Are high-efficiency (HE) detergents safe for baby clothing?

Look for HE detergents free of dyes and perfumes to wash baby's clothes in. See more green living pictures.
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If you've updated your laundry room equipment in the last few years, you probably have a high-efficiency washing machine at your disposal. This type of machine is increasingly becoming the norm, and for good reason: It uses 40 percent less water and 70 percent less energy than a traditional washing machine. Considering very tiny babies often prompt surprisingly frequent laundry loads, this could make a real impact in the long run.

Most high-efficiency (HE) washers are front-loading, which eliminates the central agitator and the need to fill a large basin with water. As the clothes tumble through the liquid that collects at the bottom of an HE washer's drum, the dousing is just as clean, but requires a fraction of the water. It's also easier on clothing, eliminating a lot of the wear and tear caused by traditional agitating machines. This is especially important when washing baby clothes trimmed with delicate lace or embroidery. This may sound like a win/win, but before you launder your baby's layette via HE, there are few things you'll need to note.


First, make sure you're using the right detergent. It's important to use an HE detergent in a water-efficient machine because the detergent isn't as sudsy and is easier to rinse from clothing. You can pick up HE detergents at discount stores and grocery markets, where they're clearly labeled "HE" and shelved alongside traditional formulations.

When it comes to washing baby clothes, however, look for HE detergents free of dyes and perfumes. Keep in mind, the term "natural" typically refers to minimally processed and preservative-free products, while "organic" indicates an absence of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. There are brands marketed specifically for use with baby clothing, such as Dreft, but other brands marketed for general use, such as Method Free and Clear, are less expensive and generally work as well.

Some detergent brands with organic ingredients are available at national discount or grocery chains, but often they can be purchased at stores specializing in whole or organic products. Look for Mountain Green, Country Save or Ecos. BioKleen Free & Clear Laundry Powder, for example, steers clear of fragrances, dyes and brighteners, as well as harsh chemicals such as phosphate or chlorine.

If you'd really like to go natural, try Maggie's Soap Nuts, which are actually tree-grown berries with antimicrobial qualities, or Nellie's Laundry Soda, which is based on coconut oil and related ingredients. Caldrea Sweet Pea Laundry Detergent contains essential oils and plant derivatives. Or, consider making your own detergent. The Duggar Family of "19 Kids and Counting" fame make their own by combining one bar of grated soap, one-half cup borax soap and one-half cup washing soda (also known as sodium carbonate). (You can get the complete directions on the family's personal Web site.) Because your homemade detergent is low in suds, it's even safe for HE machines. And, it only costs about $2 per batch.


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  • Consumer Energy Center. "Clothes Washers." (Sept. 15, 2010)
  • Duggar Family. "Favorite Family Recipes." (Sept. 15, 2010)
  • Parnes, Robin Brett. "How Organic Food Works." (Sept. 15, 2010)
  • The Diaper Jungle. "HE or High Efficiency Detergents and Cloth Diapering." (Sept. 15, 2010)