Non-Toxic & Plastic-Free Laundry Detergents

Laundry basket with clothes on a coffee table, couch and sleeping cat in background, warm lighting.
Photo by Sean Freese on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0 DEED).

If you read my article on replacing toxic fabric softener and dryer sheets, then it won’t surprise you that commercial laundry detergents also often contain harmful, toxic ingredients. The chemicals and fragrances are harmful to the human body as well as the environment. Additionally, many detergents come in some form of plastic container, whether it’s a bottle, plastic bag, or “pod.”

Homemade or DIY laundry detergents sound like a great alternative, but in practice, I have not found that to be the case. My conclusion is that while I cannot recommend a specific brand or set of ingredients, I can tell you what to avoid. Following are my findings.

DIY Laundry Detergents

Various ingredients in boxes and bottles with a Kirk's Castille bar of soap and a measuring cup with soap shavings.
Photo by Kim F on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED).

The photo above is not my own but still a familiar scene. I have tried many homemade DIY laundry detergent recipes from bloggers, authors, and environmentalists. Most homemade laundry detergents combine baking soda, washing soda, and/or borax, as well as a cleaning agent, typically grated bar soap. I even tried buying laundry bar soap that you dissolve in water and then use as a liquid detergent. But all had poor results. Our clothes either had an odor or what looked like grease stains on them. Our clothing, towels, and sheets just weren’t getting…clean.

Close-up of a laundry bar, brown with white speckles.
Laundry bar. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Laundry bar dissolving in a white bucket of water.
The laundry bar dissolving in a reused white bucket. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Then I discovered that soap residue can actually trap dirt and oils in textiles. Kathryn Kellogg, author of 101 Ways To Go Zero Waste, advises against DIY laundry detergents. “Most homemade laundry detergent is really laundry soap, which can clog your washing machine, void the warranty, and ruin your clothes.”1 The soap doesn’t come out because modern washing machine agitators are not as tough on clothing as older machines were. According to Kellogg, a true laundry detergent does not contain fats and oils.2

Soap Nuts

Green glass dish with decorative edge featuring orange and green flowers, soap nuts piled on the dish.
Photo by Khadija Dawn Carryl on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED).

Soapnuts, which are actually berries, are the fruit of the Sapindus Mukorossi tree, which grows in India and Nepal. The husks, or shell, of the fruit “contains plant saponin, a completely natural and gentle soap that has been used for centuries to clean skin and clothes. Saponin works as a surfactant, breaking the surface tension of the water and creating a lather that lifts dirt and grease…this is just one example of how nature offers many solutions for…plastic-free living,” wrote Sanda Ann Harris, author of Say Goodbye To Plastic: A Survival Guide for Plastic-Free Living.3 Soapnuts are compostable after use, so they create no waste.

I tried these, excitedly! I followed instructions from myplasticfreelife.com that said to boil the soapnuts into a liquid, and then use the liquid as laundry detergent.

Soapnuts boiling in a pot of water.
Soapnuts cooking in a pot. Photo by Marie Cullis.

I also tried putting them straight into the washing machine. But they didn’t work great all of the time, and I often had to rewash my clothes. Kathryn Kellogg wrote that she also does not recommend soap nuts. “Both of these items contain saponin or soap. The soap will cause buildup on fabric, preventing it from being absorbent, and the residue can cause skin irritation. Historically, people used soap to clean their clothes, but they washed their clothes by hand. The agitation process was harsh enough for the soap to wash clean. Our modern machines aren’t as rigorous so the soap clings to the fabric.”4 

Angled photo of laundry detergent bottles on a store shelf, Ajax and Fab brands most visible.
Photo by Pixel Drip on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0 DEED).

Commercial Laundry Detergents

Over the years I have tried all manner of commercial laundry detergents, both powdered and liquid. Powders don’t seem to dissolve well unless I use hot water, and I wash almost everything in cold water. Liquids work better, but their quality runs the gamut. I still don’t have a single brand that I can recommend or that I even buy consistently. But I can tell you what to avoid in detergents.

Plastic Bottles

Plastic blue laundry detergent or fabric softener bottle, lying in a sand dune.
Photo by nicholasrobb1989 on Pixabay.

Almost all liquid detergents come in plastic bottles. Also, liquid laundry detergents are 60 to 90 percent water! This means we are shipping huge amounts of water in plastic jugs all across the country, which creates more carbon emissions. This seems wasteful!

Worse, even though most laundry jugs are ‘recyclable,’ they don’t often actually get recycled. Humans have only recycled 9% of plastics ever created. Brands like Seventh Generation use 80% recycled plastic in their bottles. While they are also recyclable, there’s no guarantee the bottle will get recycled. It’s best practice to stay away from bottles if you can.

In Part 11 of my Packaging Series, you can read about brands that use different types of packaging, and even some that offer refillable options.

Toxic Ingredients

There are lots of chemicals in most commercial laundry detergents. Those scents are a combination of hundreds of chemicals, many that scientists have linked to illness and disease.

Person pouring laundry detergent into a washing machine, from a blue laundry detergent bottle.
Photo by RDNE Stock project on Pexels.

Phthalates

These are in the fragrances of detergents, so you’ll believe your clothes are clean because they smell good. They are a class of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, meaning they interfere with our hormone systems and fertility. They are associated with rashes, asthma, allergies, learning and behavioral difficulties in children, and an increased risk of cancer. These are not regulated because companies use the term “fragrance” in the ingredients list under the guise of propriety.

