READ THIS Before Making Homemade Laundry Soap.
Homemade laundry detergent is aaaalll over everywhere these days. Have you noticed how many tutorials on Pinterest there are for DIY laundry soap? It’s crazy. I mean, it makes sense why these homemade detergent recipes have become so popular—it’s dirt cheap! Laundry detergent costing $0.02 a load? And with simple, natural ingredients that have gotta be way safer than the store-bought laundry detergent! Ahhh. Sign me up, right?
Well, you might want to read this first before you head to the store to buy the ingredients for one of these homemade laundry detergent concoctions. And if you’re already using one, please take a few minutes to consider what I’m about to share with you.
Homemade Laundry Detergent: What’s in it?
Recipes for homemade laundry detergent usually consist of three things.
- Water softeners: Borax, washing soda, or baking soda (which actually doesn’t effectively soften hard water, but that’s what it’s intended for in some recipes). This generally makes up the bulk of the homemade laundry soap recipe.
- Soap: Fels Naptha is commonly recommended, as are castile soaps, homemade soaps, or even more mainstream soaps like Zote and Ivory. The soap is either grated up, or melted in the DIY laundry detergent recipe.
- Boosters: Sometimes laundry boosters like OxiClean or OxoBrite are recommended in homemade laundry soap recipes.
Two of the three of these categories are actually perfectly reasonable things to add to your laundry. In fact, many laundry detergents contain water softeners, to counteract hardness in the water and prevent minerals from depositing on fabrics, which prevents them from getting clean.
The biggest problem with homemade laundry detergent recipes, however, is the soap category.
Why you actually CAN’T make homemade laundry detergent
Let’s talk about the differences between detergents and soaps. Soap is made by mixing fats or oils with an alkali base, such as lye. The fat is saponified in a chemical reaction that takes place in this process. But it’s a simple one, that can be made in your own kitchen at home, if you chose to. (I totally am jealous of you if you make your own soap in your kitchen, btw. Crunchy goals.)
A detergent, however, is made with surfactants which are created with much more complex chemical reactions than soap, at very high temperatures and processes that you would never be able to replicate in your own home. We’re talking, converting hydrocarbons to alcohol, and then reacting the fatty alcohol with an ethylene oxide, and perhaps further reacting that with a sulfur-containing oxide. Oxi-what? Yeah. I don’t think any of us without a degree in chemistry and a lab are going to be able to DIY that.
There are synthetic detergent surfactants which are entirely artificial and not natural, and then there are plant-derived surfactants made from natural sources. Soap has surfactants, too, but they are oil-based and function very differently.
A surfactant, by the way, is an ingredient with a molecule structure that decreases water tension, and is partly hydrophilic (water-soluble) and lipophilic (fat-soluble), meaning it attaches itself to dirt, but also to the water used to clean, allowing the dirt to be washed away. Surfactants in detergents are formulated to trap soil and suspend it in the water, which allows it to rinse cleanly and carry the dirt away along with it. Soap does not do this, as it needs a lot more help in the rinsing-away department.
Why DIY laundry soap isn’t good for your clothes or machine
Soap works very well at cleaning non-porous, smooth surfaces without a bunch of crevices or texture, because it requires more mechanical action to be fully removed and rinsed away. That’s easy to do with a nonporous surface that you can scrub. The smooth surface of our skin is great for soap, but fabrics with all kinds of tiny little microscopic loops and holes and texture, are not effectively cleaned by soap. That is, unless you are scrubbing it off with a high degree of friction or agitation, such as with a washing board. Before washing machines came around, laundering with soap was okay, because it involved so much elbow grease and friction to remove all of the soap residue.
Modern washing machines, however, work differently than washboards. They simply do not agitate as harshly as washing with a washboard, which is a good thing since they are much gentler on your clothing. (And also a lot easier to use, thankfully). But washing machines are designed to work with detergents, not soaps—detergents are formulated to clean textured cloth and rinse cleanly without leaving any residue behind, even with a minimal amount of agitation or friction. Soap that doesn’t rinse clean and doesn’t get scrubbed away attaches itself to porous surfaces like the fabric of your clothes. Even when it’s just a small amount of soap, that residue builds up more and more over time.
