Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A Load Of Old (Laundry) Balls

Elfie suggested that my beloved laundry balls might be a rip-off, no better than washing clothes in plain water. I couldn't let that pass by, so I did a little googling. Straightdope tested a different type of laundry ball than mine, and decided it was a scam. In their tests, the ball performed a little better than just plain water (which they put down to chance). But surprisingly the ball also performed about the same as using branded laundry detergent. Straightdope concluded that the balls are a scam, but so is laundry powder.

I decided to put it to the test. I had two loads of laundry yesterday so I washed one with the laundry ball as usual and one with just plain water. Both loads had the same programme and were washed at 40degrees.

I found that the wash with the laundry balls came out nice and clean as usual. I examined it closely and it looked and smelled clean, just as I expect. However a yellow pair of shorts which Sam had been wearing whilst digging the allotment were pretty muddy. After washing with the laundry ball they were still dingy-looking around the hems. This matches my usual exerience of washing with the balls (and also of washing with detergent) - some really grubby things need a second pass.

To my surprise, the wash with just plain water also came out nice and clean. It looked and smelled just as clean as the laundry ball load. Believe me I examined it carefully, but it seemed absolutely fine. Without having a more accurate way of measuring cleanliness, the best I can say is that I would be happy if every wash came out like that.

It looks like the balls are a waste of money (and perhaps so is laundry powder, as StarightDope suggested). But a friend on the newsgroup uk.rec.sheds suggested that for a true test you'd need to do many washes, as a small amount of left-behind grime could accumlate and the difference might only show up several washes later.

I carried out one last test, the toughest yet. Eleanor fell into a muddy puddle at school and her red tights and cardigan and her white polo shirt all had a thick caking of mud. Based on the experience with the yellow shorts, I knew the washing balls wouldn't get this out first go, and I thought plain water probably wouldn't either. I washed the uniform at 60degrees with a tablespoon of Ecover bleach and half a cup of washing soda. To my delight they came out good as new first time, even the white shirt.

I will continue washing our clothes with just plain water for the next few weeks to see if the grime builds up. I will also be investigating this whole issue further. What is the best way to wash clothes for maximum economy, effectiveness and impact on the environment?


Stonehead said...

Having hand-washed filthy clothes in cold running water a few times while camping, I think I can safely say that it's not the water by itself that has the maximum cleaning effect.

What you need is a thorough working of the cloth. First you rub and rinse off the worst of the dirt, then you slap the wet clothes against a suitable large, smooth stone. Then rinse, twist, rinse and slap again.

Finally, rinse once more and then twist the clothing until most of the water is squeezed out before hanging out to dry

This is very effective and a modern washing machine replicates the action. Adding laundry balls (or squash balls) simply makes the machine more effective in my view.

The main purpose of chemicals, whether soap nuts, soap wort, old fashioned soap made with lye and fat, or modern detergents is to increase the solvent effect of water and lift more dirt out of the fabric.

If you want to try old-fashioned washing to thoroughly test this yourself, you need a corrugated washboard (which I've also used to good effect) to work the cloth and a wash tub. A mangle, which my mum used until the early 1970s, is much more effective at getting the water out than hand wringing.

Have fun but remember old-fashioned hand washing is very, very hard work!

Melanie Rimmer said...

Thanks Stoney, this makes sense. I know that if you put clothes in a basin or the bath to wash them, it doesn't matter how hot the water is or how strong the detergent, they won't get clean if you just let them sit without agitating. So I think you're right, it's the action of the machine (or an energetic human) that gets the clothes clean. I'm starting to think it's possible to dispense with any additives at all, or just save them for serious stains rather than everyday use.

Wulf said...

I'm looking forward to future updates on your investigations. If, at least for "worn" rather than "mucky" clothes, plain water is enough then that's a win both environmentally and financially.

Linz said...

This makes a lot of sense. Most of our clothes go into the wash without actually being dirty. A bit grubby, perhaps, or worn, but not actually dirty. So what they mostly need is an active rinse rather than a full soapy wash.

I am getting into the habit of wearing clothes longer between washing (not till they smell, obv.) and using less soap powder. I need to watch how often I change Jack's clothes, although by the end of an active day's painting, baking and eating at nursery his tops, at least, need a wash!

mildew said...

Soapods are supposed to work rather well. Saw Dick Strawbridge do a talk and he couldn't stop raving about them. Have a look: http://www.soapods.com/

TheBuddingVeggieGrower said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TheBuddingVeggieGrower said...

Hello, I just found your blog via 'Girl Gone Gardening'.

