, Soaps and Detergent are actually a lot alike.

Regular soaps (hands soap, shower soap, etc.) have the same functionality as detergents. Both are connecting water molecules with oily molecules.

The biggest difference between the two is detergents are made from petrochemicals (un-natural source) on the other hand, soaps are made from plant materials (natural source).

What are the downsides of green laundry detergents?

  • Some products are only marketed as “green detergents” however when you take a good look into the ingredients you find out they are actually not eco-friendly.
  • Some green products don’t clean as well as others and show weaker results. So, make sure to read customers’ reviews before you make a purchase.
  • Green detergents are still regarded as a special product or premium product, as a result, in many cases they will be pricier
Green Detergents vs Conventional Detergents

What are Conventional detergents?

They make conventional detergents out of petrochemicals that comes from earth-mining.

You should know, mining has a destructive effect on the environment, it releases dangerous gases into the air, it hurts biodiversity and it pollutes water sources.

Read more about the impact of mining

Harmful effects of Detergents on the environment

I went through quite a few scientific articles online. Almost all of them referred to the dangers of Phosphate in detergents have on the environment.


This material is a type of salt, used a lot in the fertilizing industry as it has an important role in the development of plants.

And this is also what makes phosphate an environmental issue. Because when phosphate reaches the lakes and rivers (through our sewage systems) it violates the natural bio-balance by causing excessive growth of algae.
The algae become dominant and take over all the resources in the area, like sun and oxygen, leaving all the other marine life like fishes, bacteria, etc. to die.

Green Detergents vs Conventional Detergents

Phosphate has been known to do that for quite some time now and is illegal to use in laundry detergents in the US or EU. However, Phosphate can still found in some dishwashing detergents.


Surfactants are the materials with the ability to grab onto the dirt and wash it off in water as explained above. The problem is surfactants cause harm to fish’s skin by pilling of a protective layer that protects them from bacteria and diseases. Moreover, it gets into the fish gills and prevents them from getting oxygen.

However, this article claims that the Effect of Surfactants on the environment, in the current concentration used by a human, is close to zero and can be ignored.

Conventional detergents end up in rivers and harm the eco-system

High phosphate concentration in a body of water creates a state where algae thrive and all the other creatures die.

Likewise, they also harm fishes

Just like detergents remove the oil or grease from a dirty shirt –  It removes a thin layer from the fish’s skin that supposes to protect it from bacteria and parasites.

Ruining soil structure

Some of the salts that conventional detergents contain affect soil structure. making it less fertile in some cases, and in other cases killing the healthy bacteria that naturally grows in the soil and helps to keep its structure.

Conventional detergents come from mining 

Detergents are Derived from irresponsible-mining, not a cause worthy of your contribution.

The plastic containers

Conventional detergents usually come in huge plastic containers that are not always recyclable.

Harmful effects of laundry detergents on Your Family’s Health

Green Detergents vs Conventional Detergents

Because they contain carcinogen substances

1,4-Dioxane is a substance that can be found in many laundry supplies. Take a look at what the FDA has to say about it.

Because they are bad to breath

The emissions coming out of the machine before and after washing contain substances that are bad to breathe and consequently are bad for your family’s health.

Read what CBS news had to say about breathing the emissions from detergents.

So, should we avoid detergents altogether?

You should not avoid detergents altogether but pay attention to the ingredients. Definitely try to avoid detergents that have phosphate as its harmful qualities are long known.

Other than that, according to this article, it is also recommended to use detergents that are derived from natural sources like oil and soybeans over the synthetic type. As the ones from natural sources degraded faster and easier.

What kind of detergent should you avoid?

According to this interview conducted by the NY Times with an EPA engineer, you should avoid the following:
1. Detergents that include phosphate 2. Detergents that include Nonylphenol, ethoxylate, surfactants.

It’s not always easy to know which ones don’t include it because it’s not always labeled.

Our favorite green laundry detergents

If you want to be on the safe side with your laundry soap choose one from my list of zero waste environment-friendly laundry detergents.

My personal favorite green laundry detergent is Cleancult’s Laundry Detergent Refill. Not only it’s plant-based and toxic-free but the packaging is plastic free and also zero-waste. Bringing your environmental impact to the bare minimum.

5 Green Laundry Detergents To Choose From

Our favorite green dishwasher detergents

If you’re looking for a dishwasher detergent, check out our list of green detergents for dishwashing for you to choose from.


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