Monday, April 13, 2009

Homemade Laundry Detergent

I’ve been conducting my own scientific experiments again. I guess I shouldn’t call them “scientific” seeing as I’m not a scientist and they’re really pretty loosy-goosy experiments of my own devising. Several weeks ago I made my own homemade laundry detergent and then I tested it on my kids’ laundry. I tried several formulas and compared them to the brand name “green” detergents I’ve been using. I’ve been using green laundry detergents (no phosphate, biodegradable, good-for-the-environment, etc.) for several years and to be honest, they don’t work as well as the conventional detergents. So I’ve been wondering for some time if there wasn’t a better alternative out there.

In my search for the perfect laundry detergent, I discovered literally hundreds of recipes on the internet. I was going for simple and least messy, so that narrowed it down to powder formulas. The liquid recipes involved adding gallons upon gallons of water to each mixture and then stirring the slop before using. That’s too much work for me so you know I am fundamentally a lazy laundry lady. I was looking for something you just dump in and are done with it. After about 20 loads of laundry, I’m a believer. Making my own laundry detergent is simple and saves me money. I’m tired of choosing between spending a fortune for “green” laundry detergent and feeling guilty. This is a simple solution.

The recipe I chose has three ingredients: Fels Naptha bar soap, Washing Soda, and Borax. Only one of those ingredients was familiar to me, so back I went to the search engine to learn more. (My favorite search engine is because it donates money to your favorite cause with each search. I’ve chosen the National Alopecia Areata Foundation. Whether you’ve got a cause or not, it’s an easy way to make a difference. You can even check to see how much has been donated to date.)

Washing Soda (or Soda Ash) is sodium bicarbonate, which means very little to me. What did peak my interest is that it is effective in removing oil, grease, and alcohol stains. It can also remove wax. It’s most common use is in the manufacturing of glass. Washing Soda is pretty basic stuff and the most popular brand is made by Arm & Hammer. I found it in our local family owned grocery store right next to the Borax. It costs less than $3 a box. And that box has already made 6 batches of detergent and is still more than half full.

Fels Naptha Soap required a bit more research. I found it in the same grocery store and it was just 99 cents a bar. If you aren’t familiar with Fels Naptha (I wasn’t) it’s a bar soap that has been around for a century or more. It’s what your grandmother rubbed on her clothing when she used a wash board to do the laundry. A quick internet search uncovered lots of controversy surrounding the safety of Fels Naptha. Apparently Fels Naptha used to contain lye. Whether it still does or not seems to be debatable. I decided to believe that there isn’t lye in the fels naptha. As you probably already know you can find support for just about any idea you want on the internet. After reading multiple posts and getting completely confused as to the safety of using fels naptha, here’s what I decided - It’s probably safe. I sided with the 71 year old woman who wrote that she’s been using it all her life and is incredibly healthy and never had a skin irritation from it. The primary complaint from the nah-sayers seemed to be that it can irritate skin, shouldn’t be ingested, and the government has never done any kind of testing with fels naptha. All of that said, it’s your call whether you want to use it or not.

Several sources said that you can use other soaps in place of fels naptha and achieve the same results. So I tried this. I spent $4 on a bar of Dr. Bronner’s organic castile soap and mixed up another batch of laundry detergent. It seemed to work fine on towels, but definitely didn’t measure up on children’s clothes covered with grass stains and the unidentifiable stains covering the front of my daughter’s barn jacket.

Homemade Laundry Detergent:
1 cup finely grated fels naptha soap (or any other soap that does not have moisturizers, dyes or perfumes in it)
½ cup Borax
½ cup Washing Soda

Use 2 tablespoons per load. (I know that seems like only a tiny amount of detergent, but truly, that’s all you need.)
The original recipe I found on the internet said to grate the soap in your food processor. I couldn’t do that to my food processor, so I went to Walmart and bought a cheap fine grater for a few bucks and did it by hand. The bar grated easily and quickly. One bar made 2 cups of soap shreds. Each batch of detergent is enough for 16 loads of laundry. I was happy with the results in hot, warm, and cold water.

Considering fels naptha costs $1 a bar and borax and washing soda are less than $3 a box, and each box will make something like 15 recipes. The total cost of a load of laundry is pretty cheap. Add white vinegar as your fabric softener (1/2 cup per load) and you can save plenty making your own laundry detergent.

In all my reading I also saw dish washing soap mentioned as a great pre-treater. Haven’t tried that yet, but I’m sure I will. I know that even my simple version of laundry soap seems like a lot more work than picking up a bottle of detergent at the store, but consider the other costs. It’s easy for me mix up some more detergent if I run low, that saves on gasoline for the trip to the store and the packaging for each batch of detergent. But more than that it’s one more way for me to take care of my family in a way that is good for the planet, good for them, and good for my pocketbook.


  1. My Mom used to use that fels naptha and we're all still livin'. I didn't actually know they still made it! The very best stain remover I've found, so far, is Dial soap. I have a bar sitting in my laundry and an old toothbrush that I use to scrub out stains and it works better than any other marketed product I've used. And it's cheaper.

  2. I've just made my second batch of the detergent and it's working wonderfully! Even on hubby's stinking pits running tees! I just noticed, however, that I have been putting only 1TBSP in where your recipe calls for 2TBSP... seems to work with only 1, also! The only thing that threw me off at first is no bubbles... seems the bubbles = clean in my mind, but I've quickly gotten over it! Thx for sharing the recipe!