The homemade laundry detergent debate

the-homemade-laundry-detergent-debate-3

When I wrote EcoThrifty it seemed that there were dozens of people around the web who were talking about making your own laundry detergent at home. I quickly realized all of them were using pretty much the same recipe: borax, washing soda, and a grated bar of soap. I wanted to include homemade laundry detergent in my book, but I had a few problems with that popular recipe and chose not to include it in my book.

Recently, bloggers have hit the web talking about that popular laundry detergent recipe ruining washing machines and trapping dirt in the fibers of clothes. A friend who had to buy a new washing machine when hers was ruined by a homemade laundry detergent is the one who told me about this whole controversy. They are saying what I assumed — the soap doesn’t really do much for cleaning the clothes.

I didn’t include that popular recipe because I was worried about the soap dissolving in the water quickly enough that there wouldn’t be tiny bits of soap in the rinse water. Second, I was skeptical about a small amount of soap actually cleaning clothes. Third, I didn’t have time to grate up a bar of soap! You know, I’m busy and always looking for ways to save time.

Who says homemade laundry detergent doesn’t work?

Former homemade laundry detergent users are “stripping” their clothes. That means they soak them in a variety of different things, including borax and washing soda.

There are a dozen or so pictures here of the dirty soak water. In the comments on blogs and Facebook pages, some people have said that they had the same results when “stripping” their clothes, which had been washed in commercial detergents.

Borax for homemade laundry detergentSome people are making a big deal of the fact that the homemade recipe was not really detergent because detergents are made with surfactants. Yes, it’s true that it’s not technically a detergent.

They said that the homemade stuff was simply soap and water softeners. Well, soap is soap, but borax and washing soda are more than just water softeners.

According to the 20 Mule Team website, “Asides from breaking down acidic or protein-based dirt, borax also maintains a negative electrostatic charge between the fabrics and dirt. This makes it so they repel each other while in the wash, and keeps dirt and soil from getting re-deposited onto your clothes and fabrics.”

The washing soda is responsible for neutralizing and eliminating odor in clothes. It’s almost the same thing as baking soda, and think about how many people use that to eliminate odor in their carpet, refrigerator, car, and other spaces.

What’s the Ecothrifty laundry cleaner?

IWashing soda for homemade laundry detergent recalled that when our babies were little, we always soaked the cloth diapers in borax before washing them, and we always had beautiful white diapers through three sets of baby bottoms for eight or nine years.

So, I decided to see what happened if I simply mixed borax and washing soda and used that for my laundry. It worked! I was quite skeptical when I tossed my goat birthing overalls in the washing machine — blood, birth goo, poop, pee — but they came out looking great and smelling fine.

I had continued to cut back on the amount I used until it was only 1/8 cup in my high efficiency machine, but that still worked. So, the recipe of 50/50 borax and washing soda went into my book.

Since the borax and washing soda combo does such a great job of stripping clothes with zero agitation — it just sits there and soaks — it seems obvious to me that these are a couple of excellent clothes cleaners. (Remember, they are not technically detergents.) So, forget the “popular” homemade “detergent” recipe and just use the Ecothrifty laundry cleaner — a 50/50 mix of washing soda and borax. If your clothes look a little extra dirty, let them soak before washing. If they’re a little extra stinky, add a bit more washing soda.

What about fragrance?

Imagine for a moment how powerful a fragrance needs to be to stay in your clothes after being diluted in the washer. It has to be a pretty potent synthetic fragrance, which is not good for you. And who wants to put expensive, high quality essential oils in the washing machine when 99 percent will be washed down the drain? So, if you really want your clothes to smell like something, you can add some essential oils to a wool dryer ball.

Just because the common homemade detergent recipe isn’t looking so great does not mean that you have to go buy toxic detergent at the grocery store or spend more money on all natural ones at the health food store. You can still make your own laundry cleaner at home with inexpensive, natural ingredients.

laundry basket

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93 thoughts on “The homemade laundry detergent debate”

  1. We have used a liquid version of the borax, washing soda and fels naphtha for many years. It doesnt clog anything or leave crud on the machine.for my husbands truck greasy clothes we soak them an hour and add some dawn dish detergent to assist in grease cutting. I also add oxyclean periodically for heavy dirt. We no longer have rashes from the dyes or perfumes of detergents either which is a big plus.

