Tuesday Challenge: Laundry Detergent

21 Jun
adding laundry detergent to the washing machine

Step One: Add Homemade Laundry Detergent!

CONFESSION: I like doing laundry. I don’t know why, but I do. I don’t so much like the folding and putting away of laundry, but I like having big fluffy piles of clean, fresh-smelling clothes. And I like getting to pull something freshly warmed out of the dryer. I even like the swishy whir sound of the washer, working away in the background. I dream of a house that has a bright laundry room with a cabinet with shelving and neatly ordered supplies and a wall-mounted ironing board and a window to let in a little sunlight. (I also dream of a house with a very large kitchen, but that‘s another post.) And don’t even get me started on sun-dried clothes – the way they smell all sweet and summery? Divine. (Except for jeans. Jeans need a dryer.)

So, when my friend/blogger Cat of Hipster Housewife suggested a detergent-making party (she was already through her first batch, and she SWEARS by the homemade stuff), I was all in. Along with a few other friends, we made epic amounts of laundry detergent to share. But now I have a fourth of an epic amount of laundry soap, which is still quite a lot, plus all the stuff needed to make detergent until approximately 2026. And so I need to know (since I’m going to be using it for quite some time), how does my homemade laundry detergent stack-up to the store-bought laundry detergent?

Challenge: Laundry Detergent

We’ve been using Seventh Generation laundry soap around the house, which is 2× concentrated and free of any fragrances and made with a very long list of ingredients, most of which are plant-derived and none of which are petroleum-based. I would list everything, but that would be boring and take up a lot of room, so you can go read about it here.

The homemade version, follows this blogger’s recipe:

1/3 bar Fels-Naphtha (or Ivory, or Zote)
½ cup washing soda
½ cup borax
2 gallons of water, divided
A large bucket or container to hold at least 2 gallons of water
A final storage container (We used old juice and soda bottles)

curls of grated soap

Grated soap. Pretty, isn't it?

Start by grating one-third of your bar of soap. Things to note: This is really fun. This also goes really, really fast. Soap is not cheese, and it grates beautifully… and quickly.

melted soap and water mixture

Keep stirring (gently) until the soap is fully melted into the water.

drinking wine and stirring

This is not a hard process. Relax, don't worry, hang out and stir.

Then add the soap curls to a pot, and add 6 cups of water. Heat them up together until the soap melts. It’s better if this doesn’t boil, because it can boil over. Although, if that does happen, clean stovetop!

Adding washing soda to the melted soap

Pour it in and mix it up!

Once you’ve melted your soap, pour it into the holding container and add another 4 cups of hot water (tap-hot is fine, or you can microwave it for extra heat) along with your washing soda and borax. Stir it up so the boarx and washing soda are all dissolved in the melted-soap mixture. Add the remaining water (1 gallon plus 6 cups) — use cold water to help it all cool down faster. Then let the whole mixture cool.

Pouring soap into an old juice container

An old juice container (leftover from the apfelwein creation) is great for storage.

Now, most recipes say let it sit overnight to cool and it’ll gel up and then you stir it to break up the gel and then move it to its final storage container. But that sounds like a lot of work. So, just let it cool down a bit, to the point where it won’t melt your storage container. Find something to do, like drinking wine and eating cake, and then come back in about an hour and check it. You may need more wine and cake if it’s not ready. That’s totally acceptable. Once the mixture is cool-ish, pour it into (or funnel it into) the storage container.

The soap mixture has gelled

The white spots are where the soap has sort of gelled up.

The next morning, you’ll end up with a mixture that’s part water and part gel, kind of like egg-drop soup, or homemade, loosely packed canned pears. That’s how it’s supposed to be. To use, just shake it up, pour into a serving cup (the recipe source says use around ½ cup of detergent for an average load, but feel free to experiment) and enjoy your laundry time.

