What You Need to Know about Homemade Laundry Detergent: The Good & Bad

One of the things I love about trying to maintain and improve my home to be healthier all around is that I’m constantly learning.  I honestly could consume information all day long and be perfectly happy. I love finding new ways to improve my habits and my home.  But sometimes I need to also re-evaluate what I’m currently doing. Which is exactly what I’ve had to do in regards to laundry detergent and homemade laundry soap.  

I feel like if I’m not able to truly step back and change what I’m currently doing for an even healthier option, I’m not doing my part in keeping my home or my family healthy and safe.  It’s just like anything in our lives, we must be able to pivot and accept that maybe the way were doing things isn’t always best.

My daughter’s school really emphasizes the concept of being open-minded to new ideas, new ways of doing things and new experiences.  We mostly use this idea to encourage trying new foods and giving them a chance, but in truth, the idea has also helped me in many ways over this last year.

For example, when Rachel from Holistically Healthy recently reached out to me asking what exactly I knew about homemade laundry detergent and the specifics of how it can affect the washing machine and clothing, I initially was not very open minded about it.  To be completely honest, I jumped to the defense of homemade laundry soap everywhere. For a few minutes after reading the email she had sent, I really thought I would respond to Rachel with all the reasons homemade laundry detergent was the best choice.

Quickly, I realized I probably needed to do a lot more research on the topic.  I needed to find facts, not just opinions from those who love it or hate it. I wanted to be able to give Rachel a completely unbiased answer.  My goal is to give anyone asking or my clients the FACTS. I don’t want to give them an opinionated answer about any area of their home, unless they ask for my personal preference.  I feel like facts speak louder an an opinion any day.

As I began researching and sorting through all of the information that was out there, I came across some really valuable, interesting information. Information that I’m going to share with you and information that I hope you can use to make your own decision on if homemade detergent is right for you.

homemade laundry detergent facts

HOW THE INGREDIENTS WORK TOGETHER

Washing Soda:  The science behind washing soda is that  it is made of sodium carbonate. Sodium carbonate is used as a cleaning agent, which softens the water.  When the water becomes softened with the sodium carbonate, it allows other cleaning ingredients to “lift” soil from the fabrics.

The washing soda basically “grabs” the metals and minerals in the water and keeps them from adhering to the clothing.  This allows soap to work much more effectively.

Washing Soda gets a 3 rating on the ThinkDirty App for potential mild skin irritation.

Important Tips:  If your clothes are not well rinsed, the residue from the reaction between washing soda and minerals and metals can be left on clothing.  This would make clothing feel rough and typically not very comfortable.

In your Washing Machine: This type of compound is in most laundry detergents and is considered safe for your washing machine.

Baking Soda: Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate.  Because this is food grade it is considered 100% safe in terms of products and chemicals. Baking soda helps regulate the pH level in your washing machine’s water by keeping it from being too acidic or too alkaline.  

Important Tips: The type of water you have in your washing machine makes a big difference when it comes to your clothes.

The baking soda essentially makes any soap or detergent work more effectively and also reduces bacteria.

In terms of your clothing, it acts as a softener.  The baking soda in any rinse cycle will suspend detergent and mineral deposits within the water.  This keeps them from re-depositing onto clothing, which would make them feel stiff.

In Your Washing Machine: Baking soda is a great way to reduce suds and soap in your washing machine.  It helps minimize any excess soap and is great for HE washing machines.

homemade laundry ingredients

Bar Soap: Bar soap like Castile or Zote Soap or Fels-Naptha is just that, a soap.  NOT a detergent. Detergent is different. The main difference is that detergent contains a surfactant.  Surfactants are substances that reduce the surface tension of a liquid, allowing a liquid to be dissolved better.

Surfactants break up stains  and suspend the dirt into the water, which prevents it from redepositing the dirt back into your fabrics. (Thus the concept of a rinse cycle). Basically, dirt does not normally dissolve in water, is made dispersible by the surfactants so it can be removed by the rinse and wash water.