    Reply
    • Hi Debbie,

      What version of the Borax, Washing Soda, Fels Naptha do you use? I have seen different versions that have very different amounts of the Borax and Washing Soda in them. I am still experimenting with amounts.

      Thank you,
      Deb Casey
      Edgewood, NM

      Reply
    • I have used fels naptha and zoat along with Borax and Washing Soda for years and never have had any problem with them hurting my machines. I too use oxy clean for heavy grease and if they stink really bad, I’ll throw in some white vinager and tea tree oil.

      Reply
    • I use 1 Bar of Fels-Naphtha that I grate very fine
      Dulated In 4 cups hot tap water
      Warm on the stove wisking & cool Then I add:
      1 cup washing soda
      1/2 cup Borax
      This makes 10 gallons
      I cut the recipe in half

      I put this in a 5 gallon bucket & fill with hot water & stir until desolved. I cover it & let it sit over night. Stir again & fill containers 1/2 full & fill the rest of the way with water. Shake container before you use.
      That’s how I do it.

      Reply
  2. I use the homemade recipe with the fels naptha and it has worked great, but if I can eliminate the fels naptha and all the work that goes into making the homemade stuff and still get the same effect, awesome!

    Reply
  3. Hi neighbor. I use the borax, washing soda combo Plus baking soda and my own homemade soap bar. 1 cup each. Takes me less than 20 secs to grate one of my own soap bars. I run it all through my food processor ( so fine, I never have undissolved soap issues) and I can make enough laundry soap to last me two months in less than 20 mins including clean up. Only use vinegar for rinse water and clothes always soft , and smell great, even though we hang them outside year round, or next to our rocket mass stove. We don’t have a dryer. This homesteader will never go back to store detergent.

    Reply
  4. Hi, thank you for bringing up the debate here…

    In as much as people are avoiding homemade laundry detergent like plaque, it is actually a hot topic among some section of consumers. No matter what, people will still try to get their hands dirty especially when it comes to DIY.

    We’ll keep watching to see which group eventually becomes triumphant…

    Reply
  5. I am in the UK, and live a hard water area, and have been making my own powdered laundry detergent, using Zote for about 4 years now. Main reason was the commercial (expensive stuff) was not getting rid of yellowing underarm stains/mild odour in my husbands white shirts, so I was forced to pre soak and then wash.

    I wouldn’t go back to commercial stuff, yet I have learned a lot too in the journey, including from this post.

    I do love the smell of fabric conditioner, but the goey black smelly build up in the drawer of the washing machine (front loader) was too much. Machine drum never smelt. Never had this problem when I lived in London.

    A 60% vinegar to 40% Fab conditioner solution works for me. Vinegar alone was too harsh as it does strip the build up from the towels especially. So if you want to use vinegar exclusively as a fabric conditioner introduce gradually, then increase. Since using this ratio my washing machine drawer has been fine – no gunk, no funk.

    Oily stains on clothing I found was sorted by a squirt of washing up liquid on the garment or in the drum – even Ecover worked, Fairy does too! This was the only stain my homemade product could not fix unless I washed at a really high temperature, which for general garments is simply not possible.

    For me now, shirts are white, no yellowing, or grey/dingey look. Towels which used not to be so absorbent are now soft and actually perform their purpose of drying.

    I dry laundry outside when I can or sometimes in the tumble dryer.

    I also think that each recipe needs to be tweaked for your water hardness. For me Homemade is fantastic, as I get more uses from it other than just washing clothes.

    Reply
    • Hi,
      I too am in a very hard water area of the U.K. What laundry detergent recipe have you found that works please.
      Going to try your vinegar/fabric conditioner mix too as I detest the black gunk build up.

      Reply
  6. I just was told that this hurts your machine,so I had to look it up. I agree with you and your explanation. I do not use the bars,they stink and are a pain to grate em. I’m going to omit the crystals and the oxy clean next time also. My daughter works on a farm and has several different animals also,she does a pre soak and wash. They smell sooooo much better than reagular soap did. Amazing and thanks for your explanation about the difference.

