Grit Blogs > City Gal Moves to Oz Land

Make Your Own Laundry Detergent

A photo of Oz GirlWhen I moved to Kansas almost 2 years ago, my love for our beautiful rural area encouraged me to think of ways to live more gently on the land and to leave less of a footprint, especially where chemicals are concerned.

I must admit I find myself on a roller coaster where being environmentally “green” is concerned ... one day I want to be more economical and more environmentally conscious, and other days I feel like it’s too much effort. So I won’t lie, it can be a struggle at times. Sometimes it’s easier to revert to what appears to be easier. Honestly, if you really think about it, using prepackaged detergents and cleaners is not EASIER (and it’s definitely NOT cheaper!), it is simply that we have become accustomed to buying many of our home cleaners “off the shelf,” for the sake of perceived convenience. I believe that if we can adjust our habits, then those new habits will eventually become the “new” easy. And we’ll feel really good about it too. A big bonus.

There is no shortage of recipes for all types of home cleaners on the internet. But let’s start with something simple. I feel that this particular challenge is possibly one of the easiest first transitions to make.

I am going to give you a recipe to make your very own homemade laundry detergent. And if you are saying “I don’t think I’m inclined to make my own laundry detergent,” well, then, I’ll give you some tips later to save with what you ARE using.

First, the recipe:

  • 4 cups of water
  • 1/3 bar of cheap soap (Fels Naptha), grated
  • 1/2 cup washing soda (not baking soda)
  • 1/2 cup of Borax (20 Mule Team)
  • 5-gallon bucket for mixing
  • 3 gallons of water

Washing soda and Borax

Tips:  You can use Fels Naptha or any regular bar soap for the cheap soap. Washing soda and Borax can both be found in the laundry aisle at your grocery store. (Usually.) Except at Walmart in Kansas. What the heck??!

First, mix the grated soap (I’ll be using Lever, since we have a bunch of it) in a saucepan with 4 cups of water, and heat on low until the soap is completely dissolved. Add hot water/soap mixture to 3 gallons of water in the 5-gallon bucket, stir in the washing soda and Borax, and continue stirring until thickened. Let the mix sit for 24 hours, and voila! homemade laundry detergent.

Yep. That’s it.  Simple, huh?

Or, if you prefer powder detergent, it’s even easier:

  • 1 cup grated Fels Naptha soap
  • 1/2 cup washing soda
  • 1/2 cup Borax

For light loads, use 1 tablespoon. For heavy or heavily soiled loads, use 2 tablespoons.

The savings?? You can save 90% of the cost of store-bought by making it yourself. Total cost per load? In the neighborhood of 2 cents. Store-bought detergent, depending on what you buy and where you buy it, can cost about 20 cents per load – 10 times more.

(I’m buying the washing soda and Borax as soon as I can find it somewhere here in the land of Oz, so I will let y’all know what I think of homemade detergent once I’ve had the opportunity to mix my own and try it out.)

Now, here’s another novel idea that’s been hashed out in the public biosphere:

Is detergent even necessary?

Seventh Generation’s co-founder, Jeffrey Hollender, wonders why more people haven’t stumbled upon laundry’s big, dirty secret: “You don’t even need soap to wash most loads,” he says. “The agitation of washing machines often does the job on its own.”

Wow!  Really, Jeffrey, he-who-heads-up-a-household-cleaner-company?  Are you totally serious??  I applaud you for even uttering this statement, when you obviously stand to profit from selling as much laundry detergent as you can!

As it turns out, something that may be even more effective than soap is agitation. Ancient people used rocks and rivers, but your modern washing machine can clean lightly soiled clothes by just pushing them around in water.

So when you think about the way our forefathers did laundry, it does make you wonder: Is the laundry detergent industry a huge sham, just a way for others to profit from our ignorance?? One thing I can assure you: The powers-that-be are surely not unhappy when you use TOO much of your fancy-schmancy concentrated detergent.  Read this recent eye-opening article from the Wall Street Journal to learn more about “The Great American Soap Overdose.”

The blog Funny About Money decided to conduct experiments using only water in their washing machine. Their final analysis? “By and large, all of the freshly washed clothing came out with an odor: It smelled of clean water!”

