Laundry care basics: how to make your own detergent
This is the fifth article in our ongoing series on laundry care basics.
Why Make Your Own Homemade Laundry Detergent?
A. Save Money "Do it yourself" (DIY) detergents can save you a bundle of money. If you are doing laundry for an entire family, you can easily save hundreds of dollars over the course of a year. This should be enough to take a small family vacation, buy something extra nice for the house, or sock away a tidy amount for your rainy day fund!
B. Improve Your Health Most laundry detergents you buy at the store contain toxic chemicals that can seriously affect your health and the health of your family. These include petrochemicals, sodium lauryl sulfate, and many skin and respiratory irritants in the fragrances, preservatives, and artificial colorings added. People often have unexplained health issues like asthma and hormonal imbalances and don't even realize their laundry detergent may be causing them or exacerbating the problem!
C. Be More Ecofriendly Commercial laundry detergents wreak havoc on the environment in multiple ways because of the chemicals they contain initially and also the chemicals that are produced as they break down over time. The petrochemicals and synthetic chemicals are poisonous to wildlife and this gets carried throughout the food web leaving almost no organism untouched by this environmental calamity. Commercial detergents also raise the acidity of our streams, rivers, wetlands, lake, and other natural waterways which puts more strain on the basic biological functions of wildlife . The surfactants in commercial laundry detergents have been proven to disrupt the endocrine system of fish and mammals that eat fish. Surfactants also remove some of the protective mucus layer fish need to protect themselves against parasites, fungi, and bacterial infections.
The good news is that if you use the right recipes, homemade laundry detergents have a much lighter impact than commercial laundry detergents on the environment and they do just a good a job at cleaning your clothes, if not better!
Recipes For DIY Laundry Detergent Below you will find two super simple recipes for homemade laundry detergent that are completely free of toxins, low cost, and very effective at getting your laundry clean!
1. Recipe For Homemade Liquid Laundry Detergent - 3 Tablespoons Borax (sodium tetraborate) - 3 Tablespoons Washing Soda (sodium bicarbonate, i.e. baking soda) - 3 Tablespoons Of Your Favorite Liquid Castile Soap - About 4 Cups Near Boiling To Boiling Water - Cold Water (almost 3 quarts) - 5-20 Drops Of Your Favorite Essential Oil(s) For Fragrance (optional)
Find yourself a one gallon jug with a good tight fitting lid. Recycle bins are great places to look for one! Clean it well. Combine the borax and washing soda (baking soda) together, mix them well, and then add this combined powder to your gallon jug. Add your liquid castile soap to the gallon jug next and then your boiling water. Use a funnel if your jug has a narrow opening and/or you don't have steady hands when pouring. Now comes the fun part! Swirl and shake vigorously so your ingredients dissolve well into the hot water. Really hot water, i.e. near boiling but not boiling, is hot enough to dissolve your ingredients. This slightly cooler temperature will make it easier to work with than full boiling water, especially if you are working with kids. After you are sure the ingredients are mixed well, you can start filling the rest of the jug with cold water, mixing it more as you do so. Fill to the top so you end up with a full gallon of homemade liquid laundry detergent.
Many castile liquid soaps come with essential oils already added for fragrance. You can buy these or simply buy a castile liquid soap that contains no essential oils and add your own. This gives you much more control over the fragrance (or blend of fragrances) and the amount you want. Dr. Bronner's Castile Soap is one of the most popular and trusted brands. It's all organic and natural. You can get it scented with essential oils like orange, almond, peppermint, lavender, eucalyptus, rose, and tea tree. If you want to buy fragrance free Dr. Bronner's Castile Soap, you'll need to buy the "baby mild" version. They offer this because essential oils can often irritate a baby's skin. For other brands, be sure to read the ingredient label. Keep in mind too that tea tree oil doesn't really smell good. On the other hand, it is great at killing bacteria and fungi! If you elect to use it, try using only a few drops and combine it with several more drops of a better smelling essential oil.
For normal sized loads, use 1/2 cup for each load. This formula should work well too for front loading machines that use less water in the rinse cycle because this homemade detergent formula does not foam too much. If you have an extra large load and/or a heavily soiled load, you can use up to a full cup. You can also pre-treat any stains with some of the liquid detergent.
To make it easier to carry your homemade liquid laundry detergent to the laundromat, look for smaller containers in recycle bins (or from your own home) and pre-measure 1/2 cups to take with you. You can of course bring these back home with you and reuse them making laundry experience even more ecofriendly! Most kids find making their own laundry detergent a really fun project so be sure to get them involved! You can tell them you are going to be "mad scientists" and ask them to help you measure stuff. You can also let them take turns helping you shake everything up -- what kid doesn't love to shake stuff!?! You can also have them do a sniff comparison test for their favorite essential oil(s) to add for fragrance. You can even sneak in a practical math problem (just be sure not to mention math!!). Here's a great one: How many washes can we do from our gallon of homemade laundry detergent if we use 1/2 cup for each load? Your cheat sheet: 1 gallon = 4 quarts = 16 cups (4 cups/quart) = 32 half cups = 32 loads!! You can follow this exercise up with these questions: How much money did we save? (add up the total cost to make your own detergent and compare to what you normally pay in the store for a gallon) and How much money will we save in a year? (you'll have to figure out how many loads you do in a year) This is a fun and practical life lesson that will stay with your kids always!