Surfactants

Many laundry detergents use surfactants like petroleum distillate or naphtha because they boost the cleaning power of laundry detergents. However, they can cause respiratory problems, eye and skin irritation, nervous system problems, hormone disruption, and sometimes cancer. Many are also toxic to aquatic life. Other surfactants include quaternium-15, diethanolamine, nonlphenol ethoxylate, and linear alkyl benzene sulfonates.5

Phenol is one more surfactant that can cause irritation to the skin, eyes, nose, throat, and nervous system. “Severe exposure can cause liver and/or kidney damage, skin burns, tremor, convulsions, and twitching.”6

The European Union (EU) and Canada banned Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs), but they are allowed in the U.S. These are also endocrine disruptors and may cause cancer. They can lead to extreme aquatic toxicity in the environment.

1,4-dioxane 

This is a known human carcinogen and neurotoxin that is always present in trace amounts when ethoxylated surfactants are used because 1,4-dioxane is a byproduct. “1,4-dioxane is never listed on labels because it’s not an intentionally added ingredient, but there are some easy tricks to avoid it. Ethoxylated surfactants usually follow a few naming conventions. If the ingredient ends in “-eth”, such as laureth-6 or sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), ceteareth or steareth, it’s ethoxylated.”7 Sodium lauryl sulfate is another one to steer clear of. 1,4-dioxane is also a common water contaminant.

Phosphates & EDTA

Manufacturers use Phosphates and EDTA (Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid) “to make detergents more effective in hard water, and to help prevent dirt from settling back on clothes when they’re washing.” These chemicals cause environmental damage, especially in waterways. They also cause algae blooms that damage ecosystems.8 Phosphate-free products are important to help reduce eutrophication, a process that causes algae to grow uncontrollably and cause the death of all life in bodies of water.

Others

Companies use Formaldehyde as a low-cost preservative and antibacterial agent. It can irritate the eyes and lungs and is a suspected carcinogen.9

Dyes cause allergies and rashes, almost all are endocrine disruptors, and many are carcinogens.10

Benzyl acetate is toxic to skin, the nervous system, the kidneys,11 and has been linked to pancreatic cancer.

Dichlorobenzene is a water contaminant and has a highly toxic effect on aquatic life. They are carcinogenic and toxic to the liver, kidneys, and nervous system.

Laundry Pods

Single Laundry pod, orange, white, and blue liquid detergent in a plastic sealed pod.
Photo by Erik Binggeser on Unsplash.

Laundry detergent pods are purely convenience items. They contain concentrated amounts of detergent encapsulated in a “dissolvable” pod made of polyvinyl alcohol (PVA or PVOH). PVA is a synthetic, petroleum-based polymeric plastic. When marketers say it “dissolves” in water, they mean that the plastic breaks down into smaller plastic particles, called microplastics. The microplastics are discharged as part of the wastewater, then enter our water systems, and eventually end up in our bodies.

“Dissolvable” detergent sheets

I tried laundry detergent eco sheets because they are indeed free of huge plastic bottles. While I’ve always been leery of laundry pods because they feel like plastic, I assumed these were different. However, I discovered that these also contain PVA (polyvinyl alcohol).

Again, PVA is a plastic, and while it is designed to dissolve, that doesn’t mean it disappears. A study cited by the company Blueland “suggests that over 75% of PVA persists in our waterways and our soil after it dissolves in laundry and dishwashing machines, flows through wastewater and ultimately back into our environment.”12

In fact, in November 2022, Blueland, the Plastic Pollution Coalition, and a large group of other nonprofit organizations filed a petition with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to readdress PVA and its effects. “This petition requests that the EPA conduct requisite human and environmental health and safety testing for Polyvinyl Alcohol, also known as  PVA or PVOH as it is used in consumer-packaged goods, with particular attention to the use of PVA in laundry and dishwasher detergent pods and sheets. The petition also requests that until such testing is completed, the EPA remove polyvinyl alcohol from its Safer Choice Program in order to curb plastic pollution.”13 Unfortunately, the EPA denied those requests.14

Avoid any laundry pods or dissolvable sheets that contain polyvinyl alcohol (PVA).

White washing machine with blue clothing in, door open.
Image by taraghb from Pixabay.

Powdered Detergents

Two Meliora cardboard and metal containers, lavender laundry powder at left (white and purple lable), and oxygen brightener at right (blue and white label).
Meliora powdered detergents, shipped plastic-free! Photo by Marie Cullis.

In general, I have trouble getting our clothes clean with laundry powder in our washing machine. I’m not sure if this is because I wash everything in cold water, or if we have hard water, or just an old washing machine. So when I do wash something in warm or hot water, I use Meliora laundry powder. I also use this laundry powder for all of my handwashing. I ordered the refillable containers on my first order, and the refills arrive in a recyclable brown paper bag. These products do not contain toxic ingredients or fragrances, and the company lists all of their ingredients on the packaging and its website. I recommend this brand (I do not get paid to write that nor am I an affiliate of the company).

Protecting Your Health & the Environment

While this may all seem overcomplicated, it doesn’t have to be. Just do your best. Steering clear of toxic ingredients and avoiding plastic are the goals. Avoid using chlorine bleach and “brighteners” as these are strong chemicals that are toxic to humans and the environment. Find a solution that works for you and stick with that. Sometimes it takes a while.

Feel free to comment on what works for you! I’d love for you to share. Thank you for reading, and please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

Water Filtration Systems

Last updated March 15, 2023.

Water pouring into a small clear glass, blue background.
Photo by Pixabay

In Part 1 and Part 2 of my What’s In Your Water? articles, I explained the problem with contaminants in tap water. I’ve also published a list of Common Water Contaminants. Next, I published an article on tap water vs. bottled water, highlighting that tap water is still the better option, despite contamination.

In today’s article, I’ll explore different types of water filters. It isn’t as simple as just buying a water filter pitcher and calling it done; each type of filter, even within individual brands, only reduces or removes certain contaminants.

Remember, check the Environmental Working Group’s tap water database first to find out what’s in your water (link under Additional Resources below).

