Skin Irritation, Hard Water: DIY Laundry Detergent Troubleshooting

by Ivory Soap

Irritation and Yellowing

Lots of folks choose DIY detergents for skin irritation.  But then they’re skin is still irritated!  There are no additives, right?  And why are my clothes getting dingy and yellowing?

Amazingly, it’s NOT additives that get most people.  It’s the pH of the clothes when they come out.  Even with no additives, alkaline laundry can irritate skin.  Skin like a pH of about 6.5.  Laundry water is almost 11.  Professional laundry services have know this for ages.  They “sour” the laundry to get it back to an acid pH that you skin likes.  Acetic acid (vinegar) is generally the SOUR used by industrial services; it also removes rust yellowing and graying.


So, REGARDLESS OF WHAT DETERGENT YOU USE, help out sensitive skin by SOURING your laundry in the rinse.  1/2 cup in the rinse compartment is more than enough; you might be able to get away with 1/4 cup.  Just play with depending on how well your clothing was rinsed.

Hard Water, Harder Water

Vinegar in the rinse will also help remove hard water deposits on clothing. If you want to use it pre-emptively to keep those particles suspended in the wash water, you can use vinegar or citric acid in the wash. But, if you have any significant water hardness, it might take a lot more vinegar than you want to fool with. Lemi-shine citric acid at $4/72 tsp is cheaper for me than vinegar. 4 cups vinegar equals one tsp of citric acid in water-hardness-suspending-capabilities. The other problem is hard water starts eating away at your diy savings because you have to add so much more washing soda to the mix to keep up the pH. For every cup of vinegar you add to the wash water or for every tsp of citric acid you add, put in 4 extra tsp of washing soda.

So here are my hard water dry detergent mixes for you to try. Tell me how your experiments go!

I Think I Have Hard Water Mix
1/4 c citric acid
3/4 c finely ground soap
2 3/4 c washing soda

Mix in can. Shake a lot first day. Will try to clump. Use 3T per standard load. Vinegar in the rinse.

I Pretty Sure I Gots the Hard Water Mix
1/2 c citric acid
1/2 c plus 2T finely ground soap
2 cups plus 6T washing soda

Same mixing instructions as above, use a rounded quarter cup per standard load. Vinegar in the rinse.

Disclaimer: This post may contain a link to an affiliate.

{ 49 comments… read them below or add one }

hwiens July 31, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Does anyone know of a good resource for buying citric acid? I’ve checked out local Walmart and two grocery stores and no one knows what it is….lol Thanks

Jessie August 1, 2012 at 8:10 am

Thank you! I got citric acid just because of your posts on this and dishwasher detergent. 🙂

Kristen August 6, 2012 at 1:27 pm

I get my citric acid mail order from

Callie August 8, 2012 at 12:28 pm

You can find citric acid with the canning stuff right now. I’m not sure if it’s the cheapest way to go, but it should be enough to see if it helps your laundry.

How much would I add to my HE washer? ‘Cause I know I gots hard water. 🙂

Callie August 8, 2012 at 12:55 pm

I forgot to say that I found my small bottle of citric acid at Lowe’s with the canning supplies.

Ivory Soap August 11, 2012 at 10:30 am

start with half the recommended amount for top loader. tell me if it works. Hard water is why “detergent” was invented.

Erin August 14, 2012 at 9:11 pm

We have the most awful water I’ve ever seen, it stains the shower stalls rust brown in a couple of weeks after I scrub them with extremely caustic cleaner to bleach them. I mix TSP (trisodium phosphate) into the washload, 1 tsp per load, and this makes a huge difference with the dinginess too. It binds to any iron in the water and takes it out of the clothes and down the drain.

Ivory Soap August 16, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Yes phosphates became popular in detergent for a very good reason.

Stephie N September 11, 2012 at 6:16 pm

Salt in the wash works great as a water softener (and clothes softener) I used to rinse with vinegar and still come out with rough diapers (vinegar in the rinse helps soften too) then I remembered how bad hard water we have here in denver and went looking for natural water softeners. . . charlie’s makes one that I realized was just essentially salt, ever since I’ve been adding roughly a tsp with each load of plain ol table salt and the diapers almost feel brand new! softer and don’t irritate my girls legs anymore! 🙂 cost is around 50 cents per 75-100 loads. . . works for me!!

