10 Things You Should Know Before Making Homemade Laundry Detergent

I have spent HOURS on the this database researching all of the possible chemical formulations of laundry detergent, and like dishwasher detergent, it has completely CHANGED how I make homemade laundry detergent!

Cleaning Power

1. NO commercial detergents contain BORAX and WASHING SODA together.

It’s an either/or.   Powder is washing soda.  Liquid detergents have borax, usually with alcohol.  End of story.  My guess is that washing soda loses its poop over time in water and borax doesn’t.

This may also be why powder detergents are supposed to be more effective than liquid.  Borax only lets the cleaning pH go up so far.  And borax is most effective in hotter water, so since most people wash in cold these days, it’s not useful enough to include in commercial detergent unless it’s pre-dissolved in a liquid?

Conclusion:  Borax is fine, but if you’re having trouble getting things CLEAN (which is not the same as WHITE), replacing borax with washing soda will make it more powerful.  If you want to make liquid detergent, washing soda may not be a good choice, however, I have no idea how that alcohol/borax thing works out.  Good luck.

2.  Only Purex and Seventh Generation use salt.  Nobody else does.

Purex powder is almost 50% salt.  Seventh Generation uses a tiny amount in some of their liquids.  Salt *is* a water softener, but it’s WAY weaker than washing soda.

Conclusion:  If it works for you, great.  But if you’re having problems getting things CLEAN, ditch the salt and put in more washing soda.

3.  NO detergents contain BAKING SODA

Not even Arm and Hammer.  Baking soda is only half as strong as washing soda at softening water and doesn’t allow the cleaning pH to go nearly as high.   And if you have a stronger product on hand, why dilute it with a weaker one?

Conclusion: Like salt, and borax, if you’re having trouble getting something clean, eliminate the baking soda and replace with washing soda.  But if you’re washing delicates, tossing in a buffer like baking soda is a good idea!

4.  ALMOST ALL commercial detergents contained some kind of SOAP or NON-SOAP detergent

Grate up that Ivory (SUPER FINE so it dissolves well) or whatever you have around.  Pure tallow or lard soap has less cleaning power than anything made from coconut oil, but coconut oil is super bubbly.  Ivory is a split between the two.  I love it.

5.  Most detergents contain enzymes. (UPDATE 7/4/2012:  Old timers use MEAT TENDERIZER for protein enzymes.  I don’t know how it would do IN your washer, but it would work just fine in a soak!)

Enzymes eat your protein stains. You can buy Biz or another enzyme cleaner and add it in, OR you *could* make your own.  These enzymes are from cultured bacteria from three places:

  1. B. Subtilis, which is found in ropy bread (a type of spoiled) and the Japanese food, Natto.  You could culture it from that if you like.  Red Devil Drain Maintainer liquid, and Rid-X Septic System treatment Ultra Liquid are both 100% Subtilis bacteria.  If you have easy access to any of those, a tiny squirt in your wash should be AMAZING.
  2. B. Lichenformis, which is found in the chest feathers of ground dwelling birds and somehow contributes to their molting schedule.  I am totally going to swab the chicks and try to grow that for fun.
  3. B. Cereus, which is not widely used yet, but comes from un-canned fermented cabbage.  Cultured kraut juice should do the trick.  Maybe buzz and strain some of the kraut itself it for more power.

I’m going to make all three with the kids this summer for fun!  I’ll tell you how it goes…

Conclusion:  It’s hard to get out many stains without an enzyme cleaner.  Buy one unless you want to culture one of the above three bacteria.

Now, Let’s Talk Whites

6. ONLY powdered commercial detergents use an oxygen bleach. 

Oxiclean looses it’s poop in liquid form.  You can make your own Oxiclean POWDER by mixing peroxide and washing soda and dehydrating it, but there’s really no point.  In water, Oxiclean becomes peroxide and washing soda.  It’s easier to just dump peroxide in your bleach compartment or make a solution of half peroxide half washing soda for immediate use on stains.  Probably more frugal is a scoop of Dollar store Oxiclean.  Borax has been touted as an oxygen bleach but it’s weak and doesn’t work in cold water at all.

7. Vinegar dissolves the salt deposits on your clothes. 

You can just put ½ cup in your rinse compartment, but it you have really hard water and a top loader, it might not be enough vinegar to make a dent.

