The Best Powder Laundry Detergents Are Gentle on Your Linens, But Tough on Stains
And safe for sensitive skin.
Published May 19, 2022 6:00 PM
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Before we ever had to worry about the sticky mess that comes with pouring out liquid detergent on laundry day, there was powder. Most of us have only ever known these thick, saplike soaps sold in big fluorescent orange jugs. Okay, okay, there have been many improvements there, most notably in the form of addictingly fresh scents and chic, reusable containers, but after testing a range of today’s new and improved powder packs (by washing load after load of sheets and towels), we find ourselves welcoming back tradition.
Much like detergent sheets, the biggest difference between powder and its liquid counterpart is a shorter (and safer!) ingredient list. Plus it’s packaged in less plastic overall and requires less carbon dioxide to produce and ship, since it isn’t as heavy as liquid detergents, which are weighed down with water. If you want to see what the hype is all about, we put a list together of the best powder detergents we were most impressed by, especially when you realize more than half of these ingredient labels are only three to four items long.
- Best for sensitive skin: Celsious Corewash Laundry Powder
- Best for lingering fresh scents: Rosey Laundry Detergent Powder
- Best for tough stains: Slow North Natural Laundry Powder
- Best for all-natural power: Meliora Concentrated Laundry Powder
- Best for a brightening boost: Dirty Labs Bio Laundry Booster
Best for Sensitive Skin: Celsious Corewash Laundry Powder
Packaging: 32-ounce tin | Scoop size: 1/2 tablespoon | Scents: Lavender, unscented
What we like:
- Plastic-free packaging
- Simple, nontoxic ingredients
- Lasts up to 115 loads
- Doesn’t come with a scoop
Why we chose it: A little goes a long way; linens come out of the wash crisp and clean.
The instructions are simple: Add ½ tablespoon powder to the drum of your washer (the amount is so small, our tester wasn’t sure if it would actually be enough, especially when it arrived in the largest container of the bunch—a tin with a screw-off top). Yet a little apparently really does go a long way, as both flax linen sheets and a cotton duvet, in addition to a couple absorbent terry-cloth towels, came out looking fresh and crisp, and they air-dried to perfection. If anything, this load perhaps dried a bit too stiff and could have potentially benefited from a fabric softener, but if sticking to all-natural and uncomplicated is your jam, then this simple concoction should happily be what you reach for. Our tester’s tin didn’t arrive with a spoon, but thankfully the company does offer a cute ceramic option if you really want to up your laundry game.
Best for Lingering Fresh Scents: Rosey Laundry Detergent Powder
Packaging: Plastic bag | Scoop size: ½ tablespoon | Scents: Lavender, peppermint, unscented
What we like:
- Strong scents that soften by the end of your wash cycle
- Complimentary scoop for easy measuring
- Costs less than $14 (that’s 13 cents a load, lasting you about 70 total)
- Stored in a resealable plastic bag that reminds us of Ziploc
- Ships within 24 hours, if you sign up for a membership with Thrive Market
Why we chose it: Go with the lavender for a calming embrace, or peppermint to help keep bacteria at bay.
Before even opening the bag of Rosey’s lavender-scented detergent powder, you can smell it—in a good way, like a bouquet of the herb freshly picked from the garden. But it’s a fragrance that lovingly lingered from the start to the end of the wash cycle, and one you could catch a whiff of every now and then while our tester’s set of white and gray sheets were hung out to dry. Although the scent is powerful when you first open the bag, you don’t have to worry about it overwhelming your linens, especially for bedding you’ll be tucking into each night. The fragrance certainly softened after the wash, and even more after drying. We love that inside the bag is a little scoop, though we do have to note the abundance of plastic, both in this additional tool and the packaging itself. But Rosey still wins points for being a mineral, plant-based product with only five total ingredients—and you won’t find any added sodium lauryl sulfate here.