Tommie March 21, 2013 at 1:41 am

I am new to your site and I love it already. Just have one question where do I get or find Washing soda????
Thanks in advance

Daisy March 21, 2013 at 8:08 am

Tommie–Thank you! You can usually find washing soda in the laundry aisle of most larger supermarkets.

Jeni Wendell March 24, 2013 at 8:38 am

Any tips for a scented fabric softener? I’ve tried wool dryer balls with essential oil but the clothes don’t smell like the oil at all. I currently use 1/2 cup of vinegar as a rinse but I need something with a scent.

Laini December 30, 2013 at 3:39 am

You can either buy citric acid in the laundry section of grocery stores under the brand name Lemi-Shine, use lemon Kool-Aid or bulk Wylers quart of Light (sugar free) lemonade mix from Dollar Tree.

stewart June 2, 2014 at 8:22 pm

Wow! Mind blown! Your researched responses are EXACTLY what I needed in my search for the best homemade cleaners. Not that satisfaction stops my mind from coming up with new questions . . .

Let’s see if I can ask this in a way that makes sense –

You add citric acid to counter hardness, but need to increase the washing soda to keep the overall product basic(alkaline, whatever). What is the neutralized citric acid doing to keep minerals from depositing on clothes? Once neutral, the citric acid is now itself a salt, and I’d think that would increase sediment? Maybe?

I’ve been using vinegar in my rinse cycle, and while I feel it’s successful, I have my doubts, given that water is naturally alkaline in my part of the country (buffered around 8.5 pH). I’m wondering if I should just add the citric acid to the rinse cycle. Does it dissolve quickly? Should I dissolve it in some distilled or other non-alkaline water and add it as a liquid to the softener dispenser?


Ivory Soap June 6, 2014 at 7:47 am

>>You add citric acid to counter hardness, but need to increase the washing soda to keep the overall product basic(alkaline, whatever). What is the neutralized citric acid doing to keep minerals from depositing on clothes? Once neutral, the citric acid is now itself a salt, and I’d think that would increase sediment? Maybe?

The pH is neutralized, but not the ability to handle minerals. After the acid base reaction, that salt created is still anti-mineral. It’s not the pH that does it. I can’t remember the mechanism (9 months preggers right now) but it doesn’t precipitate.

>>I’ve been using vinegar in my rinse cycle, and while I feel it’s successful, I have my doubts, given that water is naturally alkaline in my part of the country (buffered around 8.5 pH). I’m wondering if I should just add the citric acid to the rinse cycle. Does it dissolve quickly? Should I dissolve it in some distilled or other non-alkaline water and add it as a liquid to the softener dispenser?

You can do either. I calculated the amount of store-bought vinegar needed for neutral water. Depending on your washer, it may be more or less easy to add the acid at different points. Mine has an automatic liquid release during the rinse, so I like the laziness of putting it in at the beginning of the cycle. If you are more attentive than I, I would think you could just put it into the rinse cycle dry…but that’s just a guess. I haven’t watched it dissolve before; I just know it sucks water in from teh atmosphere like crazy and makes clumps, so I would think it would love a liquid environment.

Sarah Johnson June 27, 2014 at 1:24 am

I have this recipe I found on youtube for making your own liquid detergent with potassium hydroxide. I wondered what you thought of it. I sort of think it would be fun to try but you would still need the washing soda and a vinegar rinse.

Janet July 4, 2014 at 5:14 am

1. Does this get hard in humid weather?
2. If the salt helps soften clothes, can salt be added to the detergent recipe? How much would one need?
3. What is TSP and is it harmful?

Rose September 12, 2014 at 9:00 am

I’ve been using the old laundry recipe for a year and have gotten the bad dingy’s. Old recipe with washing soda AND borax. Will adding citric acid remove the dinginess? I’ll be making a new batch with the new recipe soon.

valerie January 21, 2015 at 9:49 am

Hi there! Thank you! Your articles are really great! I have all of the ingredients now including pure vegetable soap flakes from to use instead of grating my own and the price seems very reasonable ($16 for 1 ld including shipping). I have lemi shine Rinse Aid (first by mistake I bought the detergent booster not the hard water spot rinse aid).

