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Written by Katie Green
I’ve been scoping out homemade laundry detergent recipes on the Internet since way back in 2007.
Geoff and I had just bought our first home. But, we wanted to have our cake (the home) and eat it, too (travel). We were planning a 3-month trip through South America, and were looking for ways to save money.
Despite being aware homemade laundry detergent is a thing that people make for a looooong time, I haven’t actually done it yet.
If I had to guess, I bet there’s lots of people like me out there. People who know homemade laundry detergent is better for their health and the planet. But for whatever reason haven’t made the leap into actually making and using it yet.
It’s Because of Psychology…?
It’s easy to blame this on my own sheer laziness. However, I prefer to blame it on psychology.
There’s this well-documented psychological concept called “temporal discounting.” Basically, people overestimate the value of short-term benefits relative to long-term benefits.
Temporal discounting is one of the reasons people overspend or overeat now. They know they should save for retirement and stick to a healthy weight for the future. But they don’t.
And I think it’s also why I (and maybe also you) might be still using store-bought laundry detergent (not to mention dryer sheets).
We are overvaluing the convenience of store-bought relative to the health and environmental benefits of homemade.
For me, that all stops now. And I hope it stops for you, too.
Compared to 2008, I’m far more aware of the sheer number of harmful chemicals in the day-to-day products we use. Fridays for Future Climate Strike and Extinction Rebellion movements are also super inspiring!
I mostly wrote this article as a kick-in-the-butt for myself.
But since I’m publishing it on the Internet, maybe, just maybe, it will find a wider audience.
Maybe it will help YOU start making homemade laundry detergent, too.
First, A Note About Terminology: Laundry Detergent vs. Laundry Soap:
Before we get into the nitty gritty, a note on the terms detergent and soap.
Detergents and soaps have the same end goal. They use surfactants to clean by breaking down oil and dirt.
Where they differ is in the ingredients. Soap is made from natural ingredients (usually animal fats). Whereas commercial laundry detergent is mostly made from chemicals (although there are some good commercial cleaning products that are pretty good).
Also interesting: soaps are actually a type of detergent. So all soaps are detergents, but not all detergents are soaps.
So, which are you using when you make homemade laundry detergent?
Usually, you’re actually using laundry soap. But we’re going to stick with the term laundry detergent, simply because it’s a broad term that is familiar to all of us when it comes to washing clothes.
Addressing the Elephant in the Room Before We Go Too Far
It’s worth pointing out that, yes, store bought laundry detergent does work really well.
Thing is, homemade detergent will also get your clothes clean. And it uses healthier ingredients for your family, and helps reduce your environmental footprint.
Traditional laundry detergent has harsh chemicals that can potentially harm humans and the environment. Some of these harmful ingredients include:
- Fragrance, which contains phthalates
- Artificial dyes
- Diethylene glycol (DEG). The EU and Canada have banned this chemical for some uses
- 1, 4-dioxane
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
Among other things, some of these ingredients are endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, and skin irritants.
And while you may think these ingredients get rinsed from your clothes at the end of the wash cycle, think again.
Why do you think your clothes smell so good when you’re done washing them?
Detergent chemicals are designed to stay in our clothes, giving them that “mountain fresh” scent long after we’ve washed and dried them.
And where, exactly, do you think those chemicals go as the scent wears off throughout the day?
Some of the chemicals dissipate into the air, but others rub right into your skin.
This is why some people sneeze, itch, or develop rashes when they wear clothes washed in conventional detergent.
And then of course there’s the environment. When your clothes are done being washed, that detergent washes down the drain and ends up in the environment. Those ingredients are harmful to plants and animals, too.
12 Reasons to Make Your Own Homemade Laundry Detergent
Store-Bought Laundry Detergent is a Common Source of Accidental Poisonings in Young Children
Laundry detergents poisoned children long before the Tide Pod Challenge.
Using data from the National Poison Data System, researchers identified 17,230 young children exposed to detergent pods from 2012 through to 2013. Of these, 4.4% children were hospitalized and 7.5% experienced moderate or major medical outcomes. One child died.
Additional research published in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine backs up the dangers of detergent pods. Researchers identified 131 cases of ingestion, getting it in the eyes, or getting it in the skin. 34% of these patients went to the hospital and nine patients were admitted.