Time and Cost Comparison

It’s easy to buy laundry detergent, and the Seventh Generation stuff is $19.99 for 150 ounces, which does 99 loads of laundry. That works out to $0.20 per load.

The homemade laundry detergent took about 20 minutes total of active time (grating, melting, pouring, measuring, stirring) and between 60 and 90 minutes of cooling time. Bottling time for us took a while, but we also made a triple batch, so that’s not really a good comparison. You can expect to spend another 5 to 15 minutes bottling, depending on several factors, including how much you make and how you choose to bottle.

I spent a total of $8.23 to buy all of the ingredients I needed, and I had lots of leftovers. To make a single 2-gallon batch of detergent, it costs $0.83. According to the recipe source, this makes about 64 half-cup portions. Assuming that’s correct (I haven’t had time to do 64 loads of laundry yet), it works out to about a penny ($0.01) per load of laundry.

(And you’ll have enough soap leftover for 2 more batches, enough soda left over for 10 more batches, and enough borax left over for 24 more batches. Score.)

Ingredient Comparison

I seriously don’t know where to start on this. As far as I can tell, neither detergent contains any sort of petroleum-based product, which is good. However, without being a chemist or being better versed in the mechanics of soap-making and stain-removing, I can’t tell what’s a valid, necessary ingredient and what’s an additive that doesn’t need to be there. If anyone out there can weigh in and advise, I’d love to know what to look for.

Effectiveness Comparison

the clothing for testing

Don't worry - they smell pretty good at this point.

So, to test how effective the new soap is, I needed a challenge. A good challenge. Luckily, Rob and I are getting ready for a half-marathon in a few months, and that means we’re running a lot. This weekend, we ran 7 miles in mid-80-degree heat with the heat index actually closer to 90. Our clothes were pretty gross by the time we were through. Perfect! I divided out two loads of clothing, with an about-equal mix of socks, underwear, T-shirts and, of course, workout clothes. And then I washed and dried the clothing, using nothing but the assigned detergent for each load (no softeners, no dryer sheets, which we don’t really use anyway, but I felt it should be noted). The load with Rob’s clothes got the DIY stuff, the load with my clothes got the store-bought stuff.

And the results? Two noses (Rob’s and mine) couldn’t tell a difference. Both sets of clothing came out smelling fresh and clean, without the fake scent that some detergents leave behind. Both sets of clothing felt clean, not like there’s any soapy residue left behind. And both look clean. So… they are dirt-fighting equals. Or, at the very least, 7-miles-of-sweat fighting equals. Which is good enough for me!

DIY or Buy?
Given the extreme cost savings, gotta go with DIY on this one. It’s fast and easy to make, extremely economical, and according to a lot of online anecdotes (so… take it with a grain of salt) it’s gentler on your skin than commercial detergents. I cannot attest to its gentle-ness, but the savings are evident.

Do you make your own laundry soap? How about other soaps/cleaners – dish soap, or bathroom scrubs, shampoo?


26 Responses to “Tuesday Challenge: Laundry Detergent”

  1. Stephanie F 06/21/2011 at 10:26 am #

    Ooh, I want to do this! I have probably a year’s worth of detergent stocked up, but once that’s gone i may try this. It would be nice to see a follow-up from you in a few months when you have a better idea of how well it preserves your colors & softness, and that sort of thing.

    I like to make my own glass cleaner. I’ve done it twice now, and the first batch was better than the second but i can’t remember exactly what was in it. I think mostly rubbing alcohol and vinegar. It works just as well as Windex, if not better!

    • Amanda 06/21/2011 at 11:27 am #

      Ooooh, I’d love to do a DIY glass cleaner – our dog is huge and often covers our sliding door with mud when he’s “knocking” to come in. If you find the recipe, please share!

      And there’ll definitely be a follow-up post in the future: I’m curious to know how many washes I get from this batch.