Question though about using Borax for hard water: I am reading every article and every comment posted in regard to making laundry detergent. We have mildly hard water in our area. I saw reference multiple times in your other articles that if you have hard water you should add some borax. But this recipe does not include it. Can you you clarify for me if I need to use the borax? I am part of a group of gals who make different homemade things and trade with each. ps – the whole group wants a liquid laundry detergent 🙁

Thanks again for all your research! I have been searching and reading everything I can about homemade cleaning products and you site is very informative! I hope to hear back from you, I realize I am little late to expect a reply, but I hope to!

Daisy January 27, 2015 at 8:25 am

Valerie–I can’t find any evidence for borax being better for hard water than washing soda. Borax shows up in liquid detergents, but I wonder if it’s because it makes great goo. (Ever made slime? It uses borax.) I can’t find a single powder commercial detergent that has borax in it. Washing soda is so much stronger. Borax IS a buffer, so it might keep your pH from going wildly basic if you have excess washing soda, but I’ve never heard of that being a real problem for anyone. Also, both borax and washing soda will bind the hard water particles, but they are the “sedimentary” kind of softeners. Citric acid, or sodium silicate (much better since it doesn’t cancel out the pH of the washing soda like citric acid does), keep the particles suspended.

Valerie January 27, 2015 at 9:11 am

Daisy, Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my question and for the great insights! So much chemistry to learn as I move forward with this project! What do you mean by “sedimentary” softeners? And thanks for the suggestion to use Sodium Silicate instsead of citric acid.

Daisy January 27, 2015 at 4:16 pm

Valerie–That just means it may tend to settle rather than remain suspended in solution. Good luck in your quest!

valerie February 6, 2015 at 9:42 pm

Hi Again Daisy! I looked into sodium silicate. Thanks for suggesting I can replace the citric acid with this. I had been wondering about raeding that Citric Acid cancels the washing soda (?)

I looked around and found SS in reasonable quantities in liquid not powder. If I was to try formulating a recipe, could you suggest amounts of Washing Soda, laundry soap powder, sea salt, sodium silicae, in a liquid formulation? 🙂 Maybe I would need some borax to get that nice gellotanous texture (which I reconstitute after the initial set & works great! Thanks again

Daisy February 9, 2015 at 8:50 am

valerie–Here’s the word from Deanna:
I may have misspoke on the detergent.
1. Sodium silicate is in the DISH detergent.
2. And yes, citric acid cancels the soda, so you have to quadruple your soda.
3. The commercial LAUNDRY solution for hard water is to use a “non-soap detergent.” Non-soap detergents work in both hard and soft water. This is why phosphates were so popular until they started killing fish or whatever. Some other synthetic detergent is what is used these days. So, you could start with a fake soap bar (Zest? I haven’t researched yet), then you could eliminate the citric acid.
4. The issue with liquid detergent is that it loses its power over time. If you are a busy household and use it reasonably quickly, then it’s fine. But if you leave it for months, it loses its pH power.

valerie February 9, 2015 at 5:33 pm

Hi Daisy, Thanks for checking with Deanna! I think this is good news for me because I plan on using hog lard soap for my “non soap” soap? Or do I have this wrong 🙁 If I was to use the lard soap what suggestions, if any, would you have for me to formulate an effective hardward liquid. I understand that the liquid losing power over time, but I plan on just making enough to last for a few weeks at at time. I also am part of a local group of homemakers who all make and trade items and I have offered to make laundry detergent, everyone wants liquid! So any advice is greatly appreciated! Thanks again.

valerie February 9, 2015 at 5:35 pm

PS – I am crossing my fingers you can help me with a suggestions for a liquid recipe 🙂 for me.

valerie February 9, 2015 at 5:41 pm

or, what about 1/2 coconut castile and 1/2 lard soap? I am kinda set on soap 🙂

Daisy February 11, 2015 at 9:03 am

valerie–Lard soap is soap, so is castille. Non-soap is a petrochemical, usually. I am having a terrible time finding the chemical names of all of the non-soap detergents so that I can hunt them down as raw materials for you. Here’s a link that will explain the chemical difference.

val February 15, 2015 at 11:54 am

Thanks Daisy, sorry just seeing your reply. That is what I thought, those being soap. I will check you link for the explanations for the chemicals, thank you for including that.

