Homemade laundry detergent seems like the perfect way to do laundry inexpensively and without harmful chemicals. But homemade laundry detergent has a big problem. It just doesn’t work.
The never ending job that leaves all moms mystified as we try to figure out how such a limited number of people could produce so many mounds of dirty towels, outfits, and socks.
Single socks, of course. They never come in pairs when its laundry time.
Doing so much laundry requires a lot of laundry detergent, and last time I went to the store, detergent wasn’t free. But we mommas tend to be a frugal bunch. Maybe even a little scrappy. We like finding cheaper ways to get a job done.
Enter homemade laundry detergent. It seems like the perfect idea!
It’s easy to make with three or four simple ingredients that you can find at most big box stores (borax, washing soda, shaved bar soap, and sometimes baking soda or oxygen bleach powder). You know exactly what’s in it, so there aren’t many safety concerns or online scavenger hunts to learn about the ingredients.
Best of all? It’s cheap. Like pennies-per-load cheap.
Easy, (usually) nontoxic, and cheap. This all makes homemade laundry detergent look like the ideal DIY project for families. But is it?
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When Microfiber and Homemade Laundry Detergent Meet
Years ago I started a collection of microfiber cleaning cloths from Norwex. I loved them! Our windows and mirrors had never been cleaner, dusting was a breeze, and water had never worked so well as a cleaning solution.
I knew that you weren’t supposed to use fabric softener with them when washing because it could clog up the microfiber and cause the cloths to repel water. No big deal; I didn’t use fabric softener.
I knew that you weren’t supposed to wash them with regular cotton towels or anything else that produced a lot of lint, because the lint could do the same. Easy enough. I followed that advice.
My only instructions were to wash them with something free of fillers and something that didn’t leave residue on the laundry. Awesome! Homemade laundry detergent clearly fit the bill.
Except it didn’t.
I mean, things went well for a few months. The cloths were all-stars and I even got rid of my big stash of classy cleaning rags (you know the ones… the single socks, worn out t-shirts, ratty towels).
But then my beloved cloths started repelling water. They didn’t soak up spills like they used to and I could watch the water run right off of them when I put them under the faucet. Our Norwex wash cloths became stiff and hard, completely opposite of how they came.
I started asking questions and began hearing from friend after friend who experienced the same thing, or knew someone else who did. Those pricy microfiber cleaning cloths? Ruined.
And homemade laundry detergent was the culprit.
Laundry Detergent vs. Laundry Soap
The reason that homemade laundry detergent doesn’t work is that it isn’t detergent at all. It’s a soap, and the difference between soap and detergent really matters.
Soaps and detergents are both surfactants, which means that they reduce water’s surface tension so it cleans more thoroughly. In a sense, they make water “wetter” by preventing water molecules from sticking together.
For many of us, soaps seem more appealing because they can be made with natural ingredients and even produced at home. They are milder surfactants, too. Detergents are much stronger, often made with synthetic ingredients and may not be biodegradable, potentially harming our families and the environment.
But here’s the problem: soaps leave a film, especially in hard water. You know the old ring-around-the-bathtub that needs scrubbed off when you clean the bathroom? You can thank soap and washed-off grime for that.
Detergents, on the other hand, rinse out completely. They’re designed to not leave a residue, even in hard water.
I thought my Norwex cloths would be safe because we have a whole-house water filtration system. Our water is about as soft as can be, but over time the laundry soap still built up a residue that left some of my cloths useless.
What Was Lurking on My Laundry?
Even after my cloths were ruined, I wanted to believe there was a way to keep using homemade laundry detergent (which is actually laundry soap).
Part of me wondered if I could somehow have done something else wrong. I really hated the thought of giving up a crunchy momma, ultra-frugal, easy DIY project and returning to the laundry aisle.
White flags of defeat can be traumatic, you know?
So I decided that I’d wash cloth diapers and microfiber cloths in laundry detergent, but wash our other clothes in homemade laundry soap.
Now I had the perfect solution. A brilliant compromise that would still save us money but wouldn’t cause my cloth diaper and Norwex stash to repel water.
Because I also learned the hard way that homemade laundry soap is as bad for cloth diapers as it is for microfiber.
But then I saw some pictures, and all I could think was “EWWW!!!”
Like me, my friend Sarah from Nature’s Nurture was all about the nontoxic, frugal way to do laundry. She didn’t want to believe it could go wrong, either. But once she noticed that their laundry didn’t look, feel, or smell right, she started digging. The culprit was, of course, her homemade laundry soap.
She stripped her family’s laundry to get rid of the residue, and the results are jaw-droppingly gross. Grime, dirt, oils, and soap buildup was coating their “clean” laundry.
That sounded so familiar. And I learned too big of a lesson with my no ‘poo fiasco to be stubborn and not heed a warning.
Sarah’s pictures were the last straw. I was done with homemade laundry soap. (And I’m going to get the GroVia Mighty Bubbles stuff she used to strip her laundry to try on my Norwex cloths since nothing else has worked!)
Modern Washing Machines or a Kettle Over a Fire?
I think if we all still washed our laundry in a massive kettle over a fire, boiling the clothes, stirring them down with a giant stick, then rinsing and scrubbing on a washboard, homemade laundry soap could work just fine.
But our modern washing machines can’t possibly heat, scrub, and agitate our laundry enough to make homemade laundry detergent rinse out thoroughly. And I’m not hanging up a washing kettle anytime soon.
There will always be a film, even if it takes years to build up enough to notice.
I had to resign myself to the fact that if I wanted to use a modern appliance to wash our clothes, I also had to use a modern cleaning solution in it.
Options Instead of Using Homemade Laundry Soap
I know, it’s hard to go back to spending more money on a cleaning product when you thought you found the ultimate DIY way to keep it cheap. But you don’t have to shell out big bucks every month on laundry detergents.
You have a few options. You could:
- Buy budget brand detergents to save money, and just ignore the artificial fragrances and questionable ingredients because you can only do so much;
- Or, spend a little extra on free & clear brands that may not be totally natural, but at least lack the questionable fragrances and dyes;
- Or, opt for eco-friendly brands that are free from artificial dyes and fragrances, have better, plant-derived ingredients, and cost a bit more than the other two options.
Now listen, I’m not here to guilt you into spending more on laundry detergent than you comfortably can. But I will tell you how I do the third option for a reasonable cost, and how you can, too.
I’m a customer with Grove Collaborative and have their VIP membership (psst… this usually costs $39.99 but is only going for $19.99 right now!). With it, I get a monthly shipment of the cleaning products that I can’t easily make at home for a great price and free shipping.
In every shipment, I get a bottle of laundry detergent and some dishwasher tabs. The Seventh Generation 4x Free & Clear is my favorite detergent right now and the bottle usually lasts our big family all month. Once in a while I grab something fun or extra, and five times a year Grove sends me something for free for being a VIP.
This has made buying nontoxic and naturally-based laundry detergent so much simpler, and I save money doing it this way, too.
If you live in the continental US, you can get a FREE Mrs. Myer’s hand soap and $10 credit with your first Grove order! Click here to begin.
And, of course, if you want another option or live outside of the continental US, Amazon carries a great selection of natural laundry detergents. Just watch out for the ones labeled laundry soap!