While they're having all this fun, you can also teach them a bit about ecology and how the toxins we put down the drain can get into our drinking water supply and natural waterways (creeks, streams, lakes, rivers, wetlands, and oceans) where wildlife lives.
2. Recipe For Homemade Laundry Detergent Powder - 1 Big Box (4 lbs + 12 oz) Borax (sodium tetraborate) - 1 Big Box (4 lbs) Washing Soda (sodium bicarbonate, i.e. baking soda) - 3 Bars Of Grated Castile Soap To grate the castile soap, use the smaller holes of a cheese grater, being careful not to cut your knuckles! You can also use a food processor. It's best to shave off the soap or chop it up a bit before putting it into the processor. In a big box or plastic container, combine these three ingredients together as thoroughly as you can. Voila! You now how ecofriendly non-toxic laundry detergent powder!
If you want fragrance, it is easier to just buy castile soap that already has essential oil added. However, be aware that the bar version of castille soap never contains as much essental oil(s) as liquid soaps. If you like a stronger fragrance, you can add drops of your favorite essential oil(s) in the soap as you grind it. However, be aware that the fragrance of the essential oil will wear off over time in the powdered form (not the liquid form if you keep it tightly capped). For this reason, it is probably better if you add the essential oil within a day or two of using the powdered form.
What Is Castille Soap? Centuries ago, this type of soap was made with olive oil (instead of animal fat) in the Castille region of Spain. Hence, it became known the world over as "Castille Soap." Now, castille style soap is made all over the world, usually with a combination of healthy plant oils. Dr. Bronner's Castile Soap is made from organic coconut oil, organic palm oil, organic hemp oil, organic olive oil, organic jojobo oil, plus a little bit of salt, citric acid, and tocopherol (vitamin E). The salt helps liquid soap stay thick and the Vitamin E helps to moisturize the skin. You can add a little bit of both to your homemade detergents but it is not necessary for cleaning your clothes. When castille soap is made, lye (potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide) is added to the oil to "saponify" oil molecules. This means that the oil molecules are broken apart by the lye into glycerin and fatty acids. It is the glycerin that helps to lift away the dirt from your clothes and cut through any greasy stains! The fatty acids simply recombine with the sodium or potassium in the lye so it is no longer lye. Lye was originally produced by leaching ashes with water to produce the sodium hydroxide and/or potassium hydroxide. It is strongly alkaline (the opposite of strong acid) and very caustic!
It should be noted that you could actually substitute almost any soap in the recipes above and it would work to make laundry detergent. However, if you don't use an organic pure castille soap with no synthetic ingredients, petrochemicals, or other additives, you defeat one of the best parts about making your own homemade laundry detergent. Most soaps contain toxic chemicals that are bad for your health and harmful to the environment. Making your own homemade laundry detergent using only non-toxic natural ingredients helps you avoid these problems!
Do These Natural Laundry Soap Recipes Really Work? Absolutely! In fact, you will likely notice an improvement. Castile soap is a powerful cleaning agent. It is what many of our great-Grandparents and ancestors going way back used to clean their laundry. Baking soda helps to loosen the dirt and remove stains. It also helps eliminate odors (this is why people put open boxes of baking soda in the refrigerator and in the litter box!). Borax is a safe and effective alternative to color safe bleach. It also helps remove stains and odors.
Two More Important Laundry Tips If you have a really tough stain that won't come clean with the laundry soap recipes above, even after spot treating them, try rubbing in a paste of 3% hydrogen peroxide and baking soda. Let this sit for at least an hour and then rinse out before you do your laundry. If you want to soften your clothes and/or eliminate really tough odors (like cat or dog urine), add 1/2 cup of plain 5% distilled white vinegar to your laundry water.
A Final Word Of Caution If you look around on the internet for ecofriendly recipes on how to make your own laundry detergent, you will likely find some that do not call for castille soap as an ingredient. Instead, they essentially have you make your own castile soap by adding lye to plant oils. Please be aware that lye is an EXTREMELY DANGEROUS chemical to work with. You can literally damage the lining of your lungs with one whiff. Even a speck of it getting in your eyes can cause blindness. If you swallow it by accident (or your children or pets), it is usually fatal. While you will be cautioned to use long rubber gloves and wear goggles and protective clothing, the danger of using this chemical at home is just too risky for us to recommend you do so, especially if you have children and/or pets. On the other hand, even though lye is used to make castile soap, the finished product (liquid or bar soap) no longer has any lye left in it so it is safe to use!