Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Easy, effective, natural laundry detergent

There are a lot of recipes floating around the frugal internet for homemade laundry detergent. I've tried a few, but I found chasing odd ingredients, boiling water, and working huge batches is daunting and unnecessary.
My recipe is way easy. It's easily tailored to make as much or as little as you like. Best of all, it can be made from simple, inexpensive, easy to find ingredients that you probably already have in your kitchen and bathroom.

Here's everything I used to make approximately 4 months worth of detergent for my family. We are a very cloth heavy family (cloth diapers, 4 kids, no paper products in the kitchen, lots of mud, etc.). This amount would probably last an average family 6 months to a year. I made 2 batches. I'll list the recipe for a single batch.
4 ounces of pure soap
Baking soda (NOT washing soda)
a box grater
an airtight storage container
a measuring cup
a plate, bowl, cutting board, etc to hold soap shavings
Salt (optional and not shown)

First, let's talk about soap.
You are going to want to start with a pure soap, like Ivory, Fels-Naptha, Zote, or Dr. Bronner's. I'm using Bee and Flower, a very nice herbal soap imported from Shang Hai. It it scented with pure essential oils. Here, I have Jasmine and Ginseng. They smell divine. Sandalwood is my favorite.
In a pinch, or if you are more adventurous (like me), feel free to use any bar of soap. Avoid soaps with added moisturizers or conditioners. These will build up in your washer, dryer, clothes, towels and diapers, causing everything to become slick, nonabsorbent and hold onto dirt and oils even after being washed. If you use cloth diapers-especially with synthetic fabrics like fleece, microfiber or minky-this waxy buildup will give you a world of stinky hurt.
Make sure the package says the word "soap". I know this sounds dumb, but detergent bars, body wash bars, and any other non soap masquerader will cause buildup problems.
Personally, I prefer a vegetable-based soap. Most soaps are made of tallow, which is the leftovers from the fat rendering process that produces lard. I can't speak for anyone else, but the idea of coating myself and my babies in beef and pork fat is not so terribly appealing. So I opt for veggie soaps. I also generally prefer them. They seem gentler and less drying to me. Dr. Bronner's and Bee and Flower are both veggie based. Glycerin soaps are veggie based, but not appropriate for laundry detergent. You want real soap for this.
Bars come in a range of sizes. My bars are a little over 2 ounces each. A standard bar is about 4 oz and a "family size bar" or laundry bar will run somewhere around 8 oz. This recipe is for 4oz of soap.

Now, let's get started. Grab your box grater and soap shaving receptacle. I like a flexible cutting mat. It's easy to work with.
Depending on your preference and how wet or dry your soap is, choose a side of your grater.
I prefer shreds, because it's easy, particularly if your soap is moist. These are very coarse shreds.
If you prefer a more uniform, commercial-looking powder, try the crumber. Be warned that if there is even a slight breeze, you will likely inhale a lot of this very fine powder. My sinuses are thoroughly cleansed.

We now have approximately 2 cups of soap flakes.
Pour these into your jar.
Next step, measure 2 cups of Borax. Borax is laundry booster. I'm not exactly sure what that means, but every recipe on the internet calls for it, commercial detergents contain it, and if you skip it because you don't have any in your pantry, your laundry won't get all the way clean. Trust me on this.
This is the one ingredient you are likely not to have in the house already. It's handy for lots of cleaning applications, it's safe, natural, and cheap. This box costs around $5 and makes a ton of laundry detergent. You can find it in the laundry aisle of any grocery store. 
Pour this into your jar.
Now, let's talk sodas. Most recipes will call for WASHING soda, NOT baking soda. I went to a bunch of different stores, found the washing soda, obediently added it to my mixture and found that my clothes were very dingy. The advice I found was to reduce it by half. I reduced by half, and found my clothes to be half as dingy. See where this is going? Eventually I cut it out entirely. Now my laundry is much happier. Note there is NO washing soda in this recipe. This is not an accident or oversight. Washing soda is bad. If you really want to use it, probably, this is not the recipe you want to follow.
Baking soda, in this recipe, is not here to replace washing soda. Baking soda removes odors, brightens whites (which I dearly needed after the washing soda incident) and neutralizes acids. If you use cloth diapers, the urea in the pee pee converts to uric acid when in contact with air. So, unless you are rinsing immediately after every pee (if you are, please stop), you have a good bit of uric acid in your diapers. The baking soda will take care of that. If you don't use cloth diapers, you probably have some other kinds of odors. Baking soda will take care of that, too.
You can see in the top picture, I buy the VERY BIG BOX of baking soda. It's just that handy. The big box is also around $5 and makes a bunch of batches of detergent, among many other uses. Little boxes cost about $0.50 each, and are also handy and a good deal. Either one. Doesn't matter.
Measure 2 cups of baking soda. Pour it into the jar.
Not shown-salt. Regular, cheap, iodized salt is about $1.50 a pound. The salt dissolves in the water, and actually separates out the individual fibers, letting the water penetrate better and wash the dirt out more effectively. This sounds a little hokey, but it really really works. It's stunning. This also makes the fibers much softer, without any yucky waxy buildup.
The detergent will work without the salt. But it will work much better with it. It didn't add it this time because I forgot to buy it, and I couldn't bring myself to use my good kosher salt in the laundry. I'll pick up a cheap box next time I go shopping and add it then.
Measure one cup, and add it to the jar.
Close the jar tightly and shake the dickens out of it. When you are finished, it should look something like this.
Looks just like laundry detergent, doesn't it?
This is some super concentrated stuff. Don't use very much. I have a super capacity (yes, that is what is says on it) commercial quality washer. I use 1-2 tbs per load. I would recommend one tbs for an average load, maybe half a tbs for a small one.
Let's review.
The basic ratio is 1:1:1:1/2. If you find this isn't soapy enough for your taste (for instance, if you have a lot of greasy laundry), adjust the ratio to 2:1:1:1/2. If your clothes are not as soft and fresh as you'd like, increase the salt to 2 cups.
This works beautifully for my laundry in my top-loader in Southern Louisiana. We have some pretty scary water. I've worked this out over the past 8ish years. You might need to tweak it a little to work for your washer, your water and your laundry needs.
Good luck and happy washing!


  1. I just made my first batch. Should it suds in the water? I've tried a few different recipes, and, so far, no suds. I'm wondering if I need to add a water softener.

  2. No. No suds. Sudsing agents are added to liquid and powdered detergents and personal care items because we like the aethetics and sensation. Suds are not necessary for cleaning, and are, in fact, a sign that the soap content is too high, or not rinsing thoroughly. THe large majority of the deteregent is not soap. Only the soap would suds. Even with the adjustment of adding more soap, suds should be minimal.

  3. Think I will have to try this when I run out of my Charlies Soap.

  4. I've made a couple of versions with washing soda and have noticed the dinginess you mention. I did not know it was the washing soda. I will be trying the baking soda for my next batch. The addition of salt also sounds like a good idea; we have really hard water, this might be a nice addition. Thanks