Chemistry in the Kitchen: Creating Laundry Detergent

| 8/15/2013 4:33:00 PM

Tags: diy projects, laundry, Indiana, Candis Calvert,

Some things in life are certain: death and taxes. Add to that list laundry. The never-ending chore, laundry is a labor and resource intense process aimed at keeping people the world over smelling fresh and looking nice. Since forgoing laundry isn’t an agreeable option (for most), steps must be taken to make it more pleasant. Enter a little chemistry project: Creating Laundry Detergent.

Laundry detergent and fabric softener can be both shockingly expensive and chemically scary. MostChemistry In The Kitchen Creating DIY Laundry Detergent mainstream brands contain ingredients not easily understood or pronounced by the average consumer and the companies that make them strive to convince you it’s the only way to clean your clothing. Not true! Simple, safe and cheap, homemade detergent and softener can be yours for an investment of around $10 and 15 minutes.  Ingredients can be found at most big box stores, small general stores or grocery stores.

In addition to mixing ingredients, you’ll need a food processor or cheese grater, a spoon, and two storage containers (one needs to be liquid safe).  You may also want to label your creations, which can be done any way you like: chalkboard sticker and chalk, duct tape and permanent marker or white sticky label.

DIY Laundry Soap


For this project you’ll need:

½ cup borax
½ cup of washing soda
1 bar natural soap (suggestions: Dr. Bronner’s or Fels-Naptha)
3 drops essential oil (optional)


  1. Shave bar of soap. Using either a food processor or cheese grater, shave entire bare of soap into flakes.
  2. Mix ingredients. Pulse lightly in food processor or mix with hands in bowl, ensuring even distribution of all ingredients.
  3. Store and enjoy. Store indefinitely in an airtight container. Use 2 tbsp. per load of laundry.

No laundry cycle is complete without detergent’s constant companion: fabric softener.  Often eschewed by people with heightened environmental knowledge, homemade softener can be as “green” as you like. To give this solution the smallest footprint possible, use ingredients without sulfates, phthalates or parabens.

alinda harrison
8/23/2013 10:16:35 AM

VickiR, washing soda is basically just a granulated form of baking soda (same chemical, different texture). It can be found in the detergent/soaps aisle of most grocery stores, often on the top shelf right next to the Borax.

alinda harrison
8/23/2013 10:03:52 AM

VickiR, washing soda is basically just a granulated form of baking soda (same chemical, different texture). It can be found in the detergent/soaps aisle of most grocery stores, often on the top shelf right next to the Borax.

alinda harrison
8/23/2013 9:59:40 AM

buffnybiker, "essential oils" has always been the term referring to naturally derived fragrance oils. However, they are optional in this recipe anyhow. If you don't want to add fragrance - or if there is fragrance already in the soap you use - then don't use it. I don't and it works fine. Also Borax and washing soda are simple single ingredient products that are less toxic than most other cleaning products. I suppose you could wash your clothes with nothing but soap, but even soap (real soap, not detergent) has the caustic chemical lye in it, necessary for the saponification process. I agree with others that Fels-Naptha isn't the best choice of soap. Although most of the chemicals listed on its label are just the chemical names of the natural ingredients, it uses palm oil which had led to too much loss of rain forests. Personally, I use the comparably priced Kirk's Castile Soap (which has four ingredients: coconut oil, lye, glycerine, and fragrance) when I don't have access to just plain unscented homemade style soap.

8/21/2013 7:57:32 PM

What is "Washing Soda" and where would one buy such a thing? I would just feel better knowing what was in there & mixing it up myself.

8/21/2013 9:25:02 AM

I have a problem with this article, the same as many of the other respondents have. I'd like to know how the ingredients that you say to use are made and how they are "natural." You don't say what essential oils are, is that the 10W30 I use in my motorcycle or the mineral oil I use to coat my cabbage slicer? What is boxax and washing soda made of and where does it come from. Hair conditioner for fabric softener?? What is hair conditioner made out of? Others here have said that Fels-Naptha isn't a natural ingredient, so what is it? I'm sorry, but I just don't trust these home-made soap recipes. I'm not sure what else there is but I can't use this one without more information.

8/17/2013 1:57:00 PM

I should add that I recently read about new health concerns with Borax. And even before the latest research, Borax wasn't used with grey water systems since it apparently slowly poisons the ground/plants. Avoiding Borax is a good thing. And I wouldn't dismiss "natural" soaps because they use acids/bases. The idea is that there is a chemical reaction that neutralizes those, and you end up with a product that any reasonable person would consider natural. I buy many of my garments untreated - so avoiding any added chemicals is worthwhile for me. And the ingredient list of soaps can't be trusted. By law, they don't have to list all their ingredients -- so they routinely leave off the ones that we would recognize as toxic. Former employees of Fels-Naptha and Ivory describe processing lines that include varying ingredients -- depending on what is cheaply available to put into the soap.

8/16/2013 3:26:52 PM

LightMEUp: I agree that Fels-naphtha isn't the perfect choice, but it is one of the more inexpensive options for people on a very limited budget. Another great choice would be Ivory soap since its regarded as generally pure and free of harsh chemicals. Certainly an improvement over your average conventional laundry soap. Thanks for the feedback.

8/16/2013 3:18:47 PM

I've made this using this recipe, except that I used my own homemade 100% coconut oil soap (0% superfat), and I don't know why people online rave about it so much (it's pretty much the only one you will find if you search for "homemade laundry detergent" or anything similar). It works okay for everyday clothes, but not for anything greasy (especially kitchen rags). Whites gradually become gray, and colors get dingy. @lightMEup: There is no such thing as "natural" soap anyway. To make soap (sapopnified fat/oil) you need a strong alkalai (base) that is pretty much a manufactured chemical (you can't just find it in nature, you have to make it). Most "soap" you buy in the store is not soap, but a detergent (which performs the same function, in the sa,me way as soap, but it is not a saponified fat/oil). @Blob: Of all the things to be worried about, I think borax should be pretty far down on the list. You are saturated with organic chemicals in almost every product you buy, especially fire-retardants in cardboard and clothes. You're not going to stop wearing clothes, are you?

8/16/2013 5:07:06 AM

Fels Naptha is "natural" soap?? Have you read the ingredients on that stuff??

8/15/2013 6:14:21 PM

Hate to rain on your parade, but there is quite a bit of uncertainty about the all-around safety of Borax. I make my own laundry detergent while avoiding Borax: 1/2 gallon cold water, 2.2 oz lye (by weight),1 lb melted tallow,1/2 cup washing soda,1/3 cup ammonia,1/2 gallon hot water. Basically, I mix all those ingredients in a 1 gallon bucket and stir it a couple times a day for three days -- till it thickens and stays mixed. But having said that, any homemade soap recipe is better than the detergents you buy in the store -- the soap industry has manipulated the legal system so that they don't have to tell you about their toxic ingredients, and they are able to redefine many carcinogens to be "generally recognized as safe". And part of that redefinition prevents any oversight from the FDA.

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