Water Filtration Types

These are the main types of home water filtration systems:

      • Activated carbon
      • Ion exchange
      • Reverse osmosis
      • Ultraviolet (UV) Technologies
      • Distillation

Most companies use a combination of those to reduce or remove specified contaminants.

Activated Carbon Filters

In general, these are the least expensive types of filters to buy. There are two main types: carbon block and granulated activated carbon. Carbon block is better in that it is more effective, but both types’ effectiveness depends on how quickly water flows through the filter.1 The filters on these do need to be changed according to the manufacturer’s recommendations as bacteria grows on carbon filters after a certain amount of time.

Activated carbon chemically bonds with contaminants as water flows through the filter, thereby removing it from the water we drink. However, their performance widely varies. Some remove chlorine and improve the taste of water, and others reduce – though not remove – contaminants, such as asbestos, lead, mercury, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). “However, activated carbon does not remove common inorganic pollutants such as arsenic, fluoride, hexavalent chromium, nitrate and perchlorate,” which are very toxic and potentially carcinogenic.2

Ion Exchange

Ion exchange is often used to soften water by reducing calcium, magnesium, barium, and radium, which can build up in plumbing and fixtures. But other contaminants remain in the water. Also, water softeners replace calcium and magnesium with sodium, so people with certain health conditions and/or who want to maintain a low-sodium diet should avoid drinking it. It should not be used for watering plants or gardens, either.3

Reverse Osmosis

Reverse osmosis is the most effective at removing contaminants. These systems usually include one or more activated carbon and sediment filters, and reduce or remove large numbers of contaminants. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) outlined how it works: “The initial activated carbon treatment captures and removes chlorine, trihalomethanes and VOCs. Next, during the reverse osmosis filtration, tap water passes through a semipermeable membrane that blocks any particles larger than water molecules. As a result, reverse osmosis systems effectively remove many contaminants, such as arsenic, fluoride, hexavalent chromium, nitrates and perchlorate.” But these systems waste a lot of water, using five times more water than they make useable. The unused or rejected water is flushed down the drain.4

Another downside to reverse osmosis treatment is that it removes minerals that are essential for health, such as iron, calcium, and magnesium. Some manufacturers recommend the addition of mineral drops for remineralization.

Ultraviolet (UV) Technologies

Ultraviolet treatment is good for killing chlorine-resistant microorganisms, as it destroys 99% of viruses and bacteria in water without chemicals. However, UV is only able to eliminate microorganisms in water. It does not remove any other contaminants from water such as heavy metals, salts, chlorine, or man-made substances like petroleum products and pharmaceuticals. I have not reviewed any UV systems since they are limited in their treatment of water.

Distillation

Old-fashioned distillation vaporizes water and then condenses the steam back into water. “The process removes minerals, many bacteria and viruses, and some chemicals that have a higher boiling point than water. But it does not remove chlorine, trihalomethanes or VOCs from water.”5 I have not reviewed any distillation systems since they are limited in their treatment of water.

Person holding out a glass of water.
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Water Filter Testing & Certification

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) advises that filters of the same type “can vary in their capacity to reduce the levels of specific contaminants. To ensure that a filter can significantly lower a particular contaminant, check that it has been certified to do so by an independent third-party certification company.” Though there may not be a third-party certification for every specific contaminant, the type of filter should still at least reduce the levels.6 

The Water Quality Association (WQA) offers certification regarding filters for specific contaminant removal. The NSF International also tests and certifies products. I’ve put a link to both of their sites under Additional Resources below, but I’m not convinced that those are the be-all and end-all. This is because the WQA and the NSF only follow the standards of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While I strongly support the EPA, they are woefully behind in regulating chemicals, especially in regard to water contamination. Elizabeth Royte, author of Garbage Land and Bottlemania, quoted Brita’s research-and-development group manager at the time her book was published in 2008: “We can’t claim to take it out if we don’t test for it, and we don’t test for it if the EPA doesn’t have a standard.”7 

Some companies use different and perhaps more thorough testing methods. Those companies should provide details about their testing methods right on their website. You can also contact the company and ask questions. If they can’t or won’t answer your questions, then they are not a reputable company and you shouldn’t purchase anything from them.

Environmental Working Group’s water filter recommendations

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) provides a handy chart identifying the type of filter required for the removal of specific contaminants. You can find this by entering your zip code on EWG’s tap water database page, then selecting your water utility, and scrolling toward the bottom of the page. You will find a chart similar to this:

Screenshot of water filter options for the various contaminants detected in my water, from the Environmental Working Group.
Click on the chart to enlarge it.

Unfortunately, none of the types of filters above remove everything.

Water Filter Brands

There are different types of water filtration systems, including countertop water pitchers, under-sink filtration systems, and whole home filtration systems. I mainly focus on countertop water pitchers and a few under-sink filtration systems, as whole-home systems are costly, require commitment, and warrant an entirely separate article.

Let’s go through some of the specific brands of water filter systems. Please note: This is not a comprehensive list of all available water filtration systems, as there are just far too many types to review. These are the main ones I have encountered. I do not get paid or earn money as an affiliate for any product in this article.

Brita

Brita water filter pitcher, red and clear

First, let me acknowledge that I have used Brita water pitchers for almost 20 years. But I have lost trust in this company and some of the things I discovered about Brita were unsettling.

For example, I learned that Brita is owned by Clorox, a company whose vested interest is in some of the very chemicals that clean and disinfect our homes. Clorox is also used globally to disinfect water. But the chemicals in Clorox’s products contaminate our water systems with toxins that cause or contribute to many diseases. This company has a conflict of interest! They are seemingly making a profit from the pollution, though they are certainly not the only company engaging in such practices.

