Home-made Laundry Detergent and Softener

January 20th, 2011 by katie

Laundry soap is one of those things that drives me crazy.  Like paper towels and plastic baggies.  It is completely disposable yet we spend huge amounts of money on it.  In addition the primary ingredient in that expensive jug of laundry detergent is water. WATER.  So I make my own.  It isn’t hard (and yes I still do it even now that I work full-time) and it washes the clothes just as well as Tide did.  I would like to think it is better for our skin, allergies, etc… but we never had a lot of problems there to begin with so the jury is still out.

So for those of you who said you’d be interested here is how I make my laundry soap.  There are lots of recipes out there for laundry soap but this is the one I use, primarily because it is easy and doesn’t require a lot of ingredients.  Let’s just get the disclaimer part out of the way upfront, shall we? Disclaimer: I am not responsible for any damage to yourself, loved ones or property as a result of using this recipe or attempting to make your own laundry soap.  Exercise due caution with the ingredients and if swallowed or splashed in eyes call poison control.  Let’s all just use our common sense now, ‘kay?

Here is the part that is going to drive you crazy.  I don’t measure my laundry soap or ingredients down to the last gram or ounce.  I have a large plastic cat litter jug that I cleaned out and it probably holds about 3 gallons of water.  You can use a 5 gallon paint bucket or a 1 gallon milk jug.  What’s important is that you have a container with a lid that will hold enough soap that you aren’t constantly refilling it and is convenient to store.  For me the cat litter jug works because it has a lid and a handle and I can tuck it away in the laundry room like I would regular detergent. 

Home-made Laundry Soap

makes about 3 gallons, halve the smaller amounts to make less, use the higher amounts to make more
  • 1/2 bar soap (like ivory, plain soap devoid of additives or lotions)
  • 1/4-1/2 cup borax
  • 1/4-1/2 cup washing soda
  • hot water
  1. Bring a couple of cups of water to a simmer in a medium pot.  Use a metal grater to grate 1/2 bar of soap or chop it finely.
  2. Stir soap into simmering water until bubbily and no soap chunks are visible.
  3. Meanwhile, in large container with a lid, fill about 1/2 way with warm water. Add borax and washing soda. Stir or shake until combined.
  4. Add soapy water then top off with water until container is full.
  5. Stir or shake container until thoroughly mixed then allow to sit overnight.
  6. To use, add one cup per load.

That’s it.  I have made it several different ways and this is how I make it now.  For fabric softener you simply add 1/2 a cup of distilled white vinegar to each load with the rinse cycle, the same way you would add regular store bought softener.  This works two ways: one, it is a booster for your home-made soap and two, it actually softens your clothes just as well as store-bought softener.  Here are some questions that I have answered for myself, you can add more in the comments and I will answer them the best I can.

Will my soap work in my HE front-loading washer?

Yes, it apparently works in a regular washer too but I have a HE front loader so I know it works just fine there.

Do your clothes smell like vinegar?

Surprisingly no.  In fact they smell like nothing.  Which can be really hard to adjust to if you are accustomed to a heavily fragranced soap.  You would be surprised how hard it is to adjust your brain from the “smell of clean” to actually clean.  You can add a few drops of essential oil to your soap but I got tired of trying to come up with a scent and just stopped bothering.  Now I can actually smell that my clothes and linen are clean without relying on perfumes.

How is it possible you don’t measure the ingredients??

There are a million “recipes” for homemade laundry soap out there and the amounts used vary widely.  I really encourage you to make a batch and see what you think.  I started with a 1/4 bar of soap, 1/4 cup borax, and 1/4 cup washing soda but it didn’t gel as nicely as I wanted it to, so I added more soap.  Then I decided I wanted it to be a little more powerful so I added more borax and washing soda.  The instructions on each say to add 1/2 cup per load so 1/2 cup of each in several gallons of hot water is hardly pushing any limits.

Does it really clean as well as Tide?

In my experience it does.  You will still want to pre-treat really tough stains and I still add bleach to our underwear but otherwise it washes dirty clothes just as well.

So that’s it folks.  I haven’t bought laundry soap in many many months and I don’t think I will again.  I make a batch of this about every couple of months and the hardest part is remembering to mix it up the night before.  I still haven’t run out of borax or washing soda or soap since I originally I bought it for my first batch (for a few dollars).  If you have more questions I will try to answer them the best I can in the comments.