8. ONLY Tide Tablets (old product) contain CITRIC ACID. 

As you add more acid to the mix, and decrease the possibility of deposits, you are neutralizing the washing soda.   To use it with washing soda, you have to overwhelm the citric acid with washing soda to make sure there’s enough left to do it’s high pH cleaning thing.   In Tide Tablets, it’s at least a 4 parts washing soda to 1 part citric acid.

Conclusion:  Use 1 cup of washing soda for each 1/4 cup citric acid.  If I still get sediment, use more detergent, and switch the acid in the rinse compartment to citric acid.

9.  Whites aren’t REALLY white in the real world.  

Most whiteness is an ILLUSION.  There’s two fancy chemical families in most commercial detergents that trick your eyes into seeing WHITE.  They boil down to BLUING and FLUORESCING.

  • BLUING has been around forever.  Most white garments come from the store with BLUING in that eventually wears off.  This bluing DYE counteracts the natural yellow cast.  If you want that brilliant white back, you need to BLUE it periodically with THIS or use a combination commercial product that has that effect.
  • Another option is FLUORESCING, often tagged as “optical brighteners.”  This is in Zote soap.  These chemicals activate in light.  So if you soak something in Zote (or any other product with brighteners) and put it in the sun….it gets REALLY bright.

But, but…. 

10.  If you really think it’s not getting clean try using T.A.C.T.

Temperature, Agitation, Chemistry, Time:

  • Increase the temperature of the wash water. Oils especially don’t want to come out in cold water.
  • Put your detergent in FIRST and less clothes in the wash so they tumble better.
  • Use more detergent and/or make sure the detergent you are using is rinsed well
  • Soak the load before you run it.

For me, I use half washing soda and half grated Ivory or homemade lard/coconut oil soap…REALLY FINE GRATED. The older your soap (even Ivory), the more brittle and easy to grind. 3T in the washer, 1/2 cup vinegar in the rinse. For lights and whites, I use hot water, 1/2 cup peroxide in the bleach compartment, unless I have the presence of mind to remember the Dollar Store Oxiclean.

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  1. I was out looking for what is really in “New Age Biodegradeable Household Cleaner”, which has been my “soap” source for many years. The label says “water, coconut oil, lemon oil, wetting agents, citric acid”, but I always thought you needed lye to turn oil into soap. Or a fancy reactor and heat and hydrogen… And I thought “wetting agents” was another term for detergent. But it seems to work well and has only a slight lemony scent that doesn’t stick to things.

    Interesting to see this discussion of washing soda and borax! I use roughly equal proportions for laundry in my ancient front-loader with _very_ hard water. Agitate the powders in the water first, to deal with the hardness, and then add enough New Age to just barely foam, and then the clothes. The EWG “Guide to Healthy Cleaning” says borax is nasty, but it seems if I don’t use it the gooey hard water residue coats my clothes.

    For the people mentioning sodium percarbonate, supposedly OxyBoost is at least 80-90% sodium percarbonate, while Oxiclean contains about 50-60%. You can buy the 100% stuff in bulk several places on the web. Search eBay for “Koi Pond & Waterfall Cleaner”, where I just bought 10 pounds delivered for $27. Yes, it is amazing for killing string algae and brightening wood decks, as well as laundry. But if you’re using more than is required to oxidize your stains, it becomes just an expensive form of washing soda.

  2. Hi there,

    I’m in the UK and TOTALLY love this post… I am trying to justify making my own detergent but all the ingredients seem to come in smaller, more expensive versions here…. Can anyone tell me what would be a good source for the biological enzymes other than just buying a super cheap bio powder to add to my mix? Thanks!

  3. I have had Borax ruin clothing so I’m curious when people use it. ..Do you put in washer then turn on water then add clothes.

  4. I’ve been making my own laundry detergent for about a year now. it consists of fells naptha, Arm and Hammer washing soda and borax. with a cup of each and a bar of the soap I get 5 gallons of detergent. I’ve never had a problem with any of our clothes ruining. Maybe for those who have had issues with borax, it could be that there was too much of it used. Or maybe I should knock on wood and be greatful I haven’t.

