Do-It-Yourself Laundry Detergent

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If you live in modern society, you probably use soap. It keeps you clean, healthy and smelling good, and who doesn’t want to smell good? But that doesn’t make it OK for companies that make this stuff to take you to the cleaners.

When it comes to laundry detergent, Americans pay plenty for a never-ending cascade of hyperbole: “New!” (No, it’s not.) “Improved!” (How do you improve soap?) “Ultra!” (Ultra?)

The latest twist is to sell us less product at a higher price with “ultra-new” concentrated detergents. Gee, that certainly sounds thrifty.

Well, here’s the dirty little secret that the suds salesmen don’t want you to know: Some people get OK results with no detergent at all. Others save 90% of the cost of store-bought by making it themselves.

Is detergent necessary?

The blog Funny about Money decided to forgo detergent completely as part of an experiment. Here’s a quote:

“By and large, all of the freshly washed clothing came out with an odor: It smelled of clean water!”

You might be surprised to learn that, while clothing has been around in some form for hundreds of thousands of years, laundry detergent is relatively new. And yet, ancient people were still able to get their clothing clean. How?

As it turns out, the main ingredient other than water is agitation. Ancient people used rocks and rivers, but your modern washing machine can clean lightly soiled clothes by just pushing them around in water. In other words, you can get away without using detergent at all.

But if the idea of using nothing more than water to wash your gym socks sounds a little scuzzy, that’s cool. Make your own detergent. It’s not hard.

The recipe

A quick search online will show you that there’s no shortage of homemade laundry soap recipes. Here’s one we found that seems to work pretty well. You’ll need:

  • 4 cups of water.
  • 1/3 bar of cheap soap, grated.
  • 1/2 cup washing soda (not baking soda).
  • 1/2 cup of Borax (20 Mule Team).
  • 5-gallon bucket for mixing.
  • 3 gallons of water.

First, mix the grated soap in a saucepan with 4 cups of water, and heat on low until the soap is completely dissolved. Add hot water/soap mixture to 3 gallons of water in the 5-gallon bucket, stir in the washing soda and Borax, and continue stirring until thickened. Let the mix sit for 24 hours, and voila! Homemade laundry detergent.

There are lots of other recipes and articles online. One I especially liked was at The Simple Dollar. And here’s a site that lists 10 different recipes.

Of course, who’d post a recipe without trying it out first? I made and washed several loads of clothes with the homemade detergent. And I, like many before me who’ve traveled this road, couldn’t tell the difference between store-bought and homemade.

Total cost per load? In the neighborhood of 2 cents. Store-bought detergent, depending on what you buy and where you buy it, can cost about 20 cents per load — 10 times more.

So, there are at least two alternatives to the agitation of paying a bunch of money for laundry detergent: Ditch it altogether and use nothing more than water in your washer, or save 90% by making your own laundry detergent.

And here’s a final idea for those who don’t intend to do either of the above: If you’re going to stick with store-bought, try using less. Since doing this story, while I haven’t started making my own laundry detergent, I have just started just filling the bottom of the measuring cup of my store-bought. Guess what? No difference in smell or cleanliness that I can detect.

Maybe it’s time we all laundered some money.

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Comments & discussion

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  • lawalker75

    How big are the loads? I always set my washer to “super”… is there a guideline somewhere to show how many towels, or how many gallons in the tub to gauge the detergent? Yes, I have a “regular” setting, but I never use it.

  • http://www.theecofriendlyfamily.com/ Amanda

    LOVE seeing this!

    I share my recipe for powdered detergent on my blog as well!
    http://www.theecofriendlyfamily.com/2009/08/laundry-detergent.html

  • martmart

    How much should be used in a front-loading machine that uses HE detergent?

  • Col. Dan

    *Since becoming a widower, while an old man, I've had to learn the fine art of washing my own clothes, talking to myself and shopping (ugh). Fortunately, my one son who lives w/me is a great cook. As for laundry detergent,I've noticed that the prices of popular detergents have gone through the roof! So, I've been buying the 'on sale' newer named det'ts. And I've begun to wonder if we use too much det't. First, I'll use a half cup, in cold water and see how that goes. **But first will pass your recipe to my gang so we can compare notes. Maybe my son & I will make enough of your formula for all of us. When we share it, their's will be free to them, gratis, Dad. Thanks, Mr. Honesty! ***Now please tell us about the gouging of the price of food, starting w/tomatoes! Aren't ALL tomatoes grown 'on the 'vine', even hydroponically, so that claim is grossly misleading as though they're grown in soil? And, are they mostly imported?

  • Col. Dan

    *Since becoming a widower, while an old man, I've had to learn the fine art of washing my own clothes, talking to myself and shopping (ugh). Fortunately, my one son who lives w/me is a great cook. As for laundry detergent,I've noticed that the prices of popular detergents have gone through the roof! So, I've been buying the 'on sale' newer named det'ts. And I've begun to wonder if we use too much det't. First, I'll use a half cup, in cold water and see how that goes. **But first will pass your recipe to my gang so we can compare notes. Maybe my son & I will make enough of your formula for all of us. When we share it, their's will be free to them, gratis, Dad. Thanks, Mr. Honesty! ***Now please tell us about the gouging of the price of food, starting w/tomatoes! Aren't ALL tomatoes grown 'on the 'vine', even hydroponically, so that claim is grossly misleading as though they're grown in soil? And, are they mostly imported?

