I started making my own laundry detergent a couple of months ago. I saw an article on it and thought it would be fun. Yes, fun. And it is. For me, anyway.
The number of recipes I found was overwhelming, but you can divide the recipes into two categories: liquid and powder. I choose powder. Why? Most of the liquid recipes just have the same ingredients as the powder detergent, but with a bunch of water added. You have to cook it and keep it in giant buckets. I don't have room and I don't want to spend the time. It just sounds messy. So I'll be talking about powdered detergents only.
The recipes all seem to have the same ingredients, too:
- washing soda
- baking soda
- essential oil
Soap. Have you ever thought about what soap actually does? Why do we use it? I found an excellent article here that explains it if you're curious. If you want the executive summary, basically, soap attracts dirt when combined with water. Two facts relevant to our detergent-concocting: (1) soap doesn't work well in an acidic environment, and (2) soap doesn't work well in hard water.
Borax. I found excellent articles on borax here and here. Borax is mined, and has been used for over 4000 years. It can also be synthetically produced. It is poisonous. Borax combines with water to make hydrogen peroxide, which cleans and bleaches. The hotter the water, the better it works. It is alkaline, so it helps soap work better. It also softens water and is safe to use with bleach.
Washing soda. Washing soda is mined or chemically produced from common table salt. It is used in some foods, like ramen noodles and fizzing candies, and also in toothpaste. Weird! (You still shouldn't be eating it, by the way; it is extremely alkaline.) Like borax, it lowers the pH of water. It can also help neutralize odors, soften water, and attract grease. (More resources here and here.)
Baking soda. Baking soda is chemically produced from mined soda ash or through an entirely synthetic process. As far as I can tell, it's like washing soda, only weaker (and gentler).
Essential oil. This is entirely optional, for people who want their laundry to smell pretty. I prefer mine unscented, so I haven't used it. However, if you do use it, especially for babies or pregnant women, be sure to research the properties of the oil you are using.
Making your custom blend
Okay, now that you know what goes in your laundry blend, you need to figure out how much of everything to use.
Your water. Do you have a water softener? If so, you probably won't need as much washing soda and borax. If you're like me, and you have really hard water, you'll need more. You can tell if you have hard water because it will leave marks in your sinks, showers, toilets, and any other wet place it can leave its pesky little scales.
Your washing machine. Do you have a new high-efficiency front-loader or a top-loader? If you have a front-loader, just be aware that the manufacturer wants you to use expensive HE detergent. Sometimes using normal detergent will void the warranty. I would assume that homemade detergent would do the same. They say that using too much soap will gum up the machine and create too many suds, causing it to perform poorly.
That said, I have a fancy new front-loader, and my homemade soap and the machine are both working beautifully so far. My suggestions are to use less soap in proportion to other ingredients because excessive sudsing can be a problem, use very little detergent (1 tablespoon for lightly soiled loads), and use vinegar in the rinse to help clean soap scum out of the drum (put it in the fabric softener compartment).
Your clothes. Is your husband a mechanic or does he work an office job? Are you washing dirty diapers? More dirt calls for more soap. More stink calls for more washing soda or baking soda.
Go to it, then!
Grate up your soap. I know of two different kinds of laundry soap: Zote and Fels-Naptha. Zote is pink, which is why I bought it for my last batch. It is quite soft and when you grate it, it keeps its shape, so you get a lot of pink shavings (see the picture at the top). I like yellow Fels-Naptha better, though, because it powders when you grate it and you get a more uniform texture. Both soaps have worked fine for me, though. Other people use Ivory or castile soap. I haven't tried these.
Mix it up with your other ingredients. If you're not sure how much of everything to put in, you can look at the recipes here to get some ideas of ratios. I personally use equal parts soap, borax, and washing soda for my front-loader with hard water and lightly soiled clothes. I might try using less soap next time. A lavender-scented linen blend might be in my future, too, with less soap (because they don't get so dirty) and more borax (for bleaching).
Experiment with how much your machine needs. I use a two-tablespoon coffee scoop for mine, but I think I could get away with less. Put it in a pretty glass jar and admire.
(Image by Walter Crane from The Song of Sixpence Picture Book)