However, even powdered laundry detergent can pose significant risks to children, and have been responsible for a number of calls to poison control centres for years.
Worth noting, homemade laundry detergent isn’t completely benign. All detergents (especially those with Borax) should be kept out of reach of children.
Store bought Laundry Detergent Can Cause Chemical Burns
Swallowing isn’t the only danger when it comes to laundry pods.
In fact, they can also cause significant skin burns. The Journal of Medical Toxicology published a case of a patient exposed to a laundry detergent pod who had partial thickness burns representing roughly 2% of their total body surface area (TBSA). They had an additional 4% to 5% TBSA of superficial burns / chemical dermatitis.
They Contain Allergens
Laundry detergents contain a variety of ingredients that may cause allergies in some people, or serve as irritants.
Artificial fragrances, in particular, are a concern.
Companies treat their fragrance blends as proprietary. And the FDA doesn’t require companies to disclose the individual chemical components of fragrances.
This means its near impossible for customers to identify whether there’s a particular chemical causing an allergy (source).
For me, it’s especially important to use baby safe laundry detergent when washing things your baby gets up close and personal with, like crib mattress, bassinet, or cradle bedding, nursing pillow covers and nursing covers, etc.
They Can Give You A Rash, Even If You Don’t Have an Allergy
Even if you don’t have an allergic response to the chemicals in laundry detergent, you may still get a rash from it.
The harsh surfactants used in laundry detergent can irritate those with sensitive skin.
Irritant contact dermatitis is also a concern. This is when you come into contact with an irritant such as soap, and develop a rash as a result.
They Can Cause Health Problems
The fragrances in laundry detergents, in particular, can cause problems for your health.
The research into the health effects of fragranced products is well-documented. Exposure to fragranced products is associated with eye irritation and respiratory difficulties (source); asthma attacks and asthma-like symptoms (source and source); migraine headaches (source); contact allergies (source and source); neurological effects (source); and more (source).
You Don’t Really Know What’s In Them
Fragranced laundry detergents (and other laundry products) are ubiquitous in our lives, and yet US laws don’t require disclosure of what chemicals, exactly, are inside them.
Researchers have found product manufacturers fail to report all chemicals used in fragranced products on both product labels and material data safety sheets (MSDSs) (source). In fact, this in line with current legal requirements (source).
That means there are possibly “several dozen to several hundred chemicals … primarily synthetic compounds” that make up the fragrance in store-bought laundry detergent – and we have no idea what they are (source).
They Might Contain Carcinogens
Not knowing all of what’s in our laundry detergent makes it hard to make decisions about what we’re comfortable using for our family.
Research published in Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health found more than 156 VOCs emitted from 37 different fragranced products. These products included 11 laundry products (detergents, dryer sheets, and fabric softeners).
Forty-two of the compounds are classified under US law as hazardous or toxic, and some are carcinogens.
Each of the 37 products tested emitted at least one hazardous or toxic chemical. The researchers state: “of over 550 volatile ingredients emitted collectively, and over 230 classified as toxic or hazardous, fewer than 3% were disclosed on the product labels, MSDSs, or websites” (source and source).
Even Green And Organic Laundry Detergent Might Be Suspect
The same research that identified volatile organic compounds in fragranced products also tested 6 products marketed as green.
Emissions of carcinogenic hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) from green fragranced products were not significantly different from regular fragranced productssource
Your Laundry Detergent Might Be Hurting Someone Else
We’re almost all exposed to fragranced products on a daily basis – from our own use or that of others.
Shockingly, researchers found 91% of Americans are exposed to fragrance from other people at least once per week, and 47% of that comes from other people’s laundry products (source).
For such widespread exposure, you’d think there are no adverse health outcomes that come along with that.
And yet, nearly 35% of Americans report one or more types of negative health effects related to fragrance exposure! Those symptoms reported include respiratory problems; migraine headaches; skin problems; asthma attacks; neurological problems; cognitive problems; gastrointestinal problems; cardiovascular problems; immune system problems; musculoskeletal problems (source).
With this in mind, it kind of seems cruel to continue using scented store bought laundry detergents and products, doesn’t it?
