Why I (Still) Don't Use Homemade Laundry Detergent

Why Homemade Laundry Detergent Doesn't Work
It was the early 2000s when I first heard about DIY laundry detergent. One "real life" friend told me she saved $10 with each batch of laundry soap she made at home. Other people I knew raved about the all-natural ingredients they used. Of course, as a frugal homesteading mama, I had to give it a try...But once I did make and use homemade laundry soap, I was less than thrilled.

Money Saving???

First, there was the challenge of finding the correct ingredients. I was unable to find them in my hometown, which was a huge drawback, since I tried to shop only locally. However, the next time I was in a larger town, I found everything but washing soda. I chose to use baking soda instead - even though I know there is a difference between the two. (Washing soda is stronger and more harsh than baking soda.) I was also unable to find Fels-Naptha bar soap, which I'd read was ideal, so I substituted Ivory bar soap, which people also commonly use when making laundry detergent at home. This was 2011, and my total cost was $6.17.

I then went home and prepared my homemade detergent. It took about 3 minutes, with interruptions from my kids, and when I was done, I had about half the detergent I'd normally purchase in one box. I'd also used up all the ingredients I bought, minus a small amount of Borax. 

After using this DIY laundry soap, our clothes both looked and smelled clean. However, I noticed on subsequent loads that little bits of the grated Ivory soap did not dissolve during the washing (even when I used hot water). Instead, they stuck to the clothes and I ended up having to pick off these pieces of soap before putting the laundry in the dryer. What a pain...

And I saved very little. At the time, I was paying $12.47 for a 14.4 lb. box of Arm & Hammer laundry detergent. By making my own laundry soap, I saved a whopping $0.07. (And nope, the homemade stuff did not last longer.)

When I posted the results of my experiment on this blog, many people simply didn't believe it. (You can read the original comments at the bottom of this post.) They told me over and over that it was much cheaper to make laundry soap - and since my local Wal-Mart had begun to carry all the needed ingredients, I priced out the ingredients - again. This time, they came to $7.55. In other words, they cost more now, yet my Arm & Hammer detergent was still the same price. It was now cheaper to buy my laundry detergent. (Remember, the homemade recipe only made half of what was in the store bought box.) 

Soap Scum Mess

Since that time, I've learned there are more problems with DIY laundry detergent. First, it contains soap. That might seem like a DUH! but while we (me included!) often use the words "detergent" and "soap" interchangeably, they are actually two distinct things. 

Soap is fat-based and breaks down materials that dissolve in water and oil. However, because of its fat base, soap is difficult to wash away when exposed to textured surfaces (such as fabric). Detergent, on the other hand, is synthetic and captures dirt on fabric more readily - and then suspends it in water, which allows it to easily wash away.

So how did our ancestors get away with using soap for their laundry? Friction. They vigorously scrubbed their clothes on a washboard (or some similar surface). Today's washing machines, though, don't provide that kind of friction; they agitate clothes gently. Simply put, they are designed to work with detergent, not soap. Therefore, if you use soap in your washing machine, you're leaving your clothes soap-scummy...Plus, that scumminess gets into parts of your washing machine that you can't access to clean. Eventually, the build up can ruin your machine. 

(To learn more of the science behind soaps and detergents, click here. This may also be helpful.)

So what if you leave out the soap in your homemade "detergent?" Unfortunately, all you're left with is Borax, washing soda, or maybe baking soda - and these are just water softeners. 

But My Laundry Looks Clean!

If you've been using homemade laundry "detergent" for a while, and swear your clothes look and smell clean, I challenge you to strip your laundry. I think you'll be disgusted to see just how dirty your laundry water ends up being. (You'll find complete laundry stripping instructions here.)

So...How Do I Save Money on Laundry Detergent?

If you want to continue to use a washing machine, you may now wonder how you can save some money on laundry detergent. I recommend playing around with different brands...and also learning to use only what you need. According to Consumer Reports, most Americans use too much detergent. The Spruce offers some good tips on deciding how much to use, depending upon many factors, including the type of machine you own.


  1. I'm so glad I saw this, Kristina. I've always wondered how it would all work out. Thanks!

  2. I have made my own liquid laundry detergent for several years now and have been very happy with it. You save more money by making the liquid detergent with the same amount of ingredients. Washing soda is VERY IMPORTANT as well as the type of laundry soap bar you use. You can find Fels-Naptha in the grocery store laundry aisles and hardware stores. Our local hardware store had it for $3.50 a bar and our local Albertson's had it for $1.50 and the Fred Meyer had both Washing Soda and Fels-Naptha bars. The bars were $1.25. I would recommend trying again with the liquid version since it makes 10 gallons.

  3. Thanks, Jessie. How much do you save over store bought? Since I can find neither Fels-Naptha nor washing soda locally, this is one home made thing I will probably skip - at least for now.

  4. I don't use the grated soap at all, I don't need it. I do use the washing soda tho. The thing is, you only use 1 or 2 tsps per load, so your box of homemade stuff will last much longer than if you use those scoops.
    I would encourage you to measure it.
    I can make over 250 loads for about half the price I would normally pay to wash 60 loads.
    Also, I don't have to use fabric softener because this makes my clothes so soft I don't need it! I was using vinegar as a softener, but found I don't need that also.
    I would say if you sift out your soap pieces in a spaghetti colander and measure your laundry soap, you will be fine. If you're concerned about the baking soda being sufficient to clean your clothes without soap, add some vinegar and Tea Tree Essential oil which kills as much or more than regular soap.
    I just mix a cup at a time - equal parts borax and washing (or baking) soda. Then you don't have the messiness of making and storing the liquid. However, I only do clothes for the two of us, maybe you will go thru the 10 gallons fast enough as Jessie has had success with it.

