We Try It: DIY Laundry Detergent

I made my own powdered laundry detergent and it was not a disaster! I recommend it if you are bored — or maybe cheap.

Sometimes, the Internet gets into my brain and compels me to attempt A Project. I’m particularly susceptible to “efficient” or charming domestic capers like making my own Irish Soda Bread (such a bad idea!). When I give in and try DIY-ing, it often leaves me feeling annoyed that I’ve wasted time (or money, or resources) and that I’ve added to the usual clutter around my home. And then I spend a fruitless couple of days secretly resenting artistic and crunchy people for a while for having such beautiful, handcrafted lives.

But not this time! Laundry detergent is easy and fun and many of my cool kid friends haven’t even made it yet so nyeah nyeah!

I looked up a bunch of recipes and found proportions that sounded right to me — then I split the recipe in half, because I didn’t want to commit to a whole giant bucket of useless soap-ish powder (just in case). So:

  • 1/2 bar Fels-Naptha laundry soap
  • 1/2 cup washing soda
  • 1/2 cup borax
  • Essential oils

Short version

Grate/shave/food processor the soap bar until it is a grit or powder, dump in the washing soda and borax, mix it together until it is roughly uniform. Add some scent if you have some and want it in your laundry. Use 1-2 tbs per load of laundry. DONE!

This is basically it. You don't even need a bowl, but it helps for the grating/mixing part.
This is basically it.

Long version

  1. This step is so awesome: Heat the Fels-Naptha bar in the microwave for about 30 seconds. Cut it in half and feel like a badass/dork because did you know you could cut soap?Be careful because that thing is no-kidding hot. I burned my finger just a bit, then started using my yellow dish gloves and things were okay.
  2. Some recipes will blithely suggest you cube the soap and pop it in your food processor. Who needs that when you can be all pioneer-style and use basic tools? I used the fine-grate side of a box grater. This is the part where you need gloves or an insulating layer of paper towel or washcloth around the end of the soap you’re holding onto, or you’ll get a hot soap burn.
  3. Then I crumbled the soap shavings some more by rubbing them between my fingers.

    If it looks like this, it's good enough. But you can go ahead with that food processor if you want.
    If it looks like this, it’s good enough.
  4. I admit it: I thought I needed to get just a little fancy, after all, and break out my tiny useless food processor. It chops with the growl of a thousand possessed vacuum cleaners, which terrified the kids and made them crumple to the floor and scream. So I quit after one long pulse, which gave me a pile of not-that-different soap shavings and a really clean-smelling food processor. I am not going to bother with this step next time.

    Clearly a demon.
    Clearly a demon.
  5. I dumped in some washing soda! You probably don’t need a picture of this!
  6. I dumped in some borax! No pics!
  7. I sprinkled some essential oils into that mess! Then mixed a lot. I started with 6 drops of bergamot oil and 6 drops of rosewood oil, but after a test wash with neutral-scent results, I ended up adding about 12 more drops of each. I’m not getting the amount of awesome scent I’d like, and I’m not sure if it’s just the brand I’m using (Puritan’s Pride), or those particular oils, or the scent of the Fels-Naptha cancelling out the fancy smells. I am going to try sandalwood soon.
  8. Then I put the mix into a plastic baggie and put it in the laundry closet, and I’ve been using one or two tablespoons per load of laundry.
See how the yellow bits are a little stratified? Mix it up a bit before you scoop it into the washer.
Mix it up a bit before each use.

Pros:

  • Easy
  • Fun
  • Cheap to try, and generally cheaper than store-bought (unless you get too extravagant with the essential oils). The Fels-Naptha bar was about $1.00, Arm and Hammer Washing Soda (55 oz.) was in the $3-4 range, and 20 Mule Team Borax (76 oz.) was also in the $3-4 range.
  • Works just fine: I’ve been using it with warm/cold and cold/cold cycles, and I have had no troubles. We don’t have heavily soiled laundry, but I am very sweaty and the kids cause lots of extra-interesting stinks; our laundry comes out clean and (very) lightly scented.

Cons:

  • Fels-Naptha, washing soda, and borax might be a little hard to find, depending on where you are, and prices can vary from store to store.
  • A little time-consuming, depending on how much spare time you have. If you’ve got 15 free minutes, tops, to devote to grating hot soap (and then cleaning up your soapy tools), and you don’t have to make special trips/purchases in order to get your ingredients, you’re good– but I can see where it may be too much of a pain in the butt if you’re already busy.
  • You have to stir the detergent before every wash to make sure the soap is distributed evenly in the powder mix.
  • It makes you the kind of person who makes homemade laundry detergent. I don’t know how people can stand our smug faces.

2 thoughts on “We Try It: DIY Laundry Detergent”

    1. I am so sorry I let your comment hang out alone here! We have had the Autumn Crud something major around here, so I have been pretty out of it and hopped up on cold meds.

      The food processor is the worst, and it has a fraternal twin sister blender. She is obviously a banshee, and also can’t handle ice cubes.
      Next time you are in the grocery store, go to the laundry aisle or the weird light bulbs + mothballs aisle and se if you can find any of the ingredients. I have seen all three in the same store once (a Farm and Fleet), and I did find borax and Fels Naptha in the same country-ish grocery store. Maybe you will luck out.

      Apparently you can make washing soda by baking/heating baking soda in the oven, but that is crunchy orders of magnitude above grating some soap and adding some powder.

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