With today’s fuel prices, the cost of lugging those big jugs of laundry detergent has skyrocketed the price of something that (in my own honest opinion) was way overpriced to begin with. Not only are these soaps expensive, but they contain lots of synthetic surfactants and enzymes that can irritate skin and cause chemical burns. In the last few years, many mainstream detergent companies such as All and Tide have developed “Free and Clear” detergents that are seemingly better for the consumer. However, you are still going to pay an astounding amount for something that is easily made in the kitchen sink.
Once I had my son, I became a die hard advocate for cloth diapering, especially for the first year and a half of his life. He was suffering from a plethora of allergies and we didn’t know what the cause was, so finding a detergent that is safe for my stash of diapers presented a challenge. Most commercially produced detergents cannot be used on cloth diapers because they “clean too well’, meaning the surfactants and enzymes that get your whites the whitest and your brights the brightest essentially destroy a cloth diaper in less than 3 washes. The enzymes can linger on the diapers and lead to a nasty case of diaper rash as well. Enzymes are proteins that are added to detergents to help break down organic stains like oil, blood, grass, and the like. Unfortunately they may become reactivated when they get wet and cause painful rashes on some babies. Mine included. Commercial detergents also contain synthetic fragrances that are oil based. When these oils come into contact with the diaper, they coat the fabric and prevent them from absorbing. Not something you want to deal with! However, when making homemade detergents that are used for clothing, it is perfectly fine to use natural fragrance oils such as lavender, orange or lemon. These can actually be found in the baking isle in most supermarkets. Just make sure you are purchasing “natural oil” instead of the imitation, imitation or synthetic oils can leave stains on the clothes.
When it comes to homemade detergents, I have tried just about every recipe I have come across. Some work better than others, while some are easier to make than others. Nevertheless, your laundry needs will determine the type of soap you make. Powered detergent is quick to make but doesn’t last as long as a batch of liquid. The recipes listed below have proven themselves worthy enough to share.
What you will Need
There are a few inexpensive items you should have on hand in your kitchen if you plan on making homemade detergent on a regular basis. A cheese grater, small food processor (not a necessity, but WELL worth the investment) old saucepan (you won’t be able to cook food in it after making detergent) and large metal bowls or plastic buckets with lids are quite handy. For powdered detergents, I make smaller batches and store them in repurposed yogurt cups (large sized ones with lids)
If you want to invest in the food processor, Black and Decker makes one that sells for around $30.00 new. If you catch it on sale they can be even more reasonable. I have seen it on sale at Target for $22.99 on several occasions. Keep in mind though, you probably want to dedicate this item to detergent making. With that being said, yard sales are also a great place to find cheap food processors!
Detergent Making Staples: What’s in it?
There are only a few basic ingredients in homemade detergent. Soap, soda and borax.
Soap: The soap is the main ingredient in the detergent. You will need a washing soap, which sounds stupid, but it is completely different than the Irish Spring or Dial bar soap that may be in your bathroom. The most common soap is Fels Naptha, which is located in most laundry isles. It works well, but some prefer Zote or even Ivory. A fair warning though, if you use Ivory, you will need to use the whole bar. It is not as strong as the other laundry specific soaps. I don’t use any of these soaps in my detergent though. I prefer using a castile soap such as Dr. Bronner’s. They make a fragrance free bar for babies that is perfect for the cloth diaper detergent and they make a citrus and peppermint scented one that I use for clothing. Check them out here. The soaps are also available at Whole Foods.
Washing Soda: This is not to be confused with baking soda. They are not the same thing. Washing soda is sodium carbonate or soda ash (baking soda is sodium bicarbonate). It is a white powder and its purpose is to help remove dirt and odors. The most common brand to look for is Arm & Hammer. It can be found in the laundry isle alongside the powdered detergent. I know that is is hard to find in some areas, but now that many folks have returned to making their own detergent, many stores are stocking it on a regular basis. If your local store does not carry it, try asking them if they can order it. Most stores don’t have a problem with doing this. In fact, my local grocer didn’t start carrying it until I asked for it. As a last resort, you can order it online, but you are going to pay a pretty penny for it by time shipping is factored in.
Borax: Borax is a naturally occurring mineral: Sodium Borate. It is used to whiten and deodorize. The most common brand is 20 Mule Team. It can be found in either the laundry or cleaning isle of most stores. Borax has a lot of uses around the home, so I always wait for a coupon and buy the big box. Borax is a natural pest repellent and does a bang up job cleaning lawn furniture.
Easy Liquid Detergent (except for the stirring!)
(this is where the large plastic bucket comes in handy)
1/3 bar Fels Naptha or other type of soap (again, if using Ivory, use the WHOLE bar)
½ cup washing soda
½ cup borax powder
10-15 drops of natural scented oil (OPTIONAL) Do not add if you are planning on using for diapers!
Grate the soap and put it in a sauce pan. Add 6 cups water and heat it until the soap melts. Add the washing soda and the borax and stir until it is dissolved. Remove from heat. Pour 4 cups hot water into the bucket. Now add your cooling soap mixture and stir. Add 1 gallon plus 6 cups of water and stir. Let the soap sit for about 24 hours and it will gel. You use ½ cup per load. Yield: around 75 loads.
Please note: Homemade liquid detergents will not look like store bought. They will be slightly runny, almost like an egg white.
Easy Powdered Detergent
1 bar of any of the above listed soaps, finely grated
1 cup washing soda
1 cup borax
This is really, really simple. Grate the soap and add the washing soda and borax. This is where the food processor comes in handy! I usually hand grate the soap then throw everything in the food processor for 1 minute. Yield: 20-30 loads depending on how much you use. The standard load uses 3 tablespoons per load.
Can I use these detergents in my high efficiency washer?
By all means! In fact, both recipes are low sudsing. The cleaning comes from the ingredients, not the suds. High Efficiency machines are great because they use less water, but manufactures use the “HE” designation as just another advertising mechanism to try and swindle consumers into buying “special soap” that they charge even more exorbitant prices for.
Well, there you have it. A basic outline of homemade detergent. It is extremely rewarding to know that you not only saved yourself a lot of money by making your detergent at home, but you also know EXACTLY what is in the soap. All of the ingredients are pronounceable and depending on the soap you use, almost all natural or even organic. Once you have the basic recipe mastered, it is fun to add different fragrances to the detergent. I always make a batch of peppermint detergent at Christmastime. There is nothing quite like smelling like a friggin’ elf. I think my friends look forward to it year after year. Although, I recall a few raised eyebrows the first year I made it to give away as gifts. Not sure if it was because I gave them detergent and they were offended, or because I gave them peppermint detergent and they were creeped out. Regardless, detergent making is actually fun for me.
I’m lame. Don’t care.