If washing your clothes in plain ole water just doesn’t float your scuzzy boat, nor do you really want to make your own detergent, here are some other good alternatives:

  • Use half the amount of detergent you normally use.  By and large, you will not see any difference at all – your clothes will be just as clean as when you use tons of detergent.
  • Try one of the new eco-friendly detergents on the market – you’ll use less, and be gentle on our environment at the same time.
  • I highly recommend Method – only 4 squirts from the bottle for most normal loads! And it’s high-powered, plant-based formula is made using 95 percent natural and renewable ingredients. It’s readily biodegradable and non-toxic in use, for skin-friendly clean clothes. I got my 10 oz. bottle of Fresh Air scent (smells extra good!!) at Lowe’s for $7.99 – you can get a $2 off coupon at the Method website.
  • Other eco-friendly detergents to try: Seventh Generation, greenworks by Clorox.

Eco-friendly laundry detergents

Costs for the above alternative detergents:

  • Method, 25 load size, $7.99/btl, 0.3196 cents per load
  • Seventh Generation, 99 load size, $19.99/btl, 0.2019 cents per load
  • greenworks* by Clorox, 60 load size, $7.97/btl, 0.1328 cents per load

*I think the greenworks was on sale at Lowe’s, about $2.00 off.  I think ... can’t remember? Regardless, it’s still the cheapest of the bunch overall.

Ok, y’all, that’s my two cents worth on laundry detergents. There's tons more information out there on the big ole internet, if you need or want it.

I’m really getting into this self-sustainability gig, and it sure makes me feel good to reduce my reliance on Walmart and other big industrial giants.

If you’ve made your own detergent, or dishwashing detergent, or mayonnaise (yes, you can make your own mayo too!), then do tell me about it. I’d love to hear your story!

6/14/2015 6:19:38 AM

Just made my latest batch. I add 1 cup of blue Reeva dish soap (Aldi's version of Dawn) to help with the oily stains. Keeping extra empty milk jugs helps with storage.

11/5/2010 3:14:20 PM

I just discovered your blog via Grit. Love it. Keep up the good work. Laundry detergent. I've been making it for the past year. Soom good and not so good comments. For reasons unknown, it's never lived up to my expections. Tried adding bleach, vinegar, lemon juice, and still the oily stains won't budge. Not giving up, though. Switched back to Gain for a couple of months and things got better, but it was only a temporary move. Now, I'm back to my homemade brand. I suddenly recalled the other day that my Mom used to boil really dirty white clothes and kitchen towels/dishrags. Don't know if she added anything to the water, but it got out the toughest grime. I'll try it. I do think that the major problem with using the homemade detergent for me has been no, or not enough, surfactants...the chemicals that soften the water and allow the detergents to penetrate and carry away the dirt. Thinking maybe I'll try adding some water softener to it to see if that helps. Otherwise, love making and using my homemade. Essential oils are terrific and my fave is lavendar. But, whatever type of bar soap you use will scent your detergent, so I always get something I love the smell of. Happy wash day to all.

9/7/2010 6:48:51 PM

I love your ideas! I've been making my own laundry soap since early this year and I am thrilled with the results! I am saving money, I am not using harmful chemicals, my husband isn't allergic to it (huge bonus), and my clothes are really, really clean! I use vinegar fabric softener and my clothes smell fresh and clean. I used lemon juice instead of bleach. For those really tough stains, lemon juice, salt and a tooth brush work great, or pre-spot with lemon juice and let it set in the sun. I have pretty much quit using my dryer and hang my clothes out to dry. I have to use the dryer when I'm washing dress clothes, but other than that, it all gets hung out. I am saving a lot of money on my electric bill every month and that's pretty exciting too! Fran - thanks for the tip of using hot water for the linens. I think I'll try that too. We have hard water and I tried using vinegar on my hair. I have to admit, it made my hair really soft. The smell goes away as your hair dries. Unfortunately, the smell reactivates every time your hair gets wet (or sweaty from working in the garden) and I didn't like smelling like vinegar all the time. Thanks for all the great ideas!!!

oz girl
5/27/2010 7:35:19 PM

Fran ~ You've got a ton of great ideas there! A friend told me earlier in the week that vinegar is also good to use on your hair if you have very hard water, instead of conditioner. I haven't tried it yet, but I'm going to. Great tip to use hot water on sheets/towels... I never thought about those pesky dust mites. I'll be sure to wash my sheets in hot water next time! Thanks for coming by, and for your wonderful thoughts.

