Plastic Reduction Mission 4: Homemade Laundry Detergent

So much plastic, not to mention trucked water.

So much plastic, not to mention trucked water.

Recently, I’ve been cringing every time I go to buy a new bottle of laundry detergent.  That aisle is chock-a-block full of plastic bottles; bottles that are so sturdy they could probably be reused hundreds of times but will almost certainly be thrown away (or recycled!) after one use.  After all, it’s not like you’ve got the option to refill the bottles, and there are only so many half-baked crafts you will want to do with your (creepily) hoarded supply.  When I stand in that aisle and look at all the plastic, I want to cry at the waste of it all.  Don’t even get me started on how much of that liquid detergent is water and how horrible it is that we’re basically trucking water from one end of the country to the other.

Of course, my household uses liquid laundry detergent.  We’ve pondered switching to the powdered stuff, since it’s packaged in more eco-friendly paper and it eliminates the water issue.  However, we’re also trying to minimize our chemical reliance.  So I decided that I would make my own liquid laundry soap.

Washing soda, borax, and soap.  That's about it.

Washing soda, borax, and soap. That’s about it.

As it turns out, you only really need three ingredients to make great laundry detergent:  washing soda, borax, and a soap.  In case you’re not up-to-date on your household chemistry, this is only two chemicals–sodium carbonate and sodium tetraborate–in addition to the soap.  While the soap might have a number of ingredients in it, plain old Castile soap will just be a blend of oils, water, and lye (sodium hydroxide).  In short, homemade laundry detergent has just about the least amount of chemicals you can use in laundry while still using your modern washer!  Interested to know what I did to make my detergent?

Homemade Liquid Laundry Detergent
Yield: 3 gallons (96 loads using 1/2 cup of solution per load)

  • One 5.5-6 oz bar of soap.  Fels-Naptha or Zote are traditional laundry choices, and will definitely result in a low-suds soap.  Castile soap can also be used, as can Ivory or anything else.  These may result in a higher-suds soap, however.
  • 1 cup of washing soda
  • 1 cup of borax
  • About 2.75 gallons of water
  • A food processor with grating disk or a hand grater
  • A 12 or 16-quart stock pot
  • A spatula
  • An immersion blender
  • 3 wide mouth, 1-gallon pitchers with leakproof lids.  I currently use plastic Sterilite 1 gallon round pitchers.
  1. Using the food processor with the grating disk or the hand grater, grate the bar of soap.
  2. Place the grated soap into the stock pot with about 2 quarts of water.  Cook the water and soap at a medium-low temperature until it comes to a boil, stirring frequently.  Continue to boil for 1 minute, stirring constantly, to ensure that all soap pieces have melted.
  3. Stir in the 1 cup of washing soda and 1 cup of borax until all the powders have combined into the soap and the mixture is smooth and evenly foamy, adding a cup or two of water if necessary.  Remove the pot from heat.
  4. Slowly add 1 gallon of room temperature water to the soap mixture, stirring constantly with the immersion blender.  Continue to blend until any ‘crusty foam’ incorporates into the liquid and any clumps have broken up.
  5. Add a second gallon of water and continue to blend until the solution is uniform in texture.
  6. Divide the approximately 2.5 gallons of soap solution evenly between the three pitchers.  Fill the pitchers with more water to within 1 or 1/2 an inch of the pitcher top, then blend the contents of each pitcher.  Cap the pitchers with their leak-proof lids and store.
  7. Use 1/2 cup to 1 cup of homemade detergent per load of laundry, depending on how soiled the clothes are or how big the load is.  You may need to swirl or stir the detergent before pouring.
A third of my first batch of detergent, right next to the commercial stuff.

A third of my first batch of detergent, right next to the last of the commercial stuff.

I did purchase plastic containers to store my laundry detergent in.  I thought about re-purposing some other old gallon containers, but–frankly–I really wanted a wide mouth.  I don’t have to mess with funnels or spoons or anything with these.  It’s a very straight shot from a very heavy pot to the pitchers.  I can also put the immersion blender, a whisk, or a spoon directly in these, which is super convenient.  Another bonus?  The mouth makes it easier to clean the pitchers, and with a LOT less water!  Luckily for me, these pitchers are super sturdy, so I’m sure to have them around for a good long time.

If powdered detergent is more to your liking, you’re in luck:  it is way easier to make.  You use the same ingredients and the same quantities, but only spin everything together in a food processor.  Just chop up the bar of soap into 8-12 pieces, then put it and the 1 cup of washing soda and 1 cup of borax into the food processor fitted with the chopping blade.  Pulse the machine a few times until the bar of soap is mostly broken down, then continue to process until the mixture comes to a fairly homogenous blend.  If you’d like to scent it with an oil, add 15-30 drops of an essential oil as you process the mixture.  Store the powder in an airtight jar and use 1-2 tablespoons per load.

Both of these mixtures work well in high efficiency washers as they are a low suds soap, and they’re incredibly economical in the long run.  A 150-ounce bottle of Tide costs $18 and purportedly will be enough for 96 loads.  That has a cost of almost $0.19 a load.  A 55-ounce (6.875 cups) box of washing soda costs $3.24, a 72-ounce (9.5 cups) box of borax costs $3.38, and a bar of Fels-Naptha costs $0.97.  A 3-gallon batch of the detergent therefore costs $1.79, which at 96 loads means $0.02 a load.  It’s hard to argue with that!

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3 thoughts on “Plastic Reduction Mission 4: Homemade Laundry Detergent

  1. Can I ask why the borax is added? I live in the UK and we can’t buy borax (only a substitute) so I made my laundry powder with equal quantities of soap and washing soda which seems to work fine. I just wondered what the borax actually does and whether it is worth me buying the substitute that we can get here. So glad I came across your citric acid recipe for softener as I had been using white vinegar but found I could smell it in some clothes.

    • For the most part, borax is added as a water treatment. If you live in an area with hard water, it lowers the pH to about an 8 and buffers it, or holds it there even with the addition of soaps and other treatments. The borates also facilitate the even suspension of soap in the water, which allows it to rinse out of fabric better. As an added bonus, it also converts some water molecules to hydrogen peroxide…which is basically what other additives like OxyClean do. It can also inhibit mildew and other fungal growth in the washer, which can be a concern for lots of people. From what I can gather through some historical reading, it got rather popular as an additive to use when washing cloth diapers because it removes the “ammonia” smells of urine very well. It’s also very helpful as a pre-laundry soak, especially when you’ve got acidic stains, grease stains, or funky work out clothes.

      • Ok thank you. I will have to look into whether the Borax Substitute that we have in the UK does the same thing. The water in my area of the country is fairly soft.

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