Reader question… “I was wondering if you make your own laundry detergent. It sounds like it could be a good way to save a lot of money, but I’m confused because some people seem to love it and say it cleans their clothes well, and others don’t have anything good to say about the homemade laundry detergent at all. Do you have any experience with the homemade laundry detergent recipe?” –Vicki B.

I would guess that you are asking about the laundry detergent recipe that starts with a ground up bar of soap that is combined with water, washing soda, and borax. There are several recipes “out there” but I think the most commonly seen recipe specifies one bar of soap, one cup of washing soda, and one half cup of borax. Other recipes use the same ingredients in different proportions. The process is simple… the soap is grated and then dissolved in four to six cups of water over heat. Then the soap and water mixture is added to approximately three gallons of water, the borax, and the washing soda, stirred well, and allowed to sit overnight. By morning you should have a bucket of gelatinous mixture. Most people say they use from one half to one cup of this “detergent” per load of laundry. At one cup per load, this recipe makes enough detergent for more than forty-five loads at a cost of just a few pennies per load.

Creeping phlox (phlox subulata)

So… does this stuff work? It’s interesting to see the different opinions. Some people rave about their homemade detergent and how well it cleans their laundry, and other people vow never to make it again because it didn’t take out stains, their laundered clothes smell, and their whites look dingy. Some people think that the differences in water hardness and alkalinity account for the different cleaning performances, and that may be true, because we have relatively hard water here, and the one bar of soap, half cup of borax, and one cup of washing soda recipe did not work at all for me. One of the items I was washing had a tomato stain, and even repeated washes with this homemade laundry detergent did not remove the stain… but the stain quickly disappeared when I used my regular detergent.

My personal opinion is that especially if you have hard water, this recipe is too diluted to produce a really clean wash. Figuring forty-five loads of wash per recipe means that each cup of homemade laundry detergent contains only 1/45th of a bar of soap, 1/45th of a cup of washing soda, and 1/90th of a cup of borax… not really enough of anything to work with hard water to get your clothes clean… and most of that cup of homemade laundry detergent you’re using per load is water. Of course, the cost per load goes up if you use more of this detergent. I have decided that with our hard water, this recipe with this proportion of ingredients does not work, and having clean, fresh-smelling, stain-free clothes is more important to me than the money I could save.

How about the dry version of this detergent? There are also several variations on the recipe for the dry version, but the most common one seems to call for one cup of each of the three ingredients… finely grated bar soap, washing soda, and borax… and using one to two tablespoons of the dry detergent per load. The dry version is more convenient to store and would be my choice over the liquid detergent, although I probably would not make it using the one to one to one proportions, and with our hard water, I would have to use more dry detergent per load to get the results I want. I have had excellent results using the laundry bar soap I make myself, grating it finely and adding it and borax to each load of laundry… the quantity is dependent on how soiled a particular laundry load is. With my own bar soap and borax, I have never needed to add the washing soda, and clothes come out smelling fresh, stain-free, colors are bright, and whites are white. I do give each load an extra rinse.

By the way, homemade laundry bar soap is made from fats or oils and lye, the same way any soap is made, but laundry soap is not superfatted, which means that just enough lye and oils are used to completely react with each other, so no extra oils are left unsaponified. This is why I think some of the homemade laundry detergents made with beauty bar type soap aren’t as successful as the ones made with real laundry bar soap… the extra oils in the beauty bars that are good for your skin are not so good for your laundry.

But to answer your question… if you’re still interested in making your own homemade laundry detergent, I would suggest making up a small batch and giving it a try. It may work for you or it may not, but the only way you can know for sure is to actually try a batch with your water and your laundry. I’d love to hear your conclusions!