The Problem With Homemade/DIY Laundry “Detergent”

Years ago, I watched a reality TV show where the mom of a big family made her own laundry soap, I was fascinated, but the chemist in me was suspicious.  Yet, she said that her DIY product worked as well as the commercial stuff.  Since then, there have been countless variations of that same recipe, consisting of three ingredients: Super Washing Powder, Borax, and bar soap (usually Fells Naptha, Zote, or Dr. Bronners). The ratios of these three ingredients vary dramatically, with no clear winner among the recipes.  

During the pandemic, many stores in my area had empty selves beyond toilet paper. Cleaning agents like all-purpose cleaners and hygiene products like hand sanitizer and liquid hand soap became impossible to buy. Because of this, I started to create my own products with reasonable success.  The thought of making DIY laundry soap re-emerged, but again, the chemist in me rejected this idea. Recent searches of users of these concoctions confirm what my thoughts were long ago.  Because of this, I decided to do a deeper dive into the topic of homemade laundry soap.  if you are making your own laundry soap and are happy with the results, I am happy for you.  I don’t want to rain on your parade.  You do you.

Many of the current recipes are based on traditional laundry washing. I remember my mom doing laundry in the 1960s and the 1970s.  I also have some historical information on how my grandmother did laundry in the 1940s.  Their methods radically differed, reflecting how modern advances made the dreaded laundry day palatable.

In the 1940s, it was common to use traditional laundry soap.  The laundry was sorted and scrubbed with soap on a washboard until clean.  At some point, my grandmother would boil her items, likely to aid the cleaning/sanitizing process and to add blueing agents (which made whites look whiter).  During those years, people sometimes mixed in chemicals like washing soda or borax to make their tasks easier. Let’s look at these three basic cleaning agents.

Super Washing Soda (a common brand of washing soda) is the chemical sodium carbonate.  It changes the pH of the water to be more alkaline.  In addition, it binds with minerals, like calcium, in the water to soften it—high pH and softer water clean more efficiently. Sodium carbonate is still widely used in commercial laundry detergents.

Super Washing Soda is a washing soda brand commonly sold in stores.

Borax is the common name for the chemical disodium tetraborate.  It also has a high pH and makes the wash water more alkaline.  In addition, borax can react with water to create hydrogen peroxide so that borax can act as a whitening agent. Borax was added in some early commercial detergent formulations (I remember it being in a laundry detergent in the 1960s) but eventually lost favor as borax can irritate the skin.  Also, borax has toxic qualities, which can cause illness if ingested or inhaled.

Borax may have a number of home uses, but there are better alternatives for laundry days.

Laundry Bar Soap (Fells Naptha, Zote) is a harsh soap used for tasks like doing the laundry, but it can also be used for other cleanings, like dishwashing. I have read blogs where the writer claimed soap washes out of clothes easier than detergent; that is completely false. Laundry soap needs hot water to dissolve and doesn’t work well in cold water.  In addition, all soaps bind with minerals in the water to form soap scum.  This can mess up modern washing machines.  More importantly, soap scum is hard to rinse from clothing and traps oils and dirt, making clothes look dingy.  Bacteria thrive in this goop, causing them to smell bad.

You can find Fels Naptha at groceries, big-box, and hardware stores.

The above problem was less of an issue for Grandma as she was using only natural fabrics, lots of water, and labor-intensive techniques (like boiling her clothes).

I recall my mom doing laundry, first with a wringer/washer and then with an automatic machine. She would use traditional laundry soap and a washboard only for stain treatment.  This was most commonly done to remove “ring around the collar.” As an adult, I have never seen a ring around my collar.  Are we just cleaner nowadays?

Mom saw the benefits of laundry detergent, which works better in modern washing machines and with modern fabrics than traditional bar soap.  Let’s take a look at detergents.

Detergents, just like soap, are surfactants.  Surfactants have unique properties where they are both hydrophilic (water-loving) and hydrophobic (water-hating). Fats and water don’t mix well. Surfactants act as a bridge allowing water to interact with fats so that the water can wash the body oils/grime off your clothes. 

