Condo Blues: How to Make Powdered High Efficiency Laundry Detergent

Thursday, March 12, 2009

How to Make Powdered High Efficiency Laundry Detergent

My old washing machine died beyond repair. I replaced it with a High Efficiency (HE) washing machine. HE washing machines use less water than conventional washing machines (and save more electricity and water in the process.) You have to use a low sudsing laundry detergent. If you don’t, the washing machine could overflow. I thought that since every green source is pimping HE washers (including myself I suppose), I thought that finding low sudsing powdered detergent would be easy. Not so much. After a long search I found only two and hated both.

  • HE Option #1 - Tide HE made me itch. Not surprising because according to family lore my mother used Tide to wash my cloth diapers when I was a baby. Tide gave baby me diaper rash so bad that the skin on my butt chapped and bled. Even thought I ‘m an adult, my mom says she still feels bad about it. Which just goes to show you Mom Guilt NEVER goes away (sorry Mommies.)
  • HE Option #2 - Trader Joes was a huge disappointment. It is a plant based laundry detergent– yay! It didn’t clean our clothes very well. Especially Husband’s muddy and sometimes toxically sweaty running clothes. Be thankful computers don't have Smellorama.
I tried using a smaller amount than usual of a regular liquid detergent. It cleaned our cloths but stank up the washing machine after every load - BAD.

I was running out of options. I decided to try making laundry detergent myself. I didn’t want to make the liquid version because it makes like 5 gallons at a time and looks like snot. Ew. That’s when I found out how to make a powdered laundry detergent that will work in both regular and high efficiency washing machines. And it’s much less expensive too! My homemade powdered laundry detergent costs approximately 30 cents a load.

My homemade powdered laundry detergent doesn't look like snot at all


Make Your Own Green High Efficiency Laundry Detergent

You will need:

1 bar of soap (You can use either a laundry soap like Fels Naptha or Zote or a bath/hand soap. I use both types of bar soap and all work in this project.) 
 Knife (optional) 
½ cup of borax 
 ½ cup of washing soda (not baking soda) 
Cheese grater or food processor 
Container with a lid 
Measuring cup  
Optional: (updated 2/8/13) a capful of Purex Crystals Laundry Enhancer if you miss the pretty smell  of regular detergent. It is a 87% natural ingredients (except fragrance, natch) fabric softner/destaticer. It does not contain tallow for those of you who do not like to use animal products.

Make it:  

1. Grate the bar of soap using the food grater or by cutting it into sections with the knife in order to grate it with your food processor.

 I used Zote for this batch of homemade HE laundry detergent.
  • The bath bar soaps tend to be smaller in size than the laundry bar soaps. In that case I use 1 and ½ beauty bar soaps. 
  • If I have any little nubs of soap hanging around in my household soap dishes, I grind them up and toss them into the mix too.
  • You can also use castile or your favorite handmade bar soap in this project. (Although that’s one indulgence I keep for myself. My undies don’t seem to appreciate handmade herb soaps like I do.)
2. Mix the finely grated soap flakes into a container with ½ a cup of borax and ½ a cup of washing soda. I use the Dump It All Into The Container, Snap On The Lid, And Shake method to mix my ingredients.

All done! My homemade powdered HE laundry detergent takes 15 minutes to make, tops. 
3. Add 3 tablespoons of detergent (I use the laundry scoop from my last box of HE detergent) to your washing machine to get your stinky duds clean!

How does it work?


The homemade detergent works not quite as well as the Tide HE but much better than Trader Joe's. Homemade laundry detergent doesn't make me itch or cause a rash. I think performance really depends upon what type of soap you use for the mix. I think the laundry soap works a little better than the bath soap but some folks may not be able to find Fels Naptha or Zote locally. If that is the case, consider ordering the homemade laundry detergent ingredients online.

Some people say they think homemade laundry detergent leaves their white clothes dingy. I haven’t had a problem with this because I regularly use hydrogen peroxide based “oxygen” bleach (for whites and colors) or bluing (whites only) in my washing machine. Or you can try using Zote which has optical brighteners for your mix. All of these items are environmentally friendly and will brighten up your clothes.

Given the performance and the low price tag, I’m going to stick with the homemade stuff for now. Although I would like to have a store bought option to fall back on when I need it.
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Anonymous said...

I love this post! So clever...and the fact that you utilized a vintage Bobby Brady clip-- I applaud you. =)


Anonymous said...

I love it too - sometimes we have to be creative when we can't find what we want that's made commercially. Great job Lisa

Lisa said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said...