Best for Tough Stains: Slow North Natural Laundry Powder
Packaging: Glass jar | Scoop size: 1 to 2 tablespoons | Scents: Eucalyptus and lavender, meadowland (lemon, cypress, and basil), hello sunshine (grapefruit, geranium, and lime), lavender and mint
What we like:
- Subscribe and save 15 percent
- Handmade in small batches in Austin
- Barely there clean scent (though there are 3 others to chose from)
- A little on the pricey side
- Only about 40 loads’ worth of powder
Why we chose it: Better than if you had DIYed your own.
What we first noticed about Slow North was the packaging: This powder arrived in a 14-ounce glass vessel with a screw-on metal top, which we were surprised survived transit (especially considering it made the trek from its base home in Austin to New York). Unlike the finer texture of the other powders we tried, this formula was visibly coarser, but its ingredients were pretty much the same (citric acid, sodium carbonate, and the like, but with the added essential oils that give it its spalike scent, from eucalyptus to lavender). This powder stopped us in our tracks because it does it all, replacing the need for both a fabric softener and stain remover. To really put this to the test, we added a cream-colored cotton sweatshirt with an oil stain. To our tester’s delight, the little blotches were erased away, and better yet, the fuzzy inside still felt soft on the skin.
Best for All-Natural Power: Meliora Concentrated Laundry Powder
Packaging: Cardboard and steel canister | Scoop size: ½ or 1 tablespoon | Scents: Lemon, lavender, lemon and lavender clove, unscented
What we like:
- Low suds
- Recyclable packaging
- Zero-waste product
- Subscribe and save with Hive
- On the pricier side
Why we chose it: Free of brighteners and synthetic fragrances, this powder relies on the natural grease-fighting power of lemon.
Meliora is a brand that topped our list of the best shower cleaners, as it can take steel hardware from dull to sparkling with ease. So as a similarly simple (but effective!) powder-based formula, we shouldn’t have been shocked that its laundry alternative—which consists of only four ingredients: baking soda, washing soda, vegetable soap, and organic lemon peel oil—would be a favorite of ours in this category, too. The dye-free, concentrated formula arrives in a plastic-free package—a cardboard and steel canister—large enough for 64 standard loads, or 128 half loads. That’s because you won’t need to use as much with an energy-efficient machine (½ a scoop versus 1 full tablespoon). And it comes with a reusable metal scoop, so while testing we were pleased that we never had to guess the amount. We like that Meliora works with both 1% for the Planet and Women’s Voices, giving clean clothes new meaning.
Best for a Brightening Boost: Dirty Labs Bio Laundry Booster
Packaging: Cardboard tin | Scoop size: 1 tablespoon | Scents: Unscented
What we like:
- 4-in-1 formula: removes stains and odors; brightens whites and colors
- Comes with a responsibly sourced wooden scoop
- Dissolvable in any machine and temperature
- Made in the U.S.
- Don’t have to add to every load (avoid using with your silks)
Why we chose it: Is your favorite white tee looking a little yellow? Add something extra to brighten your next load.
Light-colored laundry items are risky, from bedsheets and pillowcases to tanks and tees, as any stain can be much more glaring to the eye, whether it be wine, chocolate, or (worse) sweat. This is the type of bodily grime that is usually the most difficult to remove. Invisible at first, it will accumulate, oxidize, attract bacteria, and eventually emerge as a yellow- or gray-tinted discoloration. But that’s where Dirty Labs’s Bio Enzyme Laundry Booster can save the day (or maybe just the armpits of your favorite shirt). “Like baking soda, the sodium carbonate in the booster modestly elevates the pH to a higher alkalinity,” offers Dr. Pete He, chief scientist at Dirty Labs, who explains this temporarily enhances the performance of the bioenzymes in Phytolase, the company’s proprietary innovation that works with activated oxygen to whiten and brighten. During testing, we added this directly to the drum of the machine (putting it on your clothes can ruin them) with Dirty Labs’s liquid detergent and ran a cold cycle, as hot water can actually darken stains. Though He also notes this booster can be used alone to presoak older bodily stains in a cool bath before adding to your usual cycle. We did this on a set of older white cotton pillowcases, a fitted sheet, and flat sheet. While the grayish stains weren’t completely removed—you can only notice if you really stare—the fabric appeared much brighter overall.