Detergents require a multistep manufacturing process using a substrate which is often petroleum-based but can be other things, like plant oils. Detergents can be manufactured with different properties, such as high foaming (suds) or low foaming.  Unlike soap, detergents don’t form soap scum and can be formulated to rise well.  Detergents can be designed to dissolve in cold water and to work more effectively in that environment. Modern detergents are biodegradable, like soap.  

You can see the advantages of detergents in many cleaning/hygiene products. Detergents are the principal cleaning agents in laundry detergent, dish and dishwasher detergent, and hygiene products such as shampoo, body wash, and liquid hand soap. Detergent formulas can be very strong or extremely mild.  If you have a skin condition like eczema, your dermatologist will likely recommend using a “soap” like Dove unscented, Aveeno, or Vanacreme.  None of these are soap; these bars are made from mild detergents.

Commercial laundry detergent products contain a lot more than detergent. In addition, they may have water-softening agents, color-fast bleaches, color-brighteners, and various ingredients to remove specific stains.  Stain removal agents may include oxidizing agents (like Oxiclean) and enzymes designed to dissolve specific stains. Detergents may also have preservatives to increase their shelf life.  Detergents can be customized for a particular region based on the type of water present. 

All of the above ingredients add to the cost of the product, which is why better-rated detergents like Tide or Persil cost more.  Bargain detergent products may omit some of the expensive additions, like stain-removing enzymes.

Tide often comes on top for stain removal abilities, but it is also one of the most expensive laundry detergents.

Eco-friendly cleaners like Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds and Tru-Earth laundry sheets also use detergents as their main cleaning agent.  They may have a shorter list of additives (and clean less effectively).  These brands will proudly proclaim things like they are “phosphate free.”  However, all laundry detergents have been phosphate-free for decades. Laundry sheets are manufactured with a dissolvable plastic that binds the cleaning agents together. In addition, cardboard boxes/jugs are often plasticized, making them difficult to recycle or compost. Are these products better for the environment or just greenwashed to make consumers feel better?  I’ll leave that to you to decide.

Green or greenwashed?

When my kids were in grade school, we submitted a project to their school’s science fair, where we compared less expensive laundry detergents to more expensive ones. We stained white tee shirts with various things (catsup, chocolate syrup, etc.) and then washed them.  We did one wash with no detergent as a control. The more expensive Tide cleaned stains better than the cheaper brands.  However, we also discovered that water by itself lightened stains. Our observations showed that water alone was about 60% as effective as washing with Tide.  This makes sense, as water is the universal solvent. However, this can cloud a laundry soap maker’s judgment as you can toss almost anything into the washer and get a cleaner product.  However, much of that cleaning may be due to water, plus the agitating action of the machine.

This latter point also deserves mention.  Adding energy increases cleaning ability.  Washing clothes on a washboard, adding hot water, or using an agitator all add energy to cleaning reactions and generally result in a cleaner wash.  

There is logic in the formulation of homemade laundry detergents. Still, they can’t compete with modern commercial products based on the information I have provided above.  To combat the soap scum issue, many home products use very little soap, but inadequate soap means less cleaning.  Still, many reports from DIYers say that their clothes look duller, smell worse, and are less absorbent over time.  I have seen some DIY formulas that have become incredibly complex in an attempt to combat these issues.  One recipe used Super Washing Soda, Borax, Fells Naptha bars, Zote bars, powdered Gain laundry detergent, Oxyclean, and scent crystals. Gain is a detergent, and Ocyclean contains detergent, so the lady’s improvements can be traced to the detergent in those products.  

OxiClean is a product that contains a number of ingredients, including detergents.

Several videos and blogs describe how you can “strip” your clothes to eliminate all the residue and gunk from DIY soaps.  Lastly, some DIY soap users add vinegar to their rinse cycle in an attempt to wash away some of the soap scum and make their items softer. The fact that DIY laundry soaps don’t work as well as commercial laundry detergent seems to be a secret everyone knows.

The most effective DIY laundry soap recipes use detergent, often Dawn dish detergent, as their surfactant instead of laundry soap. Dish detergent is designed for suds, so you must use less in machines requiring low suds. Despite being more effective than laundry soap, these concoctions are less effective than commercial laundry detergent. It should be noted that these recipes are homemade diluted laundry detergents, not laundry soaps.