oz girl
5/27/2010 7:30:49 PM

Nebraska Dave ~ Thanks for popping by. Always lovely to see you. :-) I really like your idea of washing with the lid open, then letting the clothes soak overnite. What a great idea! I'll have to try that next time we have super soiled clothing. With the long weekend coming up, well, at least for hubby (I'll be working Fri-Sun-Mon) I'm sure there will be some extra dirty clothing from his mowing and mending around the ole property. Borax is so cheap ($3.39 for 4 lbs 12 oz box), and I found out from others all the things they use it for... obviously it's an all-around favorite for the house, and I've missed out on it all these years. Not anymore! This gal will be using Borax for lots more things. :-)

oz girl
5/27/2010 7:24:40 PM

Pam ~ I had serious trouble finding the washing soda around here. Finally found it at a bigger grocery store up Wichita way. As for the soap flakes, you can use any type of soap flakes you want to use... just grate your bar soap. Shannon ~ I have all the necessary ingredients, but now I have so much detergent on hand from "testing" the green products, that it will be awhile before I make my own! Plus I have cut way back on how much I use, unless our clothes are really soiled. MW ~ I'd like to try a few loads without any soap at all... haven't worked up the courage to try it yet. :-) I also found out from numerous friends, after I wrote this post, that if you have hard water, you may have to add a tad of regular detergent, esp for extremely soiled (translation: farm clothes!) clothing.

fran a_2
5/27/2010 4:05:50 PM

Years ago I was told by an appliance salesman that detergent is basically used to make water "wetter," i.e. softer. If water used for laundry is very hard, that is full of minerals, then it's difficult for plain water to do the job. For years I have added 1/2 cup vinegar to my wash water and 1/2 cup in a Downy ball for the rinse ccle. This is great for most items. However, anything that has a greasy spot, grass stain, or really dirty clothes like farmers or mechanics, do have to add something stronger. I usually just treat spots and heavy grease with Dawn with is rubbed in thoroughly before washing. I like the lemon-lime scent. Sometimes I add some Young Living lemon, lemongrass, or orange essential oil. A couple of drops will help disinfect and give a wonderful scent. Always, always use hot water on towels and sheets. Regardless of the slight increase in energy consumption, this is one of the few ways to kill those pesky dust mites which can cause so many allergens.

nebraska dave
5/27/2010 10:14:05 AM

Susan, I haven’t tried your formula for detergent yet, but I have tried the half soap dose method of washing clothes and you are correct. I can’t really tell any difference. Agitation alone does a good job. I’m quite a dribbler at the dinner table and do require some help with food and drink spots but other than that I have been a “because Mom did it that way” clothes washer. I also let the whites and work clothes go through a wash cycle with the lid up so the washer cycle stops before going into the rinse. I let the load soak a couple hours or even over night sometimes and then run it through the complete cycle again. The soak period does wonders with dirt, grass, and general outdoor stains in the jeans. I’m not an expert by any means but I think we’ve been duped by the detergent companies. One has to wonder what it takes to cleanup the water that goes down the drain. I have used borax for years in the laundry. Borax is useful for a number of things including the repelling of ants. I went into a panic when I couldn’t find it in my local big box store but they had only moved it to a new location. I just hate it when they do that. Thanks for the heads up about laundry.

5/27/2010 8:39:47 AM

I have always wanted to try making laundry det. but I haven't found any stores(not that there are many stores around here) that carry the washing soda or soap flakes(for soap). What I have found is a great buy at one of the dollar stores for liquid washing det. (21 loads) for $1.00. I make it stretch to about 26 loads. I love dollar stores! Thanks for the recipe. I do want to try it as soon as possible. Pam Life on a Southern Farm

s.m.r. saia
5/27/2010 6:01:16 AM

This is a very informative post. Making my own detergent is something I've been putting off, but your simple recipe for dry detergent is encouraging. Thanks Oz Girl!

mountain woman
5/26/2010 2:55:51 PM

Thanks so much for a really informative article on one of my ongoing chores; laundry. I've wondered about making my own detergent and whether or not it would be cost effective and now I have my answer. Interesting too about not using soap. I have seen those balls you put in the wash that are supposed to clean clothes but I was too skeptical to spend the money to try them. I guess we are all so conditioned to think soap = clean. I'm going to try soap free and then I'm going to use your recipe. Thanks so much for the great info!!!