  5. Very helpful article. It’s almost time for me to make another batch of detergent. I think I’ll tinker with the recipe some more. With my last batch, I switched from Fels Naptha to Ivory, and now I’d love to ditch the Borax. I am going to look for some Zote, also. Thanks for all your research.

  6. I really found this post helpful when I was figuring out how to make my own laundry detergent and linked to it when I made my own post. So thank you for sharing!

  7. To clarify…
    When you said, “… 3T in the washer, 1/2 cup vinegar in the rinse. For lights and whites, I use hot water, 1/2 cup peroxide in the bleach compartment..” Do you add the peroxide with the 3T (of your homemade laundry soap) + 1/2 c vinegar or does the peroxide replace something?

    And do you have any thoughts on soda ash (for example: look below), not Arm & Hammer washing soda? If I understand correctly, soda ash is the pure or more purer form of washing soda, sodium carbonate Na2CO3?


  8. Sommer, I just made my detergent and was wondering what amount do you use for each load? I was told to use 1Tbsp?

  9. I use about 1.5 tablespoons, but I also think it depends on the hardness of your water and how dirty the clothes are.

    I use a scoop that came from a jar of “dollar store Oxi-Clean”. According to my kitchen measuring spoons, a rounded scoop of laundry detergent using that scoop measures approximately 1.5 tablespoons. If I am washing more soiled clothes, then I will usually throw in another half scoop. Hope that bit of information helps.


  10. Is the Ivory soap non toxic? (I am really careful about that kind of stuff because of previous health issues.) Would the ivory soap, washing soda and then vinegar work for hard water and sweaty clothes?

  11. So I wanted to add enzymes to my detergent mix but I could not find one at my local store so I got Papain in the meat tenderizer isle. Can I use that for now till I get some off the web?

  12. Regarding borax ruining clothes, I haven’t had that experience. However, I use an old washing machine with cold water and only one rinse, and I was tired of the borax powder not rinsing off properly. Solution: While the washer is filling, mix half a cup of borax with a quart of boiling water from the kettle, stir well and wait a minute or two until completely dissolved), and add to the washer when it’s full of water.
    Actually, now I do the above with borax and soda ash (aka sodium carbonate, or pool chemical for raising pH); I only use 1/4 cup of this mix (again, with boiling water), and it works better than borax alone.
    Oh–you have to put vinegar in the rinse or the crystals from the borax and/or soda ash will crystalize on the clothes; maybe that’s what ruined yours. Some say don’t use vinegar in a washing machine, or that borax is not environmentally safe, but we all have to look into these ideas and decide for ourselves.

  13. I have been making laundry detergent for a couple of months now. I have noticed a mildew smell on and off on some clean articles of clothing. I never notice the smell after getting the clothing out of the dryer. I notice when I grab the item from the drawer. It didn’t start until I started using my own concoction (Borax, Washing Soda, Dawn dishwashing detergent. I like the low cost and would like to continue. Any suggestions?

  14. I love your blog! Thanks for all you teach me.

    Since you know a lot about chemistry, would you look at this list of ingredients for Cal-Ben’s soap products, and tell me the good, the bad, and the ugly? Actually, I’m only interested in the Five Star shampoo, bar soap, and liquid/dish soap. Thanks to you and your wonderful info, I make the other things I use, and I’m quite happy with them.

    I need to know if the shampoo, bar soap, and dish soap are safe. Here’s the list they provided.

    Thank again,
    Kay Mahoney

    Ingredient Listing For Cal-Ben Products:

    Complexion Beauty Pure Soap Bar
    20% Cocoa Butter (Extra Virgin Copra Cocoanut Oil) U.S.P. Grade. 80% Vegetable Fat (Highest Grade Tallow Oil) A few drops Pure Almond Essential Oil Extract for essence

    Five Star Shampoo (Triple Concentrate)
    Extra Virgin Cocoa Butter Oils, Vegetable Protein Oil, Amide Cocoa Fat, Essential Cocoanut Oil Essence, Vegetable Fat Conditioner

    Seafoam Dish Glow Concentrate
    Vegetable Tallow Oil, Extra Virgin Coca Butter Oil, Anionic Degreaser, Foam Stabilizer, Opacifier, Essential Oil Extract Of California Oranges Essence

    Seafoam Liquid Pure Soap
    Vegetable Tallow Oil, Extra Virgin Coca Butter Oil, Anionic Degreaser, Foam Stabilizer, Opacifier, Essential Oil Extract Of California Oranges Essence

