The Truth About DIY Laundry “Detergent”

A recent horrifically nasty discovery about DIY laundry soap prompted today’s soapbox – see what I did there 😉  I warn you – it’s gonna be long.  That said, if you have ever made or considered making – your own laundry detergent, please take the time to read this.  If at the end you disagree, rock on. I did my part and warned you.

The Background

Like many people, I want to do the best I can for my family and the environment. That means that I often find myself asking Dr.Google how to DIY everything under the sun so I can limit the toxic chemicals contributing to our toxic load.  I’ve tried my hand at everything from candles to deodorant with varying rates of success.  Homemade household cleaners were one of the first things I tried and remain one of my favorites since many are effective, economical, and easy.

From DIY cleaners to essential oils, there was SO MUCH bad information out there.  So much misinformation being promulgated by well-meaning mommy bloggers with huge followings.  I had bought into plenty of it because I didn’t know any better.

I made my first DIY laundry detergent in 2013. That was also the year I banned paper towels and commercial cleaners for an entire year.  Needless to say, when I jumped on the crunchy bandwagon, I went hardcore. I took it to the extreme and wanted to DIY everything because DIY is better, right? Maybe. Maybe not.

The other thing that happened in 2013 is that, at the end of the year, I walked away from a halfway completed Master of Science in Telecommunications.  I just didn’t love it anymore and my husband encouraged me to pursue my passion.  A month later, in January of 2014, I started a Master of Science with American College of Healthcare Sciences (ACHS).  I took two semesters of graduate courses (to include one graduate level Aromatherapy course and two in Anatomy & Physiology) before realizing that I really needed to take some foundational undergraduate courses before taking higher level courses about theoretical application.  I spent another year with ACHS, completing programs in Natural Products Manufacturing, Aromatherapy, and Herbal Retail Management.  After ACHS I went on to a Master of Science at Maryland University of Integrative Health (MUIH) in Therapeutic Herbalism.  I cannot speak highly enough about those programs.  Why is it relevant to this post (and brought up in a lot of my discussions)?  It’s because that training included very detailed education on herbs, fixed oils, and essential oils, their chemistry, their actions (based on chemical constituents), and understanding clinical studies and science.  It didn’t necessarily make me an expert on science but it definitely gave me the basics so I know when to ask a chemist, biologist, botanist, or medical professional for clarification.

And now, here we are.

I recently started making soap. It’s my current obsession because it is a blend of exact chemistry and artistry. I decided to make another batch of laundry detergent, using one of my pure bars of coconut oil soap.  In theory that is the height of crunchiness.  I pulled up the recipes I had previously used.  Here is the top rated hit Google delivers for the “DIY laundry detergent” search.  It calls for a bar of soap, borax, and washing soda. This is another top hit (#3). Same ingredients.  #2 contains the same 3 ingredients, plus baking soda, Oxi-clean and scent.  I have tried all three of these and liked them.  My clothes seemed mostly clean. I was willing to lower my standards a bit given the frugality and how much it appealed to my preferences for “natural” products.

While I liked them, I wasn’t in love with them.  They never completely got rid of the smell in our sweaty athletic attire and I was frankly way overcommitted (I know you’ve been there, too) and just didn’t have time to figure out the problem.  We’ve been using commercial detergent since I started my Master’s with MUIH in 2016.  With my new soap fully cured, I was ready to give it a go again.

This time around, with a better understanding of chemistry, the recipes didn’t make sense.  I did some more research and found this article.  I reached out to a friend of mine, a kick ass chemist with a master’s degree and a job working with chemicals all day.  I asked her to fact check the article since I am not a chemist. She verified almost everything in the article as true and then explained why these recipes may not work, and provided a whole lot of info.  I realized that, despite my best intentions, we had been wearing DISGUSTING clothing, that was neither clean or sanitary.  I was so grossed out that I decided to immediately write a post about this to warn all my well meaning friends.

So what’s the problem? There are actually a lot of reasons, scientifically, that this doesn’t work.

The details.

The bar of soap is the cleaning agent in these recipes.  The only cleaning agent in most of them. Soap is a combination of oil or fat with lye molecules that chemically reacted with water molecules in a process called saponification (that leaves no lye behind). Soap is designed for non-porous surfaces and requires friction (scrubbing) to rinse it away.  We will come back to the soap.