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29 Responses

  1. Darcy@Somewhatmuddledmusings

    The homemade stuff rocks! Can I also suggest a Downey Ball for your vinegar? That way, you can put it in and not have to come back to check to see when the rinse cycle is to put in the vinegar. Just put some in the Downey Ball, toss it in and let it go!

  2. Julie

    I have never heard of washing soda. What is it? Thanks!

  3. Robin M.

    I too am curious as to what “washing soda” is…

  4. Michelle

    You’re awesome. 🙂 I quit buying liquid detergent because I couldn’t bear all the plastic containers, even though I recycled them. I went to Tide powder so I could crush the box instead.

    I’ve never made my own detergent, though I know Borax is great for that. My sister and I did a couple posts on it quite a while ago. Here are the links if you’re interested:

  5. Emily

    Love. This. I’ve been wanting to try this for ages but I was always curious if it really worked.

  6. Jimi

    Where do I find washing soda and borax?

  7. TkLeigh

    Washing soda that I use is made by Arm and Hammer and is located in the laundry detergent isle at the supermarket and so is the borax I use 20 Mule Team brand. It’s all right there and pretty inexpensive!

  8. Kathy

    I have made mine for several years now and it is similar to yours. I have hadto buy a large box of baking soda which works just as well as washing soda. They may be the same thing called by a different name. I have found that my clothes get cleaner each time I use “my” soap so I think it may take a couple of washings to get out all the chemicals that bought detergents leave in the clothes.

  9. elle

    Thanks for the recipe– I’m going to link to you on my blog post about front load laundry care! I think I’m even going to make this laundry soap myself. My only concern is the bar of soap– is doesn’t create the “oversuds” affect? I’d be using quarter machines anyway so I guess it’s not a problem, but I’m just curious if you know.



  10. Biz

    When I was a single Momma, I made my own laudry detergent too, except I used Fels Naptha as my soap.

    The first time I made it and was grating the soap into the pot, Hannah walked by and said “Oh boy, are you making macaroni and cheese?”

    Then I got married, and my husband wanted to know what the f_ck was in the bucket next to the washer. He would have nothing to do with it – he was a name brand detergent man.

    Fast forward – I buy my laundry detergent at the $1 store – it costs a dollar and I pour it into the Tide container and he’s none the wiser! 😀

  11. Kathy

    Great Post. I will definitely try this. As the economy heads south, I appreciate recipes and tips such as this. Keep up the good work.

  12. Anne Olson

    Hi Katie,

    One question: the new washing machines require a special detergent call ‘he’which is super concentrated or something because so much less water is used. Can this recipe work for these machine? I just had to buy a new one and getting used to a machine that appears to use a miniscule amount of water has been difficult.

    My sister-in-law has been making her own detergent and softener and her clothes feel and look SO NICE! Don’t know why I didn’t make my own before.

  13. Anne Olson

    Oh dear. I see that the ‘he’ question was answered in your post. Sorry…

  14. Jen P.

    I just made a batch but I’m finding that the concoction doesn’t really liquify in cold water and stays kind of whispy (if that even makes sense). If I start washing my clothes in warm water, it kind of defeats the purpose of trying to save money by making my own detergent.

    You must use warm water when making the soap so that all of the ingredients dissolve. Once the detergent has cooled it should gel somewhat and be whispy looking. It is a low-suds soap which is why it works in high-efficiency machines. The low-suds factor means it isn’t going to dissolve and get foamy like other soaps do. Low-suds soaps use slickness to remove germs and dirt rather than bubbles. I use cold water to wash my dark colored clothes and this soap and my clothes are clean and soft. I have never had any problem with it working in cold water. Good luck! -Katie

  15. Gwen~healthymamma

    very cool. I have been meaning to do this for ages. I appreciate the thorough post!
    I make my own dish washing machine ‘soap’ and all purpose cleaner so this is def next!

  16. Biz

    Hope you are hanging in Katie! 😀

  17. Biz

    Just stalking you again Katie – I haven’t figured out how to “google read” yet – I know, I should learn!

    Hope you have a great weekend!

  18. Trina

    Laundry is really a lesson in chemistry (as are a lot of cleaning jobs). I find it all very fascinating.

    Modern detergents contain other ingredients that play (what I assume) are important roles.

