DIY Non-Toxic Laundry Detergent

These days, everyone is looking for ways to save some money. Fortunately for your wallet and the planet, the easiest way to save money in the laundry room is to make your own laundry detergent.

DIY laundry detergent will not only save you money, but will naturally help you avoid the toxic chemicals and noxious scents found in store-bought brands.

Laundry detergent ingredients pose a variety of health risks to humans, ranging from relatively minor—like skin irritation and allergies—to the severe—cancer, poisoning and neurological problems. These products can affect not only personal health, but also public and environmental health. The chemicals can go into the air, down the drain and into bodies of water, too.

I often wondered why my neighbor’s “April Fresh” aroma would give me migraines until a 2008 University of Washington study of top-selling laundry products found that the products emitted nearly 100 different volatile organic compounds. Results of the study showed 58 different volatile organic compounds above a high concentration of 300 micrograms per cubic meter. Of these, seven are regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal laws.

All the products tested in the study gave off at least one chemical regulated as toxic or hazardous, but none of those chemicals was listed on the product labels.

Findings in a 2011 study show that air vented from machines using the top-selling scented liquid laundry detergent and scented dryer sheet contains more than 25 volatile organic compounds, including seven hazardous air pollutants. Of those, two chemicals—acetaldehyde and benzene—are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as known carcinogens, for which the agency has established no safe exposure level.

No wonder laundry products make an estimated 10% of the population feel so ill.

The researchers estimate that in the Seattle area, where the study was conducted, acetaldehyde emissions from the top five laundry detergent brands would constitute about 6 percent of automobiles’ acetaldehyde emissions. In the U.S. we regulate automobile emissions, but completely ignore the toxic pollution coming from our laundry machine vents—at our own peril.

And if the toxic fragrances weren’t enough, conventional laundry detergents also contain phosphates, sulfates, ammonia, naphthalene, phenol, optical brighteners, EDTA, and more. These chemicals can cause rashes, itches, allergies, sinus problems, endocrine disruption, and have long term toxic effects on the environment.

Lastly, the embedded energy, natural resources and waste involved in mass-producing and transporting billions of gallons of plastic-packaged, toxic laundry detergents is just too significant for small footprint families to ignore.

Believe it or not, in the U.S., manufacturers are not required to list the ingredients used in laundry products, air fresheners and other household cleaning products. Personal-care products often contain similar fragrance chemicals too, and although cosmetics are required by the Food and Drug Administration to list ingredients, no law requires products of any kind to list the chemicals used in fragrances and perfumes.

shaved bar soap in a dish

Even “green” or “eco-friendly” cleaning products are not required to disclose their ingredients, and may contain toxic fragrances or petroleum-derived ingredients.

The safest bet for your family and the planet is to make your own less toxic laundry detergent. Costing just pennies a load, you can get all the ingredients in bulk quantities online (links below), at Costco, or in your grocer’s laundry aisle.

(Note: Many do-it-yourself laundry detergent recipes call for Fels Naptha, Octagon or Zote bar soap, but all of them contain toxic ingredients and fragrances that you really don’t want near your skin or in your environment.)

Both the powder and liquid versions of this recipe work well in cold water and are safe for septic tanks, and both HE and front-loading washing machines. I’ve found no difference in washing quality between the homemade detergent and store-bought brands, and this recipe tends to work much better than most eco-friendly brands.

For extra softness, don’t forget to add a cup of white vinegar to your rinse cycle to soften your clothes, and you’ll never go back to conventional, toxic detergents or fabric softeners again!

For Cloth Diapers: If you want to use this detergent on cloth diapers, you must omit the bar soap from the recipe. Bar soap will build up on your diapers, repelling moisture, and eventually need stripping out. Instead, wash your diapers in a combination of borax, washing soda and baking soda in the recipe below, with a vinegar rinse.

*A Note About Borax

There are some who say that borax is toxic, including the illustrious EWG database (which conflates boric acid with borax—two very different things). I disagree. Here is why I consider borax a safe, effective cleaner.

Related

  • 4 cups borax*
  • 4 cups washing soda
  • 2 cups baking soda
  • 4 cups lye-based bar soap or castile bar soap—about 2-4 bars, grated (Omit for cloth diapers.)
  • 10-20 drops essential oil Optional for scent. Tea tree oil is especially nice if you use this detergent for washing cloth diapers.
  • Cut the bar soap into large chunks with a knife.

  • Grate the soap chunks with a fine cheese grater or throw the chunks into the food processor and blend into as fine of a powder as you can make. (Put on your dust mask and let dust settle before opening processor, so as not to inhale it.)

  • Put on your gloves and dust mask, or cover your mouth and nose with a bandana.

  • In a large plastic tub or bucket, mix the Borax, washing soda, and baking soda together. (Washing soda, baking soda, and borax are mild skin irritants, so wear gloves. Wear a dusk mask or bandana to avoid breathing in the dry ingredients while you mix. You will need to let the dust settle a few times before continuing to stir. If you can seal the container, you can shake it vigorously to mix with no dust.)

  • Thoroughly mix in the grated/powdered bar soap.

  • Stir in 10-20 drops of essential oil, if tolerated. Tea tree oil is great for diapers as it has antiseptic qualities.

  • Store in a covered, airtight container.

  • If your powder has trouble completely dissolving, try mixing it in a little hot water before adding to the laundry.

  • Use 1-2 Tablespoons per load. (Adjust for your machine.)

  • hot water
  • 1 cup borax*
  • 1 cup washing soda
  • 1/2 cup baking soda
  • 1 cup lye-based bar soap or castile bar soap—1-2 bars, grated (Omit for cloth diapers.)
  • 10-20 drops essential oil Optional for scent. Tea Tree oil is especially nice if you use this detergent for washing cloth diapers.
  • Cut the bar soap into large chunks with a knife.

  • Grate the soap chunks with a fine cheese grater or throw the chunks into the food processor and blend into as fine of a powder as you can make. Wear your dust mask (or a bandana over your nose and mouth), and let dust settle before opening processor, so as not to inhale it.

  • Place grated bar soap in a pot. Cover with water and simmer over medium heat until all soap is melted, stirring occasionally.

  • Pour melted soap mixture into a clean 5-gallon bucket.

  • Put on your gloves and dust mask.

  • Add washing soda, baking soda, and borax to the soap mixture and mix well. (Washing soda, baking soda, and borax are mild skin irritants, so wear gloves. Wear a dusk mask or bandana to avoid breathing in the dry ingredients while you mix.)

  • Add enough hot water to almost fill the bucket, leaving 3-5 inches of headroom. Mix very well until all ingredients are dissolved. (I use a long ruler for this.)

  • If using essential oil, AFTER the mix has cooled down completely, mix in 10-20 drops, to taste.

  • Let sit overnight to gel. The gel will be loose and very gloppy—like egg-drop soup.

  • Use a funnel to pour the gel into clean, recycled detergent containers or leave in the bucket. Cover with an airtight lid if leaving in the bucket to protect children and pets.

  • Stir or shake well before using. Use 1/2 – 1 cup per load. (Adjust for your machine.)

This article was excerpted from my book Sustainability Starts at Home – How to Save Money While Saving the Planet. For more money-saving, planet-friendly tips, check out the book by clicking below.

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