When soap residue is stuck to your clothes, it traps bacteria, dirt, and other grossness inside, and it also makes mineral deposits in the water more easily attach themselves to the fabric, furthering the trapping of dirt and preventing the fabric from getting clean.
Soap residue also gets stuck to your washing machine, and can cause irreparable damage over time. Think of bathtub ring—built up soap scum around the tub, which just sits there until you scrub it off with a brush. Well, soap scum from homemade laundry soap gets into the parts of your washing machine that you can’t reach to scrub out even if you wanted to. That’s a big risk to take, considering your washing machine is a very costly investment, and could be completely ruined by homemade laundry soap.
Why homemade laundry detergent doesn’t work
Not only does DIY laundry soap contain the wrong type of cleaning agent (soaps instead of detergent-type surfactants) for laundering with a modern washing machine, it doesn’t contain nearly enough of the soap to actually get your laundry clean.
The whole, nasty-soap-scum-trapped-bacteria-in-all-your-laundry thing aside, the soap in homemade laundry detergent is the only actual cleaning agent in the recipe. Remember, the other main ingredients in the homemade detergent recipes are simply water softeners. They do not have any cleaning properties.
From what I have seen, the typical DIY laundry detergent recipe looks like this: 4-5 parts water softeners (borax, baking soda, or washing soda) to one part soap.
And then, the directions for using the homemade laundry soap are generally to only use 1-3 tablespoons of the mixture per load of laundry. But taking into consideration that only a small percentage of the homemade laundry soap is actual soap, it becomes a minuscule amount of actual cleaning agent that you’re using.
In fact, once it’s in the water in your machine (even a high-efficiency one that uses less water), you’re actually only using about one twelfth of ONE teaspoon of soap per gallon of water! You honestly may as well not be using any soap at that point. That simply is not enough cleaning agent to have any measurable effect.
If you were to use an amount that actually could feasibly clean your clothes, say, a cup of homemade laundry soap or more, well, then you would just be building up that soap residue on your clothes and machine super fast. You’d probably actually notice it, whereas when it’s such a tiny amount as you’d use with the recommendations from the homemade laundry detergent recipes, it can take a long time before you ever notice there’s a problem.
Proof that homemade laundry detergent isn’t working (even when you think it is)
I know there are some people reading this who are thinking, “Lady, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve used my homemade laundry soap for years and have never had a problem! It works great!” Well, I’ve got some things to share with you.
I’ve tried homemade laundry soap before. I thought it was great. It cost pennies to do a load of laundry! And hey, the clothes went in smelly and came out clean, so it worked!
But then I learned the truth about homemade laundry detergent when doing a ton of research on how to properly wash cloth diapers (more to come on that subject in the future). There’s a lot of misinformation out there, but the science about how things actually get clean is pretty clear, and homemade laundry soap just plain doesn’t make scientific sense.
So I knew not to use the homemade laundry soap on my new baby’s diapers, but I learned that I needed to switch to a real detergent to do the rest of my laundry with, too. I also learned that if you had ever washed cloth diapers or clothes with homemade laundry soap, there was a way to “strip” away the soap residue buildup—and all the dirt and bacteria embedded in the fabric—so you could salvage your gunked-up laundry and start fresh.
I stripped a load of sheets and towels that had been washed in my DIY laundry detergent, and the results absolutely horrified me.
Why does it seem like my homemade laundry soap works fine?
Before I continue, I want to explain why everyone thinks their DIY laundry detergent actually works, even though it really doesn’t.
There are three basic elements to getting something clean: water, surfactants, and agitation. If you use one of those elements, you can make something at least somewhat cleaner. Use more of them, and the cleaning effectiveness increases.
So even if you used no detergent or soap at all (which you basically ARE NOT when you use a couple tablespoons of homemade laundry detergent), your clothes are still going to be somewhat cleaned just by having been swished around in water and agitated by your washing machine. It might seem like it’s doing the job, but what you’re not seeing is the dirtiness that’s not getting cleaned by water and agitation alone, and is trapped in the fabric where you can’t see it.
