According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average family cycles through 400 loads of laundry each year. Washing machines are second only to toilets in residential water use: The typical top-loader guzzles 41 gallons per load. Switching to a front-loader cuts the rate nearly in half and saves an equal amount of energy.
The person who told you not to use eco-friendly soap may have been concerned about a potentially moldy side effect: residue build-up. This problem isn’t restricted to natural products, though. Most new front-loaders leave grime because people stick with their old soap habits, believing more suds to be better. But front-loaders require far less detergent (and water) than top-loaders because the machine tumbles, rather than agitates, garments.
Manufacturers don’t always state clearly that front-loaders require “high efficiency” or “HE” soap. This concentrated formula is designed to work with less water, but you can still overuse it—even if you follow instructions. Generally, a tablespoon is enough for a load (although one-quarter cup may be recommended). Any excess could result in mildew and damage to your machine.
Don’t give up on the benefits of natural (or mostly natural) soap. The alternative, using commercial detergents, can be toxic to both your health and the environment. These detergents contain petroleum by-products to reduce the surface tension of water and ease washing; the EPA has linked their synthetic ingredients to skin irritation, asthma, and even cancer. Phosphates, another common—but unnecessary—ingredient, prevent dirt from settling on clothes but can kill fish in local streams.
Use nontoxic, biodegradable products that are highly concentrated. Among the brands available at many grocery stores are Seventh Generation, ECOS, and Biokleen. If you’d like to save money, DIY laundry soap is as easy as combining two cups of grated soap (try Castille, made from vegetable oils rather than animal products), one cup of washing soda (found in the laundry aisle of most grocery stores), and one cup of borax (a natural mineral compound also readily available). One tablespoon of this powder is sufficient.
To rid your front-loader of residue, run an empty load with a cup of vinegar, then wipe the interior with a water- and vinegar-soaked rag. Meanwhile, keep the door open after use to prevent any filmy traces of over-sudsing.