Bar soaps are generally made of oils and fats, which mean they don’t dissolve in cold water very well.  If you’re using a bar soap, you will want to wash in hot or warm water. Soap is less soluble and can become embedded into fibers, so they must be rinsed out thoroughly.

Important Tips:  A lot of these soaps get a mid rating grade on the Think Dirty App due to the ingredients, fragrances and dyes.  Make sure your choosing a soap that is really chemical and toxin free.

In your Washing Machine: These bar soaps typically do not produce a lot of lather and are therefore safe for all washing machines.

Borax:  First, let me preface this with Borax is one of those debated ingredients.  Some say it’s safe, others say it’s toxic. The Think Dirty App give it a half and half rating.  

Borax is found deep within the ground, and is a sodium borate decahydrate, a mineral compound.  The pH of Borax is 9.5, which means it increases the effectiveness of other soaps and bleaches in the water.

In Your Washing Machine: Borax is a powder and is considered safe to use in the washing machine.

Want an inexpensive solution to clean your clothes in any type of water or temperature?

HOMEMADE FABRIC SOFTENERS & NATURAL ALTERNATIVES

Vinegar: Many people use vinegar in place of fabric softener.  I did for quite some time, but we just missed the scent that fabric softeners left on the clothes.  I actually found one on EWG.org that is healthy and safe for us to use. From there I’ve never looked back. Here are the two I use the most:

Seventh Generation Fabric Softener (winner for softening power)

Attitude Fabric Softener (winner for natural scent)

But back to vinegar!  Vinegar is a natural stain remover and odor remover.  The vinegar scent dissipates as it dries, so no worries on your clothes smelling like you dyed Easter eggs all weekend.  

Vinegar prevents scale from settling in your clothes and removes any of the leftover soap or detergent in the fibers of your clothing.  The more hard your water is, however, the more vinegar you would need to use.

A high acidity level  allows the soap and detergent to mix with water, and less likely for it to cling to the fabrics themselves (which as we talked about above is why clothes feel stiff and may smell funky).

In fact, leaving an alkaline substance on your clothing (as opposed to an acidic substance) can weaken the fibers of the clothing and make the texture feel rough.

In Your Washing Machine: Vinegar is very acidic, which could potentially cause damage to certain types of rubber seals within your washing machine, but there aren’t many cases of this happening. If you have a front load washer with the rubber that seals in your door, you may see a problem more quickly than a top load washer.

Salt:  Another go-to for fabric softening is salt, either table or epsom.  While the idea behind this is that it works just like a water softener, this is not 100% true.  Water softeners have a completely separate brine tank and works with special beads to replace the calcium and magnesium ions in the water.  

In Your Washing Machine: In your washing machine it just doesn’t work the same way. In fact, the salt you put in your washing machine could be causing rust on the inside of the washer as it comes into contact with the metals inside.  

Salt can also cause more minerals to be deposited on your clothing at the end of the cycle.

PERFECT CONDITIONS TO MAKE HOMEMADE LAUNDRY DETERGENT WORK FOR YOU:

The truth is, homemade laundry detergent DOES work, just in the right circumstances.  

First, if you have somewhat hard water or worse, really hard water, your homemade laundry detergent is going to be really ineffective. 

If your home has completely mineral free water or a water softener  (that is maintained and works), you’re likely sitting pretty.

Second, is the water temperature.  Cold water just isn’t going to do the trick with homemade soap.  The soaps and sodium carbonates don’t do a lot of their job in cold water.  You have to use hot or warm water for these products to work effectively.

Third: Rinse, rinse, rinse.  Without properly rinsing your clothing, you’re likely leaving a lot of soap, minerals and grime in your clothing fibers.  Most washing machines have an extra rinse cycle that you can add to your wash. When using homemade soaps, you’ll want to make sure the clothes are properly rinsed.

