When I was a kid, there was a TV commercial – I think it was for peanut butter — that started out with the words, “When you’re a mother, you worry about everything.”
For some reason, that phrase has stayed with me, and I can attest to its truth. When you have kids, you see things differently, and you question the safety of things you have been doing all your life. When I was pregnant with my first child, one of the first things I questioned was laundry detergent. After reading the list of chemicals and other scary-sounding ingredients on commercial detergents, I vowed I would not put clothes washed in those against my baby’s skin.
Thus began a quest for natural laundry detergent. Now there are quite a few brands of natural detergents on the market, but, as with many store-bought natural products, they are quite costly. It turns out that making your own laundry detergent is quite easy and inexpensive, and it is a natural part of a transition to natural living.
Before we get to the how-to’s, however, I should point out that the jury is still out for some people on whether borax should be included in a natural detergent recipe. A quick check around the Internet has proven that many natural living gurus are split on the issue.
First of all, borax, also known as sodium tetraborate, is a naturally occurring mineral that is mined directly from the ground. Some people confuse borax with boric acid, which is part of the problem. Although both contain the element boron, which is an essential trace mineral that helps the body to rebuild bone, regulate hormones and maintain cellular health, borax and boric acid are quite different.
Boric acid is produced when borax is reacted with another acid, such as sulfuric acid or hydrochloric acid. Borax and boric acid are both in many natural locations, especially in volcanic areas where the borax has naturally reacted with sulfur. You can also find them both in seawater.
The FDA banned borax as a food additive, and the European Chemicals Agency has it on its list of substances of “very high concern.” Most of that debate has to do with excess boron in the soil and its effect on crops. Borax is classified as non-carcinogenic and a mild skin irritant, due to its high alkalinity.
One way to look at it is that borax is toxic in the same way salt and baking sodas (and many other natural things, for that matter) are toxic. They would need to be ingested at very high quantities to cause problems.
I will be providing two recipes for you, one with borax and one without, so you can make your own decision. The first laundry detergent recipe is very basic and requires only three basic ingredients: washing soda, borax and bar soap.
Now, if you’re like I was, you may need to know the difference between washing soda and baking soda. Although both are sold by Arm & Hammer, they are not the same thing. The difference between the two concerns their chemical make-up, and it comes down to water and carbon dioxide. For you chemistry fans out there, baking soda is NaHCO3 (1 sodium, 1 hydrogen, 1 carbon and 3 oxygen molecules) and washing soda is Na2CO3 (2 sodium, 1 carbon and 3 oxygen molecules). You can make your own washing soda by heating baking soda or you can buy it at most stores or find it in less expensive bulk quantities over the Internet.
Here’s a recipe for natural powdered laundry detergent:
- One 55-ounce box washing soda
- One 76-ounce box borax (20 Mule Team Borax is available at most grocery stores)
- One 4.5 to 5 ounce bar of soap (Dr. Bronner’s, Ivory or other natural, unscented bar soap)
- Essential oil (optional)
Grate the bar soap or mix in food processor until finely ground. Then mix all ingredients together in a bucket or other large container. Use about one-fourth cup per laundry load, adding about five to 10 drops of your favorite essential oil to each load if desired for scent. Store your unused detergent in an air-tight container.
And here’s a recipe that leaves out the borax:
- 6 cups washing soda
- Three bars of 4.5 to 5 ounce soap
- Essential oil if desired (lemon oil helps as a degreaser)
- One-half cup white vinegar
Directions for top-loading machine:
Cut soap into small chunks and place them in a food processor with the washing soda. Blend until you have a fine powder. You can cover the food processor with a dish towel to keep the powder from escaping, and then let the powder settle before opening the container. Pour into a clean container. Use about three tablespoons of detergent per load. Add five to 10 drops of essential oil with each load, if desired.
If you wash your clothes with cold water, it’s a good idea to run warm water first to help dissolve the detergent before filling the rest of your load with cold water. Add the vinegar to the fabric softener compartment.
As with other detergents, if you have an HE (High Efficiency) washing machine, it is recommended that you cut the amount of detergent used in half. Also, check the owner’s manual for your particular machine, since using certain products may void the warranty on your washing machine.
Not only are these detergent recipes better for your health and for the environment, they are better for your wallet. In fact, you may be able to save substantially over the price of commercial detergents. A 55-ounce box of washing soda costs about $3.25. A 76-ounce box of borax costs about $3.95 and a bar of natural soap can range from $1 or less (Ivory) to about $3 (Dr. Bonner’s). If you use a quarter cup of the first recipe, that works out to less than 10 cents per load of laundry.
If you are worried about your clothes looking clean, I’ll leave you with one more recipe. This one is for an all-natural bleach/brightener alternative:
- One cup hydrogen peroxide
- One-fourth cup lemon juice
- 12 cups water
Mix ingredients well and store in a closed and labeled plastic jug. Shake well before using. Add one cup per load along with your detergent.
As you get the hang of making your own detergent, you’ll want to experiment with ingredients and with quantities. Give natural laundry detergent a try. If you’re a parent, you don’t need one more thing to worry about.
What advice do you have for making laundry detergent? Let us know in the comments section below.