Can You Wash Clothes With Just Water? (here’s how)

It is possible to wash clothes using just water with no detergent, but it’s not always effective. There could be several reasons why you’re considering washing clothes without detergent. 

From thinking about the environmental impact of using detergents, wanting your clothes to last longer, saving money or maybe you just ran out of detergent and want to get a few clothes clean quickly.

Whatever the reason, before attempting to wash your clothes using just water, you should read this article first.

How Do Clothes Get Clean: Is It The Detergent Or The Water?

Clothes become clean due to the water that penetrates the fabric and relaxes the fibres to help the dirt particles escape. So at first glance it would seem that washing clothes using just water is enough to get them clean.

However, the detergent helps the water penetrate the fabric which in turn, makes it easier for the dirt to be removed. Detergents contain surfactants which are molecules that have a head that attracts water and a tail that attracts grease, oil and dirt.

This makes detergents great for removing many oil based stains from clothes that just water would probably not remove. With that said, it is possible to remove some dirt and stains from clothes using just water.


How To Clean Clothes Using Just Water

To successfully clean clothes using just water and no detergent you will need to do the following;

Pretreat Any Stains

There are some stains that won’t get removed even when using detergents. To remove some stains you will need to pretreat or pre-soak the clothes. 

The best way to pretreat stains is as soon as possible to prevent the stain drying into the fabric. This is because the longer the stain soaks into the fabric, the harder it will be to remove it.

When soaking stains, the longer they’re soaking the easier it will be to get them completely out in the washing machine.

Some stains can be spot treated, a great way to do this is using washing up liquid. If the fabric allows, you can use a toothbrush to scrub the stain in conjunction with the washing up liquid.

If you want to treat the stain using natural ingredients you could try distilled white vinegar and bicarbonate of soda. Pour vinegar onto the stain then tip some bicarbonate of soda on top and scrub with a toothbrush.

Use Hot Water

You should use water at the hottest temperature the fabric can stand without shrinking or becoming damaged. Hot water relaxes the fibres of the material which makes them open up. This helps the dirt particles to be removed.

Using a cold water wash actually causes the fibres to contract which makes it harder to remove dirt at low temperatures without a decent detergent.

Before washing clothes using hot water you will need to check the wash care label to ensure the fabric can be washed in hot water. Some fabrics can shrink, tear, become misshapen or become creased and wrinkled at high temperatures. 

Hot water can also allow colours to run which can mean some of your clothes fade whilst others become an off white or grey colour.

Use A Long Wash Cycle

Generally the longer the wash cycle, the cleaner the clothes become. This is because a long wash allows the fibres to absorb more water which then forces the dirt from the fabric.

Pre-soaking the clothes has a similar effect.

Don’t Overload The Drum

For clothes to clean properly in a water only wash, they need plenty of agitation. This is only possible if the drum isn’t overcrowded. You need to allow the clothes enough room to move around freely.

We would recommend only loading the machine ¼ full or no more than ½ full when using a water only wash.

Can You Hand Wash Clothes Using Just Water?

Hand washing clothes with no detergent is slightly more of a challenge because you can’t always agitate the water sufficiently. Obviously if you’re hand washing then the temperature cannot be too high.

This means to successfully hand wash clothes you will need to allow them a longer time to soak than normal. When it’s time to rinse the clothes, keep rinsing until the water runs clear.

What Are The Pros & Cons Of Washing Clothes Without Using Detergent?


Let’s take a quick look at the reasons for and against washing clothes without detergent.

The Benefits Of Just Washing Clothes In Water

The main benefits include;

  • Clothes will last longer
    Many detergents can be quite harsh and damage the material of some clothes. Using just water to wash your clothes can help preserve your clothes.
  • Saves money
    Laundry detergents aren’t cheap which means using just water to wash your clothes will save a considerable amount of money.
  • Environmentally friendly
    The surfactants found in detergents eventually end up in our waterways. If you use detergent pods then you’re adding to the microplastic pollution too. By using just water, you add very little to the environmental pollution.

The Disadvantages Of Just Washing Clothes In Water

The main disadvantages include;

  • You need to use hot water
    To wash clothes without using detergents means you’ll need the water as hot as the fabric can tolerate to remove as much dirt as possible.
  • Clothes don’t get as clean
    No matter how hot the water is, clothes will not clean as well without using a detergent.
  • Many bacteria remain
    Modern detergents contain an enzyme that helps to eliminate bacteria. Using just water means these bacteria are still present.
  • Takes longer
    To successfully wash clothes without using a detergent will take longer. This is because the clothes will need to soak to absorb water to release the dirt.

Is It OK To Wash Clothes Using Only Water?

It can be OK to wash clothes without using any detergent at all. However, the clothes won’t be as physically or hygienically clean as using a detergent, plus they will take longer too.

However, if the clothes you’re washing don’t have any stains, and all you want to do is freshen them up, washing using just water will be fine.

