What’s the problem with homemade laundry detergent, you ask? It turns out, there are many.
We all know that laundry products can have a big impact on your wallet.
But it’s crazy to think that how you do your laundry could ALSO have a big impact on your family’s health.
Research is showing that common health problems like allergies and headaches COULD be attributed, in part..
..to your favorite laundry detergent and other laundry products.
Homemade Detergent -a Good Option?
Don’t be too quick to think that homemade laundry detergent is the answer to all your laundry woes.
I’ve been on a long quest to figure out the best laundry routine for our family’s needs.
And, I’ve learned that there are many hidden problems with homemade detergent.
Enough so that, for me, it totally negates any cost savings.
But seriously, who ever knew that when you got married and started raising a few kids, laundry would become such a big part of LIFE?
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Falling down the laundry trap
I doubt I ever thought I’d spend time researching laundry detergent, routines and all kinds of science-y stuff …
…just to figure out better, cheaper, and more efficient ways to wash dirty clothes.
It’s really fascinating! (Said no one, ever. Except nerdy me.)
And then, when I started using cloth diapers four years ago, I fell down a rabbit hole of laundry advice via the internet.
I found out there are lots and lots of varying opinions people hold about laundry and what really “cleans” not only diapers but clothes as well.
Because, of course, the same rules apply to all types of laundry…
…but you just really, really want to be sure when you’re cleaning stuff as gross as diapers in your washing machine!
The Dollars and Sense behind Laundry Products
After a lot of reading and trying out different methods, what I’ve discovered is that:
- I had never put much thought much about what was in my detergent (and why it mattered), and
- I never realized the extent to which advertising played into our laundry routines.
Like many other household items we buy, laundry products are a HUGE ($$$) business.
We are greatly influenced by marketing – more than we probably know.
But what’s really necessary, worth the money, and what’s not?
And what are some common misconceptions we might have when it comes to what makes laundry “clean”?
The Problem with Homemade Laundry Detergent (plus how to overhaul your laundry routine)
The goal of clean laundry is to not only smell like civilized humans but get rid of the icky stuff that comes into contact with our clothing.
So, the LAST thing we should want is to unknowingly subject ourselves to another set of health risks AFTER the laundry is “clean”.
I think it’s important to be aware of what you’re buying and exposing your family to- and spending your money on.
Whether you’re making your own detergent or buying the store-bought variety…
…you could be harming your health and/or ruining your washing machine, without even knowing it.
And it would STINK to think we’re saving money on DIY methods, only to cost us more money in the long run.
So here’s what you should know, along with some tips to simplify your laundry routine and make healthy changes for your family.
1. Homemade laundry detergents don’t perform the same as commercial detergents.
Some of you are going to hate me for this.
But I did some digging into the question of why homemade laundry soap is bad – and it turns out there are several reasons.
I am actually someone who LOVES searching for natural and DIY alternatives which also save me money.
So, when I say I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the perfect homemade laundry soap recipe- that’s an understatement.
I love the concept, truly.
But in my experience?
DIY laundry detergent recipes are not that effective (ESPECIALLY in hard water).
Here’s the main problem with homemade laundry detergent (DIY laundry detergents in general):
They do not contain chemical surfactants (which lift & aid in rinsing away dirt).
I had a reader point out that soap naturally acts as a surfactant – and this is true.
But from my research, the surfactants in bar soaps (used in DIY recipes) are not made in the same way.
They are not formulated to be as effective in today’s washing machines.
Chemical surfactants are simply necessary in modern washing machines, if you want laundry that is truly clean.
The agitation isn’t as strong in a washing machine as it was in the old hand-crank or washboard days of yore.
In those days, soap (and dirt) could be scrubbed off just fine, although quite harshly.
So what actually happens is, those slimy soaps cling to your fabrics and build up over time, actually trapping the dirt underneath.
How to test the effectiveness of your laundry soap
If you really want to see how well your laundry soap (DIY or otherwise) is working, here’s another trick I learned.
This is something that cloth diapering moms do frequently.
It’s called “stripping” the laundry.
You wash and dry your laundry as usual.
Then, put that clean load back into the washer with your normal amount of laundry soap.
Let the tub fill and agitate for a few minutes; then let it sit overnight.
Open the lid (for top loading machines) and look at the color of the water.
If you have grey or dirty-looking water, your laundry soap is under-performing.
