Homemade Laundry Detergent – An Extreme Follow-Up!

by Carolyn Russell on March 5, 2012


Almost two years ago (WOW, time has flown by! I didn’t realize it had been that long!) I wrote a post about our decision to save money by making our own laundry detergent and using vinegar instead of fabric softener. Two months after the original post, I appended an update to the end of it. I still get enough traffic to that post that I thought I should write another update!

But first, a note about laundry: laundry is a science in and of itself. It’s actually far more complex than soap + water = clean! You have to take into account the type of machine you have, how hard or soft your water is (and if it’s hard, what kind of minerals are in it!), what kinds of fabrics you’re washing (synthetic fibers are more difficult to rinse clean than natural fibers), how many items you wash at a time, the water temperature, and of course, the ingredients in the products you use. I didn’t know anything about laundry science when I did my initial experiment, though.


Now, For The Extreme Follow-Up!

I mentioned in my first follow up that we stopped using the vinegar as a fabric softener. We also stopped using the homemade detergent eventually (though I can’t say that I remember exactly when). I just know that after using it for long enough, I felt our clothes started to look dingy and “worn” much faster than they used to. I couldn’t have said that our clothes weren’t clean, but I could say that they looked like we needed to replace them. And since we were using it in an effort to save money, it wasn’t working out. We went back to Tide (or whatever similar detergent was cheaper) and while I can’t say the damage to our clothing was reversed, I can say that in the years since we STOPPED using it, I’ve never looked at our clothes and had the same, “Uhoh, something is going wrong here!” sensation as I did with the homemade soap.



When we started using cloth diapers on Nathan, I never realized it would lead me to HOURS upon HOURS of research into laundry detergent. (The reason “why” isn’t really relevant here, but suffice to say that washing cloth diapers is probably the most controversial and potentially difficult part of using them.) But now, armed with a better understanding of some of the science behind washing clothes, I have a few theories as to why my experiment failed.

First, because it was pointed out in one of the comments on my original post, I just wanted to briefly explain that vinegar (by way of changing pH) doesn’t work to soften fibers so much as helps remove built up gunk that are on the fibers. So if you have a lot of detergent residue that hasn’t been rinsed clean and is making your towels seem crunchy, the vinegar will help strip the residue and they’ll probably feel softer in comparison. I still think vinegar makes clothes feel stiffer, but like I said originally, I don’t always mind that (crisp sheets are LOVELY!) I continue to use it on towels occasionally (you really do want those stripped of gunk so that they can be absorbent!) but for the most part, we stick to the Downy.

As for the laundry detergent, I’ve come to find that we have EXTREMELY hard water. I tried a number of “natural”, “cloth diaper friendly” detergents on our clothes and Nathan’s diapers, and across the board, we had issues getting and keeping the diapers clean (which was evident by odor, not by sight. Things either still smelled like poop when they came out of the dryer, or else they’d smell fine until they got sweat on them, and then bacteria would be activated and oh man, the smell!) The ONLY thing that has worked for us (with our current HE washing machine and super hard water) is Tide powder (or a similarly strong “commercial” detergent”) PLUS additional washing soda (the washing soda helps soften the water by binding to some of the minerals in it, leaving the detergent free to attack the dirt. Laundry detergents already have some washing soda in it, but if you have hard water, using EXTRA can help a lot!)

Looking back on it, I’m pretty certain that we needed a LOT more washing soda in our formula, and perhaps my complaints of “dinginess” were simply due to mineral build-up in the material. However, having finally found a diaper washing routine that works (and now actually HAVING a child and living a lifestyle that creates a lot of really truly dirty clothes!) I’m not willing to start from scratch and try making my own detergent again. I’d be more than happy to make it for someone else (because that part was really fun!) but if it takes the king of powerful detergents to get and keep my clothes clean, then I’m not going to try to recreate the wheel (particularly since the ingredients used in homemade soap are less potent. I’ll never be able to recreate Tide without having access to their ingredients!)


So if you are interested in making your own soap or have a formula that works well for you, I’d love to hear about your experiences! But for now, we’ll stick with Tide Winking smile

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  • Ali

    We found the same hard water issues apply to washing formula bottles too.  I was using a “green” dishwashing liquid and could not get the funk off the bottles.  Sterilizing them just seemed to intensify the scent.  Dawn Complete has done wonders.  What kind of “Laundry soda” do you use?  I’ve never heard of this before.

    • http://www.makingitworkblog.com Carolyn Russell

      It’s called washing soda, and I think arm and hammer is the only company I know of that makes it (so it looks like a giant baking soda box, but it’s WASHING soda, which is different. It’s a stronger chemical, though not so strong that I use gloves when I handle it, or anything!) Most of the Walmarts by me now sell it (it’s with all the laundry detergent stuff, usually at the end of the aisle by the Oxy and other additives) but they didn’t a few years ago. (And as far as dishwashing goes, I’ve started using a rinse agent called Lemishine that I’d heard was also good for hard water. I keep trying to dilute it with water or white vinegar, but every time I do, I can see that our dishes aren’t getting as clean! There’s a gross residue on the drinking glasses, and stuff doesn’t seem to come off of the plates as easily. So, that’s another product I totally recommend and can also only find at Walmart!)

  • http://www.rovingrose.com/ Missy Rose

    This is what I remind myself of every time I start to feel guilty for not using more homemade or green products – I’m busy, there’s a couple of messy little humans running around (& with DJ’s allergies things have to be sanitized, not just appear to be clean) … glad I’m not the only stay at home mom using some chemicals :)

    • http://www.makingitworkblog.com Carolyn Russell

      Hahaha, yeah, I have no problems using chemicals (ESPECIALLY with DJ’s allergies! I’d be sanitizing everything I owned with whatever it took!) As usual, I was just looking to save a few pennies, but sometimes its just not worth it ;) Thanks for the support!

  • http://www.houstoncounselingmarriage.com/ Damian

    Sounds like it caused you some problems

  • Sarah

    Agreed! We do not have any little ones (yet) but wanted to save money on laundry detergent and fabric softener. We tried to the Duggars recipe for the detergent and a homemade recipe of vinegar, water, and hair conditioner for fabric softener. Our clothes never smelled “clean”; it would have been fine if they would have been “scentless”, but they actually smelled like unwashed clothes. We went back to Tide and Downy!

    • http://www.makingitworkblog.com/ Carolyn Russell

      I think if you know enough chemistry and about water types and how to counteract different issues, it’d be possible to tweak the recipe to suit your household. But if the whole point is to be frugal, well, that kind of defeats the purpose if you are making batch after useless batch and doing research and trying to learn stuff and now you’ve spent all the time and money you were supposed to have saved! :)

  • Crystal @MyBlissfulSpace

    Found your post while trying to trouble-shoot my own DIY detergent issues (and writing my own detergent follow-up). I’m finding a link between a foul odor over time and synthetic fabrics. I just don’t think the natural cleansers can cut it with all the “fake” materials we have now for clothing. I have started using Soap Nuts, however, and am hopeful that they might be a good solution. I have a friend (who cleans for a living) and has used Soap Nuts for years with great results. She bought a bunch at one time for $75 and hasn’t had to purchase in 3 years!

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