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Homemade Non-Toxic Laundry Detergent

Homemade Non-Toxic Laundry Detergent

These days, everyone is looking for ways to save some money. Fortunately for your wallet and the planet, the easiest way to save money in the laundry room is to make your own laundry detergent.

Making your own laundry detergent will not only save you money, but will naturally help you avoid the toxic chemicals and noxious scents found in store-bought brands.

Laundry detergent ingredients pose a variety of health risks to humans, ranging from relatively minor—like skin irritation and allergies—to the severe—cancer, poisoning and neurological problems. These products can affect not only personal health, but also public and environmental health. The chemicals can go into the air, down the drain and into bodies of water, too.

I often wondered why my neighbor’s “April Fresh” aroma would give me migraines until a 2008 University of Washington study of top-selling laundry products found that the products emitted nearly 100 different volatile organic compounds. Results of the study showed 58 different volatile organic compounds above a high concentration of 300 micrograms per cubic meter. Of these, seven are regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal laws.

All the products tested in the study gave off at least one chemical regulated as toxic or hazardous, but none of those chemicals was listed on the product labels.

Findings in a new 2011 study by the same researcher show that air vented from machines using the top-selling scented liquid laundry detergent and scented dryer sheet contains more than 25 volatile organic compounds, including seven hazardous air pollutants. Of those, two chemicals—acetaldehyde and benzene—are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as known carcinogens, for which the agency has established no safe exposure level.

No wonder laundry products make an estimated 10% of the population feel so ill.

The researchers estimate that in the Seattle area, where the study was conducted, acetaldehyde emissions from the top five laundry detergent brands would constitute about 6 percent of automobiles’ acetaldehyde emissions. In the U.S. we regulate automobile emissions, but completely ignore the toxic pollution coming from our dryer vents—at our own peril.

And if the toxic fragrances weren’t enough, conventional laundry detergents also contain phosphates, sulfates, ammonia, naphthalene, phenol, optical brighteners, EDTA, and more. These chemicals can cause rashes, itches, allergies, sinus problems, endocrine disruption, and have long term toxic effects on the environment.

Lastly, the embedded energy, natural resources and waste involved in mass-producing and transporting billions of gallons of plastic-packaged, toxic laundry detergents is just too significant for small footprint families to ignore.

Believe it or not, in the U.S., manufacturers are not required to list the ingredients used in laundry products, air fresheners and other household cleaning products. Personal-care products often contain similar fragrance chemicals too, and although cosmetics are required by the Food and Drug Administration to list ingredients, no law requires products of any kind to list the chemicals used in fragrances and perfumes.

Even “green” or “eco-friendly” cleaning products are not required to disclose their ingredients, and may contain toxic fragrances or petroleum-derived ingredients.

The safest bet for your family and the planet is to make your own less toxic laundry detergent. Costing just pennies a load, you can get all the ingredients in bulk quantities online (links below), at Costco, or in your grocer’s laundry aisle.

(Note: Many do-it-yourself laundry detergent recipes call for Fels Naptha, Octagon or Zote bar soap, but all of them contain toxic ingredients and fragrances that you really don’t want near your skin or in your environment.)

Both the powder and liquid versions of this recipe work well in cold water and are safe for septic tanks, and both HE and front-loading washing machines. I’ve found no difference in washing quality between the homemade detergent and store-bought brands, and this recipe tends to work much better than most eco-friendly brands.

For extra softness, don’t forget to add a cup of white vinegar to your rinse cycle to soften your clothes, and you’ll never go back to conventional, toxic detergents or fabric softeners again!

For Cloth Diapers: If you want to use this detergent on cloth diapers, you must omit the bar soap from the recipe. Bar soap will build up on your diapers, repelling moisture, and eventually need stripping out. Instead, wash your diapers in a combination of borax, washing soda and baking soda in the recipe below, with a vinegar rinse.

*A Note About Borax

There are some who say that borax is toxic, including the illustrious EWG database (which conflates boric acid with borax—two very different things). I disagree. Here is why I consider borax a safe, effective cleaner.

Homemade Laundry Detergent Powder

Makes about 200 loads

Tools

  • Dust mask or bandana
  • Gloves of some sort (dish, latex, gardening, etc.)