Beyond the perceived idea that DIY laundry soaps are more natural, most cite cost as the reason they mix up their batches. Remember, there is a difference between cost and value. Can you still save money if you decide to forgo DIY laundry soap?  The answer is yes.

The most expensive laundry detergents clean the widest range of stains.  That may be great if you have a bunch of toddlers who are constantly spilling on themselves.  However, many of us are adults, fairly sedentary, and neat. Our clothes may get clean using a cheaper laundry detergent with fewer ingredients. This price difference can be significant.  For instance, a 40-ounce bottle of Persil at my local grocery store sells for $8.99 and does around 25 loads at a cost of 36 cents per load.  While a 32-load bottle of LA Totally Awesome laundry detergent at Dollar Tree costs only 4 cents a load ($1.25/32 = 0.039). Naturally, there are many brands between these price points, plus buying on sale or in larger quantities can offer additional savings. 

LA Totally Awesome laundry detergent can be had for $1.25, yielding less than 4 cents per load.

The cost for most mid-level laundry detergents is about 7-13 cents a load. If you assume 10 cents a load and are a single person or couple, it is reasonable to think that you will do four or fewer loads of laundry per week.  4 loads x 52 weeks = 208 loads per year.  Two hundred eight loads times 10 cents is only $21 for a year’s worth of washing. I don’t think a DIY laundry product would cost you much less.

At the time of this writing, the 144.5 ounce of the popular Arm and Hammer laundry detergent can be bought on Amazon at a cost of 8 cents per load.

People frequently use too much detergent, which can be easy as manufacturers design confusing measuring caps.  The amount of needed detergent may be as little as 1/8th to 1/4th the volume of the measuring cap, so read the instructions on the bottle. The excessive detergent will not wash out of your clothes and give you the same problems as laundry soap.  

Can you use less detergent than recommended?  Some say yes, but most manufacturers base their recommendations on what works.  Use less, but return to the recommended amount if you are unhappy with the results.

You may ask, what is better, pods, powder, liquid, or sheets?  Pods are convenient but much more expensive.  Powders may be more eco-friendly as they don’t come in a huge plastic jug. They also may be less expensive to buy than liquids.  Newer powder formulations dissolve better in cold water but not as well as liquid detergents.  Liquid detergents dissolve well in cold water, are effective, and you can use them directly on a stain as a pretreatment, but you have to contend with their huge and eco-unfriendly jugs. Detergent sheets use less packaging but may not be as eco-friendly as their advertising would want you to believe. I have read reports from several consumers who felt that sheets did not work as well as more traditional agents. It can all be a bit confusing. 

For occasional stains, a simple pretreatment may do the job. American’s Test Kitchen found that soaking overnight with Oxyclean was better at removing stains than spray stain removers. There are also enzymatic soaks that you can purchase; the product Biz comes to mind. Soaking overnight works better than adding these same agents to the wash load.

Spray-type stain cleaners are very convenient but may not work as well as soaking-type stain removers.
Biz is a complex stain remover.

Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and go with the top brands.  If you or your spouse is an auto mechanic, it may be worth spending the extra money. Most would wash greasy uniforms separately, so you could still use a less expensive brand for the rest of your laundry loads. I knew someone who worked a very dirty/greasy job and bought a used second washer for his work clothes.  I also read a post about a family using an old ringer/washer for such items.  They could use lots of very hot water and long agitator times to dissolve away the grime without contaminating their fancy newer machine.

Godspeed if you are happy with your DIY laundry soap.  However, if you aren’t happy or don’t want to be your own chemist, try some of my suggestions.


Living In A Small Space? You Can Still Do Laundry!

When I was searching for a house, I looked for specific features.  However, only after I moved in did I realize that one of the best additions was something I hadn’t even given much thought to.  What was that?  Having my own washer and dryer.  

I had lived in several apartments before buying a home and accepted the hassle of laundry day.  However, once I was freed from dealing with coin-operated machines, I realized how stressful doing laundry had been.  What were the points of my pain?