Finally, agitation makes the list.  The theory behind homemade soap is that our grandma’s used it, and it cleaned just fine!  May I remind you that my great-grandma used a washing board and scrubbed those clothes by hand?  The washing machine just doesn’t offer the same cleaning effect as a hand scrubbing. When using soap rather than detergent, you need to scrub much more than the simple agitation our washing machine provides.

And more food for thought:  What kind of fabric are you washing?  100% cotton is a lot different than a cloth diaper or a microfiber cloth.  Some of these fabrics have very specific cleaning protocols they suggest you follow.  This is for a good reason as detergents, vinegar and salt work very differently.

I am so thankful that Rachel emailed me to ask these questions.  I not only learned SO much, but I really realized I needed to change my own habits.  Personally, I had stopped making laundry detergent on my own about six months ago, just due to the fact I ran out of time.  I started using both Thieves and Seventh Generation when I need to, which I’ve been completely happy with. It’s just been easier for our family, and to be honest, the cost of it is pretty reasonable to me.  

It may not seem like laundry detergent should get such a lengthy, dedicated blog post, but for those of us that are doing laundry practically every day, it really does make a difference.

homemade laundry soap might work
Is homemade laundry soap safe for your washing machine?

Short answer, yes. The ingredients within the powder mixes are completely safe for your machine. However, vinegar as a softener and salt as a softener can cause damage to both the metal and rubber seals within your washing machine.

This Post Has 26 Comments

  1. I’ve never even thought to do HOMEMADE laundry detergent! What a unique idea. I should totally look into trying this out!

    1. If you have soft water and use the right temperature it should work well!

  2. I’ve been really curious about homemade laundry detergent. Although reading this, I’m not sure it will work for us. We have hard water here, and I always wash on cold. I think the hard water would be the biggest problem here. I may still give it a try now that I know a bit more about the science behind it all.

    1. I do a lot of our laundry in cold too, and I think that’s why it didn’t work as well for us too.

  3. I’ve never thought about making my own washing detergent. But it sounds like a great idea, especially being able to know what is in each load. Both my children have dry skin, it’s something I should investigate more. Thanks for breaking it all down for us.

    1. Yes! Just make sure you know the hardness of your water and use a hot temperature. 🙂

  4. Awesome information…i think for anyone who wants to diy on home products knowing the facts is important

    1. I agree! There’s a reason people buy detergents, and it’s fascinating to know the science behind it 🙂

  5. Oh my God, I’m so happy that my mom gives a similar advice and water plays a major role.

    1. It really does make a difference!

  6. This is great insight! I knew that detergents have chemicals and do impact our clothes but I wish I could use handmade detergents but we have hard water issue.

    1. At least there are less expensive options that are plant based now!

  7. I’d never even thought of making homemade laundry detergent… unfortunately we have hard water here so it probably wouldn’t be particularly successful by the sound of it!

    1. That’s the same boat I’ve been in. Hard water just doesn’t do homemade soap any favors 🙂

  8. Such great info – thanks for doing the research for us! This is a place I’ve never been tempted to go, BUT I use a lot of these separate ingredients *along with* my store-bought detergent, so am glad to see that the ones I already use are generally safe and doing what I want them to!

    1. Yes! I think that’s the best way to use them is with an actual detergent 🙂

  9. I have heard of people making their own laundry detergent and always wondered if it was difficult. I still don’t know if this will work for me but I am willing to give it a try now.

    1. It’s important to know how to use it if you make it – good luck! 🙂

  10. This is so informative! I am definitely going to look into making my own laundry detergent.

    1. Just be careful and make sure you have really soft water and only use hot water, otherwise your clothes won’t feel the same. 🙂

  11. I never knew vinegar can be used as a fabric softener! I would love to give that Seventh Generation Fabric Softener a try, sounds great to me☺

    1. It is seriously the BEST softener! It makes our clothes so soft without any chemicals 🙂

  12. Good for you to take the time to make a very useful item that all households could benefit from. Very informative too.

  13. I have heard about making your own dish detergent but never laundry. Sounds super interesting, we wash in cold water too, not sure what type of water we get.

    1. Cold water is so much easier on clothing!

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