Love it! I can't wait to try it!

Joy said...

I really want to make homemade laundry soap but I'm a little paranoid about our HE machine just because we've heard that they are touchy with which type of soap is used. We use Biokleen Free and Clear powdered soap and find that it's actually cheaper, load per load, than any mainstream detergent.

Still, I have to admit that my husband is also quite a sweaty runner and generates some really stinky laundry. It seems like it's tough to get the bad smells out of his synthetic running wear. I'm not sure if that's the detergent or my husband's natural talent for sweating. Hmm...

In any case, will you tell me if Biokleen was either of your options? If it was, maybe I'll check out your homemade version and see if we get better results when laundering running clothes.

Thanks for your Thrifty Green wisdom this week!

Lisa Nelsen-Woods said...

Morgan - I HAD to find a way to use that Bobby Brady clip ever since I read about how regular detergent oversuds in HE washers. That was my go to image - minus Bobby in his skevvies.

Lisa - thanks for the ideas. I'll look into them.

Joy - Neither HE option I tried was Biokleen. To use oxygen bleach in my washer I had to switch from liquid to powdered detergent. I hear that their are more environmentally friendly liquid & HE detergents than powdered. Is that true?

Rebecca said...

Why so secretive about the brands you used?! Inquiring minds want to know. Like Joy, I have been using Biokleen powder for a while now. I wrote a whole post on the Green Baby Guide how it is actually cheaper than the cheapest mainstream detergent I found at the time. I find it works really well. Of course, my husband does not generate smelly clothing to deal with.

I do think it's great to have recipes like these--you never know when you'll be called upon to make all of your own detergents and soaps!

Anonymous said...

I tried making the soap myself and it was okay, but I really love the Earth Friendly Products ECOS Lemongrass detergent. This brand of laundry detergent is awesome! But don't follow those guidelines for how much of the product to use. I have a regular washer (not HE), but I misread the label and only used the quantity that it called to use for the HE. My wash has never been cleaner and with only 1/2 of the detergent. One bottle lasted us for nearly 4 months and we wash lots of clothes. I love the Lemongrass scent!!

O'Brien said...

I make the same recipe....have loved it so far. I love that I can wash my childs cloths, my husbands cloths, and all the towel and everything together for a really low price.

~*Michelle*~ said...

Oh YIPPEE!!! I am def. going to try this.....

and thanks for popping over in my world this week......I am picking the winner today so lots o' luck to you (trying to put on my Irish accent for St. Patty's Day coming up......even though I am Portuguese/Native American and Canadian French)

Anyway.....your blog is so fun and I will be visiting alot! :)


Lisa Nelsen-Woods said...

Joy - I forgot to mention that my husband's a runner too and I use the homemade stuff on his running clothes - some of which are synthentic (most of the race shirts he gets lately are sweat wicking synthentic material - whaddya going do?) and everything cleans well.

Rebecca - OK. I'll spill. HE Option #1 was Tide HE. Option #2 was Trader Joes. This was the only time that I was disappointed by a TJ's product and I'm a little protective of them. Besides I'm in my TJ's all the time, it's only a 3.5 mile bike ride from my house, they know me very well.

Christy - does the powdered come in lemongrass scent? I love the smell of lemongrass! It's also the name of my favorite local restaurant. :)

O'Brien - So far the homemade stuff's been good to us.I like that I can use up some of the not so friendly deoderant soap that Husband insisted on buying because of his dry winter skin until I convinced him to stop using it becuase it was contributing to his dry winter skin. Waste not, want not.

Michelle - Thanks for stopping by! Hey everyone if you're looking for cute organic cotton kid t-shirts check out Michelle's stores Organic Kids and Hippie Love Child. Hippie Love Child - ya can't get anymore hippie treehugger than that :)

Anonymous said...

Great! I will have to try this. I made my own (liquid/gel) soap and that was fine, but messy. Then I bought ECOS powder, and every time I opened the dispenser drawer for the next load, the whole batch from the previous load was in there, undissolved and hard as a rock. Both ECOS and Seventh Generation detergents don't work well for us (powder laundry and dishwasher) -- maybe it is water composition that makes a difference?

So I bought liquid environmentally friendly soap at Costco ... but I had to smuggle it in the house because it has palm oil in it.

The good news is it doesn't make my family itch (we have that problem too). And it smells nice, and cleans the clothes. But I hate that some of the detergent is ALWAYS left in the cup, so it gets wasted if I rinse it, or I have to do some fast maneuvering to throw it in the washing machine.

