Don’t Buy It: Laundry Detergent

13 02 2009


Painful economic necessity was the only impetus towards us making homemade laundry soap. Before the year we had a house on the market and another one we were actually paying to live in (and a total monthly budget of $100 for all nonfixed expenses), I was fine with whatever was on sale and would get the clothes clean, except that eventually even the cheapiest detergent — that didn’t even work! — cost more than we could afford.

However, it turns out that homemade laundry soap is not only substantially cheaper than even the cheapest ready-made laundry detergent, it’s also more environmentally friendly, more effective, and better smelling than Tide or whatever else you get at the store. It is also easy to make. The unfailing and repetitious lesson that DIY anything is just plain better than whatever Madison Avenue is pushing at us today is one that we keep learning, over and over again.

There are many recipes online for homemade laundry soap. The liquid ones strike me as a mess and a bother. But here is a very effective — and straightforward — laundry powder: Grate a bar of Yardley lavender soap ($1/bar at the dollar store), and measure out 1 cup of soap flakes. (You can use any kind of bar soap, actually. Stuff from hotels is fine. Fancy scented bars make this more expensive, but may be worth it for the scent in the laundry room and on the rags. Yardley is not the very cheapest soap available, but it is the cheapest that still smells wonderful. I bet you could use an unscented soap and a couple of drops of essential oil, too).

To the soap flakes, add ½ cup of Borax (available in the laundry aisle; but so rarely used be prepared for whomever sees you buy it to ask you what on earth it’s used for). Also add ½ cup of Arm and Hammer Washing Soda (not baking soda, not always easy to find; you can get it online if you have to).

Mix these three ingredients well and put in a canister (we use an oatmeal box adorned with the above homemade label, which depicts yours truly in the San Francisco Japanese Garden for no reason in particular). 1 tablespoon will wash a load of laundry well, so this recipe makes 32 loads. It smells amazing when you are doing laundry, but leaves almost no scent on the clothes, although you will be able to definitely tell that the clothes and stinky rags are very clean, I promise. It doesn’t suds up, though, so don’t worry if you look in your machine and nothing seems to be happening.

We did this first more than a year ago, and it still makes me happy never to have to buy laundry soap.




11 responses

22 02 2009

A friend sent me a link to your site and this seems like a very budget friendly recipe. Thou I have to ask… my kids make quite a mess. Do you have any DIY pre-treat remedies or does this powder method take care of the stains itself?
Also, did you know that you can use the same Yardley lavender bar as your dish washing detergent – that is if you do not use a dish washer. Just suds up a sponge and wash away… Yes you can find some dish washing detergents for $1 on sale but if you spend the same $1 on a bar of soap, it will last a whole lot longer, replacing multiple bottles of dish washing detergent. And it works as well if not better than the dish detergents. Plus, it is gentle and moisturizing.

1 03 2009

Thanks for the tip! This method works on most stains — and honestly I’m no stain removal wiz, anyway — but hydrogen peroxide applied directly to stains is one good trick I know, as is leaving stains overnight in a bucket filled with hot water and lemon juice or vinegar. If you try them, let me know how you liked them! 🙂

10 06 2009

I had just about talked myself out of trying homemade laundry soup but you may have talked me back into it. I haven’t been able to find washing soda so far and that sort of discouraged me. I just discovered your site and am having fun reading it as I’m trying not to buy anything this year. Thanks.

10 06 2009

Opps, I forgot I was going to ask do you have to use hot water to dissolve the soap?

10 06 2009

Sorry, your answer got in as a new comment, not a reply. See below for the answer to both questions!

10 06 2009

You can buy washing soda online direct from Church and Dwight at They look like they are running a $5 off an order and 10% off order special right now if you look on their home page. Their shipping is expensive, but they frequently run free gift with purchase incentives that can be worthwhile enough to offset the cost of shipping. Sign up for their email discounts, and search at slickdeals by the Church and Dwight brand-names (e.g., Kaboom, Brillo, Oxiclean, Arm & Hammer) before your order to find deals.

You don’t have to use hot water, although performance does depend a little on the washing machine type. An top loading agitator machine will wash using this detergent in all temperatures with no problem. An energy efficient water-saving front-loader will wash in hot or warm with no problem, but sometimes leaves soap streaks on the clothes in cold. I take care of this problem by chopping the soap flakes up finer, using a bit more washing soda in the mix, and using a bit less detergent overall. We wash most of our clothes in an ultra-energy-efficient washer in cold, and mostly it’s fine.

11 07 2009

Well, I just made a double batch using Ivory. Any thoughts? I couldn’t take the smell of the Yardley soaps. I am very sensitive to smells and just being near the laundry detergent aisle gives me the sneezes! But I had to brave it today to get the washing powder and the borax, which were conveniently located next to each other on the top shelf! I am washing my first load with it and hopefully it will net great results! When I figured the cost it was about 75 cents for 32 loads.

As I always use my money saving attempts to educate my daughter, I explained that I normally pay at least $5 for 100 loads. With this I will be paying about $2.25.

I’m feeling very homemakey today and am seriously considering making homemade bread! Your sourdough recipe sounds delicious!!!! 🙂

12 07 2009

my daughter started making homemade liquid laundry detergent it saves us both alot of money but I am lucky that we can get washing soda in our local store. you can’t seem to find it in the bigger stores in the city tho.

22 07 2009

This seems like a good idea! Instead of the washing soda, couldn’t you just use extra baking soda? I’ve used a dash of Doc Bronner’s liquid soap for laundry in a pinch,(need less than with regular detergent!) and it worked fairly well, along with the little bits from ends of soap that can’t really be used for anything. Borax can also be used for scrubbing hands and degreasing in general. Just to let you know though, many bar soaps are actually SLS/other detergents, the same ingredient in regular detergent. Real soap is a good choice, but more pricey.

25 01 2010

thank you so much for getting the word out about this. It’s so important to stop giving our dollars to big business.

I don’t know if this is important to you, but lots of Yardley bar soap products have petroleum and parabens in them, so watch the labels. I used to swear by them because they smelled so good and they were so cheap, but my son has a sensitivity to them and Yardley bars are on the list of no-no’s. So sad.

19 06 2016

I have answers for a few of these: STAINS: soak them in a borax solution. I used cloth diapers when my son was a baby and each one went into a mix of borax and hot water. Most would come back out white as the day I bought them after they were washed. If it can remove baby poop, it can remove most anything. WASHING SODA: You can’t use straight baking soda, but you can make it from baking soda. You bake the baking soda and it turns to washing soda. I don’t know the time and temp, but a quick Internet search will get that info for you.

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