Friday, February 7, 2014

Homemade Laundry Detergent + SCIENCE!

Homemade Laundry Detergent + SCIENCE!

The first time I came across a homemade laundry detergent recipe was 15 years ago, when I received the original edition of "More-with-Less Cookbook" by Doris Janzen Longacre as a gift. It was a pivotal book in shaping my views of purchasing, cooking, preserving, and conserving food resources... but the recipes for Homemade Laundry Soap and Granulated Soap included GREASE.  And by grease, I mean leftover congealed tallow from meat cooked in the kitchen.  Now, I love my bacon as much as the next gal, but the thought of adding accumulated fat drippings to my washing machine was just more than I could take. So I put the idea of homemade laundry detergent out of my mind.

But a few years ago, I was looking for ways to save money in every way possible. Laundry detergent was a pricey but necessary purchase. I bought the cheapest formula available, but it didn't seem like it cleaned our clothes very well. Some internet research yielded a variety of homemade laundry detergents, most of which (at the time) involved a process of melting soap on a stove top and stirring everything in a big bucket.  Again, it seemed a bit too complicated and time-consuming.

Then I discovered a recipe that seemed to fit the bill-- cheap and easy! I gave it a try and was pleasantly surprised with the results. (*Note- I'd love to give credit to the websites where I first discovered this combination, but it was several years ago, and a search of my browser favorites only yielded variations of this basic recipe. It was probably several websites that deserve credit! I know you can find this recipe and variations on tons of websites now.)

Homemade Laundry Detergent
1 cup Borax
1 cup Washing Soda
1 bar Fels-Naptha, finely grated
Borax, Washing Soda, Fels-Naptha for Homemade Laundry Detergent

Grate the Fels-Naptha with a hand grater or food processor.

Grated Fels-Naptha
Fels-Naptha grated with a food processor.
Mix in the 1 cup Borax and the 1 cup Washing Soda, and store in a covered container.
Mix Borax, Washing Soda, and Fels-Naptha
I further broke up the Washing Soda clumps. I store my detergent in an old ice cream bucket. I could easily double or triple the recipe and store it in this container.
Use 1 Tbsp per load of laundry or 2 Tbsp for larger or heavily soiled loads. Voila! Clean clothes on the cheap.

I have a front loading washer, and this low suds formula works well. Put the detergent in the regular dispenser for front loading machines and directly in the water for top loading machines.

I have used this formula for several years. Here are some recommendations gained from trial and error-

  • The Fels-Naptha can be grated using a hand grater, a blender, or a food processor, but a food processor is the quickest and easiest method.

    A hand grater takes a lot more time and arm strength to shred the whole bar of soap. The finer the soap is grated, the better it will dissolve.  I have used a larger grater which yielded bigger chunks of soap, and they seemed to dissolve just fine in warm or hot water. (I didn't try that batch with cold water washes.)

    My blender easily overheats, so I cut the bar into small pieces and only pulse a couple seconds with a little of the Borax and Washing Soda to keep it from sticking.  I have to shake the blender to uncake the soap from the blades to get it thoroughly mixed. Not the best method, but it will work in a pinch.

    A food processor with a grater blade is by far the easiest and fastest method to grate the soap. You don't have to have a fancy one--the one I use I inherited from my mother, and it's probably 30 years old.

