Do-It-Yourself Laundry Detergent

Do you really need to use as much laundry detergent as they say on the bottle? Do you need to use laundry detergent at all? We investigated and you’ll be shocked by what we found.

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.

Stacy Johnson

It's not the usual blah, blah, blah

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  • Mike

    I made the detergent last night. I still have a bucket full of water. I knew the water would not evaporate overnight. Are you supposed to strain out the water?

    • No the water is not supposed to be strained out. I make my own and I use fels naptha soap 1 bar , grated and boil about 1 qt of water dispolve the soap add the borax and the washing soda… see my post above about washing soda….(janice Payne) the add 2 gallons and 3 quarts cool water to the bucket and any scents that i like. The mixture must have a light stir before each use and should have a jiggly mass on top that needs to be incorporated. when completed you will have 2 gallons and 3 quarts cool water and the grated soap, washing soda, and borax powder all mixed up in the bucket. Questions you can find me on facebook under the same poster name. Janice payne

    • I also use the fels naptha soap and my laundry soap comes out looking like jello …I just used my arm to stir…..the recipe I have says to put soap in a used liquid soap jug…fill 1/2 full then add water to fill jug shake before using. Use 1 cup per load…..I like using it as some soaps have a smell I don’t like…This hardly has a smell at all…..Mike you might get the fels naptha soap and grate heat till all melted and stir into what you have already made let set 24 hours. Your laundry soap should be ok then…
      Beckie Jones

  • meeuan

    I've been using a laundry ball that contains magnets and ceramic media for the past few months now and it seems to work fine. It was recommended to me by a very reliable source who saw them in Columbia, apparently everyone uses them out there. I must admit I was a sceptic at first but thought what the heck it's worth a try. I was quite surprised to find out that it works. Clothes come out clean and fresh smelling in cold water, even with my HE washing machine. I bought mine online at smartkleancalifornia $35 and it is supposed to last 12 months. We shall see.

  • Desi

    Hi, I am a mother of 4 stinky boys from age 22 -10, and 1 messy girl and family pets. I noticed 2 years ago during winter that my children were getting the common illness more than ever, so i decided to switch from cold wash to hot water for everything and using half detergent because of sensitive skin issues. My children are all healthy. Thank God, and I will not go back to cold washing ever again, can't afford the doctor bills.

  • Donna

    Dear Mr. Robinson,

    Isnt there a recipe for laundry soap that is powder form? I find that liquid is fine but tends to be globby. However it is much cheaper than what I pay in the store ….Smiles

  • donna

    No but i have used the fabric softner for the dryer they always seem to come off. What it does is stick to the dryer drum and you slide in a block of fabric smelling softner…It smells great but it slides out and then breaks into pieces……..

  • donna

    marcia try using lever 2000. It seems to help your clother smell better and yes get rid of the oders you don not like ……the bar soap may cost just a bit more but its still better than any store bought. Also if its real tough try All stain and color booster and apply to those little nasty areas…my teenage son is impressed how homemade and at times a little extra help works so well…
    PS…I still save $$$$

  • donna

    marcia try using lever 2000. It seems to help your clother smell better and yes get rid of the oders you don not like ……the bar soap may cost just a bit more but its still better than any store bought. Also if its real tough try All stain and color booster and apply to those little nasty areas…my teenage son is impressed how homemade and at times a little extra help works so well…
    PS…I still save $$$$

  • C_butler44

    I have a septic system and used the make your own soap I saw on 19 kids and counting. The Duggers make their own soap. I have not had any trouble and have been using this homemade soap for 3 months.

  • Interesting! Think about it making your on soap is cost efficient. For someone who has a lot of kids or kids who are extremely active this will work and you’ll save money!

  • Here’s a good article on Washing Soda and its multiple uses for non-toxic cleaning around the house. Great stuff. .

  • Yeah here is another money saving tip WASHING SODA is nothing more than baking soda heated in a DRY pan over medium heat until it reaches 190* F stir it once in a while … that is it… put in air tight container …. or Zip bag
    No it will not catch fire but it will make little volcano looking places in the pan as it warms , NO it ill not erupt and have a lava flow and burn you. IF YOU have worries or concerns do what i did and use the side burner on you bbq grill outside and then that way you can feel safer. also if you like your clothes to have a sccent you can add essential oil to your soap mixture making any ole scent that you like, mango, apple, mtn fresh, lemon, what ever strike your fancy!

  • franki peak

    Washing soda is sodium bicarbonate and is also called soda ash. Like used in swimming pools.
    Washing soda can be harder to find and more expensive.
    I’m a veteran coupon lady and so far have been able to get “free” type commercial soaps cheaper than I could make them but have the ingredients on hand.
    I don’t have a pan I’d feel comfortable using to make detergent. Fancy smooth top stove I have won’t let me use cheap or worn out pans.
    I use white vinegar in fabric softener slot. Cleans, deodorizes and seems to kill bacteria so I don’t need to use hot water in most loads. I do for towels. Hot water can fade sheets.
    Vinegar also kills whatever bacteria makes clothes mouldy-smelling if left in the washer on a warm day. I’ve gotten spoiled because I can completely forget all day and open the lid – they’re just fine!
    I  line-dry whatever I can. Fresh smelling sheets and clothes that last longer. Lint=your clothes deteriorating!

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