You need to bear in mind that detergents are designed to remove stains and bacteria from clothes. With many modern detergents working just as well at low (20 degree) temperatures.

If you decide to wash your clothes without using any detergent, remember to use water as hot as the fabric can withstand.

Ways To Reduce Chemical Usage In Your Laundry

If you’re considering washing your clothes without detergent because you are trying to reduce the amount of chemicals you use in your laundry. There are a number of alternatives that don’t result in your laundry not getting as clean. They include;

Ecozone Soap Nuts

Ecozone Soap Nuts Natural Laundry Detergent, 100% Organic Biodegradable Washing Machine Pellets, Plastic Free, Effective Cleaning for Clothing & Fabrics, Hypoallergenic Vegan & Eco Friendly (1kg Bag)
  • Ecozone Soap Nuts: Naturally and sustainably sourced. Organic, allergy-friendly, economical, great value and highly effective nuts are an ideal alternative to laundry detergent, liquid, powder or pods
  • 100% organic, hypoallergenic, biodegradable pellets: Encased in fully compostable plant-based wrap. Easy to use, removes dirt and stains even at cold 30° wash; outstanding clean for whites or colours

These are 100% organic, biodegradable, plastic-free, and completely natural. They are guaranteed to work even at 30 degrees C and contain no animal products and are not tested on animals.

Tru Earth Platinum Eco-Strips

Tru Earth Platinum Eco-Strips Laundry Detergent Strips 32 Loads. No Plastic Packaging, Ultra-Concentrated, Pre-Measured Strips, Easy Storage. For Machine & Hand Washing, Fragrance Free
  • GENTLE ENOUGH FOR ALL SKIN TYPES: Tru Earth Eco-Strips are incredibly convenient and are gentle enough for even the most sensitive skin
  • READILY BIODEGRADABLE: Tru Earth’s zero waste, compostable, and no plastic packaging is just another added benefit

These eco-strips are suitable for machine washing and hand washing. They are vegan friendly, paraben-free and suitable for sensitive skin.

Just Green Organic Laundry Liquid

Just Green Organic Laundry Liquid 1500ml, Non-Toxic Formula, Vegan & Eco-Friendly Washing Liquid Detergent, Safe Baby Detergent, Recyclable Packaging
  • Just Green Organic Laundry Non Bio Washing Liquid is a natural formula laundry detergent that is safe for your clothes and the environment. The detergent liquid comes in an eco-friendly 100% recyclable bottle.
  • The non bio washing liquid is free of harmful chemicals such as parabens, dyes, phosphates, gluten, chlorine, SLEs, perfumes and GMOs. It is a great non-toxic option for those with sensitive skin or allergies.

This product is free from harmful chemicals including parabens, dyes, phosphates, chlorine, perfumes and GMOs. Made from 97% herbal ingredients it can also safely be used to wash baby clothes.

Bicarbonate Of Soda

Grow Chem Baking Soda, Sodium Bicarbonate (1KG Bucket) UK MADE Pure Baking Soda for Cleaning, Baking, Bath Bombs, Odours and Teeth
  • ECO-FRIENDLY: Sodium Bicarbonate / Baking Soda is one of the top eco-friendly , safe and inexpensive cleaning, baking and household products available.
  • CLEANING: Baking Soda is particularly useful in food preparation, cleaning surfaces, ovens, grills, microwaves and fridges whilst also deodorising and freshening without leaving any harsh chemical smells.

Bicarbonate of soda is a natural alternative to detergent. All you need to do is tip ¼ cup of bicarbonate of soda in the drum before adding the laundry. It is environmentally friendly and doesn’t contain any harmful chemicals that could cause an allergic reaction.

White Vinegar

Golden Swan White Vinegar for Cleaning, Pickling, Marinating & Cooking - Distilled White Vinegar- 5 Litre Bottle - Produced in The UK (1 Pack)
  • PERFECT FOR COOKING - Use in vinaigrettes, sweet-and-sour dishes, marinades, pickles, chutneys, and butter sauces. Or infuse with fresh herbs to make flavoured vinegar. Whatever the occasion our Fresh White wine vinegar will be perfect.
  • FABRIC SOFTENER - This white vinegar is perfect for households that have pets and children around as well as commercial premises where health and safety is of paramount importance

To use white vinegar in place of detergent all you need to do is add 1 cup to the rinse cycle. This will help to remove dirt and smells from clothes and it’s a great natural fabric softener too.

Frequently Asked Questions

What happens if you wash clothes without detergent?

If you wash your clothes without using a detergent, some stains might remain. Also any germs or bacteria are also likely to remain in the clothes. As bacteria is the main cause of bad odours in clothes, your clothes could smell after washing without using any detergent.

Is hand washing clothes effective?

Hand washing is an effective way of cleaning clothes without damaging them. 

Can I use shampoo as laundry detergent?

You can use shampoo as a laundry detergent as long as you don’t use it in a washing machine as it can cause damage to the pipes.

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