So when using homemade laundry soap, you should try this experiment AFTER a few months and see what the results are.
Other reasons bar soaps are problematic
Modern washing machines simply can’t break down the grated soaps (like Zote or Fels Naptha).
These are a common ingredient in DIY laundry soap recipes.
Zote, for example, contains tallow (animal fat) and coconut oil.
So although bar soap can lift SOME dirt away- it’s not going to be nearly as effective.
That’s because the fats build up in the fibers and do not rinse off of clothes as well as with store-bought detergents (with chemical surfactants).
And, like fabric softeners, this buildup is not only problematic for your clothes…
…but also the parts in your washing machine (which you can’t see).
Emily over at Butter Believer wrote a very detailed article explaining the science behind why you should not use the popular recipes for homemade laundry soap.
She does a much better job explaining this than I ever could, so check it out if you’re curious!
Light bulb moment
This information totally explained why those recipes seem to work at first, but not for long.
I do disagree on her stance on vinegar being unsafe for washing machines.
From the many articles and opinions I have read, although vinegar is an acid, it does not seem there is any proof that it damages the rubber gaskets on your washing machine.
(Especially the materials used to make these parts in more recent years).
Even the “cleaning vinegar” only has a 6% concentration of vinegar, and diluted in several gallons of water and rinsed well…
…it should not be potent enough to cause damage.
In fact, it’s more beneficial in my mind than common (and more costly) alternatives.
Overall, the current consensus seems to be that there is not a significant risk for using vinegar in your machine and that those warnings are based on outdated information.
2. Fabric softeners are the (laundry) devil.
Now that we’ve explored the problem with homemade laundry detergent, let’s talk about fabric softener, too.
Whether it’s liquid fabric softener or dryer sheets – they just aren’t good for your clothes, your health or your washer and dryer.
Both types contain synthetic chemicals that are commonly known to cause eczema and allergic reactions.
Some of these chemicals are linked to more serious health problems like cancer and central nervous system disorders, just to name a few (yikes).
Not only do fabric softeners build up in your clothing, your sheets and towels, they are released into the air you breathe.
Liquid fabric softeners also contain animal fats that wreak havoc on your washing machine.
I had a washing machine repair tech explain this to me years ago, and everything I’ve read since then rings true to his advice.
Did you know?
You’re supposed to clean your fabric softener dispenser regularly, but few people do (or even know how).
These fats then build up in your machine and can also grow mold and bacteria inside your dispenser (which happened to me — truly disgusting).
The chemicals that coat dryer sheets also deposit onto your lint trap in your dryer, creating an invisible film and a potential fire hazard.
Again, these traps are supposed to be cleaned & scrubbed frequently with soapy water.
I’ve also had issues with fabric softeners spotting/staining clothing (an issue that went away after I stopped using them).
P.S. – this is another problem with homemade laundry detergent: when the soap doesn’t rinse well, it can cause oily stains.
Do you really need fabric softener?
It was interesting, after trying several different brands over the years…
… that the difference between using them and not using them was hardly noticeable in terms of fabric softness.
Overall, these products are largely unnecessary, especially considering the cost which can quickly add up!
Fabric softener alternatives
Instead, try adding a 1/4 cup of white vinegar to your fabric softener dispenser in your washing machine.
You will not notice the vinegar smell after your clothes are rinsed and dried.
Vinegar helps to remove residue and will naturally make your clothes softer.
As a bonus, it’s a natural disinfectant and deodorizer.
Other great alternatives for softening clothes: baking soda (add 1/2 cup to wash load before adding clothes), and wool dryer balls.
To keep your dryer balls from tumbling all over your laundry room – keep them in a large or extra-large mesh laundry bag in the dryer.
If you’re still worried about static cling, drying your clothes on the low-heat setting will help tremendously.
(Over-drying = more static).
You will have to dry them a little longer, but here’s another great hack:
Add a dry towel to every load of laundry and this will reduce your drying time tremendously!
I keep a clean towel on a shelf just for this purpose and it works well.
3. Fragrance does not equal clean.
I totally get that we all want to be transported to a mango-vanilla-sunshine-filled rainforest every time we do the laundry.
I mean, laundry is not fun and every mom needs an escape from that stinky reality, right?
Not to mention, smell is a powerful sense that can trigger wonderful memories of simpler times and fresh-baked pies in Grandma’s kitchen.