Sheila January 17, 2016 at 3:12 pm

For all you hard awful brown water peeps- invest in a whole house water filtration system. Please. The minerals in the water will clog your plumbing, ruin appliances, and generally wreak havoc on your plumbing from start to finish otherwise. If you are brave, you can do it yourself, as the systems are really not too complicated, but you can also have one installed for $2500-$5000. It will pay for itself, I promise. Use your tax returns, save up, whatever you have to do.

sumanth February 14, 2016 at 7:06 am

Can we use washing soda in water for bathing to soften hard water

Ivory Soap February 17, 2016 at 11:57 pm

Nope. Washing soda is caustic. It will soften, but it might take the hide off you too. For bathing, I would go with baking soda or salts. Softens, but leaves the skin on your body where it belongs.

Barbara March 28, 2016 at 8:39 pm

Hello Daisy…(and possibly Deanna) I have a question. Well, first an observance and then a question. Maybe even more than one question. I have happily (tho maybe ill-informed I fear now) been making my lovely simple laundry soap powder for about 20 years now, with Ivory Soap (lol), washing soda, and borax with a little baking soda as well. I ‘gots’ very soft water here where I live. I use vinegar that I’ve steeped my orange and lemon peels in, for the rinse water. My clothes are not stiff but not super soft either. I don’t have an issue with that, but I was reading the other day about the use of Epsom Salts in the rinse water as a softener. I have tried it – a tablespoon or two – and it really does work. My question is (sorry I did not have chemistry in school) I’ve seen what the addition of Epsom salts do to my bathwater – you can’t use soap with it as it will leave serious scum. Are the Epsom Salts (magnesium sulfate) causing a reaction with the soap in the laundry to leave serious scum on the insides of my pipes? Like a yuk buildup or something? Would regular cheap table salt work just as well, possibly better? (Yours is one of my most favorite sites! I LOVE it and I thank you for sharing all those bits of your life with us.)

Ivory Soap April 2, 2016 at 9:15 am

Hi, it’s Deanna. Yes, Epsom Salts (magnesium sulfate) create scum that table salt will not. In fact, if you want to “make” hard water, Epsom Salts are the recommended method.

The main goal of fabric softener is to coat the fibers with something. I would think that Epsom Salts would coat like the dickens, however, I do not know where else it deposits in the machine or pipes. Also, it may give fabric a dingy gray color, since that is the color of the precipitate.

Sodium salts (like table salt) do not react with soap, but they do compete with it. This may help coat the fibers. You could try it. Lots of salt in the water makes it hard for the soap to dissolve, since it has sodium to give as well. When salt and soap fight for dissolving rights, salt wins. That means the fatty stuff in the soap could coat your fibers without making gray magnesium or calcium scum. Some people also use a solution of baking soda and vinegar, which again is just a salt. It’s sodium acetate, or salt and vinegar potato chip flavoring. I would think that if it works as a softener, it would be just as well to use table salt.

plb4333 May 5, 2016 at 12:25 pm

In response to ”Daisy”: The citric acid does not suspend the calcium and magnesium that cause hardness, but rather dissolves the minerals. Thats why its considered non-precipitating. As opposed to borax, sodium carbonate, they are precipitating, where the minerals are still there, but kept in suspension as a mineral salt, and get rinsed off when doing the rinse cycle. The best treatment would be citric acid since its non-precipitating and the minerals are actually gone.

DeeAnna May 20, 2016 at 7:16 am

Another DeeAnna here!

When you mix citric acid with an alkali such as washing soda, you end up with sodium citrate. Citrate has the ability to act as a “chelator” meaning it can bind up the hard water minerals that would otherwise make soap scum with your soap. Chelated minerals will rinse away with the laundry water.

The key thing to remember if you add any acid to the wash water is that you HAVE to add enough extra alkali — more washing soda for example — to give the acid something to react with. If you don’t, the acid will react with your soap instead. So if you want to prevent soap scum, then put the acid AND washing soda into the wash water. If you just want an acid rinse, put the acid in the rinse cycle — not in the wash water.

Tracy June 27, 2016 at 6:15 pm

Hi, I made laundry detergent with Kirk’s bars, wash soda & borax. When I washed my clothes in it, they actually came out so clean smelling & felt soft. I use vinegar in the rinse & don’t use fabric softener in the washer or dryer. I dry everything on low & use wool dryer balls. After while, my clothes didn’t seem as fresh. Towels are now coming out rough feeling & my dish cloths are repelling. I have softened well water. I’m trying to wrap my head around the chemistry here, but I’m not sure what to do. Can you tell me what’s happening & what I need to do to get my clothes soft and fresh again, and to strip the towels so they don’t repel & how to prevent it from happening again? Loving all the new info I’m learning on your site! Thanks!!