The Carbon Footprint Isn’t Good
A product’s carbon footprint refers to how much C02 it contributes to the atmosphere through manufacturing, shipping, storage and use of the product.
To put the following data into perspective, in 2008 the Wall Street Journal reported “the U.S. emits the equivalent of about 118 pounds of carbon dioxide per resident every day, a figure that includes emissions from industry. Annually, that’s nearly 20 metric tons per American.”
So how much carbon dioxide does your laundry detergent contribute to this?
Tesco, a UK-based supermarket, calculated the carbon footprint of their store-brand of liquid laundry detergent to be between 1.3 pounds to 1.9 pounds per load of laundry.
If you do 6 loads per week or 300 loads of laundry per year (an average American family), that means the carbon footprint of your laundry is 480 pounds per year, or about 10 pounds per week. This doesn’t include the energy required to run your washer and dryer or pre-soaking work for stain removal.
To put this into perspective, consider cars. According to the same WSJ article, the average US car emits one pound of CO2 for every mile it drives. That’s about five tons (50,000 pounds) of CO2 per car per year, using average driving distances.
It’s Toxic to Aquatic Organisms
There’s been a lot of research into the toxicity of laundry detergent on aquatic organisms. Components of store bought laundry detergents have been found to be toxic to aquatic water fleas, single-celled alga, and bacteria, to name just a few.
It’s More Expensive Than Homemade Laundry Detergent
Depending on the recipe, you’ll save around $0.15/load by switching from store-bought to homemade laundry detergent. While homemade laundry detergent has a cost-per-load of only $.01 to $.05, store-bought is more like $.20 per load.
Pros and Cons of Homemade Laundry Detergent
- Cheaper per load than conventional detergent
- Better for your family and the environment
- Better for septic tanks
- Can be used in regular and HE washers
- Can be used in hot or cold water
- Scent can be adjusted to your liking by using essential oils
- Less irritating to sensitive skin
- Soap may build up in your washer and clothes over time
- It might take some trial and error to find the right recipe
- Might be less effective in hard water
- Contains borax, which is a controversial ingredient
Homemade Laundry Detergent: Ultimate Q&A
So, now you know conventional detergent isn’t ideal. But you probably still have a lot of questions.
Does homemade detergent actually work? Does homemade laundry detergent still smell good? Will it take forever to make?
Happily, we’ve got answers!
Yes. Homemade laundry detergents don’t have the same chemicals found in conventional detergents. By switching from conventional to homemade laundry detergent, you won’t release these chemicals into the environment. Some of the chemicals you’ll save from being released into our water supply include sulfates, fragrance (which contains phthalates), phenols, artificial dyes, diethylene glycol (DEG), 1, 4-dioxane, VOCs, and formaldehyde. Some of these are endocrine disruptors. When you wash them down the drain (doing laundry), they can affect animal and human hormones. Many ingredients in conventional detergents also contain persistent organic pollutants (POPs). When POPs enter the environment, they stay there a long time. Conventional detergents are especially harmful to marine life because they end up in our water system. You’ll also use much less plastic when you choose to make your own detergent. We all know that’s a win for the environment.
Yes. Homemade detergent is healthier for your family for many of the same reasons it’s healthier for the environment. You won’t be using chemicals that can irritate your skin, and you’ll be avoiding the use of endocrine disruptors, artificial dyes, sulfates, carcinogens, and all the other harmful ingredients we see in conventional detergents.
Some people struggle with homemade detergent because they don’t think it works as well, while others rave about it. If you find the right recipe, homemade detergent can work really well for your family. If you’re finding that your homemade detergent doesn’t get stains out, you can add OxiClean (either the real stuff, or a homemade alternative). Plenty of people love using homemade laundry soap, so don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t work at first. Try playing around with the amount of detergent you use, the temperature of the water, and/or the recipe you use.
Yes – if you use it correctly. If you use too much of any detergent, it can lead to build up and residue. The soaps used in homemade detergents are more prone to this. Make sure you don’t use more detergent than you need for each load, and clean your washer regularly.
Yes! HE machines use less water, so they need detergents that make less suds. Homemade detergent is less sudsy, so it’s actually perfect. Depending on the recipe, you might even use less homemade detergent for an HE machine than you would for a non-HE machine. Remember that too much detergent can lead to build up, so err on the side of less detergent if you’re not sure how much to use.