Those thoughts just make us feel all comfy-cozy and…
That’s definitely what the laundry product manufacturers want us to think.
However, I can’t tell you how much better I’ve felt since I’ve started eliminating synthetic fragrances from my household.
Over the last few years, the change has been significant.
I used to suffer from headaches at least a few times a week and almost constant allergies and sinus infections.
Candles were the first thing to go, then air fresheners, then scented hand lotions and hand soaps.
(My chronic red, chapped hands are a thing of the past by the way – thanks to my foaming hand soap recipe I use now.)
The word “fragrance” on a label can be a term hiding over 3,000 synthetic chemicals.
These do not have to be listed individually on cleaning (and other) products sold in the U.S.
Interestingly enough, a lot of the chemical fragrances that are added to products are only there to mask other smelly chemicals in said products.
Experimenting with Laundry Detergents
Back to my scent investigation:
Next, I started to look into the laundry detergent we use.
I already knew that we were “that itchy family” who couldn’t use any of the cheap store brands.
We would break out every time I tried one.
A few “clear” winners (pun intended)
After trying several free-and-clear brands, one day I stumbled upon Biokleen Laundry Powder.
It’s been my favorite detergent for some time now.
It’s a plant-based formula, we’ve had zero itchiness, and there’s no added synthetic fragrances to drive my allergies nuts.
BEST of all, it just does an amazing job of getting my laundry clean and bright.
(Cloth diapers included, which is no small feat).
I also really liked All Free & Clear powder in the past for the cleaning power and lack of fragrance.
Although – it’s a little heavier on chemicals and not readily available these days.
Ounce per ounce, Biokleen is usually a better value for us (it uses a tiny scoop and lasts much longer).
These are two of the detergents that meet the criteria I look for as far as what meets our family’s needs and actually cleans well.
Another one I’m currently experimenting with is Azure Clean Powdered Laundry Detergent. You can find it through the Azure Standard Co-op.
So far, it meets my non-fragrance, “clean” ingredient ideal, and it seems to be working well.
Why Powdered Detergent?
The reason I tend to choose powdered detergents over liquid are probably obvious.
In general, laundry powders:
- Are less expensive per load
- Work better in hard water
- Easier to measure, and less messy
Also: the main ingredient in liquid detergents is water.
Which makes me think they may be less concentrated than their powdered counterparts.
(Or that I can control the concentration a little more with powder).
However, note: I have a standard top-loading machine with an agitator.
For HE machines or the water-saving newer models, you may need to experiment with these brands in their liquid versions.
That is – if you notice the powder not dissolving as well as it should.
The One Liquid Detergent I also Love
I have also used Ecos Free and Clear liquid laundry detergent from time to time, with good results overall.
After using it for a few months on my delicate and dark colors, I find that Ecos is very gentle.
It also makes my clothes soft without the need for fabric softeners.
I still prefer the two powdered detergents above for my whites, however.
They seem to do a better job of deep-cleaning.
If you must have scent
For the die-hard scent fans:
If you really NEED your laundry to smell like something, you can always add a few drops of essential oils to wool dryer balls or a clean washcloth.
This way, you can have your fragrance – without the side effects.
Tip: Wait until your dryer reaches the “cool-down” cycle before adding the essential oils.
Otherwise, the heat will disintegrate the scent.
A caution on bleach
One more side note: bleach is another big trigger of headaches for me.
I don’t recommend using it in laundry very often.
I clean my washing machine about once a year with bleach, but that’s it for me.
There’s a lot of question these days about the safety of using bleach in general, in the home.
Do your research and see what you think.
(But, that’s another can of worms for another day!)
You CAN have Naturally Clean Laundry – without Homemade Laundry Detergent (or concerning chemicals)
In summary, these changes in our laundry routine have definitely benefited our health.
Better yet, it has saved us money by eliminating items we don’t need in order to have clean, fresh laundry.
So although my laundry room may not smell like a fruit salad when I open the dryer…
…I can live without the side effects.
Of course, it’s a little sad that I won’t be experimenting with homemade laundry “detergent” anytime soon.
But maybe in the future there will be other DIY options.
Preferably, options that somehow work as well as detergents with specifically formulated surfactants.
And if my research holds true, our washer and dryer will probably last us several more years going this route.
Which is kind of a bummer, because I really had my eye on a shiny new ginormous-capacity set.
(Four kids. Enough said.)
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First published 7/27/18; last updated 5/5/23.