How To Wash Clothes Without Soap

How To Wash Clothes Without Soap

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Did you know that it’s the water that does the most work in your washing machine? Take away the detergent and you should still get a good wash.

If you have run out of detergent or you are cutting back costs there are some things you can do to enhance the wash using everyday household items, like baking soda, vinegar and good old washing soda crystals.

Here’s the quick answer on how to wash your clothes without soap, read on for the detail:

Pretreat stains with dish soap or Vanish stain remover bar. Avoid overloading the washing drum and choose an intensive washing cycle. Optionally add borax, baking soda, or washing soda crystals. Adding vinegar to the rinse cycle will help to naturally soften and sanitize.

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What happens if you wash clothes without detergent?

Not much to be honest! If you have a good washing machine with good agitation, your clothes will get clean. The water does most of the work. Detergent makes the water more effective at cleaning by softening the water and helping it to penetrate the fibers.

How to wash clothes without soap

If you have run out of detergent, or you want to cut back on chemical usage, here are some simple steps to follow to get your clothes clean with just plain water.

Step 1 – Pretreat stains

Before you start washing your clothes without soap you will want to check them for stains and pretreat first.

I recommend rubbing in some dish soap or using a bar of ordinary hand soap. If the stain is protein-based such as tomato, oil or blood, Vanish stain remover bar is perfect because it contains enzymes that will break down the stain.

Step 2 – Choose an alternative to laundry detergent

If you have pretreated your stains, it is actually perfectly fine to do your whole wash in just water alone. The stains, as long as you caught them all should come out in an ordinary warm wash.

For a more thorough wash, there are several common household items you could use to help your washing machine work more effectively at cleaning your clothes.

Borax or baking soda

If you have some borax or baking soda to hand add half to one cup of either directly to the washing drum.

Washing soda crystals

Washing soda crystals were commonly used for laundry before the modern-day detergents came along like Ariel and Persil. If it was good enough for our parents and grandparents then it is good enough to use today too!

Add half to one cup of washing soda crystals directly to the washing drum and wash as normal.

These items are a great alternative to regular washing detergent too:

Soap nuts

Soap nuts are a natural alternative to laundry detergent.

Soap nuts are not actually nuts, but berries that grow on the soap nut tree, the Latin of which is Sapindus Mukorossi, also known as the Reetha tree.

The outer shell has special properties that when added to water release a natural soap that can be used to wash clothing, dishes, or the body.

How to use soap nuts to wash your clothes

  1. Load your washing machine as normal
  2. Place 3-4 soap nut shells in a muslin bag and secure tightly
  3. Run your wash as normal
  4. Remove the muslin bag and leave to dry or add them to your dryer with the rest of the laundry
Ecozone Hypoallergenic & Organic Soap Nuts 1kg
Ecozone Hypoallergenic & Organic Soap Nuts 1kg

Related reading:

Ecoegg laundry egg

I’ve been using a laundry egg for almost a year and I love how cost-effective it is and it cleans the washing well too!

To use Ecoegg simply add the Ecoegg washing pellets to the egg and then place it on top of your washing. Then wash as normal.

ecoegg Laundry Egg, Fresh Linen 720 Loads
ecoegg Laundry Egg, Fresh Linen 720 Loads

Related reading:


In a pinch you can use shampoo! It isn’t a great alternative but if that is all you have available, don’t try it until you have read this post - Can I use shampoo as a laundry detergent?.

Step 3 – Choose an intensive washing cycle

Choose the longest cycle that you have available on your machine so that the water has longer to penetrate the fibres and get your clothes clean.

For washing without detergent, you may find that you get a better result if you wash in warm or hot water.

Avoid overloading the drum so that clothes can agitate freely.

If you are handwashing you can use these items

handwashing clothes

If you are handwashing then you have more options available. The items in the list below tend to produce too many suds to make them practical for an automatic washing machine. However, they work great if you only need to wash a few items.

  • Dish soap. Dish soap is great for pretreating stains and handwashing items. It is a great multiuse item to pack in your holiday luggage.
  • Shampoo. Ditto for shampoo. It’s not for the machine but great for handwashing. Gentle shampoo is best. Baby shampoo is great for handwashing clothes and you can also use it to unshrink clothing.
  • Bar soap. Melt some soap in warm water and then handwash as normal.

If washing in plain water isn’t for you, why not try out using a small amount of regular detergent along with some washing soda crystals? I do this on a cold wash and get a great result. Find out more – How To Do Your Laundry (almost) For Free (and still get a great wash).

How to sanitize laundry without detergent

There are several ways you can sanitize laundry naturally without using laundry detergent or adding something like chlorine-based laundry bleach. My favourite laundry additive is vinegar. It’s natural and it has anti-bacterial and softening qualities.

Let’s take a look at what you can add to the machine to help sanitize your laundry without using detergent.

  1. Distilled white vinegar. You can’t go wrong with adding vinegar to your wash. The best point to use it is in the rinse cycle. By using it you are also protecting your washing machine from limescale and bacterial build-up.
  2. Lemon juice. Lemon juice is naturally whitening and also anti-bacterial.
  3. Ultrasonic cleaner. If you are handwashing, put an ultrasonic cleaner in the washing water and it will naturally sanitize without chemicals.
Can't get motivated?
#10 works every time I use it!

