Is it Okay to Wash Clothes Without Detergent?

If you find yourself without laundry detergent but in a desperate need to run a load through the wash, you might first wonder if it’s even okay to do so. Or, you might realize that you forgot to add detergent until it’s too late, leaving you with the decision of whether or not you should wash the clothes again.

Fortunately, washing clothes without detergent poses no risk to the washer machine. However, laundry detergent is quite essential for removing dirt, grime, and odor from your laundry. Especially with heavily soiled laundry, forgoing detergent will likely result in a partial clean.    

So, you still might be wondering about all the consequences of not using laundry detergent or what to do in case you’ve forgotten to use it. To help you out, we’ve done some research and come up with some general advice about the topic.

What Happens if you Forgot to put Detergent in Washing Machine?

With laundry that’s only moderately dirty, you might not even notice that you forgot to use detergent. Or, upon closer inspection, you might realize that your “clean” laundry lacks that crisp, fresh smell that your detergent provides. And, especially with clothes, the laundry may look and smell clean initially, only for lingering odors to resurface at a later time.

Also, there is the chance of contaminating an entire load of laundry if an article of clothing is substantially soiled. And stain-causing substances like paint can spread if the spill is still fresh and not properly treated.

In any case, you’ll certainly want to remove and dry the clothes as soon as possible to prevent a musty odor from setting in.

Is Your Laundry Still Clean If You Forgot to Put in Detergent?

Your laundry will be cleaner after a full wash cycle with only water. However, “cleanliness” can be a relative term. Even if the laundry appears to be clean, you might miss the satisfaction of knowing that your clothes are as clean as can be. Furthermore, detergents eliminate bacteria from the fabric which, if allowed to remain, will retain odor and can irritate the skin.

Should I Wash it Again?

If the clothes have no visible remnants of dirt or grime, and if they pass the ole “sniff test” then it should be okay just this once. However, to play it safe, it wouldn’t hurt to try again, especially if the laundry is particularly soiled (such as gym clothes) or if the clothes are to be worn in places where any potential odor would be embarrassing, such as at an office job or formal social gathering.

Why You Shouldn’t Make “No Detergent” a Habit

Making a habit of skipping out on detergent can lead to permanent odor in your clothes. Unseen grime, grease and sweat stains can gradually build up in the fabric and set in, making it difficult for a completely clean even with detergent. And, as mentioned above, unseen bacteria will remain in poorly cleaned clothes, increasing odor and the likelihood of skin irritation.

Some people have grown cautious of the chemicals found in regular, store-bought laundry detergents and are looking for permanent alternatives that are safer, eco-friendly and cheaper. If you’re interested in going “detergent-free”, it’s advised to find an alternative as opposed to washing with plain water.

Out of Laundry Detergent? Here Are Some Great Alternatives!

The good news is that there are a lot of alternatives to laundry detergent if you find yourself in a pinch. Below is a list of several tried-and-true options. However, as with all alternatives, use caution to prevent damaging or staining your laundry.

Baking Soda

Half a cup of baking soda is an effective (and perhaps the best) alternative to detergent. It can break down dirt and grime, remove bacteria, and eliminate even the strongest odors. In fact, adding baking soda to your regular detergent (when you have it) will increase its cleaning strength.

To top it off, baking soda works well in combination with a variety of other detergent alternatives, so keeping a box of it in store is a good idea.

Vinegar and Baking Soda

For extra stinky laundry, adding a cup of vinegar to the baking soda will increase odor elimination. To avoid having vinegar-scented clothes, simply run the cycle a second time to rinse out any remaining vinegar.

Bleach and Baking Soda

This combination is obviously only for whites. A good washing with this mix will give your laundry a thorough clean, a solid stain removal treatment, and a brighter look.

Shampoo (Handwash Only!)

Shampoo might not be the most effective at removing dirt or stains, but if you desire your laundry to have a nice fragrance, this alternative will do the trick.

However, using shampoo in a washing machine can lead to excessive suds that can cause a massive mess and even damage the machine. We recommend shampoo only for handwashing your laundry.

Also, this warning includes the use of liquid dish soap, body wash, and bubble bath in a—all of which can create excessive suds in a washer machine.


Regular bar soap is also a good alternative and is likely to be more effective at eliminating dirt and grime than shampoo. Simply shave off a few thin slices into the washer machine and the water will quickly dissolve the soap.

Be sure the soap does not contain added oils or skin softeners, as these can leave visible splotches on the fabric. And exercise caution, as some soaps can be sudsier than others. One trick is to dissolve the soap in hot water before adding it to the machine wash.

Lemon Juice

Fans of all-natural cleaners find that lemon juice is an effective alternative. The high acidity makes it a potent stain remover, and it can even brighten your whites. Adding a cup of lemon juice to your wash is a quick-and-easy solution when in a pinch.


A cup of vodka is also a good option if you’re worried about odor. If you have the time, let the laundry soak in the vodka and water mix for thirty minutes to an hour before running the full cycle. And same as with using vinegar, run the batch through an extra cycle with just water to rinse out any residual vodka in your clothes.

Final Thoughts

While washing clothes without detergent is not the worst thing that can happen, there is a good chance you’ll be left with musty, slightly soiled laundry. The degree of how dirty your laundry is will ultimately determine how clean it’ll be. And making a habit of skipping detergent is especially ill-advised.

Using an alternative is never a bad idea. But always be sure to use the suggested amounts, and double-check to make sure there are no risks of damaging certain types of materials. And while fresh, clean laundry is best achieved with detergent, going with a  substitute will be better than just water.