    Reply
  7. Here’s an idea: stop adding perfume to everything. Stop using perfume entirely. Go fragrance free. Your clothing will be cleaner without it, and you won’t be making visitors to your home sick.

    And while you’re at it, stop using laundry softener of any kind. It’s nothing more than perfume mixed with wax and it damages clothing.

    Reply
    • I totally agree. AND hang your laundry out to dry. It is not nearly as harsh on the fabric, but also bleaches (cover or shade dark clothes) and clothes will be static free and fresh smelling.

      Reply
  8. I make my detergent with Borax, Washing Soda and Bonner’s liquid soap (no grating a bar of soap or worrying about the soap not dissolving.

    Reply
    • I just watched an interesting..,.shocking video on YouTube about Dr. Bronners soap. It was on Know More News (Adam Green) I’m not buying it anymore. I will switch to Dr. Woods Castile soap. I looked it up on my favorite website, ewg.org They test all kinds of products and rate the toxicity on a scale from 1 to 10. I won’t be buying Reese’s Peanut Butter cups anymore either

      Reply
      • you can make healthy alternatives to Reeses.. you could do something with Nutella peanut nutter and a hazelnut… maybe roll in coconut or ground flax? Just an idea 🙂

        Reply
      • Animal testing is misunderstood. If the product maker doesn’t test on animals, its supplier of ingredients does or has done. Through this scheme a company can put “no animal testing” on its labels. It’s mostly a scam.

        Reply
  9. Hi there,

    Does this borax/washing soda mix work for front-load “HE” washers?

    Have cut fabric softeners for about 6 months, now, using wool dryer balls and essential oils and LOVE it!

    Really want to cut detergent next!

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Yes, it does. I actually had a front loader when I wrote Ecothrifty. Now I have a top loader, which is also HE, and it works in there too.

      Reply
    • The bucket was about 1.5 or 2 gallons, and it was only about 2/3 full of water. I added 1/4 cup of borax to it. I only soaked the poopy diapers in there.

      Reply
      • Thanks for this post. I’ve just gone through my first batch of half borax, half washing soda, and bar of naphtha. I was amazed at the results, brighter, whiter, cleaner, not drowned in scents.

        And, now, per your article, I will make the next batch minus the soap. I feel sure the outcome will be even less artificially scented. I’m so happy with the results.

        Reply
  10. I use 1 shredded soap bar (homemade soap), melt it in hot water then pour in 5 gallon bucket. Then I add 1 cup washing soda and 1 cup borax and fill bucket with hot water and mix well. The next day I have several months worth of laundry soap. I have been doing this for 8 years and not had any residue in the washing machine or on clothes and the clothes always come out clean and fresh. Saved over $1,000 so far by not buying store detergents.

    Reply
  11. How much do you use for every wash? Im confused. Do you not use any soap just borax and washing soda. I have a well and all my whites end up turning yellow. So would love to try something. I have to wear whites for work. Thank you

    Reply
    • Nothing else — just borax and washing soda. I use less than 1/4 cup in my HE machine. If your whites are turning yellow, you probably have iron in your water. You can get salt pellets that are specifically designed to remove iron from the water, if you have a water softener.

      Reply
      • you could also use a little sodium per carbonate if your whites are yellow.. it breaks down to soda ash and hydrogen peroxide 🙂

        *wish I didn’t have to keep reentering my deets every time I comment.

        Reply
        • How much water would you add to 1 cup borax and 1 cup washing soda to make the liquid version of your borax/washing soda laundry ‘detergent’. Please help! I’ve develop contact dermatitis on exposure to chemicals contained in most cleaning products. Had already found great recipes for foaming hand soap and dog shampoo. Now I urgently need to find a laundry ‘detergent’. Thanks for your help!

          Reply
          • I don’t have time to do anything that is not absolutely necessary, so there is no liquid version. I just dump the dry into the washer. If you want to mix it into a cup of water and then pour it in the washer, you can. The amount of water doesn’t matter because it’s going to diluted even more once you put it into the washer.

    • Put the borax and washing soda in a cup, add a little water, stir until dissolved, and add it to your liquid dispenser. It just needs to be dissolved to work in it.

      Our dispenser has the option to remove the liquid insert so that we can put powder in there.