Ingredients

  • 4 cups Borax*
  • 4 cups Washing soda
  • 2 cups Baking soda
  • 4 cups grated bar soap (2-4 bars) (Choose a non-toxic, real bar soap—not a “beauty bar” like Dove or a clear glycerine soap. We use both Kirk’s Castile and Grandma’s Lye soaps for laundry. Omit for cloth diapers.)
  • Essential oil (Optional for scent. is especially nice if you use this detergent for washing cloth diapers.)

Directions

  1. Cut the bar soap into large chunks with a knife.
  2. Grate the soap chunks with a fine cheese grater or throw the chunks into the food processor and blend into as fine of a powder as you can make. (Put on your dust mask and let dust settle before opening processor, so as not to inhale it.)
  3. Put on your gloves and dust mask or bandana.
  4. In a large plastic tub or bucket, mix the Borax, washing soda, and baking soda together. (Washing soda and borax are skin irritants, so wear gloves. Wear a dusk mask or bandana to avoid breathing in the dry ingredients while you mix. You will need to let the dust settle a few times before continuing to stir. If you can seal the container, you can shake it vigorously to mix with no dust.)
  5. Stir in the grated/powdered bar soap.
  6. Stir in 10-20 drops of essential oil, if tolerated. Tea tree oil is great for diapers as it has antiseptic qualities.
  7. Store in a covered, airtight container.
  8. If your powder has trouble completely dissolving, try mixing it in a little hot water before adding to the laundry.
  9. Use 1-2 Tablespoons per load. (Adjust for your machine.)

Homemade Laundry Detergent Liquid

Makes enough for about 80 loads

Tools

  • Dust mask or bandana
  • Gloves of some sort (dish, latex, gardening, etc.)

Ingredients

  • Hot water
  • Clean 5-gallon bucket with lid
  • 1 cup Borax*
  • 1 cup Washing soda
  • 1/2 cup Baking soda
  • 1 cup grated bar soap (1-2 bars) (Choose a non-toxic, real bar soap. Do not use a “beauty bar” like Dove or a clear glycerine soap! We use both Kirk’s Castile and Grandma’s Lye soaps for laundry. Omit for cloth diapers.)
  • Essential oil (Optional for scent. Tea Tree oil is especially nice if you use this detergent for washing cloth diapers.)

Directions

  1. Cut the bar soap into large chunks with a knife.
  2. Grate the soap chunks with a fine cheese grater or throw the chunks into the food processor and blend into as fine of a powder as you can make. Wear your dust mask or bandana, and let dust settle before opening processor, so as not to inhale it.
  3. Place grated bar soap in a pot. Cover with water and simmer over medium heat until all soap is melted, stirring occasionally.
  4. Pour melted soap mixture into a clean 5-gallon bucket.
  5. Put on your gloves and dust mask or bandana.
  6. Add washing soda, baking soda, and borax to the soap mixture and stir. (Washing soda and borax are skin irritants, so wear gloves. Wear a dusk mask or bandana to avoid breathing in the dry ingredients while you mix.)
  7. Add enough hot water to almost fill the bucket. Mix very well until all ingredients are dissolved. (I use a long ruler for this.)
  8. If using essential oil, AFTER the mix has cooled down completely, mix in 10-20 drops, to taste.
  9. Let sit overnight to gel. The gel will be loose and very gloppy—like egg-drop soup.
  10. Use a funnel to pour the gel into clean, recycled detergent containers or leave in the bucket. Cover with an airtight lid if leaving in the bucket to protect children and pets.
  11. Stir or shake well before using. Use 1/2 – 1 cup per load. (Adjust for your machine.)
This article was excerpted from my book Sustainability Starts at Home – How to Save Money While Saving the Planet. For more money-saving, planet-friendly tips, check out the book by clicking below.

About the author

Dawn Gifford

Dawn is the creator of Small Footprint Family, and the author of the critically acclaimed Sustainability Starts at Home - How to Save Money While Saving the Planet. After a 20-year career in green building and environmental sustainability, chronic illness forced her to shift her expertise and passion from the public sphere to home and hearth. Get the whole story behind SFF here.

