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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  • Susan

    The video directions don't exactly follow the printed directions, plus he mentions “3 gallons of water” in the video while the printed recipe mentions 3 pints of water in one place and 1 quart in another.

  • How substantial a cost difference is there between making your own detergent and buying it? Especially if you factor in the time element. I think it will remain Tide time for me…

  • Hi Susan, I'm the voice of the video. Ha.
    It's 3-gallons for sure. I think the info got changed some how by the edit staff. =)

  • Great idea, detergent is one of the most expensive items I buy. If this work I'll be able to save a ton of money!

  • Does this work with washers that suggest using HE detergents? Everything that I read indicates that the software of the washing machines may not rinse your clothes correctly. Also because of the low water usage and flow, there could be clogging after a while. I think you need to be a little careful here, as the warranty could be voided if they detect that you did not use HE detergents. Any ideas?

  • That's a very good question Mark. I'll have to look into that!

  • Sue

    I have been using a similar homemade laundry detergent for a couple years in my front-loading washer, that suggests using HE detergent. I use the same ingredients but just mix the grated bar soap and powders together – 1 bar Fels Naptha, 1 cup Borax, 1 cup Washing Soda, and use them dry – about 1 tablespoon per load. It works fine. My clothes are clean and I have had no problems.

  • annalouise

    I have used this for over a year and I only use spray on products if a garment is REALLY dirty. Having a husband that does his own car mech, I do have dirty clothes. If they smell strongly of motor oil or tranmkission fluid I use a cup of murphys oil soap(or Dollar generals same stuff) takes all the oil smell out.By making my own detergent, I have helped to keep my washer working better, kept my septic tank cleaner, and since this does not suds up like laundry detergent, but they still smell good after washing, I LOVE IT.

  • jmnelson26

    I have been using 1/2 the amount of detergent and added bake soda or borax. I also add vinegar in rinse cycle in place of bleach and to set colors better. I have not noticed anything different in the 7 years I've done this. I have hard water too!

  • That's an awesome recipe. I'll definitely have to try that! I know after some experimenting, its better for my washer in the long run to cut what the bottle of laundry soap & detergent say by 1/2 & my laundry is just as clean & smells good too. Thanks for your article!

  • nikki

    I don't understand. Once you have made the mixture, how much do you use per load?

  • kpd

    About 1990 I saw an item on Bay Area TV about an ultrasonic washing machine. It was a large version of the ultrasonic jewelry cleaning machines. The big one for clothes used no detergent and about 10% of the water compared to a conventional washing machine. I've never heard of an ultrasonic washer since then.

  • Pauline Saud

    How much of the home made detergent do you use per load??

  • Anna

    Are these recipes okay to use for high efficiency machines

  • chrissy

    Some ways to save a lot of money

  • proofreader

    Procter & Gamble, not Proctor

  • margaretbrown

    In reference to laundry detergent necesssary?? I wish someone would do a story on why EPA is more concerned about saving the speckled owl and not the planet. i.e. why does the EPA allow companies to make pollutants that are being dumped into our waters. Like all cleaning products which are in the hundreds, Draino, Comet etc just to name a few. Can someone out there bring this to national attention. We need to clean this beautiful planet.

  • jake

    using soap to make soap, but somehow i dont need soap????? could this article be any freaking dumber!

  • jenn24

    2 tablespoons up to 1/8 cup powder laundry detergent… Went to other sites to find out. Hope it helps!

  • joanne

    Years ago my mother told me to skip using detergent every 4th laundry day or so. It is amazing how sudsy the water in the machine gets without adding any detergent. Also she said you should run the machine empty on hot every couple of months to “wash the machine”. She's right about so many things.

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