  1. The quarter hunt.  I was always looking around for quarters, and it always seemed I was one or two shy. Searching under my couch cushions became a regular part of my week. 
  2. I lived in apartments with only a single washer and dryer and others with a bank of them. With the single-machine apartments, it was common to go down and find the machine in use with several loads cued up. Once, I walked into the laundry room of a complex with a bank of machines, and someone had taken someone else’s clean wet laundry and thrown it on the dirty floor.  I’m not sure why, but that was creepy.
  3. Machines would be broken, and dryers wouldn’t heat, etc. 
  4. Who knew what was washed in a machine right before I used it?
  5. Although most of my apartments had laundry rooms, I occasionally used laundromats. This meant waiting in a too-hot, too-cold, and always-humid room for hours.  Laundromats never seemed to have chairs; when they did, they were usually those fiberglass molded ones that would often have a broken leg.

After decades of ownership, I take having my own laundry facilities for granted.  However, the pandemic brought a new level of awareness to this basic need. Millions of people live in apartments that don’t have in-apartment laundry.  What did they do? I researched the topic and found that laundry day was stressful for many of them.  I read reports of people doing all their laundry by hand to avoid public laundry facilities during the pandemic. What a massive hassle.  That got me thinking about the overall stress of using public laundry facilities, which led me to research alternative options. I was surprised that there were quite a few possibilities, some very reasonable.  I want to share that information with you. Hopefully, this post will reach a few apartment dwellers who may find it useful.

Washing clothes by hand works for a few items, but it can be a real drag for larger loads.

Manual washing

As old as time, the simplest way to get your clothes clean.  When I was a student, there were rare times when my schedule was so out-of-control that I needed to wash necessary items in the sink. It is possible to get a decent result, but such actions get tiring when doing anything more than a few pairs of socks and some underwear.  Some manual gadgets can lighten this load, but only by a bit.  I’ll list them in the photos below.

A simple scrubbing board adds friction and, with it, increased cleaning power.
This Scrubba makes hand washing small loads more efficient.
Another popular manual gadget is the Wonder Wash.
This washing plunger is used in conjunction with a large tub to effectively wash clothes. Some people use a clean toilet pluger for the same task.

Twin-tub machines

Sometimes called Asian washers, these machines are very lightweight and come in various sizes and capacities, from desktops to floor-standing machines.  They tend to be inexpensive, and they look like toys.  However, users of them say they are surprisingly good at washing clothes.  Further, I read several “one year later” reports that were quite favorable.  The larger capacity versions of these machines cost more.  Some drain only by gravity, so you must place them on the counter next to a sink or in a bathtub.  Others have an electric pump to discharge the water.  These can be placed on the floor next to a sink.  

Twin-tub machines are manual, but they eliminate the hand-wrenching jobs of physically washing, rinsing and wringing out wet clothes.  Their washing action is very strong, to the point of often knotting up clothes, and their separate spin dryers are so fast that clothes often dry within hours once hung up.  These machines are designed for cold water washes but can be used with warm water.  Hot water will damage them.

You need to fill these machines manually (using a hose connected to a faucet) and manually switch them to drain.  In addition, you need to place the wet clothes into the spinner basket and then return them for a rinse and then another spin.  The spinner baskets are smaller than the washer, so you must spin a wash batch in several loads.  However, spinning only takes a few minutes. Even the larger machines of this group have less capacity than a regular washer.  However, overall, people sing their praises often using statements like “Life changing” and “The best purchase I ever made.”  

As an aside, various users have their own techniques when using these machines.  Some spin and then rinse, others rinse and then spin.  Some fill the washer using a faucet connection and a little hose; others fill from a bucket.  Manual, in this case, means very flexible operations.

This is not a twin-tub machine, but it does provide automatic aggitation for small batches of clothes.
This small twin-tub may be all that you need if your needs are modest.
This larger machine is floor standing. It does not have a drain pump so you will likely need to place it in your bathtub or shower stall when operating.
This is a similarly sized machine from the same manufacturer, however for about $30 more it has a drain pump.

The Laundry-Alternative  Niagara washer, plus the Laundry-Alternative Nija spin dryer.

This one-of-a-kind setup offers almost full-size laundry capabilities in a much smaller and less expensive package.  These machines are more automatic than twin-tub machines, but they still require some work from the operator.  They are bulkier, with the Niagara washer weighing 35 pounds and the Nija spin dryer weighing almost 20 pounds.  However, they are built to last.  I saw one report of a man using a Laundry-Alternative spinner 15 years after he bought it.  

