So you're thinking about emancipating from your mom's advice - if it was ever really just "advice" 😆 - and changing the kind of household cleaning products you usually use. Good for you (and for all of us!).
In the next few lines I'll try to give an overview of what kinds of products are available on the market and what problem each approach tries to solve. Then, hopefully, you'll be able to choose what suits you best.
You will need some basic concepts such as biodegradability and toxicity, raw materials, distribution and packaging: if you'd like a refresh, you can find the various concepts explained here.
Let's start by saying that the aim of all "eco-sustainable detergents" is to reduce their environmental impact. What changes, and therefore distinguishes them, is how they decide to do it.
"Naturality of raw materials" approach
This group includes all those products that hinge on the naturality of the raw materials used, on their origin - often plant-derived and/or from organic farming - and on the fact that no component of petrochemical origin is used during the manufacturing processes.
A critic that can be moved to this category is that it often does not pay too much attention to the downstream effects of the raw materials used: the fact that an ingredient is of plant origin does not guarantee its safety towards humans or the environment nor that it's not polluting. For example, the much-vaunted essential oils, of purely plant origin, are among the most irritating, allergen-laden and polluting substances to be found.
"Few ingredients" approach
In this category, the emphasis is on the fact that very "light" formulas are used, i.e. composed of few ingredients. The idea is that "less is more", benefiting both man and environment. So we get rid of fragrances, as well as all those various additives that make the laundry so soft!
The danger here is that if you remove too much, the performance of the product may drop below desirable levels.
"Safety and low environmental impact" approach
Products in this group focus on decreasing their environmental impact. They tend to favour ingredients with high biodegradability, low eco-toxicity and no danger of bioaccumulation.
The pros of this approach is that if the eco-toxicity is low, so will be the toxicity on humans (in the end, we too are living organisms in an ecosystem!). On the other hand, obtaining raw materials with these characteristics that still retain a satisfactory performance requires to do a bit of chemistry, therefore losing on the naturality side.
This group includes all those products that focus on improving the distribution phase: they contain less water than traditional ready-to-use detergents. This results in a lower weight that in turns allows for a reduction in emissions during the distribution phase.
The water content can be lowered at will, from the most standard forms (i.e. those where maybe you need just half the volume), to the most innovative ones, which contain very little water (or even zero).
In the latter case, the disadvantage is that it becomes necessary to reduce the amount of surfactants, as the solubility of this category of molecules is usually moderate. However, if there are no particular cleaning needs, such as degreasing ovens or fryers, the concentrations achieved are absolutely adequate. If you're interested in learning more about concentrated and super-concentrated cleaners and their performance, you can find the article here.
These are all those products for which the consumer buys the basic ingredients and then they mix them up themselves, therefore having full control over ingredients and doses. It is often possible to obtain excellent products, provided that you are willing to inform yourself a little and prepare them every time.
This category includes all those products that seek to reduce their impact by reducing the packaging; the pinnacle are the "zero packaging" products or those that propose the reuse of the same container over and over again. This category includes detergents sold in bulk or super-concentrated detergents in pods and tablets.