Brita’s Filters

Brita makes several types of filters that each filter different contaminants. They use activated carbon, ion-exchange beads, and other proprietary methods. The ion-exchange beads may be made of plastic resin, which is derived from oil. Brita filter systems do not treat bacteria or microbes. Unfortunately, none of their filters reduce or remove everything. And none remove hexavalent chromium or PFAS.

While I found Brita’s website somewhat confusing regarding their water filter systems, they do provide a breakdown of what each of their systems filters in the chart below.8 Following is an outline of the details of each filter type.

Chart showing different Brita filter systems and what they reduce or remove from water.
Click on the chart to enlarge it.

Brita’s Pitcher – Longlast Filters (also called Elite filters):

These use “proprietary active filtering agents” (meaning they are not required to share how they work) to reduce the contaminants lead, asbestos, mercury, cadmium, 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, atrazine, benzene, endrin, ethylbenzene, carbon tetrachloride, dichlorobenzene, simazine, and tetrachloroethylene.9

Brita’s Pitcher – Standard Filters:

These combine activated carbon granules and ion exchange. Activated carbon granules absorb some contaminants and reduce mercury, chlorine taste, and odor. These filters also use Ion Exchange Resin to capture copper, zinc, and cadmium. Since I have used the standard filters for so many years, I was surprised to learn that the standard filters do not remove lead. We had our water tested for lead a couple of years ago (and it was not detected), but how many people have access to lead testing?

Brita’s Pitcher – Stream filters:

These seem less common but they filter only the taste and odor of chlorine, some particulates, and tricholorobenzene.

Brita’s Bottle filters:

I was initially really excited about these because they are so convenient – the bottle and filter are all in one. But these reduce the least amount of contaminants, only the taste and odor of chlorine and some particulates. These just aren’t worth the money.

Brita’s Faucet filters:

These remove the most contaminants, as they use a carbon block and reduce lead, chlorine, asbestos, benzene, tricholorobenzene, particulates, and “select pharmaceuticals, pesticides/herbicides, TTHMs and atrazine.”10 Additionally, they remove alachlor, carbofuran, chlordane, carbon tetrachloride, 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, endrin, chlorobenzene, dichlorobenzene, ethylbenzene, lindane, methoxychlor, simazine, styrene, tetrachloroethylene, toluene, toxaphene, trichloroethylene, and a list of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).11

PUR

Blue and white PUR water pitcher pouring water.

PUR’s filter systems seem quite similar to Brita’s, as their regular filters reduce roughly the same contaminants. PUR filters use multiple layers of filtration and contain both a proprietary blend of activated carbon and ion exchange materials. Contaminants, such as pesticides and pharmaceuticals, are adsorbed by carbon; heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, are adsorbed by ion exchange materials. PUR claims that they were the first to obtain NSF certification for emerging contaminants, meaning chemicals suspected to cause health or environmental problems that are not yet or have only recently been regulated.12

Also like Brita, PUR’s faucet system reduces far more contaminants than their regular pitchers, especially in the categories of industrial pollutants, herbicides and pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. Here are the ingredients that their faucet filters remove, that their basic filter pitchers do not: chlorobenzene, carbon tetrachloride, DEET, o-dichlorobenzene, styrene, trichloroethylene, TCEP, TCPP, asbestos, volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), 2,4-D, alachlor, atrazine, carbofuran, chlordane, endrin, lindane, metolachlor, simazine, toxaphene, bisphenol A (BPA), and total trihalomethanes (TTHMs).13 

While PUR’s faucet filters reduce a lot of contaminants, note that they do not address contaminants such as hexavalent chromium or PFAS.

3M

3M Under sink Drinking water filter

3M sells under-sink water filters and whole home water filtration systems. But this is another example of a company that I just don’t trust. They are selling us a product that removes contaminants they allowed to contaminate our water, essentially profiting from the pollution they helped create.

Further, 3M (in addition to DuPont) spent decades producing PFOA, PFAS, PFCs, etc., and improperly disposing of them. These carcinogenic chemicals are now in our soil and water supply across the United States. “3M makes water filters that reduce ‘chlorine taste and odor, trihalomethane (THM), lead, sediment, cysts, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium (hex), chromium (tri), copper, fluoride, radium, selenium, turbidity, total dissolved solids (TDS), mercury, asbestos, chloramine, MTBE and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).’ No PFCs are mentioned,” despite 3M being one of the major producers and polluters. 14 In fact, when I searched “3m pollution” on Google, I got more than 9 million results. Buyer beware.

Screenshot of a Google search for "3m pollution", and the number of results circled in red.

Invigorated Water

Invigorated Water pitcher, clear and whiteThis brand’s focus is alkaline water. Their filters remove some contaminants such as chlorine, fluoride, and heavy metals using a multi-stage filtration system. They have two Micro-Nets that catch potentially dangerous particles while allowing beneficial minerals through. Next, Zeolite – a variety of minerals that contain alkali and alkaline-earth metals – reduces fluoride, and removes heavy metals, such as mercury, lead, arsenic, zinc, and copper. Coconut shell-activated carbon removes pollutants and chemicals. Last, a ceramic ball and stone blend increases alkalinity.

Invigorated Water filter cross section diagram

However, their website claims that their filters “remove chemicals, toxins, chlorine, fluoride, heavy metals,” but it does not elaborate on specific chemicals and toxins. So I emailed the company to find out more information. Though they made me answer specific questions about my article before they would answer my questions, the company was very responsive. In the end, their filters remove heavy metals (aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, chromium-3, iron, lead, and selenium), and reduce chlorine, nitrate, fluoride, and sulfate. However, their filters do not remove chemicals or volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as PFAS or hexavalent chromium.

Advocates of alkaline water claim that it improves health and provides better-tasting water. But when I researched alkaline water benefits, I discovered that these claims are controversial. Most of the major online medical websites indicate that there are few studies supporting alkaline water’s health benefits. If you’re interested in alkaline water benefits, I recommend further research.