Borax, (B4Na2O7)

borax
From PubChem

Also known as sodium borate, sodium tetraborate, or disodium tetraborate. It is easily converted into boric acid, however that is a different substance than what is sold in Borax (a salt).  It has a lot of different biochemical uses (to include as a buffer), however in laundry it is used to soften hard water (if you are lucky enough not to have hard water you may not care about this part at all).  “Hard water” means that your water has a pH of over 8.5 (pH means “potential of hydrogen” if you didn’t know – okay fine, I admit it, I didn’t know).  The neutral range for water is 6.5 to 8.5.  The goal is to bring your water to as close to neutral as possible to prolong the life of your clothing.

Borax has a pH of 9.3.  It has two salt molecules and is also used to soften water, because the salt molecules (the Na) bind with the minerals in hard water, like Ma and Ca. This chemical couple is an insoluble substance that can be rinsed away (same concept as the oil from the soap trapping dirt and grime). For borax to dissolve and rinse away, you need heat. Agitation is not enough. Cold water will not work.

Washing Soda, (Na2CO3 ),

washingsoda
From PubChem

is also known as soda ash due to burned plant ashes being one source of the substance. It is an alkali chemical used as a water softener or degreasing agent. It is a salt of carbonic acid. The salt (Na) is the part that softens water. Washing soda has a pH of 11. That alkalinity makes it wonderful for removing grease stains from garage floors, tough fabrics, etc.  This is also supposed to help soften the water in the exact same way as borax.  The problem is that it requires a LOT of rinsing to rinse away. If not, it leaves an insoluble substance redeposited right on your clothes.  One rinse cycle is not going to remove this stuff in a standard washing machine.  Washing soda does not dissolve easily.  You should use either washing soda or borax.  You don’t need both, that’s silly and not very economical.  For hard water, I would personally choose Borax (lower pH = less caustic) over washing soda and just use warm to hot water.

Oxi-clean, is used for stain-boosting or presoaking.  It is actually not found in most “natural” recipes. It is included because it is found in the 2nd most popular recipe (per Google search as of 8/16/2018) for “DIY Laundry Detergent”.  While I personally think that this works quite well as a presoak, it is neither natural or “safe”.  The EWG gives it a big fat “F” while the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (link here) says,

Danger. Causes skin irritation. Causes serious eye damage. Toxic to aquatic life.

If you care about Flipper or your eyeballs, this is maybe not for you.

Scent is pretty self-explanatory. It is usually either in the form of fabric softener crystals or essential oils. Do I even need to discuss the synthetic fragrance in fabric softener chemicals?  Let me just point you to my post on candles and let’s call this topic done. Essential oils as scent?  Okay – this is a topic that I am most definitely qualified to talk about.

agriculture-05-00048-g008a

Some essential oils work quite well to pretreat (lift) certain types of stains (grease). In the recipe itself? They may make your clothes smell good.  They are unlikely to have any other effect in your laundry, no matter what you have been told.  Think about the size of your washing machine, the amount of water in it, and then how much essential oil you are adding.  If someone quotes “studies” showing how antimicrobial they are, go read the study, look at the quantity used and the application method.  It is an absolute distortion of facts to cite those studies as a scientific basis for eos in your laundry.

If you are using essential oils for scent alone (because they are a far better alternative than fragrance), you may be totally happy with the outcome of the aroma after you wash your clothes.  If you use water that is hot enough to kill the pathogens lurking on your clothes (staph infection, anyone?) the heat will damage or destroy the essential oils. If you use a dryer, there is almost no chance the aroma will make it through the entire process intact.  If you are using them for smell alone, this doesn’t make much economical sense.  You would be better served putting them on/in a dryer ball where some would survive the process and leave your clothes smelling nice. Here is a lengthy, detailed scientific review of how light/temperature affect the structure of essential oils, and potential side effects of transdermal absorption of these mutated molecules.  My opinion is that if you find a combo that works for you and makes your clothes smell nice, it is far better to go that route than to use cheaper synthetic fragrance.  Just know that you are degrading any potential therapeutic benefit so the aroma can be quite expensive.

And now… the biggest reason for this blog post. 

Let’s talk soap.  Soap is designed to trap bacteria (with the oil) and allow you to rinse it off with water. The water is critical because you can actually remove a lot of germs with just water and friction, but you remove nothing with just soap. Let’s start simple.

