The Smell of Clean

What should clean laundry smell like?

Do you associate clean laundry with a bright floral scent?  Should it smell faintly of bleach perhaps? Maybe a citrus-y scent?  Or a slightly spicy smell?

I have a sensitive nose and opted for unscented products long before I knew about all the crazy chemicals (like phthalates) that could be found in fragrances.  But when I got married, my husband wanted his clothes to smell "clean" when they came out of the laundry.  So we used his favorite brand at the time.  I did nix the fabric softener and dryer sheets because the smell was too much for me.  A few years later after my first child was born, when I wanted to switch to an eco-friendly laundry detergent, I had to find one that passed my husband's smell test -- he had to like the smell on the clothes when they came out of the dryer.  And they had to have a scent.  Recently, a friend shared that she couldn't switch laundry detergents because her husband didn't like the smell of any of the natural brands.  As consumers, we have definitely come to expect our clean clothes to smell a certain way.

We've come a long way at my house since my first child was born four years ago.  Now we use a laundry detergent that leaves no smell on our clothes.

What do clean clothes smell like to me?  Nothing.  Clean smells like absolutely nothing.  How can you even tell if your clothing is clean if there is an overpowering scent covering up any other odors (such as body odor, sour milk, or pee) that might still be in the clothing?  For me, clean is the absence of odor.  If you enjoy clothes with a scent, try a detergent that uses essential oils or, at least, no iffy chemicals like phthalates.  Note that natural scents (with the exception of skunk spray) tend to dissipate much more quickly than synthetic ones.  Personally, I am wary of smells that persist indefinitely.

My tips for eco-friendly laundry:
  • Avoid laundry products with phosphates, optical brighteners, chlorine bleach, as well as harsh fragrances -- ingredients which are bad for you and the environment. You can read about my favorite laundry products, including products that work well with cloth diapers and an awesome stain remover, in this post.  
  • Yes, you can live without bleach.  To remove stains or whiten fabrics, try using hydrogen peroxide, lemon juice, borax, vinegar, or an eco-friendly bleach-free alternative instead. 
  • Use baking soda instead of fabric softener.
  • Skip the conventional dryer sheets.  Click here for alternatives that soften, scent and prevent static cling in your laundry without the nasty chemicals.
  • If you are in the market for a new washer, get an HE front-loading washer.  They use far less water and energy than the old top-loading ones.
  • Wash only full loads in cooler temperatures to save energy.  I wash most of my loads except sheets and diapers in cold.
  • Line drying is awesome for removing odors.  I finally got my clothesline back up this last month and my cloth diapers and underclothes have never smelled so good.  Line drying also saves energy and money and increases the lifespan of your clothing.
  • If you are like me, you sometimes find yourself with clothes that smell (hand-me-downs, used clothes from the thrift store) even though you don't use scented laundry detergent yourself.  I regularly get hand-me-downs from family members who use the whole arsenal of scented laundry products.  To remove the smell, I leave the clothes outside or in the garage for a while.  Then I wash them in RLR laundry detergent, which is a detergent cloth diaper users often use to "strip" or remove all detergent buildup in fabric.  The RLR helps a lot, but even so some scent often remains.  If so, I will hang them outside again for a while and maybe wash them a couple of times in my regular detergent.  When the smell is faint enough, I let my kids wear the clothing.  Sometimes the smell never completely goes away.  The fact that it is very difficult to remove the synthetic fragrance from some of these clothes is, all by itself, a pretty disturbing situation.  

Additional Resources
Green Cleaning
(series of posts)
The Laundry Room (Healthy Child Healthy World)
Phthalates: Are They Safe? (Healthy Child Healthy World)

What are your favorite eco-friendly laundry products and green laundry tips?

Photo credit: DavidMartynHunt


  1. I'm totally with you on clean smelling like nothing! The worst is when we go to the laundromat and the person before us put so much perfumy soap that our stuff smelled like it too. (When that happened I wouldn't even take it out of the machine but just run it again right away to get the smell out.) For a while I was using an eco-friendly liquid detergent with lavender essential oil but I just recently switched to using Dr. Bronner's and a little baking soda.

  2. I noticed your post via Healthy Child Healthy World. I work for a company that manufacturers a cleaning device that uses technology together with ordinary tap water, not chemicals. Ironically on the same date that you posted this blog, we put the following post on Facebook, "Click "like" if you believe the absence of smell (not perfume) is the smell of true clean." It was one of the most engaging posts for us. It's reassuring to see that more and more people are on the same page that clean should be fragrance free. Thanks for sharing your point of view.


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