Enviro Products Alkaline Water Pitcher

Image of Enviro Products Alkaline Water Pitcher packaging

This is also an alkaline home water system, one I discovered at Whole Foods. Their Alkaline pitcher, the one shown at left, filters chlorine only. The Alkaline Plus pitcher filters chlorine and removes lead. But their 10 Stage Plus Countertop Filter System uses multiple filtration types to filter out many contaminants, including a micron pad, activated carbon, and ion exchange. This system removes chlorine, total trihalomethanes, arsenic, heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, and “many other organic pollutants.” I wanted to know what “other organic pollutants” include, so I emailed the company to ask. Unfortunately, they never responded to me.

Lifestraw

Lifestraw home pitcher, white and clear, with water in it

Lifestraw’s purpose began with supporting underrepresented communities globally and fighting water-borne diseases. In 1999, they developed a plastic pipe filter to strain out Guinea worm larva and grew from there. Today, Lifestraw is a Climate Neutral Certified B Corp. They believe “everyone deserves equitable access to safe drinking water” and claim that “for every product sold, a child in need receives access to safe water for an entire year.”15

Today they offer different home systems based on the type of use, including home use, travel, outdoor, emergency, etc. Or, you can shop by water contaminant concern, such as bacteria, viruses, chemicals, lead, etc. This is really useful for someone aiming to solve a specific problem. Lifestraw seems transparent and publishes details on every product and what it specifically reduces or removes. If you are traveling globally, this seems like the type of product you’d need.

Lifestraw’s home pitcher is glass, which is quite different from most other home systems that use plastic. The filters use a combination of processes, including a membrane microfilter, activated carbon, and an ion-exchange filter. Together, this removes the majority of bacteria, parasites, and microplastics; and reduces heavy metals including lead, chlorine, herbicides, pesticides, some pharmaceuticals, and PFAS!

Lifestraw home pitcher data sheet
Click on the chart to enlarge it.

Unfortunately, for me, it does not reduce or remove hexavalent chromium (chromium-6).

ZeroWater

Zero Water pitcher with tester on leftZeroWater uses a five-stage Ion Exchange filtration to remove 99.6% of detectable dissolved solids. They claim that their filters produce water that is a similar purity level to the water from a reverse osmosis system.16 They remove antimony, arsenic, barium, beryllium, cadmium, chromium-3, chromium-6 (hexavalent chromium), copper, iron, lead, manganese, mercury, selenium, silver, thallium, zinc, asbestos, chlorine, cyanide, fluoride, nitrate, nitrite, and PFAS.17 The main page of this company’s website claims to be the only filter NSF Certified filter to reduce PFAS. This seems like a good option.

Berkey

Berkey Filter systems combine three types of water filtration. They use ion exchange, starting “with water going through the filter elements, which are made up of more than six different media types and billions of micropores (aka tiny holes). These holes are so small that harmful materials are unable to pass through. Next, the adsorption process keeps out harmful chemicals that are smaller than the pores. After that, harmful metals are attracted to the media using ion exchange. All of this is slowed using a gravity flow process,”18 which allows water to flow through the filter so slowly that contaminants aren’t able to get through. They do not use chemicals, such as iodine or chlorinating tablets, to purify the water. From their website: “We do not have to use chemicals in our unique ionic adsorption process mated with simple microfiltration. In short, these two methods create a pore structure so minute that contaminants are removed from the water because they simply cannot pass through the charged filtering media.”19 20 But water does retain important minerals that our bodies need.

Berkey filters remove the following (I’ve bolded the toxins in my water highlighted in What’s In Your Water? Part 1); bacteria; microorganisms (like e.Coli); viruses; trihalomethanes including chloroformchloramines; chlorine; chloride; haloacetic acids; heavy metals including lead; vanadiumchromium-6 (hexavalent chromium); manganese; and pharmaceuticals including acetaminophen; caffeine; carbamazepine; ciprofloxacin HCl; erythromycin USP; sulfamethoxazole; trimethoprim; BPA (bisphenol A); diclofenac sodium; 4-para-nonylphenol; 4-tert-octylphenol; primidone; progesterone; gemfibrozil; ibuprofen; naproxen sodium; triclosan.

They also remove (or reduce below detectable limits) so many pesticides (including glyphosate) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that I am unable to list them here (link in footnotes). They also remove or reduce arsenic; fluorine; nitrites; PCBs; phthalates; PFAS and PFCs; petroleum products; selenium; thallium; most radioactive substances including radium and strontium; rust; silt; and sediment.21 22 23

The only contaminants Berkey does not remove are nitrates and fluoride, though they offer an additional filter for the fluoride.24 The filters last a long time, through about 6,000 gallons of water, which is potentially several years of use. While Berkey advertises that the cost comes out to just 2 cents per gallon, the initial cost is high – in the $300-$400 range – and one of the most expensive set-ups in this review, but perhaps water free of toxins and carcinogens comes at a cost.

Charcoal sticks

Charcoal stick in a glass bottle with a cork top, sitting on a counter next to a small glass of water.
Photo by Callum Shaw on Unsplash.

Many zero wasters claim that charcoal sticks will purify drinking water, without the plastic waste that comes from all water filtration systems. Here’s how it works: “Binchotan charcoal is activated through extremely high burning temperatures, along with a rapid cooling process. Once the charcoal has been activated, the increased surface area can bind easily and is extremely porous, thus making it extremely useful at absorbing impurities and contaminants.”25 It can absorb metals found in tap water such as lead, mercury, copper, and aluminum.26

From what I can tell, charcoal sticks may remove most contaminants that activated carbon filters remove. But they will not help with volatile organic compounds, chemicals, or pharmaceuticals.