What happens when you strip away the soap
So, after less than a year of using my homemade laundry soap, I “stripped” a load of laundry in my washing machine. This involves soaking the laundry in a highly concentrated mixture of mineral removing agents, which loosen the soapy grip of the grime on your laundry.
I stripped a load of CLEAN sheets and towels which had been previously washed in homemade laundry soap. I let it soak in the stripping solution for four hours.
Enter, Exhibit A.
See that disgusting, murky, brown water? That was what was pulled out of my CLEAN LAUNDRY. Yes, this load was “CLEAN,” or so I thought, before doing the strip. So all that nastiness? Was hidden in the fibers of my sheets and towels. YES. I really wish I would have taken before and after pictures of the actual sheets and towels, too. It was unreal. I had no idea how dingy and disgusting they were until doing this!
Don’t believe me? I’m not alone. Here is a whole collection of absolutely disgusting evidence that homemade laundry soap does not work. These are people who previously used homemade laundry detergent, then stripped their “clean” laundry, and took pictures of the strip water, just like I did above. If you want to be completely, totally repulsed, head over there to see the pictures.
There are also instructions on that site for how to “strip” your clothes so that all the nastiness your DIY laundry soap has built up in your clothes over the months or years can be thoroughly flushed away. You can either do a mixture of washing soda, borax, and Calgon water softener (not the most “chemical-free” thing out there, and you can instead add more of the washing soda and borax, but people report the best results from using all three), or use GroVia Mighty Bubbles, or RLR. Be sure to follow the instructions on the site carefully.
Once you strip, you can start fresh and wash your laundry with detergent that actually works, from here on out.
How to choose a good, safe detergent that works
Believe me, I feel bad even writing this post, because I have many blogging friends who have written tutorials and recipes for homemade laundry detergent, all in an effort to keep toxic ingredients out of homes and empower people to do things their own way. (Blog buddies, you guys are awesome and I really am sorry!)
I wish I didn’t have to totally denounce the idea of homemade laundry soap and tell you not to use it. But I hope you can see by now why I wrote this and am trying to pass along what I’ve learned. I wish you really could DIY a safe, effective laundry detergent.
My little crunchy hippy heart completely understands the appeal of using such a simple, “chemical-free” homemade laundry detergent, instead of the ones you buy in the stores with all kinds of scary-sounding ingredients.
But the reality is that sometimes, a little science and chemistry is a good thing. We simply cannot DIY the types of cleaning agents or detergents needed to effectively wash our laundry at home, and buying laundry detergent from a responsible company that makes an effort to create a safer, more natural product is a good thing. Cleaning your clothes and keeping your laundry hygienic while keeping your family safe is the goal, and you can do that without the typical synthetic laundry detergents.
What you want to look for is a plant-based detergent from a reputable company with a history of transparency and responsibility with regard to what they put in their products. Check the ingredient lists, and make sure they contain effective cleaning agents as a proper detergent should, while not containing things like fabric softeners (oy, that’s a story for another day), optical brighteners, or other ingredients you’re looking to avoid.
Here are a few popular plant-based detergents that are an effective replacement for your homemade laundry soap. They all have good reviews on Amazon and I made sure to check the ingredients for effective cleaning agents. Click on each of them to check them out:
[Note: Be aware that there are several “laundry powders” on the market which, as with homemade laundry detergent recipes, contain mostly water softeners and very little actual cleaning agents. I’m also seeing several “natural” laundry soaps popping up from small businesses selling on Amazon, and they are very similar to the homemade laundry soap recipes. And DO NOT use Charlie’s Soap. Please. I’ll tell my horror stories about this stuff another day, but read this article for the details of why this product should be taken off the market as it is not safe. Especially if you cloth diaper!]
Many eco-friendly or plant-based natural detergents often still contain synthetic fragrances, even if they say they are scented with essential oils. This is because a large portion of essential oils are adulterated with synthetics somewhere along the supply chain—so by the time the laundry detergent manufacturer gets them and adds them into the detergent ingredients, they might not even know that the “essential oil” they purchased is totally fake.