As part of our quest for more ethical living, we purchased a set of ecoballs for our laundry and found that they were fine for everyday washes but not as effective for really soiled stuff (like mud-caked shorts!)

We do use ecover washing powder and fabric conditioner though, which is more environmentally friendly than other mainstream brands.

It is good to see others attempting to be kinder to the world : )

Melanie Rimmer said...

Hi buddingveggiegrower and thanks for linking to me from your blog. Stick around, we're alsways talking about growing fruits and veggies as well as energy-saving and ethical issues.

TheBuddingVeggieGrower said...

Thanks Melanie for linking me. I am a newbie to the blogging world but happening across many interesting blogs along the way!

RUTH said...

I've often wondered if these really work or not so really interested in you results. Great blog by the way...will be back

Frankie @ Veg Plot said...

The new cottage has a septic tank so although I tend to use Ecover type products at home I am keen to cut down. A fantastic website that we use at work is http://www.wen.org.uk/ In their resources tab is a great pdf about household cleaning which has some great tips.

lilymarlene said...

For a while I had to use a washing machine that wouldn't heat as I couldn't afford to replace it when the heater packed up. I reasoned that women in Italy who washed their whites in streams and got whiter results than me, managed perfectly well with cold water. I found that apart from teatowels which really needed a boil to get rid of the grease on them, everything else was perfectly satisfactory. White socks were actually better washed that way than with a hot wash.
I eventually had to get a new washing machine, and since then almost never use a hot wash. I make do with 30deg for most things, 40 deg when necessary. I also halved the amount of detergent used.
I tried soapnuts but wasn't really happy with how really dirty stuff turned out.
However I have been heartened by your experience. I will try a few washes with no powder, and on as cold and long a wash as possible. If anything isn't clean after that I'll put it back in with powder on a hotter wash.
I'll be watching your updates on this with great interest.
NB I often woder whether the ecoballs work more by pummelling the washing than by treating the water.

Tracy said...

My experience is that our clothes come out cleaner with Ecover than they ever did with laundry balls. A friend suggested using laundry balls and soda crystals, but I didn't think it made any difference really. I've not done testing as thoroughly as you have Mel, but our whites are definitely whiter with Ecover than with eco-balls.

Allotment Lady said...

I tried the balls but now prefer soap nuts - great.

Mel's sister Steph said...

Re the Ecover products, I used their washing powder for about 2 years, then the washer backed up, and when we pushed a length of thinner hose up the hose, it was clogged with lumps of the powder. So I've switched to their liquid instead. But I fancy trying no clenser at all, to see how that works too. Esp on things like bath towells.

David said...

I agree what you wrote but have you ever tried the Laundry dettergent, MelaPower.
It has no harsh chemicals nor Phosphates and I find that it works great.

Link here for more info:

Available in the UK:

and if you want to read about all the fuss with Phosphates, read this artilcle "Big Trouble with a Little Phosphate":


David B in Canada

Anonymous said...

I can't remember where I read it, but I've seen it suggested that the reason the balls work (and the reason you'd see good results with plain water) is because laundry detergent doesn't rinse completely out. If that's true, you might see clean clothes for a while with plain water or laundry balls, but eventually (after you've washed everything and nothing is still giving off soap to clean the load) it will stop working. I don't know if it's true or not, but it's one possibility to watch for.

I've never tried laundry balls, but I think it is very cool that you're testing them! Good luck!

Science Writer David Bradley said...

Yep, those laundry balls, are just as their name says...

Frankie @ Veg Plot said...

I can't believe that I did this but I have just done a whites wash with a lemon chopped in half placed in the drum. My theory is that the lemon juice should clean & brighten while the lemon fruit will agitate (like the balls). I washed sheets etc at 30 degrees and they seem just as clean as usual.

Anonymous said...

I bought some soapods from naturally green a few months back and they are much better than some of the powders i have used in the past. I have also just bought some of the soapods essential oils and my washing now smells better than any powder i've used and they were definitely worth the investment. I have tried washing with no powder but just dont feel convinced the clothes are truly clean.

gabs said...

I've just published the results of a laundry ball test on my blog, http://www.turnupsandtantrums.com/

I thought I'd do a like-for-like test, as the evidence is anecdotal and the Straightdope article is about 10 years old.

It's changed the way I think about laundry. Using detergent as a matter of course now seems totally unecessary. I also think that normal soap is just as good for laundry. My next test will be soap versus detergent.

Beth said...

I noticed you wrote about Ecover bleach. I just bought Ecover automatic dishwashing tabs and they work great.

csamuel.org said...

Hi Mel!

Now you can add New Scientist to your list of places that referenced you, Feedback mentioned this blog post in their December 3rd issue. :-)


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