96 Comments

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  • Hello,
    I am too looking at a soap/detergent alternative for my laundry, so thank you for sharing your recipes (powder and liquid) Because of my septic, I will choose the liquid version and I think for my family it will seem to be the same process, we just will use less of it.
    My question is can I use liquid castille soap instead of the grated bar soap for the liquid detergent? and if yes how much? I would think it would mix better.
    thank you

  • I tried the recipe with homemade bar soap made from coconut oil (1% superfat). I let the mixture sit over night and for much of the following day, but it just won’t harden. It is still a completely non-viscous liquid. Any suggestions?

    • The liquid laundry detergent isn’t supposed to harden. It is supposed to be like egg-drop soup, which is pretty loose. Without being in your kitchen to see how the ratios came out for you, or how your soap was made, it’s hard to say what is going on. But it should wash just fine if you have the right proportions of the other powdered ingredients.

  • Will this detergent work on cloth diapers with synthetic materials like micro fleece? What’s a good cloth diaper wash routine?

    • Yes, this works great on all cloth diapers. You will have to determine your own routine, but I had a supply of 30 diapers, and after rinsing them off into the toilet (using a bidet sprayer), I kept them in a waterproof PLU bag (same stuff the diapers are made of), and washed them just once a week.

    • Borax is no more dangerous to use in the laundry than baking soda or table salt, which are also inorganic and don’t biodegrade, and have the same material safety data rating. However, they do dissolve into their essential elements: which in the case of borax is oxygen, hydrogen, sodium and boron. I do not consider borax to be toxic for regular household use, unless you ingest large quantities or inhale a bunch. But then, if you did that with baking soda or table salt, you’d get sick too. Please see this article for more details about the safety of borax.

  • Using homemade laundry detergent is an idea that is spreading fast and many people are now using self-made cleaning products in order to create a clean and safe environment at their home. I am also a fan of green alternatives and I really appreciate the recipe! Thanks!

    • I have not found it staining because there are only about 10 drops in a very large amount of liquid or powder. If you use the oils, make sure to blend them in very well.

  • Fantastic recipes! I am trying to use only natural ingredients at my home. My husband insists to clean only with homemade detergents. I am going to do my laundry with homemade laundry detergent for first time. Wish me luck. Best regards!

    • You can use the runoff water from this detergent to occasionally irrigate trees and lawns, but the high pH and salts from most eco-friendly detergents like this one will accumulate and kill plants with focused or continuous watering.

      This detergent (or any other eco-friendly detergent) is NOT appropriate for greywater to vegetable gardens at all. To really take advantage of greywater, you should only use soaps/detergents that are labeled “biocompatible”, and the only two biocompatible detergents I know of are Oasis Liquid Laundry Detergent and soap nuts.

  • oops, I hit send without finishing my comment! anyway, whipping the laundry soap makes it creamier and takes care of any potential lumps. It’s mostly an aesthetic thing, but when giving it as a gift, it’s much more appealing!

  • Tip: rather than leave it in its “cold egg drop soup” consistency, whip it in your blender on the highest speed, then pour it into your well-washed, recyclable ketchup (or other similar) bottles. My kids want ketchup on everything (yuck!), so I end up with a bunch of these, and the smaller squeezablee stuff (mustard, some salad dressings, etc). When I wash them I always take off the old lable, and put on one of my own, hand-written & drawn:

    *it works better’n yours, an’its lots cheaper, too*
    Home Made Laundry Soap
    1-2 TBSP per load. yep, that’s it.

    • Ivory is just fine, and the detergent should be fine for septic systems. However, ALL powdered detergents (for the laundry or dishwasher, commercial or homemade) can clog septic lines if they don’t dissolve completely. If you are concerned, I would make the liquid version of the detergent. 🙂

      • Hi,

        I have been researching natural powder laundry detergent recipes. I have seen some that contain vegetable glycerin. What would be the benefit of adding it and how much would you add.

        Renae

        • I have no idea why you would add a liquid sugar like glycerin to a dry powdered detergent, so I don’t know how much you might add. Glycerin can add viscosity to a liquid detergent, but it also causes build up so I wouldn’t use it.

