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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