      Reply
  12. Isn’t it possible that in all those “stripping” images we are just seeing mainly loose dye (and probably some built up dirt) that has been knocked loose by the extreme pH of the stripping bath? I bet people would see the exact same thing after using commercial detergents. I don’t understand why people think this proves anything. I would expect to see that happen when you use extreme pHs or any caustic reagent on organic substances, which is what clothing is. None of this is a very scientific or even thoughtful approach. I’ve looked at these homemade laundry wash recipes and there is so little soap in them I can’t see how they think the soap is doing anything at all, much less building up on the clothing. If you are using 1 part soap to 8 parts other ingredients and then using only 2 tablespoons per load, that’s less than a teaspoon of soap to be dissolved in gallons and gallons of water. That’s not going to do anything. The idea of using washing soda mixed with borax is a little bit better, but I’d rather see some rigorous scientific testing on the whole thing. Once you throw in things like local hard water/soft water and other chemical components, there is no single “best” washing solution for everyone everywhere.

    Reply
    • Yes! Thank you. I am so tired of the sites telling people to mix a base and acid to clean. Like vinegar and baking soda. Do they do any research? I don’t think so. They just regurgitate someone else’s bad info.

      Reply
  13. What about using cold water for your laundry? I only have cold water available to my laundry room. Does that an affect on the effectiveness of homemade laundry soap?

    Reply
  14. Thanks for the discussion – at one point in this article you said you used 50/50 borax and BAKING soda, and “it worked” – is that a slip, or does that work as well as 50/50 borax and washing soda? So the problem with the usual DIY recipe is the soap – not the washing soda and not the borax…

    Reply
    • Thank you! Yes, that was a slip! It should say washing soda, although they are almost exactly the same thing. I’m editing it now.

      Reply
  15. Sorry if this is a silly question, but you mentioned earlier that you put less than 1/4 cup in your washing machine. Is this a 1/4 cup of borax and a 1/4 cup of washing soda (for a full load)? I live in a very hard water area.

    Reply
      • Why did you choose Sodium Carbonate (soda ash/washing soda) instead of Sodium Per-carbonate? Wouldn’t the addition of hydrogen peroxide be helpful?

        Reply
          • Washing soda is sodium carbonate, which is very similar to baking soda. Some people use baking soda instead of washing soda. You could try both and see which you prefer. They are mined from the ground.

          • Neither of these are actual “bleach.” Sodium percarbonate may have a bleaching action if put directly on fabric, but that doesn’t mean it can replace chlorine bleach, which is what we normally think of as “bleach.” I explain in the article what borax is, and it definitely cannot replace bleach and is very safe to use in laundry. I used it for years on my baby’s diapers.

  16. Does when you add the mixture matter (ex. before the clothes, on top of the clothes, after the machine’s filled with water)? This would be for a top loading machine.

    Reply
  17. It’s such a good idea to add some essential oils to a wool ball to get your clothes to smell good. That way you don’t have to overpower your detergent with smells so that just a little bit of it lasts when the cycle is done. I’ll talk to my wife about what scent she would like the most.

    Reply
    • No, it is not. It is mined from the earth as boron. A century ago some of the people who worked in the boron mines wound up with lung cancer, but that was because they were inhaling the dust all day long, every day of their working lives. Nothing is okay when it is inhaled into your lungs every day. Unfortunately this has led some people to lump it into a category as carcinogenic, but I’m pretty sure that anything and everything would cause cancer under those circumstances.

      Reply
  18. You can make your own washing soda as well. I saw how to online, but can’t remember where. It says to bake regular baking soda in an oven on a cookie sheet at 400 degrees for an hour stirring it around a couple times during the cooking. You can see it change in that it becomes more dull and opaque in appearance.

    Reply
  19. Do you know of the borox/washing soda recipe can be used for cleaning cloth diapers? Also could you do equal parts of borox,washing soda and oxiclean to be more of a deep cleaning? I’m trying to find a cloth diaper friendly diy detergent.