Ivory Soap July 4, 2016 at 2:05 pm

It sounds like you are still getting some hard water build up on there. A DIY solution is to boil a washcloth and see if that strips it. Alternatively, you could try to strip it with commercial detergent. Send all the towels through with a big blast of something dreadfully chemical, lots of whiteners and brightners every couple of months. That might strip them and return all the “fluorescence” that makes them so shimmering white. I find that even when I use DIY stuff regularly, a dab of something commercial once in a while helps keep everything running happily.

Lauren Murphy September 19, 2016 at 6:46 pm

Hi! I’m researching before I make my own soap so I’m new to this. My water is horrible. It’s hard water that has then been treated to be soft (my understanding when a neighbor had it tasted after the water heater corroded). Would I still add the citric acid?


Lauren Murphy September 19, 2016 at 6:47 pm

Oh and are these for HE machines? Or should I use less soap? Thanks!!

Ivory Soap December 21, 2016 at 8:17 pm

Sadly, there’s no DIY for terrible water. You just have to use the store-bought stuff. I’ve found no solution. Your water is why synthetic detergents were invented. :(.

Deb February 19, 2017 at 8:10 pm

What type of finely ground soap (Fels Naptha?) do you use?

Linda L Roberts April 25, 2017 at 2:56 pm

I have very hard water. My laundry soap consists of equal amounts of baking soda, washing soda and borox plus about 15 oz of homemade soap from lard that I made about 25 years ago and some biz. The towels both kitchen and bath do not seem absorbant like they used to be. They are repelling water. What ingredient or ingredients do you think may be causing it?

Linda L Roberts April 25, 2017 at 2:58 pm

I also add white vinegar to the rinse. I have a front load.

kathi May 10, 2017 at 7:59 am

HI finally. I have been beating my head against the wall every since we installed a rust-remover/water softener.
The water is slimy but worse my laundry is getting ruined! :O Everything is stretched and lifeless. Fibers are worn and knits are longer and thinner. Everything comes out crumpled – super wrinkly whereas before with my iron rich water I never had to press my clothes. (In the past I used gentile non-Clorox bleach for colors and never had a problem with rust stains)
I tried borax to no avail (of course that would make the water too alkaline)
Today I tried no detergent and just vinegar (rewashed or rather rinsed everything) and my clothes are a bit stiffer, less wrinkled- maybe it is a solution but what about cleaning?
I am assuming it is a PH problem with plenty of sodium in the water, which is what is used to soften the water.
I don’t like soft rumpled old looking clothes, though I know many like soft. I prefer to hand press my firm clothes and be done. Only line drying- never a hot dryer.
Help! Please, what should I be doing?
I used home strips to test the pH, though I’m sure they are not very accurate and it appears that my water is 6.4 by itself and after a test with plenty of detergent it is 7.4.
The thing is I think my water, pre-softener, was already 6.2/6.3 so not really much different.
The company who installed the water filter is of NO Help :/

Ivory Soap May 10, 2017 at 7:00 pm

Oh my gosh! This is way above my pay grade!!!! Try a commercial detergent and softener for a week and then tell me the results. I might have an intelligent response with more data.

Ivory Soap May 10, 2017 at 7:09 pm

Babe, there’s no DIY fix for super-hard water (that I know.) Try upgrading from baking soda to washing soda. It’s more reactive. If that’s not available, BAKE your baking soda to make it into washing soda. Anyway, hard water salts coat the fibers. You’re why “detergent” was invented. The rest of use are SPOILED on phosphates. We don’t need them; you do. Wish I could do more! Maybe science will advance…(googling…googling)…not tonight apparently.

Ivory Soap May 10, 2017 at 8:01 pm

All soap works. However, “detergent” soap is going to be “better.”

verna July 17, 2017 at 9:03 am

if one got hard water,bar soap just wont cut it as i used this recipe for months with grated soap,after a while the close had an odor on them because the soap couldnt penetrate thriugh the clothes,so i scrapped that idea and began using an all natural dish liquid in my laundry detergent recipe,and my clothes come out so soft and clean with no smell,bar soap is just no good,also i dont use vinegar, when the clothes are washed there is always a bar soap scum residue that we cant see,just think about this for a second,bar soaps are made from lard and tallow which harden up,it is totally useless,so go with natural dish liquid in the recipe and your problem will be solved

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