    Here's my recipe for the dry stuff:

    If you do sift your soap pieces out and use it dry, you can melt your soap down, mix it with as much brown sugar and some olive oil, or veg oil and pour into molds for 24 hours, (lightly greased milk cartons, tupperware containers) you'll have homemade soap that will last much longer and have exfoliating and moisturizing components to it. Allow to dry for a couple weeks after you take out of molds.
    Bless you!

  5. Thanks for chiming in, Pura Vida!

    Removing the grated soap would make my homemade detergent workable - good point. Although it still wouldn't be cheaper for me. I use a tiny amount (not more than 2 teaspoons) of commercially made laundry detergent, too. Learn why here: http://proverbsthirtyonewoman.blogspot.com/2010/03/how-much-laundry-soap-do-you-really.html

    I have no doubt some women save money making their own laundry soap; and I know many people make their own detergent for other reasons (allergies, for example). But for my household, it just isn't worthwhile.

  6. I have made homemade laundry detergent since November of 2008. I haven't had to purchase new boxes of borax or washing soda as of yet. My recipe is the one that the Duggars from 19 Kids and Counting use and it works well. It only calls for one laundry soap bar, 1 cup washing soda and 1/2 cup of borax. It makes 10 gallons of liquid laundry soap and generally lasts me between 6 and 12 months. I initially purchased the borax for $3.33 at Walmart and the Washing Soda at Fred Meyer for around the same amount. So all I have to do is buy a new bar for $1.30 everytime I make the soap which is once or twice a year. You do the math. :) Where are you located that you can't find the soap bar? I really had to search around and around for it until I found it. I mean I literally went to every single store that sold remotely similar products.

  7. The liquid version that I use can be found here.


  8. Jessie, that sounds more promising. I've never used liquid detergent before, but it doesn't seem like 10 gallons would last our family nearly that long. Still, it's worth trying.

  9. You'd be surprised at how long it lasts!! I have three kids and it lasts that long. For the Duggars it lasts 2 months or so.

  10. Kristina, I encourage you to try the Duggard's laundry detergent recipe. They have a recipe for both powder and liquid. I have recently made changes to my laundry items and although I haven't figured my exact savings I know I am saving $100.00 a year on laundry detergent alone. I have also stopped buying fabric softener, dryer sheets, and stain removers. The Fels Naptha bar is a stain remover and costs under $2.00. I pick up two bars: one for the detergent and one to rub on severe stains. It lasts longer than the Spray n Wash we were using and works better, too. I now use 1/2 to 1 cup of white vinegar in the rinse cycle to stop static cling. This is WAY better on the washer's hoses and the dryer too. I'm estimating a savings of $200.00 a year on all of my laundry items. I've figured the ingredients for homemade laundry (liquid) detergent will last me two years at a rounded cost of $11.00 plus the cost of vinegar. That makes it all worth it!

  11. Loretta, the Duggard powdered detergent recipe is the same one I used. I've never used liquid laundry soap, but I might consider making some someday soon. Maybe I can just buy my laundry detergent cheaper than other folks, because for me it's not a money saver. I'm interested in trying vinegar, but I'd have to hover over my washer to make that work...which isn't practical for me.

  12. Came over from the cleaning the tub post. Like you I was very skeptical about homemade laundry detergent.

    I use Tide free & gentle, the one that is $17.oo per 100 fl.oz bottle. Very expensive! My DH has very sensitive skin so I didn't know if the homemade laundry detergent would work. I tried changing brands before and had huge skin reactions here, so...

    I used the Duggars recipe (for the liquid detergent) but instead of diluting it I just put it into a 5 gallon container and I have been using it for 2-3 months now. We are a family of 6 - 4 children under 9 y.o. and I wash clothes almost every day. My container is almost empty. I might be using too much, but 3/4 C of the detergent per big load didn't seem like enough.

    Conclusion: The liquid detergent does its job. It cleans the clothes. No skin reactions or allergies triggered in my home. I do use vinegar to rinse, with the exception for linens, I used fabric softener (just a bit) :)

    It saves me money... I live in a town with 5000 people and I found all the ingredients at my Walmart. The soap bar was less than a $1.00.

    Kristina, it all comes down to what works for you. This thing about following trends, just for the sake of it, is silly. You found what works for you. Stick with it!! :)

  13. Tereza, you're not the first one to suggest the Duggar liquid recipe is cheaper. I would try it, too, except I can't get all the ingredients locally - which means I definitely wouldn't save money. But if that ever changes, I'll give it a go!

  14. I'm sorry if something similar has already been said. I didn't take the time to read all comments. However, I just wanted to tell you about the recipe I follow. It's the same ingredients, but less amounts.

    1 cup (or 1/2 a bar) Fels-naptha
    1/2 cup washing soda
    1/2 borax
    ---use 1 tbsp for light loads or 1.5-2 tbsp for large loads.

    I prefer the dry detergent to the liquid because it's simpler/quicker to make and takes less room to store.

  15. I have seen numerous recipes for homemade detergent and the one that I think works really well (it is a liquid not a powder) is here: I think we pay pennines per load and I have a 5 gallon bucket worth of detergent which should last my family of 5 the entire year. I hope this helps and I love reading your blog!