Laundry detergent is one of those things most people think nothing about until they have to. Most people go out and pick up the cheapest one, or the one they’ve always used. They may have a preference of liquid, powder, or scent, but there’s not much to it. My mother always used powdered laundry detergent with very little scent, and no fabric softener. As a young child, I understood she avoided scent and fabric softener because I had eczema, but didn’t think much about why she used powder. When I moved out, I started out using unscented powdered laundry detergent, but eventually switched over to liquid Tide Free detergent and stopped using dryer sheets.
When I first realized that I was probably allergic to isothiazolinones and fragrances and that they were in many liquid laundry detergents and fabric softeners, it all came flooding back. It made sense that my mom had never used liquid detergent or fabric softener. And it made sense that I was waking up with my eyes and lips feeling worse than when I’d gone to bed, with my face smushed against a pillow covered in residual detergent all night.
I set out to find a new laundry detergent. After finding liquid detergents with no fragrance but methylisothiazolinone (MI), powdered detergents with fragrance but no MI, and natural detergents with cellulose (which has often been treated with MI), it quickly became apparent that I was not likely to be able to keep using detergent; I would have to switch to some kind of soap. (Difference between soap and detergent)
Online I found recipes for both liquid and powdered laundry soaps. I avoid making products containing water because they have short shelf lives or require preservatives, so I settled on a powder formula. With travel to a larger city for ingredients, I was able to make a version for myself. To get the best cleaning performance no matter whether I use cold, warm, or hot water, I have created three different recipes. I also have a high efficiency washing machine.
Detergents are more forgiving than soap – my hard water conditions (10-20 grains of hardness) hurt soap’s cleaning power, and acidic conditions break apart soap molecules, causing the soap to become cloudy and leave scum. Nonetheless, I had to do something to clean my clothes. I decided to add a small amount of ascorbic acid powder to reduce the effect of my hard water, making sure it’s a small enough quantity (1-2 tsp per batch, NOT per load) to avoid changing the pH of my washing water much. I haven’t included this in my recipes, to make the recipe as universal as possible, but it can be added if necessary.
Some people will say to add vinegar to the fabric softener tray or into the rinse cycle to help soften clothes or combat hard water. I advise against this when using laundry soaps because vinegar will cause any residual soap to deposit as fats and oils on clothing and washer surfaces. Vinegar also degrades plastic and rubber, which could lead to a costly repair later on.
To make each of these recipes, add all of the ingredients dry to a container, close the container, and shake to mix. Label, and store in that container. You’re ready to go! Use 1 Tbps per load. More will not necessarily increase cleaning power, and may leave residue. See the Notes section below the table for explanations why those ingredients are used and help in choosing products.
Laundry Soap Recipes for Use in Hot, Warm, and Cold Water Washes
|Borax||1/2 cup||2 tsp||–|
|Washing Soda||1/2 cup||2/3 cup||2 1/2 cups|
|Bar Soap – Finely Grated||1/2 bar (140 g)||1/2 bar (140 g)||1 bar (280 g)|
|Oxyclean||1/2 cup||1/4 cup||1/4 cup|
|Baking Soda||–||–||1/2 cup|
Many hand soaps contain added oils to soften and moisturize hands. For laundry soap, use a soap with no added fats or oils, only enough to react with the lye and make the soap. Usually bars of soap specifically sold as laundry soap are best. Avoid fragrance. Some people claim that coconut-based soaps are best (probably because they produce more suds), but suds are not required for cleaning. They just make a pretty foam, which North Americans expect. Any soap made from plant-based oils should be fine. I love Eco Pioneer Pure Soap Flakes because the soap comes pre-grated, saving a lot of time, and has no added fragrances.
- OxiClean Powder
I hear there are many oxygen-based cleaning powders on the market, and they all should function similarly, provided you choose one with no added fragrances. OxiClean is the only one available to me locally. OxiClean powder contains peroxide and detergents. These help make stains soluble in water and bind oils to the water molecules so they can be rinsed away.
Borax, or sodium tetraborate, is a naturally-occurring mineral salt left behind when seasonal lakes dry up. It is used in many detergents and cosmetics, as a swimming pool pH buffer, and has ceramic, cooking, and industrial uses as well. It is not the same as boric acid. It was discovered and transported during the time of the Silk Road, but only came into common use in the late 19th century, over 100 years ago. Borax is soft, yet abrasive, and will dissolve readily in hot water. This is why I have eliminated it from the cold water recipe and reduced it in the warm water recipe. Some people are uncomfortable with adding this mineral because it is not good to breathe in large quantities of the powder, but simple precautions like storing it in a closed container and shaking it in that container to mix can reduce dust exposure to minimal levels. In my case, because I already have hard water, I need all the cleaning power I can get. Borax not only softens my water slightly but its abrasiveness also helps to remove any deposits the soap might leave, making my clothes whiter. Some people even claim borax deodorizes their clothes. 20 Mule Team Borax is the most popular and easiest to find in grocery stores.
- Washing Soda
Washing soda (soda ash, or sodium carbonate) is very similar to baking soda, but is harsher and functions differently. It softens water, which helps increase cleaning power of the other cleaning ingredients. This was the ingredient I had the hardest time finding in my small town in Canada. I found Eco Pioneer brand at a health food store about 2 1/2 hours from my house. Arm & Hammer also makes washing soda, possibly available at your local grocery store, and Amazon sells many different brands.
- Baking Soda
Baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, can be found in any grocery store. Its primary uses are to cause baked goods to rise and to deodorize your fridge. It is a mild abrasive, dissolves at least partially in water, and increases the pH of water (makes it more basic). I have used it as a substitute for borax in my cold water recipe because it performs some of the same functions that borax does.
- Ascorbic Acid
Ascorbic acid is vitamin C, a weak, naturally-occurring acid found in many fruits and vegetables. You can buy it as an unflavoured powder in the vitamin section of a grocery store or at health food stores. I have added it to help neutralize some of the hardness of our water.
As an alternative, I also picked up soap nuts casings from the health food store. Soap nuts are nuts often from India or the Himalayas whose outer casings produce natural saponin. The saponin produces a (very) light foam and is said to gently wash your clothing, hair, hands, and more. Laundry can be washed with soap nuts by putting a number of broken casings into a cloth bag and throwing it into the washing machine. They can usually be used more than once before composting, especially if you wash in cold water. In fact, since saponin extraction increases in hot water, you can save your used casings and make liquid soap by stewing them in boiling water before composting them. So far I am very happy with the soap nuts, though I have not used them to wash anything that is really filthy. I love them for washing things that will be touching intimate areas of the body, and washing natural fibers like silk, wool, and organic cotton.
These recipes have worked very well over the past several months,and my allergic reactivity has decreased a lot. It is a very tedious process to wash everything in your house, including blankets, curtains, sheets, towels, jackets, and the clothing you seldom wear, so I do not know how long it will take to remove that allergen source entirely, but we’re getting there.