How to whiten whites without detergent

Here are some ways to naturally whiten your whites without detergent:

  • Lemon juice. Lemon juice has natural anti-bacterial properties and it also has a whitening effect. Add some lemon juice to your wash to whiten your whites naturally. Use freshly squeezed lemon juice or bottled lemon juice. If the juice has bits in it you will want to filter it through a tea strainer first.
  • Baking soda. Add some baking soda to your wash to help naturally whiten.
  • Ecover laundry bleach. Ecover laundry bleach keeps whites white and is a natural alternative to chlorine bleach.
Ecover Wäscheservice Bleach 400g
Ecover Wäscheservice Bleach 400g

How to soften clothes without fabric conditioner

Here are some natural ways to soften your clothes without using fabric softener:

  • Vinegar. Add 1/2 to 1 cup of distilled white vinegar to the rinse cycle.
  • Line dry on a windy day. Nothing softens clothes like the wind! If you have a breezy day hang your towels out to dry and they should come in lovely and soft.
  • Switch to an Ecoegg. As well as cleaning, the Ecoegg naturally softens clothes.

Related reading:

Ecoegg Pros and Cons – Should You Make The Switch?

How to save money on laundry detergent

saving money on laundry detergent

Use (far) less detergent

I’ve always found that the recommended dosage for washing powder is generally more than you need to get an effective wash. I’ve found that I can safely reduce the amount of liquid or powder down to just one tablespoon.

You can improve laundry detergent effectiveness by not overloading the drum.

Top up with washing soda crystals

The dosage directions on washing detergents are usually broken down into hard, medium and soft water doses. If you add a tablespoon of washing soda crystals it will naturally soften the water and you can use use the amount recommended for soft water.

Dri-Pak Soda Crystals (1kg / 2.2 lb bag)
Dri-Pak Soda Crystals (1kg / 2.2 lb bag)

Increase the washing intensity

You can get an effective wash with less detergent if you increase the washing intensity. Choose the longest cycle available.

Make your own homemade detergent

Making your own homemade laundry detergent is simple and requires only a few ingredients.

Here’s how to make natural laundry detergent. I find this the most convenient because it is a powder that you can just throw into the tub.



  • Grate one bar of soap
  • Mix the grated soap with one cup of borax and one cup of washing soda crystals
  • Store in an airtight container

Add about 1/4 cup per washing load. For extra cleaning power and whitening add one scoop (about a tablespoon) of stain remover such as Oxiclean.

If you can’t get hold of borax or prefer not to use it, simply double up on washing soda crystals instead.

How to use castile soap as laundry detergent

You can safely use castile soap as a laundry detergent replacement.

Dr. Bronner's - Pure-Castile Liquid Soap (Baby Unscented, 8 Ounce) - Made with Organic Oils, 18-in-1 Uses: Face, Hair, Laundry, Dishes, For Sensitive Skin, Babies, No Added Fragrance, Vegan, Non-GMO
Dr. Bronner's - Pure-Castile Liquid Soap (Baby Unscented, 8 Ounce) - Made with Organic Oils, 18-in-1 Uses: Face, Hair, Laundry, Dishes, For Sensitive Skin, Babies, No Added Fragrance, Vegan, Non-GMO

I recommend adding a 1/2 cup of distilled white vinegar to the rinse cycle which will help to naturally soften the clothes. If you have hard water, the minerals in hard water can make washing out the soap more difficult, Vinegar will help with that too.

How to wash clothes by hand without detergent

If you need to wash your clothes by hand and you don’t have any detergent available you can very effectively hand wash with regular household items such as dishwashing soap or bar soap or even liquid hand soap.

  1. If you have a stain, pretreat with something like Vanish stain remover bar or directly apply some dish soap and work it into the stain.
  2. Fill a bowl with warm water.
  3. Add a small amount of dish soap or dissolve some bar soap in the water.
  4. Add the clothing and agitate for five minutes.
  5. Squeeze out the water and rinse with clean water.

Related reading:

Frequently asked questions

Can you wash clothes with dish soap?

Yes, you can wash clothes with dish soap. However, I find that dish soap is best used as a stain remover. Rub some into a stain and the stain should disappear in the wash.

If you use dish soap in your washing machine take care not to use too much because the machine’s agitation will create too many suds. For this reason, dish soap is best used for handwashing, that way you can control the amount of suds created.

Can you wash clothes with only water?

Several readers have asked me if it is bad for your clothes or your machine to wash without detergent.

The answer is that yes it is perfectly okay to wash clothes with just water. If you do so I recommend using warm or hot water. Choose an intensive washing cycle and load the drum at half to three-quarters capacity. If you have stains, pretreat with Oxiclean or Vanish stain remover bar.

If you regularly leave out detergent make sure you keep your machine clean by doing a monthly detox wash with a cup of washing soda crystals and very hot water.

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Sparkling Penny

Penny | Sparkling Penny

Penny’s expert cleaning advice has been featured repeatedly by Homes and Gardens Magazine, and also at wikiHow, The Daily Express Newspaper, and Glam Magazine to name a few! was founded in 2019 and has since helped millions of people achieve a cleaner living space.

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