You can read a lot of negatives about the laundry product industry on the Internet. Chemical this, fragrance that. “What do I do about my son’s allergies,” here. “My husband breaks out every time I use that,” there. Yet, one practically has to have a degree in chemistry to understand all the ingredients in laundry detergent. So, what’s a person to do?
Well, here is a very basic explanation of what the ingredients in your detergent do for you and a recipe with some natural alternatives. Mostly, laundry products include surfactants, water softeners, brighteners, and fragrance.
What Does Detergent Do?
Water has a surface tension that prevents the fabric from absorbing it and thus washing away the soil. To break that surface tension you need a surfactant. These chemicals help to loosen the soil from the garment and hold them suspended in the water until washed away.
What’s Wrong With Store-Bought Detergents?
The mineral salts in water will react with soap to produce an insoluble precipitate that will not rinse away. It is more commonly known as soap scum and you can see it as a bath tub ring or a ring inside of your washing machine. This precipitate will settle into fabrics making them stiff and more likely to attract dirt. The water softener added to the detergent prevents the mineral salts (mostly magnesium and calcium) from bonding with the soap and forming that film.
Detergents with brighteners do not get your clothes any cleaner than detergents without. By converting ultraviolet light wavelengths to visible blue light, these chemicals simply trick the eye into thinking that the clothes are whiter. Since brighteners only work if left on the fabrics, clothes washed in these detergents will come out of the machine with a chemical residue left on them.
The fragrances found in commercially prepared laundry detergents are solely to make your clothes smell better. These are all chemically derived.
In commercially prepared detergents all of these ingredients are chemicals that are slow to degrade, if at all, and are known to cause allergies and skin and eye irritations in sensitive individuals. Some are toxic to the environment. Therefore, folks with a green conscience are turning to making their own cleaning products, especially those that come into contact with the body, like laundry detergent.
Make Your Own Detergent
Most homemade laundry detergent recipes out there contain the same ingredients:
- 1 bar of Fels-Naptha soap
- 1 cup of Washing Soda
- ½ cup of Borax powder
In this recipe, the Fels-Naptha soap acts as the surfactant. Though historically it contained Stoddard solvent (sometimes called naptha and a petroleum by-product used as a dry cleaning and paint solvent), according to the ingredients on the label it no longer does. The washing soda (sodium carbonate) works as the water softener. It is not to be confused with baking soda (sodium bicarbonate). Do not substitute baking soda. You will not get the same results. The borax (sodium borate) is a naturally occurring substance that brightens and deodorizes. All of these ingredients are normally sold in the laundry section of your supermarket. If you want your detergent to have a fragrance, you can add ½ to 1 ounce of your favorite essential oil. Lavender, lemon and rose are popular choices.
To make a powdered detergent, cut the soap into small pieces and then powder it in a food processor or blender. Mix this with the soda and borax. Use 1-2 tablespoons per load depending on the size of the load and the amount of soil. This recipe will make enough detergent for about 40 loads.
To make a liquid detergent, grate the soap bar and put in a saucepan with six cups of water and heat until the soap melts. Add the soda and borax and stir until all is dissolved. Remove from heat. Pour 4 cups of hot water into a bucket. Add your soap mixture. Then add a ½ gallon plus 4 cups of water and stir. Let the mixture sit for 24 hours to gel. Use ½ cup per load.
The mixture will be goopy. This is normal. You may want to stir it before using. Keep it covered when not in use. This mixture should do about 64 loads.
Another question often asked about making your own laundry detergent is the cost. That will depend on the cost of the ingredients in your locale. However, several price studies done have found making your own laundry detergent much cheaper than the leading brands in the supermarket.
Photo by Chiot’s Run