On Our Radar
- Powder pods? Yes, it’s a thing. If you don’t want to worry about dishing out the right amount of detergent each wash, we think Grove Co.’s take on the method might solve your problem.
- Blueland Oxi Laundry Booster Starter Set may just have everything you need to brighten your whites, wash out stubborn stains, and remove strong odors; though we’d love to try out the dispensing tin for ourselves to see just how easy (and mess-free) it really is.
How We Chose These Products
It wasn’t hard to find the best powder laundry detergents, since there aren’t too many options available on the market in the first place. We kept short and clean ingredient lists in mind—as dirty water is released after a cycle and can end up in waterways—and we made sure to only test formulas that would not be harmful to your septic tank or the ocean (though clothing fibers are another topic entirely). We favored either unscented or naturally fragrant options, took note of ones that came with a complimentary scoop tool, and then added the suggested portion of each to a load: We first tested them on sheets, ranging from cotton to linen and eucalyptus, as well as towels, then did another round on just everyday garments, avoiding athleticwear or silkier fabrics. We tried to test against their claims (for example, with the booster, we wanted to see how it did against new and old sweat stains; and for Slow North, which claimed to replace a fabric softener, we wanted to see if our items came out as soft after the wash as they felt before). For all of our sheets, we line dried, whereas for clothing, we added it to a normal drying cycle. Everything was tested in an electric, 7.3-cubic feet LG front-loading washer and dryer.
Our Shopping Checklist
Application and Use
Dishing out the right amount of powder can feel more like you’re baking in the kitchen rather than preparing to wash clothes in the laundry room; and while being precise in this instance isn’t as important, it can still feel a bit daunting if your chosen detergent doesn’t come with a designated scoop. In this case, you’ll likely just need to keep a tablespoon around for easy measurements (one should do it for a normal-size load). And all of the powders on our list, including the added booster, can be sprinkled directly onto the drum of your machine, whether it’s a front-loader or top-loader, unless otherwise indicated.
“One of the biggest benefits of using powder is a much shorter ingredient list than you will find in liquid or pods,” notes Christine McNerney, senior director of merchandising for Thrive Market, the makers of Rosey, who explains that with liquid detergent, you need preservatives and other additives to stabilize it. There are only a few key ingredients needed to make your clothes feel clean and fresh, she adds. Here are the basics:
- Citric acid can brighten and whiten your lights.
- Soda ash, also known as sodium carbonate, is basically washable baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)—it’s a cleaning agent that works away stains while also helping the detergent rinse out in hard water.
- Coconut oils and soaps are also found in the best all-purpose cleaners for removing dirt from fabrics.
- Starches, such as tapioca starch, can reduce wrinkles during the drying cycle.
- Essential oils can provide all sorts of support, whether it be cleaning (mints are antibacterial; lemon attacks acidity) or leaving behind a noticeably fresh scent.
- Enzymes, like protease, come in handy for breaking down protein-based stains.
Long story short, you’ll want to avoid synthetic fragrances (which are often petroleum derived), optical brighteners, phosphates (some are used as water softeners but can pollute waterways), dioxane (a carcinogenic solvent), chlorine, formaldehyde, phthalates, synthetic dyes, and SLES (sodium lauryl sulfate). All of which can irritate your skin.
For boosters, however, you’ll likely notice sodium precarbonate on the ingredient list. “It is mineral based and generally more stable in the granulated form,” explains He. “It is also capable of storing more activated oxygen versus otherwise just a few percent of hydrogen peroxide in water.”