  • cloudsandskye

    Articles like this, and those that promote using cold water, neglect an important reason for laundering fabrics: the existence of bacteria and dust mites. Laundering bedding, clothing, and towels in hot water kills bacteria and dust mites, and using a detergent with an enzyme ingredient breaks down the dust mite droppings. Laundering in cold water without a detergent, or with a detergent that lacks an enzyme, means freshly laundered items will have live bacteria, dust mites, and their droppings, a rather disgusting outcome. There is a lack of awareness about this because these creatures are microscopic, yet they are there and contribute to unpleasant odors and allergies. If you are going to make your own detergent, then you should add an enzyme that breaks down protein, such as protease. Personally, I always wash in hot water and use Seventh Generation Natural Laundry Detergent (their powder works better than their liquid). http://www.seventhgeneration.com

  • Nola

    I use one tablespoon per load, of the homemade powder laundry soap.

  • Dave

    Using your own soap makes alot of sense to me. My big concern is using it with my septic system. Does anyone know if making your own soap is safe for septic systems?

  • Ted

    Are these recepies safe for use with a septic field

    • http://www.facebook.com/janicedyerpayne Janice Payne

      Yes they are no phosphate and nothing builds up.

  • Kimberly Thomason

    I am going to try just the water way without anything. Then I am gonna try the homemade detergent per your instructions. Either way I am gonna save and add in the fact that I only use cold water helps too. I have had to use shampoo and dish washing liquid a few times when we ran out of laundry detergent at home. I didn't use alot just a drop of dish detergent and a squirt of shampoo. Maybe I can do this with all the leftover shampoos too. Does anyone know if thats safe for the washer and environment since it goes into the same place in the long run? Let me know. Great ideas and thanks everyone else for posting others as well. As a disabled, homemaker of 3 without childsupport or alimony this should really help us out. Now all we need is a way to make our own dishwashing liquid, cleaners, personal hygience products and diaper rash creme and medicine and we should all be set.

  • Marcia

    just a word of caution for anyone going the route of water only – i tried that, including with my hubby's marathon training clothes, and they came out of the dryer smelling not much better than when they went in. I had to re-wash the same clothes (i have a top-load washer) and use more water (at a premium in our town), and with detergent on the 2nd try. i also tried using the washing discs with the same result – smelly clothes out of the dryer. so although i try to go green as much as possible, some of these things just don't always work and you end up spending more and using more of our precious resources when you end up doing the same job twice. I'm definitely going to try the homemade detergent though. but seriously, “lightly soiled” clothing is up for interpretation and smelly clothes seem to need something more than water alone. oh, and fyi, a store-bought “green” detergent i tried didn't remove under-arm odor either.

  • pepsigirl

    jmnelson26

    You use bleach in your rinse cycle? I have used vinegar in wash water, but not in rinse water.

  • Stephen Lewis

    Over twenty years ago, an inventor from Japan came up with a clothes washer that used sound waves to vibrate dirt off of fabrics. It was featured in an issue of Mechanics Illustrated. My guess is that the reason we never saw this machine on the market is that Proctor and others bought the patent so they could continue selling us laundry detergent.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/S4MJESBCAISNF4RHNPBSSXYIRM Aubrey

    I have used dawn dishwashing detergent for about 20 years…it was the only thing that could get automotive grease out of my dad's clothes…I also use vinegar in the rinse cycle in place of fabric softner as it strips off any residue and brightens and softens your clothes. A large bottle of dawn costs $3.00 and a jug of vinegar costs about 2.00. I do approx. six loads of laundry a week and I use one bottle of each a month. $5.00 a month and 30 loads of laundry ain't bad in my book…And just a heads up if you have dingy whites just buy the Dawn with bleach alternative.

  • Adam

    Im curious, if you have a high efficiency washer, you are suppose to use the “special” laundry detergent. can the homemade recipe for luandry soap be used in the HE washer, or does it even matter?

    • Stephanie

      The homemade laundry powdered detergent recipe that I got from this website (http://homemadelaundrysoap.net) says that it’s fine to use in an HE washer. I don’t actually have an HE washer myself, so I can’t confirm it. =)

  • Ree

    I agree, who needs all those chemicals? I bought laundry magnets, and I figure that they have paid for themselves about twenty times now. They are big round magnets, covered in a plastic shell that you stick on opposite sides of your washer drum, and they really work! Has anyone tried these yet?

  • Melissa

    A while back I was trying to cut my bills so I could put the extra money into my credit card debt. One of the areas I cut was in laundry detergent. While I wasn't willing to give up my brand name stuff, I was willing to switch to the powder. To eliminate the powder residue I sometimes found left on the clothes, I cut the amount I used in half. The only difference is the clean smell is a little lighter than if I used full-strength. A $10 box can last me about 2 months and thats with washing about 16-20 loads each week. I don't think I'll ever go back to the liquid.

  • Harry Toes

    ok u said i could find other recipes ” for your own soap” on this site and i have yet to see another!~~

  • Cheryl

    Robert, I just finished mixing up a batch of laundry soap, which yielded me enough to fill 5+ leftover laundry detergent jugs, and it took me about the same amount of time as doing one load of laundry, plus the 24 hours you have to let the mixture sit. I think I can afford the time :)

  • Cheryl Thompson

    Mr. Robinson, have you found an answer to the questions about using this homemade blend in the new “high efficiency” front-load washers? I'd sure hate to wreck my new and very expensive appliance!!