However, they are very affordable and extremely low waste. After 3-4 months of use in water, you can repurpose them. Use the sticks as an air freshener for your refrigerator, or crush them and put them in your garden soil. To ensure quality, I recommend using a well-known brand over an off-brand.

Bluevua

Bluevua countertop reverse osmosis water filtration machineThis company makes a multi-filter and reverse osmosis countertop system and an under sink reverse osmosis filtration system. The countertop model reminds me of a standard coffee maker. It has 4 stages of purification. The under sink version has 6 stages and requires installation, but the company provides instructions.

Reverse osmosis removes many contaminants! But remember, reverse osmosis typically wastes a lot of water. However, this company claims that its system only wastes water at a 1:1 ratio. They declare this to be 300% more efficient than comparable systems. The system also adds back in minerals that reverse osmosis typically removes. This product sounds great! The filtered water goes back into the fill tank.27 One thing that is not clear to me is what to do with the wastewater. The instructions indicate that the wastewater is contaminated and the company recommends “following the instruction of discarding [the] water,” only I did not see instructions on discarding the water either on the website or in the manual.

Note: There are quite a few companies making reverse osmosis systems. I researched just one for this article. AquaTru has been making reverse osmosis systems for a long time, but reviews imply that their systems have issues. Brita Pro has a whole home reverse osmosis system but appears to be only available through an authorized partner company. 

Image of hand holding a glass, getting water, under the kitchen faucet.
Photo by Andres Siimon on Unsplash.

Conclusion

I realize this is a lot of information, and it’s hard to know where to go from here. So let me reemphasize: first, find out what’s in your water, and what contaminants you are most concerned about. I’m most worried about hexavalent chromium (chromium-6), PFAS, VOCs, pharmaceuticals, and many others. It looks like my family will have to purchase a Berkey or ZeroWater system, but Berkey removes the most contaminants. However, it is quite expensive.

My goal is to stop using Brita, simply because it doesn’t filter out much. As soon as I purchase a new system, I’ll update this article and let you know which one we chose. I’ll also write a review on it! Please comment below on what you’re using to filter your water, as well as your experiences with water filtration! Thanks for reading, please share and subscribe!

UPDATE, March 15, 2023: We purchased a Berkey system when they had a sale in Fall 2022, and have since been using it for most anything we ingest – drinking, cooking, the dog’s water, etc. I find the taste to be free of that chemical taste and smell (though now I can smell those odors stronger when I drink water in other places, like at work). I would like to have the water tested and have a before-and-after comparison someday when funds allow. In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions about the Berkey system!

 

Additional Resources:

Database, “EWG’s Tap Water Database,” Environmental Working Group.

Page, “Find WQA-Certified Water Treatment Products,” Water Quality Association.

Website, “Certified Products and Systems,” NSF International.

Page, “A Guide to Drinking Water Treatment Technologies for Household Use,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” cdc.gov, reviewed August 4, 2020.

Footnotes:

Shampoo Bars & Conditioner Bars Eliminate the Need for Plastic Packaging

Last updated on March 9, 2024.

Photo of man with his head under shower water.
Image by Olya Adamovich from Pixabay.

Most shampoo and conditioner brands are sold in plastic bottles. Since we know that 91% of plastic isn’t actually recycled, many of us are trying to find ways to not purchase products in plastic.1 Recently, a colleague asked me what to do about shampoo and its plastic packaging.

Did you know you can buy shampoo as a bar?

No way, you say! Or, maybe you’re thinking ugh, what? Either way, stick with me for a bit.

Last fall, I wrote an article on the benefits of bar soap and how it can be purchased practically packaging-free. I use bar soap for showering out of personal preference. I always found that most body wash and liquid soaps washed down the drain rather than cleansed my body. Once I switched to bar soap, I felt like I got a better lather and a better cleanse, and found that I wasted less soap overall. A bonus is that there are no travel restrictions on bar shampoo, so no need for little plastic travel bottles!

I first discovered shampoo bars on Beth Terry’s site, My Plastic-Free Life.2 I was excited to learn about shampoo bars and switched to them right away. But there have been some issues with various bars, so I’m reviewing those here.

Image of lavender bar soap, light lavender towel, violet vase, and fresh lavender.
Image by joe137 from Pixabay.

“Up to 80 percent of shampoo and 95 percent of conditioner is made of water.” -Brigette Allen and Christine Wong, Living Without Plastic3

How to use a Shampoo Bar

This part is easy! You just rub the bar between your hands like you would with regular bar soap, or directly on your hair and scalp as long as you are gentle. It’s only strange the first time. The lather of a bar is satisfying, and I’ve come to prefer shampoo bars.

Plastic-Free often also means Toxin-Free

Most shampoo bars do not contain the perfumes, chemicals, and harsh detergents that are in major brands of bottled shampoo. This means you will not be exposing your body to toxic ingredients that will strip your hair, disrupt your hormones, or cause cancer. Yes, you read that right – many major brands of shampoo and conditioner contain one or more toxic ingredients. Under Additional Resources, I’ve included a link to a list of ingredients you should avoid, and also a link to review brands on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep site.

I will say that this type of shampoo does take getting used to. Most of us are accustomed to shampoos that strip our hair and scalp of their natural oils, so it will take a few shampoos for your scalp to adjust and not feel greasy. But this is normal and once you adjust, you’ll start to feel and see the benefits of shampoo that is not full of harsh ingredients.

Photo of the shampoo aisle at the grocery store. Many plastic shampoo bottles in many colors.
Most grocery and department stores carry shampoo and conditioner exclusively in plastic bottles. Photo by Marie Cullis.