      • Sandra 09/09/2016 at 8:13 am #

        Diy glass cleaner is just 50/50 water and pickling vinegar (can add citrus essential oils to improve smell), and a microfiber glass cloth. This mixture can be used to clean many things including kitchen counters and bathrooms.

  2. Hannah 06/21/2011 at 12:30 pm #

    Yes, please do a follow-up with how it holds up over several months!!

  3. Thomas 06/21/2011 at 5:29 pm #

    Brilliant. A laundry detergent making party it is.

  4. Tynes 06/22/2011 at 11:11 am #

    Could I use this in a high efficiency washer?

    • Amanda 06/22/2011 at 11:24 am #

      You know, this is (evidently) the most frequent question asked about DIY laundry soap. Based on a few other blogs I’ve checked, I’d say yes, but you may have to adjust the amount you use. However, let me do a little more research tonight and I’ll get back to you with a more coherent and definite response.

  5. it's friday afternoonAmanda 06/22/2011 at 2:07 pm #

    What is you did like a scented product? I have read that you can add tea tree oil, but I don’t like the smell. Would any essential oil work?

    • Amanda 06/22/2011 at 2:08 pm #


    • Amanda 06/22/2011 at 4:41 pm #

      I imagine any essential oil would work! (I use my oils interchangeably in projects.) Just add it after the detergent has cooled a bit, so the scent doesn’t cook out.

      Also, some people swear by Dr. Bronner’s soaps, and they come in a range of scents, like lavender, citrus and peppermint. So you could try that in place of the Fels-Naptha (if you don’t want to buy essential oil).

      • Amanda 06/23/2011 at 10:52 am #

        Great, thank you! I’ll report back 🙂

  6. Kati 06/22/2011 at 4:38 pm #

    How fun that you turned it into a party! I seriously just tried this Monday night and my husband totally rolled his eyes at me. It makes so much sense. I made a dry version though & as far as I can tell it works great (and it’s easy to store). With so much of the supplies leftover I’m thinking DIY dish soap and shampoo might be up next. …I can’t wait to see what else you try! AOE!

  7. Angela 06/23/2011 at 8:39 am #

    I really want to try this! I checked a few places yesterday, but had a hard time locating the washing soda. Do you have any suggestions of where to buy it from?

    • Amanda 06/23/2011 at 9:12 am #

      I found the washing soda (and all of the other supplies!) in the laundry aisle at Dahls (a local grocery store chain). Otherwise, I know you can order it from Amazon.

  8. Philip Restall 06/23/2011 at 9:13 am #

    I wonder if adding essential oils could add any sort of fragrance to it. Any thoughts?

    • Amanda 06/24/2011 at 2:50 pm #

      I bet essential oils would work well, although I haven’t tried it myself (yet…) I’d wait until the whole solution cooled down before adding them, though. I tried adding essential oil to homemade lip balm, and put it in before microwaving all the ingredients, and the heat killed a lot of the fragrance.

  9. anne 11/06/2011 at 11:36 am #

    I read this post a while ago and have been meaning to try it – however, at my job I am required to wear ALL BLACK. Pretty boring, but also I know black clothes tend to fade pretty easily in the wash — does anyone have any experience with the homemade version and black clothes? Any extreme fading? Thanks!

    • Amanda 12/13/2011 at 8:25 am #

      I haven’t seen any extreme fading so far, and I’ve been using this for several months now. It’s not any worse than regular detergent, at the very least.

    • Tshollarnp 02/11/2012 at 11:01 pm #

      Soak your black clothes overnight in a sink of cold water with 1-2 cups of vinegar. Then dry them before you wash them. This will set the color and help prevent fading. It works for all colors. You can also do this with your whites and it prevents yellowing.

  10. Leigh Ann Silvestri 11/30/2012 at 1:58 pm #

    If you have one of those left over containers that have the spigot you could funnel this into there it should work.

  11. Sandra 09/09/2016 at 8:16 am #

    Can this be used in cold washes?

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