I have been using a DIY laundry soap recipe for the last three years. I experimented with several different recipes before settling on one that I found was the most effective at cleaning my laundry, the easiest to make, and the fewest ingredients. Every one has their own preferences for what they are looking for in laundry soap and honestly, the only way that the DIY method will work for you, is if you can find one that you love.
The base ingredients of any homemade laundry soap recipe seem to be pretty consistent from one recipe to the next, with the exception of Borax. There is clearly a line drawn between those who are ‘for’ using borax and those who are ‘against’ using it.
Borax (Sodium Borate)
What is borax? It is a naturally occurring mineral that has been used for decades in household and commercial cleaning applications. It has recently come under fire for supposed safety concerns. If you want to find out more about why some people are against using borax, Katie at Wellness Mama has a wonderfully researched and written post about it, here:
If you would rather take my word for it, Borax, when used in its intended applications for household cleaning products is perfectly safe. You should probably avoid eating it or bathing in it, but as an ingredient in laundry soap it should present no concerns to your health and safety.
What it does – When dissolved in water, sodium borate has alkaline, antiseptic properties which make it useful for disinfecting. For this reason, borax is a common base for soaps and detergents. The sodium content also aids in softening water which allows soaps to clean your clothes better.
Washing Soda (Sodium Carbonate)
Another staple ingredient of nearly all homemade laundry soap recipes is Washing Soda. But, what exactly is washing soda? Sodium carbonate is a a salt compound that is both found in naturally occurring deposits and produced synthetically for a wide range of commercial purposes. You are probably more familiar with sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) which is similar, but less alkaline and is actually a by-product of producing synthetic sodium carbonate. To oversimplify it a little bit, I like to think of it as baking soda that is amped up to double cleaning power.
What it does – Washing Soda (sodium carbonate) is a water softener that allows soaps to work better and, because it is rather alkaline, it is a good degreaser and stain remover.
Sodium Borate (Borax) and Sodium Carbonate (Washing Soda) are both salts and both act as water softening agents. Do you need to include both in your homemade laundry detergent?
I use both compounds in equal parts. Even though they both have water softening properties, the borax provides disinfecting properties and the washing soda is a degreaser/stain remover. If you choose to use a borax-free recipe, just make sure that you are replacing it with another disinfectant.
Baking Soda – Sodium Bicarbonate
Most of the laundry soap recipes that I looked at also included baking soda. Baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, is the by-product of synthesizing sodium carbonate (washing soda). It is more basic than washing soda (i.e. milder) and safer for food applications. Most people are just more familiar and more comfortable with baking soda and they are already convinced of its cleaning properties, so including it in their recipe seems like a great idea.
If you are already using a recipe with sodium carbonate (washing soda), do you also need to include sodium bicarbonate (baking soda)? I don’t really think so. It seems like two products that do exactly the same thing, except that one is milder and works less effectively. I personally skip the baking soda in my recipe because that is just one less ingredient that I NEED to have.
Soap, Fels Naptha, Zote, or Castile
Castile soap is a vegetable-based soap, traditionally made from olive oil, water and lye. Other variations may use vegetable-based oils in addition to olive oil, but the better quality castile soaps are made only from olive oils. If this is your choice, look for brands that do not include any additional ingredients.
Fels Naptha is a detergent bar commercially made for pre-treating laundry. While it has more chemicals than Castile soap, in comparison to modern detergents, it is a relatively simple ingredient list. It is made from a standard soap base derived from sodium tallowate (i.e. animal fat) and palm oil. The soap also includes thickeners and binding agents like Titanium Dioxide (common in makeup), table salt, and talc (i.e. baby powder).
Zote soap is a commercially produced bar soap made with coconut oil and tallow (animal fat).
Which one do you choose? It really depends on what you are trying to achieve. If you are making your own laundry soap to avoid harsh chemicals and want to stay as natural as possible, then the vegan-friendly castile soap is probably your best bet. If you are making your own laundry soap to save money, then zote or fels naptha are both lower in cost and more readily available at local grocery stores.
Many of the homemade laundry soap recipes also take advantage of essential oils for either fragrance or antibacterial benefits. Citrus oils like lemon and orange have antibacterial benefits and are good at cutting grease. Lavender is naturally antibacterial. Both provide a pleasing scent. The essential oils component of any laundry soap recipes is strictly optional. Even with a basic recipe, there are already enough products for cleaning, fighting stains, and freshening your laundry that the benefits of the essential oil are not needed to make your clothes clean.
With the variety of different homemade laundry soap recipes shared by different bloggers, it can be hard to pick just one to try. Simple is always better, and you can always add and tweak your concoction as you get used to is. But, if you start off with too many ingredients, it can be hard to pin point what you don’t like about it, and it may just be too overwhelming to put together.
So, What do you Actually Need?
The two essential foundation components that you need are soap and a laundry booster to soften the water and help the soap lather and stick to the fabrics in your laundry, but also come off easily when rinsed. Castile soap and Zote or Fels Naptha soap seem to be equally popular depending on whether you want a vegan or animal-based product. For a laundry booster, it is most common to use equal parts borax and washing soda. If you are wanting to stay borax-free, all washing soda would work fine.
The only three ingredients that I use are Zote soap, washing soda and borax. Without all of the chemical gunk found in commercial detergents, I don’t find that I need additional boosters, additives, or fragrances.
I have tried adding Downy Unstoppables, as some of the bloggers do use these to add fragrance and fabric softener. However, I had nothing but problems with these little pellets staining my clothes. There must be a magic trick to using them that I haven’t figured out, because I know several people who swear by them. But, I skip them. I also don’t think it is necessary to add stain removers like Oxyclean. The washing soda and Zote soap are both very effective at removing stains.