    For one example; they contain antiredeposition agents. They help keep soils from redepositing onto clothing in the wash water after they have been removed. The most commonly used anti-redeposition agent is carboxymethyl-cellulose (CMC). Carboxymethylcellulose is a polymer derived from natural cellulose. It is a dispersion polymer and helps keeping soil dispersed in the wash water, thereby preventing it from re-depositing onto the fabrics being laundered.

    Another important ingredient is a corrosion inhibitor (such as sodium silicate). When you soften the water (with something like borax) it suspends minerals from the water so detergent (or soap) can clean better. Some of these minerals can find there way to build up on your machine’s internal parts. Not good for the longevity of your machine.

    Also, soap and hard water do not get along. Hard water is usually defined as having high levels of calcium and magnesium; the greater the concentration of these minerals, the harder the water. Soap can react with these minerals (again very chemistry like) and form soap scum (ring around the tub?). This over time can cause problems with fabrics being laundered (grey and dingy would be on complain).

    There are others but I think you get my point. I would use homemade laundry “soap” in modern machines with great caution.

  19. Deb W

    Trina, In response to your concerns about this recipe, perhaps I can help…
    WASHING SODA is a natural grease-cutter, laundry booster, enhancing the effect of the laundry bar soap and softening the wash water all at the same time. (It is not the same as regular baking soda.)

    Using VINEGAR in your rinse complements the soap combination. It not only prevents build up on fabrics AND washing machine parts, but restores both to their original condition by removing perfume, softener and mineral build up.

    I’ve been using vinegar not only as a laundry softener substitute for years, but as a “rinse aid” replacement for the dish washer. Both machines look like brand new inside.

    Kudos to all of you for getting back to truly green basics (and it’s cheap!)

  20. Deb W

    Oh, and I almost forgot… my machine is also an HE model. : )

  21. Jacquie

    How about something that works in lieu of dryer sheets. While I use only natural fabrics, occasionally the old static cling returns when I’ve thrown in something with mixed fibers. Any ideas what to use – haven’t used dryer sheets in years because of the chemicals.

  22. Cynthia

    I have been using vinegar for all my laundry softening for a while now (I have an older washer and just put it in the center dispenser, where the softener would go)…still haven’t graduated to making my own laundry soap, maybe soon.

  23. Kelly

    Wow, thanks for sharing this! I would love to try it.

  24. Iris

    Washing soda and baking soda are not the same thing.

    Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate (Na2HCO3) and washing soda is sodium carbonate (Na2(CO3)2). Don’t let the ‘bi’ in the name make you think it is 2 of something – it is the formula indication of a hydrogen atom. If you were to dissolve them in water, the washing soda (guess where the name comes from?) solution is much more alkaline than baking soda, and will clean, especially grease, much better. Baking soda, however, just as it does in your refrigerator, removes odors better. I have used washing soda to get bicycle chain grease out of clothes, and baking soda to help get the odors out of hubbies running clothes. Especially if you are working in less-soft water, stick to washing soda for your detergent.

  25. Margaret

    Washing soda = baking soda baked @ 400 degrees until texture (and chemical composition) has changed. Here’s the “recipe” I found. http://www.pennilessparenting.com/2011/01/homemade-washing-soda.html

  26. Debbie

    I have been making mine OWN laundry soap for about a year, have all my family using it also, WE ALL LOVE IT………

  27. Britt

    This looks amazing, I can’t wait to try it! I have just one question though, would it be bad to use store bought fabric softener with this? I know this must come off as a dumb question, but I have a top loader and love the smell the fabric softener leaves on my clothes. Any input is more than appreciated!

  28. Beth

    Washing Soda and Baking Soda are two different compounds and are not interchangeable. Washing Soda is Calcium Carbonate and baking soda is calcium bicarbonate.

  29. Iris

    Washing soda is NOT calcium carbonate. It is sodium carbonate.

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About chaos

cha·os -noun 1. a condition or place of great disorder or confusion. My chaotic kitchen is the result of three kids, two adults, dog, cat, and fish, a food obsession, a wine drinking hobby, and too few hours in the day. Between trying to feed a family of five healthy, happy meals, watching my weight, saving my pennies, and staying partially sane I have picked up a few tricks along the way. So here they are: the very best tips, tricks, and recipes from my chaotic kitchen-to yours!

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