Use Food Processor to Grate Soap for Laundry Detergent
Grate the soap in a food processor, then mix in the Borax and Washing Soda by hand in a separate container.
  • Allow the soap to dry out before grating. Grating it right out of the package is a little stickier process. I buy the soap at least a week before I'm going to make the soap. I tear open the paper and store it in a cool, dry place so it can harden a bit.  It grates much easier that way. But if you just bought your soap and are rip-roaring to make your detergent, you can certainly grate it without drying first!
  • You can use Zote or even Ivory soap in place of the Fels-Naptha. I have tried Zote; I haven't tried Ivory. I like the way Fels-Naptha smells and how well it works, so I stick with that.
  • Use Washing Soda NOT Baking Soda. They are similar but not quite the same thing.
  • Be careful not to inhale the powder from the Borax and Washing Soda when pouring or mixing. It's certainly not toxic, but it is alkaline (more on that later!). Just mix gently by hand, or put on a well-sealed lid and shake gently.
  • Finish out your homemade laundry regimen with some white vinegar in the rinse cycle. It acts as a fabric softener and helps thoroughly rinse out the detergent. Pour 1/4 cup or so in the fabric softener dispenser.
I've seen lots of variations of homemade laundry detergents online and on Pinterest, but this is probably the simplest I've found. Sure, you can add Oxi-Clean or Purex Crystals or other ingredients, but if you are going for the cheapest option, this recipe works just fine.

So why does it work? Don't you need a fancy, expensive detergent to really clean clothes?
Time for the science!
OK, it's been a long time since my last chemistry class, so if I'm not explaining this quite right, my apologies!

The pH scale is a measure of how acidic or alkaline (basic) a substance is, or more specifically, the concentration of hydrogen ions. In the chart below, the lower the number, the more acidic the substance; the higher the number, the more alkaline the substance. Water is around pH 7, which is considered neutral. Borax is about pH 9.5 on the scale, and Washing Soda is about pH 11 (compared to pH 9.5 of regular baking soda).
pH Scale Courtesy of Wikipedia, Creative Commons
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia, Creative Commons
Think about your typical laundry stains-- sweat, oil, grease, and the like. These stains are generally more acidic. Oil is not soluble in water, so water alone can't wash away the oil.

The detergent acts as a surfactant, which lowers the surface tension of the water and allows it to better penetrate the clothes and their stains. It emulsifies, or disperses, the oil in the water. The Fels-Naptha has tallow (yep!!) and other ingredients that bind to the grease and oil. (Weird as it sounds, that leftover grease in the kitchen would do a good job after all--clean grease with grease!) The Borax and Washing Soda are alkaline, so they help neutralize the acid, balance the pH, soften the water and enable the dirt and grime to be washed away in the agitation of the washer.

There's a lot more going on chemistry-wise--hydrogen ions, borax converting into hydrogen peroxide, the soda bonding to magnesium and calcium in hard water, etc. But you get the idea.

All laundry detergents--even the expensive ones--have ingredients that complete these basic chemical tasks. They made add enzymes, fragrances, colors, more surfactants, and so forth, but they more or less do the same thing.

For a point of comparison, here is an ingredient list of Tide Detergent-

And check out the list of possible ingredients used in Tide fragrance (Wow, it's a long list!)- 

Here are the ingredients in this Homemade Laundry Detergent:

Soap (sodium tallowate*, sodium cocoate* (or) sodium palmate kernelate*, and sodium palmate*), water, talc, cocnut acid*, palm acid*, tallow acid*, PEG-6 methyl ether, glycerin, sorbitol, sodium chloride, pentasodium pentetate and/or tetrasodium etidronate, titatium dioxide, fragrance, Acid Orange (CI 20170), Acid yellow 73 (ci43350);  *contains one or more of these ingredients 

Borax- Sodium Tetraborate,
 "a naturally occurring substance produced by the repeated evaporation of seasonal lakes." 

Super Washing Soda- 100% Sodium Carbonate


If you want an even purer soap, you could use Ivory or a Castile bar soap in place of the Fels-Naptha. I haven't tried either one, so I can't speak towards their effectiveness.

Have any of you tried homemade laundry detergent?  What is your favorite recipe?

Soap, suds, and bacon grease,
Mulligan Mama

Other sources for the science info:

Clean It Fast, Clean It Right: The Ultimate Guide for Making Absolutely Everything You Own Sparkle and Shine, edited by Jeff Bredenberg.
How Detergent Works-

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