I can tell you that I have bought and used several plant-based detergents that contain “all natural” essential oils as fragrance, and I am a THOUSAND percent certain that they were riddled with synthetic chemical fragrance. That “lavender” that scented my clothes was anything but. I’ve been to a real lavender farm and oil distillery where my essential oils come from, and my nose now knows the difference between the real deal and the imposters.
And you should also be aware that just because a detergent is labeled plant-based, that doesn’t mean that it’s entirely naturally-derived. In fact, in order to be USDA “Biobased certified,” like the new “natural” Tide detergent, only a “significant part” of the product needs to be composed of biological or sustainable materials. The “plant-based” Tide detergent only contains 65% “bio-based” ingredients. Better than 0%, I suppose, but I find that type of labeling to be deceptive and a little scammy.
The nontoxic detergent I personally use in my home
After trying many, many different types of bio-based or plant-based detergents, I was so thrilled when this new detergent I got my hands on last year came onto the market. I had high hopes that since it was made by Young Living (where I get my essential oils and just about every other personal or home care product I use), it would be really good. And wow. It did NOT disappoint.
Thieves Laundry Soap is plant-based and is as pure and natural as a detergent is going to get—plus it contains the most powerful essential oils on the planet that not only make it smell amazing, but really help to get things clean. I mean, I use Thieves for cleaning literally everything in my house, and now they’ve made the best detergent I’ve ever tried out of the stuff.
This little compact bottle does 64 loads of laundry, instead of your typical 32. It’s 6x concentrated, so a little goes a long way. I love that it’s not so cumbersome like those giant jugs of detergent, and doesn’t take up a ton of space in your laundry room. And IT. WORKS. Stains come out, whites don’t get dingy, dirty little toddler clothes actually come out CLEAN. I can’t believe how well it works with only needing to use such a small amount. Like, it is bizarre.
Let me walk you through all the ingredients, which they clearly label on the bottle, by the way—I didn’t have to google a safety data sheet just to find it out.
I’ve also included each of these ingredients’ ratings on the EWG Skin Deep site—this is a database where thousands of products and also individual ingredients have been rated for their safety or toxicity. The ratings are on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the least toxic and 10 being the most toxic. A score of 1-2 is considered the lowest possible hazard and very safe. Every single one of these ingredients found in their database ranks in that very safe category.
- Water: Obviously some amount of water is necessary to make a liquid. 😉
- Decyl glucoside: A plant-derived nonionic surfactant (cleaning agent) that biodegrades easily. Rated a 1 on EWG.
- Sodium oleate: Derived from olive oil, an ingredient that helps control suds/foaminess. Biodegradable and rated a 2 on EWG.
- Glycerin: Used to stabilize the natural cleaning enzymes. Rated a 2 on EWG.
- Caprylyl glucoside: Another plant-derived surfactant that biodegrades easily. Rated a 1 on EWG.
- Lauryl glucoside: Another plant-derived surfactant that biodegrades easily. Rated a 1 on EWG.
- Sodium chloride: That would be simple table salt. It affects the viscosity/thickness of the liquid.
- Sodium gluconate: A plant-derived anionic surfactant that biodegrades easily. Rated a 1 on EWG.
- Carboxymethyl cellulose: A plant-derived thickener and stabilizer. Rated a 1 on EWG.
- Alpha-amaylase, Protease, Lipase: These are all natural enzymes, which are very effective at breaking down organic particles that make up the stains and dirtiness on your clothes. Without enzymes, your clothes won’t be getting nearly as clean. These enzymes are 100% naturally-derived and are completely biodegradable.
- Citrus Limon† (Jade lemon) peel oil, Citrus aurantium bergamia† (Bergamot) peel oil (Furocoumarin-free), Syzygium aromaticum† (Clove) bud oil, Citrus limon† (Lemon) peel oil, Cinnamomum zeylanicum† (Cinnamon) bark oil, Eucalyptus radiata† oil, Rosmarinus officinalis† (Rosemary) leaf oil: All the beautiful, purer-than-pure Young Living essential oils that were carefully chosen for their cleansing and purifying properties. Also, they smell unbelievably DELICIOUS.