Unscented vs. Scented
Like the best-smelling liquid detergents, the powder versions also offer clean, floral, and citrusy scents, in addition to unscented. This choice is largely up to preference; or if you happen to be someone with sensitive skin, you might want to stick to the latter. For our list, we stuck to natural scents, often courtesy of essential oils like lavender, eucalyptus, lemon, and peppermint.
Q: Is powder detergent strong enough to remove stains?
Yes! As long as you get to it quick enough, like any detergent. “As much as possible, pretreat stains!,” stress Theresa and Corinna Williams, cofounders of Celsious. “The sooner we spot-treat, the better our chances of actually getting rid of a stain. Don’t leave a stain to set. Once that happens, there’s no guarantee the stain will come out in the wash. A common misconception is that ‘natural’ detergents aren’t strong enough to fight stains, but a stain that has set will be tough for any detergent to fight, regardless of the ingredients.”
This is also where the aid of a booster or stain-removing soap bar can come in handy. And for an extra-deep clean, try McNerney’s hack: “Soak clothes in the sink or tub with laundry powder prior to washing in the machine.”
Q: What is a laundry booster and what does it do?
“Historically, laundry boosters were mostly made of chlorine-based bleaches. They are strong oxidizers that decompose the organic or biological molecules and hence whiten, brighten, and help restore the original color of clothing and fabrics. However, chlorine-based bleaches are made with harsh chemicals that can have negative health and safety implications for people and the environment,” explains He. “In recent years, ‘oxygen bleaches’ have gained popularity as an alternative to chlorine-based bleaches—with safer ingredients and less damaging environmental effects. The active ingredient is activated oxygen, which is released from sodium percarbonate or hydrogen peroxide. The activated oxygen decomposes the organic or biological molecules in stains and turns itself into water at the end.”
Q: Should I add a booster to every load of laundry I do?
“We recommend using boosters only when needed, specifically for exceptionally soiled, stained, or smelly laundry,” clarifies He. “Most of your laundry should be fine being washed with just detergent. Because many laundry boosters contain chlorine or oxygen-based bleaches, which tend to react and break down biological molecules, we recommend avoiding the use of laundry boosters on protein-based fabric materials such as silk, wool, and other delicate or hand-wash-only fabrics. Additionally, certain color-dyeing technologies such as batik may not be colorfast and should be avoided from being treated by laundry boosters as well.”
Q: Are there certain types of washing machines I shouldn’t use powder detergent with?
One of the caveats of using powder is dissolvability—which can commonly be misconstrued as being only suitable for certain types of washers—but this type of detergent is actually suitable for any type of machine, even those labeled as HE. In fact, at Celisous’s Brooklyn laundromat, the only front-loading machines you’ll find there are Electrolux’s top-rated for energy efficiency. What the sisters do warn against is that you may have trouble when running a cold cycle. If you notice some residue on your clothes, they recommend dissolving it in a bit of warm water before adding it to the drum or even the detergent compartment.
Q: How much powder detergent should I use per load?
This depends on the size of your load, the size of your washer, and even just how soiled your garments are. And while generally you only need about a tablespoon worth for a normal pile of clothes, it’s important to check out the maker’s instructions first. We discovered that each had its own variation of a proper “serving size,” or came with an easy-to-use, predetermined scoop.
“Many of us use way more detergent than necessary, and sometimes without even realizing it! Overdosing is not only a waste of money, it will not make your loads cleaner,” stress the Williams sisters. “Excess product can build up on fabric and trap odor-causing bacteria. If you’ve ever had a piece of clothing smell musty or unpleasant even though it was recently washed, product buildup might just be the culprit.”
The Last Word
After testing out the best powder laundry detergents, we may never go back to liquid again (except in certain cases where it is called for). With as small as a ½ tablespoon in most cases to tackle an entire, regular-size load of laundry, we were impressed by how clean and crisp our linens came out of the wash. And as a true testament to how safe each of these formulas claim to be, our tester—who suffers from sensitive skin and is often irritated by soaps and lotions of all sorts—had no issues to report.
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