Although top loading, the Niagara operates more like a front loader.  Therefore, it is gentler and uses less water than a top-loading machine.  It fills and runs automatically, using a very simple mechanical dial. It has a drain pump so you can place it on the floor next to your sink. The Niagara can be used with hot water if desired.  It has dispensers for soap and rinse additives like fabric softeners. 

The Niagara will complete washing and rinsing independently, but it doesn’t spin dry.  Buying a separate spin dryer like the Ninja is important to make this system work efficiently. 

The Ninja spinner is larger than those on twin tub machines. It is reported to be the largest capacity spinner on the market and can handle 22 pounds of clothes.  In addition, the Nija spins at an incredible 3200 rpm, compared to a standard washing machine that spins at around 1200 rpm. Faster spinning means greater water extraction. Some synthetic clothing items could be dry after hanging in less than 30 minutes. 

The Niagara washer
The Ninja spin dryer
Watch my YouTube video on the Niagara washing machine and the Ninja spin-dryer.

Fully automatic portable washers.

These units are similar to a regular washer but smaller. A typical home top-loading washing machine’s capacity is between 3.5 and 5 cubic feet, with front loaders having a 4.2-4.5 cubic feet capacity. In contrast, these machines start at 0.9 cubic feet, with many around 1.7 cubic feet capacity.  I did find one portable washer at 2.4 cubic feet. Because of their complexity, they cost more and are heavier. Some of the larger models are more expensive than basic full-sized machines. I found the most reviews for the 0.9 cubic feet machines suggesting that these are the most popular. Some of these machines are for cold water wash only.

These machines are computerized, which is nice, but this also serves as a point of failure. Because these machines are all-in-one, they spin slower than those listed above. Many of these machines spin at 750 RPM compared to around 1200 RPM for a standard washer or 3500 RPM for the Ninja. Therefore, many people who buy these machines often buy little portable dryers instead of hanging their laundry. 

This mini-washing machine operates very similarly to a full-sized one.

Who are portable machines for?

Any of these machines is perfect for a single person or a couple.  Families can use them, but they are likely best utilized when a small load must be done between a full laundry day. However, I read reports of families using these machines for weekly laundry. The best strategy for these families would be to do their laundry multiple times a week in small batches. 

Using a laundry trolley

You can buy inexpensive laundry trolleys to move around those machines that are too heavy to lift from storage to the sink.  

Which type of washer is best?

That is a personal choice.  Many people buy twin-tub machines as they are lightweight and inexpensive.  However, they are the most manual of gadgets—some like the convenience of a fully automated machine.

Personally, I like the Laundry Alternative solution.  Their machines are durable and have simple controls, making them less likely to break down.  The Niagara’s top-loading/front-operating style is water efficient and can wash a surprisingly large load despite being around 1/3rd the size of a standard washer.  The Niagara automatically does most of the tedious work of washing.  You don’t have to return to refill, rinse, etc.  Spinning is the only manual operation, but the Nija spinner is large, fast, and super efficient.  I would say that the Niagra/Nija combination is close in convenience to using a regular washing machine.

Thoughts on hanging clothes

None of these machines dry your clothes, but spinning them gets out most of the water, making drying fast.  

The fully automatic washers spin slower, so expect clothing to take longer to dry after hanging.  There is also the chance of some water drippage when using these machines. 

The twin-tub and Niagra spinners are very fast, with most clothing nearly dry.  Therefore, it is practical to hang those close out to dry. I imagine the audience for these machines won’t have outdoor spaces, and they will hang their clothes in their apartments.

There are many creative ways to hang clothes on existing home objects.  However, investing in dedicated hanging systems is best if you have a lot of laundry. 

A classic laundry rack
Another rack style.
Yet, another portable hanging solution.
This retracting clothes line can work inside your apartment and can tuck away when not in use.

Different racks and gadgets make hanging clothes a fairly easy operation.  See the photos above for some common ones.

Another way to hang clothes indoors is to use a heated airer, a clothing rack enclosed in a little tent with a small electric heater on the bottom. These units are inexpensive and have greater capacity than a standard dryer while using less energy than a standard dryer.  However, they are slower to dry than a dryer. 

