All Time Best #4: 10 Things You Should Know Before Making Homemade Laundry Detergent

by Ivory Soap on 12/08/2014

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In honor of our 1000th post in October 2014, we are counting down our most popular posts of all time. Each has received over 100K hits, and some as high as 500K! This week, at #4, is 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.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Cara Achterberg December 8, 2014 at 9:25 am

Question – This may be obvious, but I’m wondering if it’s okay to use borax AND washing soda. From no #1 in the question, it almost sounds like it’s not a good idea to use both – just one or the other. Am I reading this right? Also, what are your thoughts on Fels Naptha – is it a horrible thing? It seems to work better on cleaning than other soaps I’ve used.

Jane December 10, 2014 at 8:43 am

I first started making laundry soap about four years ago, with Zote as my base soap. I loved the Zote so much that I bought a whole case of it from Amazon for a very good price. After several batches though, I began to realize that my colored clothes were coming out of the wash with large spots all over them that they didn’t go in with, and I concluded that it was grease spots from the very fatty Zote. It wasn’t happening on lighter clothes that were washed in a warmer temp. I really don’t want to have two formulas of laundry soap, one for colored and one for lights/whites, and yet I have all this Zote…

Any suggestions as to how to get the Zote to dissolve better? Thanks so much. And I am grateful for all your research!

Paulette December 10, 2014 at 10:44 pm

I’m kinda confused about what things are water softeners. Salt I knew was a softener but I didn’t realize washing soda and baking soda were softeners. Our water is very soft already. Do I leave both of those out? What are your suggestions if you have really soft water? Thank you!

Judy July 22, 2015 at 9:52 am

I’d tried several variations on homemade laundry soap, but finally gave up in frustration. The biggest reason was that I was finding that over time, yellow perspiration stains appeared under the arms of all of our light-colored garments, and they continued to get worse over time. I blamed the soap, since I’d thought that commercial detergents were just that, detergents, as opposed to soaps. So, I went back to the commercial stuff. Has anyone else noticed this?

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