    Seafoam Laundry Soap Granules (SUPER CONCENTRATE)
    Dry White Cocoa Granules, Tallow Oil Granules, C.M.C. Degreaser, Anionic Degreaser, Sodium Metasilicate, Washing Soda, Essential Oil Extract Of Lemon Oil Essence

    Seafoam Laundry Liquid (SUPER CONCENTRATE)
    Liquid Cocoa Amide, Tallow Oil, C.M.C. Degreaser, Non-Ionic & Ionic Degreaser, Essential Oil Extract of California Oranges Essence

    Seafoam Dish Machine Granules Concentrate ( Destain )
    Sodium Carbonate, Sodium Silicate, Biodegradable Surfactant, Chlorine, Sodium Sulfate. Zero Phosphate Formula

    Almond Hand Lotion
    Purified Water, Glycerin, Tea-Sterarate, Vegitable Fatty Acids, Almond Oil Extract, D&C Red #33

  15. Ditch the borax entirely. Also, are you doing liquid or powder? Liquid loses power over time. Powder is more stable.

  16. Thank god for the perfectionists out there, doing all this good research! Saved me from having to do it, and I’m busy, organizing my sock drawer by color, type, and season…

  17. What type of washer are you using when you use 3T of laundry detergent?

  18. If you want to bleach the natural way…just soap the item and place it in the sun for a bit. It works!

    When you say “Liquid loses power over time” – if you wash regularly, the liquid will be used within a decent period not becoming weak! The powder kind of soap might not dissolve well if you pile it in one spot. You might want to dissolve it in a cup first to distribute it better in the liquid stage. Ah!… a little bit here and a little bit there! Life is a blast!

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  20. After reading your research. I tried the following recipe. Which works for laundry powder, dishwasher detergent, and scouring powder.

    1 cup washing soda
    1 cup 100% coconut oil soap with 1% super fat
    1/4 cup citric acid
    1/2 cup sea salt

    Thank you for everything!

  21. Thanks for doing all this research! I have shared this page many times. For all the people who ask if it works in well water…the answer depends on where your well is, or in other words what kind of water you have. I have used it with well water and had great results. My water has lots of iron in it but apparently not much calcium and/or magnesium which makes water hard. You really just have to experiment to see what works best in your particular water.

  22. So could you tell me about how much Ivory soap and how much washing soda you use? Maybe I missed it. Thanks!

  23. I am so overwhelmed with all this information I don’t know what to do. I currently make my own liquid detergent, washing soda, borax and some kind of soap. Sometimes I will add a TSP of salt to the load for fading. Ive got a top loader and have not had any issues. Upon reading this info I don’t know what to do, someone please help me.

  24. Do you have any thoughts on using the liquid enzyme cleaner meant for pools as a laundry additive? The instructions call for 8 oz. per 10,000 gallons (!) so I was thinking a few drops in each load of laundry, but I’m too chicken to just try it without some input from someone who understands these things.

  25. OK. I’ve tried the recipe Ivory Soap uses and while I love it, it doesn’t seem like it lasts a long time. I think my batch (using a single bar of soap and equal parts of washing soda) only lasted a week. Am I doing something wrong? I have a family of 5. I used to use the recipe that called for lots of water, washing soda, borax, and a bar of soap, which lasted half a year for my family (but it didn’t clean as well as I’d like). However, it doesn’t sound very cost saving if a bar of soap will only last a single week. I feel like I have no choice, but to go back to Tide.

  26. I’ve been making my own laundry soap for years. I only use washing soda, ivory soap and borax. The only variation I’ve used over the years is if I use water in it to make liquid or not, either way works the same for my laundry. I’ve used this formula on cloth diapers, cloth sanitary pads, regular every day clothes and since my family and I rely on second hand clothes, this formula cannot be beat. Everything is and smells clean, every time. You only need a tiny bit, one or two tablespoons, and a nearly perfect load of laundry every time. My washer is wonky so it only washes in hot water, not a big deal for my family, though. Like I said, I wash cloth diapers, etc. If you want your soap to last longer, use one bar of ivory soap with two cups each borax and washing soda. You’re laundry soap will last much longer and your clothes will be just as clean.