    Reply
  20. I have been making my own laundry detergent for the past 3 years. My husband was made redundant when I started do this. He has since gone back to work (he is a Boilermaker) and I am finding that it is cleaning his work clothes very well. I was wondering if you think I should add some borax as well and how much. I am also thinking of changing to the washing soda as well. I the recipe correct as in ratio of ingredients. My recipe is as follows.
    700grams of Lux Flakes
    1 Cup Bicarbonate of Soda

    Reply
  21. please ignore my first comment as I have made some typing errors.

    I have been making my own laundry detergent for the past 3 years. My husband was made redundant when I started doing this. He has since gone back to work (he is a Boilermaker) and I am finding that it is not cleaning his work clothes very well. I was wondering if you think I should add some borax as well and how much. I am also thinking of changing to the washing soda as well. Is the recipe correct as in ratio of ingredients. My recipe is as follows.
    700grams of Lux Flakes
    1 Cup Bicarbonate of Soda

    Reply
    • Borax definitely helps with cleaning. The ratio is generally 50/50 borax and washing soda. This works very well on dirt, but if you are dealing with grease, you may need an actual detergent, which is a surfactant.

      Reply
  22. I never had an issue with clean clothes with my old front loader. But, just to be sure I would do a cleaning cycle once a month. Everything was white, clean and smelled fresh. No stain survived, and no stain treatment was necessary. HOWEVER, many of the new models don’t put enough WATER in the drum until the RINSE cycle!! I happened to walk by one day well into the wash cycle and saw DRY jeans! It turned out I could only use ONE cycle that put in enough water. Since moving and having a top loader, my tweaked and super recipe no longer works. Both homes have a water softener. My new home’s well water may be the reason but the guy who tested the water said it had very little iron, calcium, etc. Could not even recommend a filter. No soap bubbles even though I’m using three times as much soap! AND, I am having an issue with crystallization of the soap paste I didn’t have before.
    I AM getting murky, silky feeling water but most of my whites (not all) are not getting white so I’m at a loss.
    MAYBE the problem is water, different water softeners, minerals, etc., and not the laundry soap.

    Reply
  23. Do you recall what exactly your cloth diaper routine was!?? 8-9 of great diapers sounds amazing. Right now I use tide on my cloth diapers(the top pick for cloth diapering) and following the correct wash routine for my washer (according to fluff love university) they need an oxiclean soak almost monthly. I’ve been cloth diapering my twins for a year now and probably still have at least another year if not two(potty training twins ) so I really want the best wash routine so I don’t have to soak so often.

    Reply
  24. Pandemic boredom led to some DIY stuff at home, including the laundry sauce (my daughter’s proposed “project” off Pinterest). We did the fels naptha bar/borax/washing soda thing, and the first load rendered clothing that still had smelly armpits (BIG disappointment). So now I’m going to figure out what to do with 2 mason jars of waste (money/time), and how to make them work in our top-loading HE LG washer. I have noticed though what Laura Giesler commented on, and that is my machine very often uses so little water (depending on the setting), and maybe that’s why the commercial laundry cleaners work better – they’re formulated that way. I don’t think the “laundry sauce” works in a small amount of water with little agitation in column-free, top-loading HE washers. Wish I’d known in advance, but hey, it gave us something to do besides eat and watch TV. One thing i would like to note is that my repair guy, way back when I had the standard cheap machine with a column agitator said “glad to see you’re repairing this no frills machine – I don’t know why they messed with these designs – took us years to develop this and it works – the ones without an agitator or the front-loaders don’t clean effectively – it’s the agitator column that makes the difference between clean clothes and not”. Not to mention, I could set the water level wherever I wanted it – my LG won’t let me do that (unless I throw something heavy in when it’s going through it’s pre-start process – I often put a bottle of detergent in the wash bin to trick it into thinking it’s a bigger/heavier load, then take it out when it starts to wash).

    Reply
    • We’ve got a front-loader. All I do now is sprinkle a half cup of Borax right onto the clothes in the machine. It totally worked on our smelly cloth towels (that we’ve been using in place of paper towels to clean up food messes). They had gotten really stinky and smelled like, well, food, even after washing. No more, with that simple solution. It’s possible that it will take a few washes in a front-loader to achieve the same effect as a top-loader, but so far I’m pretty impressed with the simplicity of adding borax to the wash. Still using detergent, but I might try it with just borax, possibly using the solution from this blog post and combining it with washing soda . There is one thing I’ve noticed, and that’s that the rubber seal on the door is collecting white residue. Maybe I’m using more boraxthan necessary and could cut back on the amount per load. That would definitely also cut back on expenses – win-win! Or maybe I need to mix the borax with water and add it to the laundry detergent cup instead?