“The number of shampoo bottles thrown out in the United States every year could fill 1,164 football fields.”-authors Brigette Allen and Christine Wong, Living Without Plastic4

The Shampoo Bars

Here is a review of the brands I’ve tried, in order of preference:

J.R. Liggett’s shampoo bar

J.R. Liggett's shampoo bar

This is the first one I ever tried, mainly because I was able to find this locally at Earthfare (also sold at Whole Foods and Amazon). It is packaged in a recyclable paper wrapper. I’ve switched back to it several times after trying many others, and have decided this is my favorite. It lathers well, the bar does not fall apart over time, and my hair is soft and clean.

There is a bar for every hair type: Original; Moisturizing (for dry, colored or damaged hair); Tea Tree & Hemp (fragrance-free and good for “itchy-flaky scalp”); and several others depending on personal scalp preference.

Sappo Hill

Cream colored Sappo Hill shampoo bars, next to lavender sprigs.

I like Sappo Hill and it is my husband’s preferred bar soap. I discovered their bar soap when I used to shop at Earthfare, and I love that the bars were package-free except for a bar code sticker. After Earthfare closed all of its stores, I went online and discovered that they sell many more scents and that they also make shampoo bars! Their shampoo bars are mild and cleansing. They run a close second to my favorite (above) and are very well-priced. I recommend this brand if you don’t like other shampoo bars.

Aquarian Bath

Pink Shampoo bar in a blue glazed dish from Aquarian Bath on Etsy.

My third favorite is one that I discovered through the website My Plastic-Free Life, called Aquarian Bath.5 This shampoo bar doesn’t break apart and lathers well. These are handmade, vegan, palm oil-free, SLS-free, fragrance-free, dye-free, and not tested on animals.

They will ship their products naked, meaning zero waste or no packaging, which is super! There are many scents and bars with ingredients for each hair type, including one for dandruff, so read each description to find the right one for you. They also sell other types of products with the same qualities.

Nourish Natural Bath Products

Black Shampoo bar from Nourish

Nourish is where I buy the majority of my bar soap for body washing. But in recent years, they’ve come out with shampoo and conditioner bars. I was thrilled about this because I love most of their products! However, while I like the scents and the clean feeling these bars leave in my hair, they have the flaw of crumbling about halfway through the bar’s life. This leaves several small pieces of shampoo bar, and those pieces get smaller and smaller, creating frustration. I’ve tried 3 of these and each bar had this problem. I’m hoping they can improve their binding process.

Lush Cosmetics

Image of Lush shampoo bar, white with pink edges.

I tried a shampoo bar from Lush Cosmetics and it crumbled halfway through its life as well. I did not enjoy the scent either but I highly respect Lush Cosmetics because of their naked packaging. Their products are handmade, vegan, and cruelty-free. This particular bar just didn’t work for me. However, I like and respect the company so much that I plan to try additional shampoo bars. Here’s why:

“Since 2005, we’ve sold more than 41 million shampoo bars, saving 124 million plastic bottles from ever being produced. That’s approximately 3417 tons of plastic saved, or about the weight of 30 blue whales. Imagine if everyone ditched the bottle in favor of the bar!” -Lush Cosmetics6

The Right To Shower Shampoo Bar & Bar Soap

The Right To Shower Shampoo bar packaging with a yellow and orange bar inside, visible through the package window.

I found this brand at Whole Foods, and they claim to help bring mobile showers to people living on the streets, which is pretty cool! It’s a large bar for the price and can be used on both the hair and body, which is an added benefit. These bars are vegan, sulfate-free, are made in the US, use Rainforest Alliance Certified palm oil, are cruelty-free, and are packaged in 100% recycled carton paper. I love the promise of this product! But it does not keep my hair as cleansed as I’d like – I noticed some build-up on my scalp.

Photo of a woman running her hands through her light brown hair, wearing a white sweater, pink background.
Photo by Element5 Digital from Pexels.

What about Conditioner?

When I first started going plastic-free, I made my own conditioner and continued doing so for about 2 years. There are many recipes on Pinterest and I’ve tried a bunch. Most did not work for me – they were either too greasy (coconut oil-based) or left my hair tangly (shea butter-based). The one I settled on uses a combination of oils and aloe vera gel with guar gum as a thickening agent. Unfortunately, the ingredients are not all available plastic-free in the area where I live. Since the beginning of my journey, some companies have developed conditioner bars. Below are the ones I’ve tried.

by Humankind

White conditioner bar, peach background.

This company sells all plastic-free/packaging-free products and orders are carbon neutral (meaning the company contributes to forest preservation to offset the carbon created from shipping their product). I tried their grapefruit-scented conditioner bar and it is my favorite though most expensive. The bars are vegan and made of all-natural ingredients. Unfortunately, it broke into pieces toward the end of its life. I found it very difficult to use 4 tiny pieces to conditioner my long hair, so this was disappointing. But it left my hair soft, manageable, and shiny! I plan to give it another try, and they also sell shampoo bars that I haven’t yet tried.

Nourish

Nourish conditioner bar, pink

I tried Nourish’s conditioner bars in addition to their shampoo bars. They have great scents and they conditioned my thick mane well, leaving it shiny and manageable. However, they crumbled about halfway through the life of the bar. Even so, this one is my second favorite and they are much more affordable than others. They are vegan and made with natural ingredients. They offer a choice of packaging when you order, either compostable plastic or tissue paper wrapping.

HiBar

HiBar conditioner bar packaging and blue bar.

I am still on the fence about this one. It is also a little costly and I don’t like the scent of the blue moisturize bar. But the shape is unique as you can see. The bar is made to hold in your hand while you rub the angled flat part of the bar directly onto your hair. This creates no friction or tugging and allows me to condition my hair much more thoroughly. The same goes for washing my son’s hair – I can conditioner it quicker without tugging, which of course makes hair washing better for him! So I do like the shape but I may need to try a different scent. If I do, I’ll update this article. HiBar Conditioner bars are free of sulfates, phthalates, silicones, or parabens. They also sell shampoo bars. These are sold only in cardboard packaging, no plastic packaging.