What it DOESN’T have:
- Optical brighteners: These are chemical ingredients that are added to most laundry detergents. They reflect light in a way that makes clothes appear brighter and whiter. It’s basically an optical illusion, that comes at a price. Optical brighteners can survive the waste water treatment plants and make their way into lakes and streams, polluting the water and causing harm to algae and fish, where they can bioaccumulate. Optical brighteners may also cause skin irritation and an allergic response in some people.
- Sodium laurel sulphate (SLS): You’ve probably heard of this ingredient before, as so many companies are now claiming their products are free of this potentially carcinogenic ingredient. In my research of ingredients in other supposedly “natural” laundry detergents, I found SLS in MANY of them—actually in ALL of the other plant-based brands I listed above. They claim that it is plant-derived and therefore safe, but the laws are so loose on what can be considered bio-based, that I don’t know if this is trustworthy or not. If you try to avoid SLS in your home, I’d highly recommend Thieves instead.
- Artificial fragrance: Duh. Of course the only fragrance in Thieves Laundry Soap is Thieves and other pure essential oils from Young Living. Synthetic fragrances can contain hundreds of chemicals with unknown toxicity and potential carcinogens.
- Water softeners: I noticed that the Thieves Laundry Soap doesn’t contain any mineral-based water softeners. So, if you have moderately-to-significantly hard water, you probably want to add a simple water softener like Borax to prevent mineral buildup. It’s cheap, effective, and totally natural.
Wait a minute, isn’t this soap, too?
I know it says laundry “soap,” not laundry detergent, but I think this was done in an effort to make the name more appealing and “natural”-sounding. It doesn’t mean that it’s made of soap in the way that a DIY homemade laundry soap is with grated up bar of soap in the recipe. I was concerned about this initially, but after thoroughly digging into it, I’m certain that you are not in danger of scumming up your machine or of soap residue building up on your clothes, like you would with homemade laundry soap, when using Thieves Laundry Soap. In fact, one of the ingredients, sodium gluconate, is a chelating agent that is actually designed to remove soap scum!
The FDA’s regulations say that a product can be labeled “soap,” even when it is not by definition soap—which is “the ‘alkali salts of fatty acids,’ that is, the material you get when you combine fats or oils with an alkali, such as lye.” The formulation of the Thieves Laundry soap does not meet this definition, but they are still allowed to use the common term of “soap” on the label, instead of detergent, as a matter of choice. I thoroughly researched each of the ingredients and found that the surfactants used in Thieves laundry soap are highly effective, washing-machine-and-fabric-friendly surfactants that are unlike those used in typical fat-based soaps.
I was also able to find all of those surfactants on other “green” laundry detergent’s ingredients lists—and those products were labeled “detergents” and not “soap.” But, who knows how or where they sourced their plant-based surfactants. Some plant-based cleaning agents are sourced from GMO corn—and I know Young Living would never in a million years allow something like that into their products!
Where to get Thieves Laundry Soap
You of course don’t have to use the Thieves soap, as there are other plant-based detergents out there (like the ones I suggested earlier) which may not be 100% natural but are still a million times better than homemade laundry soap. But after trying so many others, I have found Thieves to be our favorite choice.
To get your hands on the Thieves Laundry Soap, you need to either purchase as a retail customer with Young Living, or you can choose to sign up as a wholesale member in which you’ll get a 24% discount on whatever you buy.
You get to enroll as a wholesale member by choosing an essential oils starter kit—I always recommend the Premium Starter Kit since it comes with 11 bottles of the most popular essential oils, a diffuser (you get to choose which one you want), samples and other goodies as well as learning literature. It’s got everything you need to start using and loving essential oils right away, plus gives you 24% discount on any other Young Living products you want to try, including the Thieves laundry soap.
By the way, when you sign up as a Young Living wholesale member with me, you get personalized support from me and my team, exclusive access to our private Facebook groups with tons of free resources and education, classes and live workshops, a bunch of giveaways and freebies only for our team, and a whole lot of fun. I can’t wait to have you join us!
Well, I hope no one gets too mad at me for exposing the bummer that is homemade laundry detergent not being the best idea. But I’m sure they will. Cue the angry comments. 😬 (And if you actually appreciated the information I shared here, please let me know, too! You’ll make my day.)
Happy non-scummy laundering. 🙂