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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.