Person washing hair in shower, lathering brown hair, angle shows back of head and hands in hair, and bare shoulders.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels.

Let Go of Guilt

I’m not perfect. I’m still figuring it all out too. I got very frustrated once with conditioner bars breaking into small pieces that became unusable and purchased conditioner in a plastic bottle! I did at least buy Pacifica Beauty brand because their products are vegan and cruelty-free, as well as toxin-free. But I’m not giving up! 

Remember, the fact that you’re willing to try another method to avoid plastic means a lot. So if your attempts at switching fail, just don’t give up. You will find something that works eventually!

You can do this, and hopefully, this post helps! Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

 

This post does not contain any affiliate links nor did I get paid to promote or receive free items for any of the product reviews in this post.

 

Additional Resources:

Article, 15 Harmful Ingredients In Shampoos And Conditioners That You Should Avoid, Starting Today!” Skinkraft Laboratories, April 21, 2020.

Website, EWG’s Skin Deep, accessed February 16, 2021.

Footnotes:

Recycling: TerraCycle Toys Zero Waste Box

Last updated on February 1, 2024.

TerraCycle toy waste boxes, 3 sizes, with outset circle showing a rubber duck, legos, toy cars, and other toys.

For Christmas, I asked for a TerraCycle Toys Zero Waste box. They’re almost $100, so I didn’t expect that I’d actually get one, but I did (and thank you)!

I was super excited because in 2017 I’d signed up for a free broken toy recycling program through TerraCycle, sponsored by Tom’s of Maine. I sent what I had but for the next full year, I saved every broken toy I found. I asked friends to give me their broken toys too. However, Tom’s of Maine stopped sponsoring this program in 2018. I emailed them to ask why, and they responded that they had “decided not to re-run this promotion” with no further details.

I was disappointed. By then I had a huge box of broken toys, and I continued to add to the box, refusing to throw them in a landfill. So I added the TerraCycle Toys Zero Waste Box to my Christmas list.

Large brown cardboard box of broken toys. I collected and save broken toys for about 20 months.
I collected and saved broken toys for almost 2 years. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Broken toy contents.
Broken toy contents. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Damaged green, plastic baseball bat.
We had tried to extend the life of this plastic baseball bat by duct-taping it. But it was time to let it go. We got this before we understood how acutely broken plastic toys contribute to the waste crisis and ocean pollution. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Receiving my box

The box arrived in a large plastic wrap, which I was able to repurpose as a garbage bag (I stopped buying garbage bags in 2018). This is what the TerraCycle box looks like unassembled:

TerraCycle Toys Zero Waste box, flat on a hardwood floor.
TerraCycle Toys Zero Waste box. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Since the box is meant to be placed in an area for collection, such as at an office or a daycare center, it is equipped with handles on the sides, perforations at the top to drop items in, and a plastic bag inside.

I removed the plastic bag because it was preventing me from being able to fit everything (and I did repurpose that bag as well). I asked my husband, who is a master at packing, to assist because I was having trouble fitting everything, including that plastic green bat. We were able to fit 95% of it.

My husband helping me pack the box, sitting on the floor with toys and two boxes.
My husband helped me pack the box. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Full TerraCycle box with colorful plastic toys at the top.
We managed to get 95% of it in the box! Photo by Marie Cullis.

The few items that didn’t fit I placed in a bin in my garage, marked “Plastic Recycling.” It contains plastic items that are not normally recyclable. I plan to save up for an All-In-One Zero Waste Box from TerraCycle.

Ready to ship

The whole process was easy, including shipment. The purchase of the box includes the cost of shipping and comes with the label already on it. So I dropped it off at FedEx! It felt good to ship those items off after having collected and saved them for so long.

Thoughts on TerraCycle

I admire this company, its mission, and its founder. I like that they take non-recyclable items and make them into cool, useful, new products. I am grateful that they are creating great, visionary, and intelligent solutions!

While TerraCycle is only a small percentage of recycling options, you can purchase zero-waste boxes on their website. There are many types and sizes available. It is costly, but sometimes we have to pay now or pay environmentally later. Remember, we can all be the change in small ways.

You can also participate in their free programs by signing up through their website. I’ve participated in several of the free programs including contact lens product recycling; Brita filter recycling; and oral care products recycling. I had to save those things up for a long time, but I have a designated shelf in my garage for such items. I label bins with the name of the recycling or donation program. You can make a designated space too!

Image of my designated shelf for recycling items - white metal open shelves with bins and boxes and cans with labels on them.
My designated “transient” shelf in the garage. I collect items I can recycle or donate locally until I have enough to take or ship. In this image, there are a few unlabeled bins but they are all in use now. I’ve added a place for thrift store donations, the used book store, and a couple of TerraCycle programs. Photo by Marie Cullis.

But recycling is not the answer

It helps, sure, but Refusing certain products made of plastic and/or sold in plastic packaging is the key. We all must refuse these items, reduce the use of what we cannot refuse, and then recycle. So recycling should be the third option.

Only 9% of our plastics are actually recycled! That means 91% of our plastics are NOT recycled.

I love TerraCycle because it is a step in the right direction. However, using their programs does not discourage consumers from buying plastic products. In turn, it does not send the message to the corporations that they need to alter their plastic production and packaging.

So keep trying to REFUSE. Use TerraCycle and similar programs when you can’t refuse.

Landscape with rolling hills and mountains, a pond, green grass, and blue sky with white clouds. Wild flowers in foreground.
Earth is beautiful. Let’s keep it that way, image by Free-Photos on Pixabay.

I hope this was informative and I would love to hear about your experiences with TerraCycle recycling, or how you’ve stopped buying certain plastic items. Thanks for reading!

This post does not contain any affiliate links nor was I paid to review TerraCycle products.