      • Before using any bar soap I suggest that you drop a shaving in a bowl of water and stir, letting it dissolve. If you see a scum form ask yourself if you’d want that building up on your clothes and washing machine. If you can easily obtain citric acid this will supposedly take care of that scum, but it’s expensive for even small amounts in my area so I’m going to be trying a laundry recipe using Dawn. One thing I can say about the mix I had made with borax, washing soda, and dissolved bar soap was that it cleaned my stove very easily, it has found top spot in the general cleaning usage in my book.

  • Think that it’s worth making a distinction between “soap” and detergent ! We are using either store bought “Laundry Detergent” or making a “Laundry Soap”

    All soap is made with lye (sodium hydroxide) or liquid soap made with (potassium hydroxide)
    The term “Castile” should mean a soap made with lye, water, and olive oil. No other oils.
    If your looking for a soap to use for laundry without chemicals, then Fels is out, and so is the Zote. The Fels has some questionable ingredients, and the Zote contains optical brighteners, not sure if the scent is synthetic or not.
    With that said, it’s also important to know that when one used a bath soap (kirks) there are either added oils, or un reacted oils in the soap. They are there to be conditioning to skin, as they should be. However for “Laundry Soap” we are trying to remove oil from the fabrics, not add any.
    What would be a better choice would be to find, or make a un scented soap made with what called a 0% super fat. (All fat reacted, and none added in) or better yet a soap that is slightly lye heavy. This free lye in the wash is.. Well free to seek out dirt and grease.

    The term “Lye Soap” means soap made with lard (pig fat) sometimes tallow (beef fat) these tow fats have a specific fatty acid make up that make them well suited for laundry
    (provided they have a 0% super fat)
    For those who may have issues or or vegan, then a coconut oil soap (0% super fat ) will also work.
    I know that Kirks is coconut, but because it’s meant for bathing, they’ve left some un saponified oil in it.
    If you find a bar of real pure laundry “soap” with out this added oil, you will see and feel am immediate difference in your laundry “soap” formulas

    Hope this is found informative.
    Best to all

  • I am wanting to use the powder recipe for cloth diapers and was wondering how much detergent you use in a load? and how much vinegar you would use as the rinse in a load?

    Thanks!

  • Hi There! I am wanting to use your recipe for washing my cloth diapers. How much would you recommend to use in a load of diapers and how much vinegar for the rinse? Thanks!

  • I made my own detergent and we were very happy with it…we needed a new washer and dryer, went shopping, basically the sales guy told us that the manufacture recommends a particular brand of soap and not to use homemade because it could damage the machine and it would be covered under the warranty ….what do i do? Do you know for sure the homemade detergent could not ruin the new he front loading washers?

  • What is the purpose of baking soda in the recipe? I’m curious b/c I thought I’d seen other similar recipes which did not include it?

    • You can buy washing soda via the link in the recipe ingredients. You might be able to find it in the laundry section of your grocery store, but it is a little hard to find off the shelf.

  • Be aware: Borax is known for clogging septic systems. It does not like cold water. Most reports have come from people with well water. And to unclog your pipes can be VERY expensive.

  • Thank you so much! I am actually planning to make homemade laundry detergent for the first time for our use and also for part of my homemade Christmas gifts. I had not yet settled on a recipe. We cloth diaper, so I appreciate the information about not using the bar soap because it can buildup. Your post is in my opinion by far the best I have read about homemade detergent. You have taught me a few things I did not know about Borax.

    Thanks again!

  • ::: If using essential oil, AFTER the mix has cooled down completely, mix in 10-20 drops, to taste. ::::

    TO TASTE?! LOL Ick! But I love the recipe for the liquid detergent and it works wonderful!

  • What an excellent article, and superb vision you have! You have accumulated a great amount of that rare jewel: Common Sense.

    Your family focus is so important, because kids-these-days cannot get enough help in navigating the perils ahead. If a young person can cook, grow food and sew on a button, they will fare better than gamers.

    As you wrote in defense of borax, it already is an ingredient in commercial detergents in addition to so many petrochemicals that are killing waterways.

    i look forward to your updates and cheerful outlook!

  • Hello, do you think I would have some problems if I use this for my regular laundry, and use it without the soap for my cloth diapers ? Would I get some residue on my CD because of the soap of my regular laundry ? :S

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