10 Things You Should Know Before Making Homemade Laundry Detergent

by Ivory Soap on 05/30/2012

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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.



{ 154 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathleen S. June 5, 2015 at 11:40 am

I make up a huge painter’s container of a powder laundry detergent that contains 1 part Raindrops water softener (http://www.amazon.com/Rain-Drops-Water-Softener-Ounce/dp/B005NZ4MGU), 2 parts old fashioned Borax Hand Soap (borax, powdered soap http://www.amazon.com/Dial-02203CT-Powdered-Original-Unscented/dp/B0011FR66E/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1433525709&sr=8-2&keywords=borax+hand+soap ) and 1 part Oxyclean or its equivalent, and 1/4 -1/2 part TSP (which can be left out, but really works to get the conditioner out of the towels). I use ECOS liquid detergent as a pre-wash in heavily soiled loads or for the satisfaction of others, but often times just my powder. I use this on my pots & pans, floors and it cuts down greatly on the need to scrub. Make sure you keep your powder dry, so get a good lid.

NicoleIsOutmsartingLife June 8, 2015 at 4:56 pm

Wow, thanks so much for this! I’m making my own for the first time, and I really appreciate all the research behind your work. I’m going to try your recipe; many of the others are too complicated or contain too many ingredients. The water where I live is really hard, so hoping it works!

Liz G. June 18, 2015 at 5:31 am

What precautions if any,should i take with a side loader washing machine that requires the low suds detergent?

Danielle July 2, 2015 at 8:44 pm

Regarding the enzymatic cleaners – a lot of the commercial cleaners contain enzymes made by genetically modified forms of b. Cereus, b. Licheniformis and friends. In their wild states they can still make these enzymes, but probably not to the same strength as the commercial cleaners. I like your idea of using a pre-made microbial cleaner for stains; if you have a commercial cleaning store nearby you can get large bottles for relatively cheap, and they should last a very long time.

Safety note: some forms of b. Cereus can produce toxins that are very bad for people, so please please please be careful if you’re trying to culture bacteria for cleaners! Keep it away from kids and any animals that you like!

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