      Reply
      • We have a top-loader now, but we had a front-loader for more than 10 years, and I don’t recall any white residue. However, I didn’t use that much borax. You can absolutely cut back for a regular dirty load of laundry (not extra stinky).

        Reply
        • Turns out it matters how sloppy I am when I add the borax. I’ve been careful to sprinkle it right on top, rather than near the door, and voila – no more residue! I’m about to order washing soda and see how the laundry does with just half borax, half washing soda. Thanks for this article!

          Reply
    • Hi Marcia! Most of those recipes with the grated bar of soap are so diluted with water, which is why they don’t work. You could just do the math and figure out how much borax and washing soda is in a quart — and if it only amounts to 1/4 cup or so, just dump the whole quart in your next load.

      Reply
  25. Apologies, if I missed it, but do these homemade detergent recipes affect the color? I’ve seen plenty of comments about stain removal & clean whites, but what about dark or bright colors?

    Also, does it work well on synthetic fibers? Cottons? Blends?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • I have never noticed it working any differently than commercial detergents. It gets the clothes clean but doesn’t make them fade or have any negative consequences.

      Reply
  26. I’ve been using a homemade recipe for 3 years, and I’m officially a laundry soap SNOB NOW! I turn my nose up to store bought junk.

    Few things:

    1 – don’t bother with a liquid version. It’s so diluted, it’s almost useless… the powder version however, is highly concentrated, and wonderfully effective.

    2 – I toss the bar soaps in the blender, with a couple cups Borax, and eliminate any issue of the soap not dissolving..

    3 – I use BOTH Fels Naptha, and Zote bar/laundry soaps… Fels Naptha has a stain lifter that Zote doesn’t have, and Zote has an optical brightener that Fels Naptha doesn’t have… the combo is like magic.

    4 – You can use Oxy Clean in the recipe, but BIZ is an enzyme cleaner, and therefore I’ve found even better results with it… Biz adds a little more suds, but still not as much as store bought, liquid “he” detergents… (you want as little suds as possible with an “he” machine, and remember, suds don’t actually do anything! They’re not part of the cleaning process!)

    5 – I don’t use Baking Soda.. it’s powdery, and unfortunately I don’t get very good results when adding it to the recipe, OR replacing Washing Soda with it… (they are different)

    Here’s my recipe:

    5 cups Borax
    5 cups Washing Soda
    2.5 cups Biz
    2 whole bars Fels Naptha
    1 whole bar Zote
    (Fels is smaller than Zote)

    Chop up the bar soaps, and pop in the blender with a couple cups of your Borax… you’re not trying to disintegrate it necessarily, but you want it very fine (eliminates possible dissolving issues)

    You can add Purex Scent Crystals IG you like that sort of thing (I like my clothes to smell like nothing, with a proper clean… just clean, and nothing.)

    I just passed on my 10+ year old front loader to my sister in law, and bought a brand new set… all are in perfect working order with this recipe. With its very little suds, and finely blended ingredients, you can’t get much better for an he front loader…

    Not to mention, the safety profile on this, compared to store bought brands, is like night and day…. I couldn’t imagine putting a babies laundry in some store bought hoop anymore! This recipe is simple, and the ingredients are either natural, or incredibly mild….. Safer, less expensive, and in my opinion, far superior!

    Reply
  27. Got lazy and didn’t blend the soap after I grated it. Just mixed the grated bar in with 2 cups each of borax and washing soda. Now I’m sorry. Recipe says to use 2-3 TBS for heavy loads. I want to add that to some water and microwave it to make sure the soap dissolves then pour it in the washing machine. Question: Will microwaving dissolve the soap? And, will microwaving ruin the mix somehow?

    Reply
    • I don’t recommend using the grated bar of soap. That is what causes problems. It doesn’t actually improve the mix at all. Microwaving a bar of soap will not melt it. Only water melts soap.

      Reply

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