Lastly, you can purchase mini-clothes dryers that operate similarly to a regularly sized unit.  Here it is recommended that you vent your exhaust out a window less you put too much humidity into your living space.  However, I have seen a number of reports where people vent directly into their apartments.  If you do the latter, I might suggest that you do so in a large and well-ventilated room to avoid eventual mold issues.  

A tiny mini-clothes dryer.

Is Shopping At Aldi Worth it?

I have been retired for over five years, and because of this, my income is fixed. Despite my retired status, I still have four adults living at home.  How will that change?  Soon I’ll have five adults living at home.  My wife continues to work, so I have taken on many domestic tasks, including grocery shopping and some meal prep.  When I was working, I never thought about the cost of groceries, but that is different now.  In addition, the world has been dealing with inflation, and stores have been practicing shrinkflation.  Buying groceries has become expensive. 

It isn’t unusual to spend $80-90 at a regular grocery store and leave with only two bags.  Years ago, I started to shop at Walmart, which was less expensive and offered a full range of groceries.  However, our Walmart has fallen on hard times via short staffing, poor stock, increased pricing, and foolish attempts at automation.  

Shopping there became a dreaded activity as large areas would be out-of-stock, the produce started to look like the stuff I was throwing out at home, and the prices kept increasing. However, the worst blow was the removal of almost all of the checkers in lieu of self-checkout. I would have an overflowing cart that I would have to scan and bag, given only a tiny work surface.  Some things wouldn’t scan or scan at the right prices.  In addition, I hated going through the process of looking up and weighing produce.  

Our Walmart would station employees by the checkout isles.  They wouldn’t help; their job was to stare you down, which felt creepy. My last straw with Walmart came after going through one shopping ordeal and having the door watcher ask to see my receipt and then go through several dozen checks of products I bought. I came home exhausted, frustrated, and exasperated.  I committed to only returning to Walmart when necessary and finding a new store to shop at. Enter Aldi.

I had shopped at Aldi before, but it was slightly out of the way. At that time, I did a price comparison with Walmart, and I found that the overall prices were slightly lower than Walmart’s, but I needed more to justify the greater distance and the reduced selection.  However, Walmart had changed with higher prices and terrible customer care.  Because of this, I decided to give Aldi a second look. So, is it cheaper to shop at Aldi?  The answer is yes, but for more reasons than you may think.

Aldi’s prices are less expensive than Walmart, and it seems that separation is greater now than in the past. That is an obvious positive.  However, Aldi stores are much smaller than Walmart, so I can easily shop without feeling completely exhausted.  In addition, Aldi has very fast and efficient checkers.  Yes, you must bag your groceries, but Aldi provides large counters, making the process simple.  I like that I have to bring my bags and have purchased several of them from Aldi.  One big Aldi bag is equivalent to around 4 Walmart bags making it much easier for me to bring the groceries into the house. Aldi’s grocery cart policy is also great, as no carts clog up the lot. 

Aldi has limited brands and limited selection, which reduces decision fatigue. In addition, the quality of almost all food items is good to excellent.  I can’t buy Kalamata olives at Aldi, but I can substitute black olives, which is good enough for me. Even with substitution, there are things that I use but can’t get at Aldi.  However, a quick trip to my local grocer solves that problem.  I have to be careful not to overbuy when I get there. Generally speaking, Aldi has 90-95% of what I need.

My grocery shopping is more enjoyable and less expensive than at Walmart.  I buy what I need as I’m much less likely to impulse purchase. I also shop the house brand, because that is what is available.  I substitute less expensive items for specialty items because Aldi doesn’t carry many.  I don’t linger in the store, so I don’t buy things that look interesting.  All of these factors make it significantly less expensive to shop at Aldi.

I can’t say there is any category of food that is significantly inferior to other stores.  The produce is good, as is the packaged bread and bakery.  I don’t see a difference with their canned goods; frozen items seem decent. If one area were lacking, I would say it would be their meat department.  There is nothing wrong with Aldi meat, but I don’t think it is at the same level as a store like Costco.  However, I would happily buy my meat at Aldi if I didn’t have options. 

If you haven’t visited Aldi recently, you may want to try it.  I would suggest that you shop there for several weeks before you make your final decision on the grocery chain, as it takes a little bit to get used to the different shopping experience.