Yes! In many cases, it’s better because it’s less likely to create clogs and doesn’t contain chemicals that can be harsh on septic systems. Homemade detergents don’t have all the fillers found in conventional detergents that would cause buildup in a septic system.
It depends. Finding the right wash routine for cloth diapers is a science, and the wrong wash routine can make your diapers less absorbent over time. Your best bet is to use a homemade recipe that doesn’t use bar soap, which can leave a residue that will build up on your diapers. If you find that your diapers are becoming less absorbent, you can strip them and take that as a sign that you need to adjust your wash routine.
Yes. Cold water works, but hot water will help get stains out more effectively. Powder detergents and detergents containing Borax work better in hot water. To wash your clothes in cold water, you’ll probably have the best results with a liquid detergent recipe.
Yes! If you have hard water, you already know that all laundry detergent works better with soft water. Homemade laundry detergent works with hard water, but you might need to add vinegar or use more detergent to get the best results.
Yes! There are really two parts to this answer. All homemade detergent will make your clothes smell good in the sense that it will take out any bad smells as it washes them. In order for your clothes to come with a specific scent, you can add essential oils to your recipe.
Less than you’d think! You can make most recipes in 15-30 minutes. Depending on the size of the recipe, it can last a family 6-10 months. The most time consuming part of the process is grating the soap. You can speed this up a lot by using a food processor instead of a hand grater.
Absolutely. Depending on the recipe, you’ll save around $0.15/load. That adds up! Homemade laundry detergent has a cost-per-load of around $.01-$.05. Store bought laundry detergent has a cost-per-load that’s typically around $.20. Homemade detergent is much more concentrated and doesn’t include fillers, so you use a lot less product per load. Your cost per load of homemade detergent will be higher if you decide to add essential oils.
Every recipe is different, but most recipes use a base of borax, washing soda, and bar soap.
Either. This again depends on the recipe you choose. Homemade liquid laundry detergent works best if you want to use cold water. If you’re used to using conventional liquid detergent, it might be an easier switch by making homemade liquid detergent. Homemade powder laundry detergent recipes are typically easier to make and store, and they’re usually cheaper than liquid detergents.
This is a highly debated topic, so we suggest you do your own research before deciding whether this is right for your family or not. Borax is a mineral found in most natural detergents you would buy at the store. It will help brighten your clothes, remove soap particles, squash odors, disinfect your clothes, and help fight stains. One of the reasons borax gets a bad rap is because people mistake it for boric acid, which is more toxic at high doses. Like many other cleaning products and household items (even natural ones), Borax should be kept out of reach of children and shouldn’t be used directly on skin nor should it be ingested. It can be harmful to the body if used at high doses. Borax is used as a natural pesticide, and there have been reports of it causing skin irritation in concentrated doses. There are also concerns that it might disrupt hormones, specifically in males. Much of the research on Borax has involved feeding Borax to animals at high doses, so while there are studies showing negative side effects from Borax use, the mineral is largely understudied. It certainly isn’t as harmful as the ingredients used in conventional detergents, but it’s important to research any ingredient you plan to use before you bring it into your home. As with anything, there are pros and cons, so once you’re informed you can weigh the pros and cons to make the right decision for your family.
Still Not Convinced about DIY Laundry Detergent?
When you make the decision to “clean up” the products in your home – clearing our the harmful chemicals and environmental pollutants from your day-to-day life – it’s hard to know where to start.
Should you throw out all your old cleaning products? Only buy organic clothing? Get your kids onto organic baby and toddler mattresses? Switch to natural shampoos and lotions?
To avoid getting overwhelmed, we recommend starting with the products you and your family use on a daily basis.
And if you want to start with a product that will have a big impact, laundry detergent is a great choice.
Sheets, clothes, pajamas, towels, washcloths, blankets — you and your kids come in contact with residue from your laundry detergent all day, every day, even when you’re not actually in your home.
And while it seems like a really big leap to make to natural, homemade laundry detergent, it’s actually simple and quick to do.
In fact, you could probably order the ingredients online and make your own detergent in less than the time it would take you to go to the store and buy a conventional detergent.