Consider the quantity.  If one bar of soap goes in the total recipe and you are using one or two tablespoons of “detergent” per load, how much soap is actually in that? It’s fractions.  Maybe a 1/4 of a tablespoon of cleaner for an entire load of laundry? Would you use a drop of liquid dish soap for an entire sink full of dishes? That tiny quantity would not be enough to clean anything. Gross!

So let’s say you have figured out the right quantity to make sure there is enough cleaner in each load. Let’s say you even figured out the proper ratio of pH balancers (all the Borax and washing soda talk above) for your exact water to make the soap effective and prevent it from turning into something insoluble that leaves a film (this is the EXACT thing that we call “soap scum” in our showers).  Here is the critical thing I just didn’t understand: laundry soap is designed for washing boards, tubs, or washbasins, with the cleaning powered by humans through mechanical energy (good, old fashioned scrubbing!).  Modern washing machines do not generate that much friction, which is why laundry detergent exists.

The terms are often used interchangeably but they are NOT the same thing.  Soap can be made at home with a basic understanding of chemistry (hello, I do it!). Detergent requires a chemistry lab. Both contain surfactants but behave very differently in water.

Detergent, developed in labs when plant oils and animal fats were scarce during World War I, is free rinsing.  The minerals in hard water do not react with the detergent like they do with the soap.  If you have an energy efficient washer, worse, a front loader (like me), the agitation will not come close to the friction needed for the water to wash away the oil from the soap (that has trapped the gross stuff).  Ivory soap, pure coconut oil soaps, Castile soap are all still soap, no matter what you read on the blogosphere.

This concept is really, really important.  If I confused you or you don’t believe me, you can (and should!) read this chemistry site, this blog, or even this one. that explain the difference between soap and detergent and why they are NOT the same thing.

Regardless of the name, all of the DIY recipes are for laundry soap, not detergent.

Any remaining delusions I had about my ability to make laundry detergent were shattered after I realized that every single recipe uses soap and is therefore laundry soap, not a detergent.  Next came the reality that we had worn dirty clothes for the months (year?) I made our “detergent”.  We wore bacteria-laden clothing, with pollen potentially still trapped in the fibers of my highly allergic husband’s clothing, in the name of cheap and eco-friendly DIY cleaners for my expensive eco-friendly HE front-loading washer.

So think about what is on your clothes after multiple washes with your DIY “detergent”.  Do you wash your clothes on cold cycle? Cold water won’t dissolve the soap as well, either.  You may just be leaving chunky residue on your clothes and washer.  If you are still arguing at this point, I feel sorry for your bacteria and soap film covered family.

Let that all sink in.  If you’ve made your own “detergent” you may be feeling a bit queasy. If you are really brave and have a strong stomach, there is a photo gallery to show what was stripped off of clothes that were cleaned with homemade “detergents”.  It’s nasty. Don’t say I didn’t warn you first. Once you understand soap versus detergent, you know that these recipes do not work in a washing machine.

What can you do?

  1. You could wash your clothes by hand using laundry soap.
  2. You could wash your clothes in a washing machine with laundry soap and pretend you never read this article.
  3. You can try to tinker with the recipe. If you have soft water you MIGHT be able to use a DIY recipe and multiple rinse cycles to generate the friction to rinse off the soap oils.  When doing multiple rinse cycles you are using more energy but you aren’t polluting Mother Nature with the chemicals in detergent so the eco-friendly argument might still be in your favor. You would definitely have control of the chemicals you are using. You might even have clean clothes maybe.
  4. You can suck it up, like me, and buy commercial detergent. There are some “safe” ones out there if you do your research.
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Author: thebotanicalengineer

Herbalist, aromatherapist, product designer, and plant scientist.

3 thoughts on “The Truth About DIY Laundry “Detergent””

  1. Interesting read. I don’t make my own laundry soap but I do use BioKleen powder because I cloth diaper. I know it gets our clothing clean because my cloth diapers are clean and do not smell. Smelly cloth diapers are not ideal (for obvious reasons) 🙂

    Like

  2. I should also add that the sort of grime and buildup discussed above can occur with any type of laundry over time. I had no idea laundry was such a complex topic but if it were easy there wouldn’t be so many types of detergents and additives on the market.

    Like

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