In short ... can't wait to try this recipe.

Anonymous said...

I make the snot variety (thanks for that, hadn't occurred to me before!) and have no issues with its cleaning power. I do throw in a scoup of oxyclean type powder with my whites. It's cheap and kind of fun to do.

Anonymous said...

I have extremely hard water with alot of rust in it, and I use the liquified recipe of the homeade detergent. has felsnaphta & other bars on sale for .99cents until sometime in March, (the 15th I think). Instead of using a 5 gallon bucket, I filled up 21 quarts jars of the gel-like snot, (never thought of it that way). When I need to use it I add the quart jar of soap gel to a laundry container, and add another jar of hot water to that. I shake it up to liquify it even further, then use 1/2 cup per load in my HE washer. I have even left the clothes sit for over 8 hours and they still smell really clean, not musty like other detergents. I think liquid works better in HE especially if you have hard water or well water.
I use about a quart jar a week, so I figure that I got about 5 months of detergent to use. I love it! My clothes smell so much better. I do use the 7th generation carpet cleaner spray for any clothing stains, it seems to get out every single stain I have thrown at it, and with a teenage son and 4 year old, I have alot of stains! For really tough stains, I rub felsnaptha soap into it and let it sit, that works wonders! Good Luck everyone!

Kristin - The Goat said...

I think that I used Seventh Generation laundry soap - powdered only - I don't like liquid soaps. I think it is the sticky factor. I don't like it.

I am always so pleased when people make their own soaps and yet, I don't ever want to -- I go through one small box of the Seventh Generation every 8 months or so and I don't want to keep around the borax and the washing soda - It would last me for years and I don't like to store things for years lol

I have a HE machine too - LOVE IT!

Lisa Nelsen-Woods said...

This post is included in the April 5, 2009 edition of Money Saving Tips on Save a Few Bucks

Funny about Money said...

Be careful using Fels Naptha soap. Here's what Wikipedia has to say about it:

"While sometimes also sold next to personal-care body soaps it should not be used as an overall body soap or regular laundry additive since it contains Stoddard solvent, a skin and eye irritant.
According to the "Chronic Health Effects" section of the National Institutes of Health's MSDS for Fels Naptha:

"Chronic toxicity testing has not been conducted on this product. However, the following effects have been reported on one of the product's components. Stoddard solvent: Repeated or prolonged exposure to high concentrations has resulted in upper respiratory tract irritation, central and peripheral nervous system effects, and possibly hematopoetic, liver and kidney effects.

"Stoddard solvent is another name for mineral spirits, which are, like petroleum distillates, a mixture of multiple chemicals made from petroleum. Exposure to Stoddard solvent in the air can affect your nervous system and cause dizziness, headaches, or a prolonged reaction time. It can also cause eye, skin, or throat irritation[2]."

Not very green, eh? Ordinary soap will work in this DIY recipe. It's not only easier to find, evidently it's safer.

Lisa Nelsen-Woods said...

Funny - you're right Fels Naptha isn't a green a soap as once thought. So basically how green this detergent is depends largely on the type of soap that you use to make it.

Anonymous said...

This post is included in the Carnival of the Green #174 hosted by Green Deals Daily

Krista said...

I have used the recipe you share above and my husband "swears" that his clothes aren't as clean and he can tell the difference. He says "25 years of science can't be for nothing" and store bought detergent is better. Do you have any thing I can use to help convince him otherwise? I'm going to try a "blind" test and use the other soap when he doesn't know it, but I'm really frustrated!!!
teacherkrista at gmail dot com

Condo Blues said...


I don't have any hard facts on whether the homemade stuff cleans better or worse than than the store bought stuff but I have a theory. I think the smell may have something to do with it. Now that I use the homemade stuff, when I do a load w/ a sample of a regular laundry detergent - the detergent and dried laundry seems to smell much stronger (in a bad way) that I remember when I bought store bought stuff.

In fact, I mentioned this to a person who develops laundry detergent for Protector and Gamble and asked if they could put less scent in their products. She said that the majority of their customers ask for them to put more scent in their detergents, not less. That makes me think that maybe it's that your clothes may not have a strong laundry detergent smell when you use homemade detergent and that's why he doesn't think they are as clean.

Maybe if you tried making laundry detergent with a smellier bar of bath soap, like Irish Spring, that would leave a scent on your freshly washed clothes and make your family think that they are cleaner? I used Irish Spring to make laundry detergent (it's not eco friendly but it is cheap) and it left that "manly yes but I like it too" scent on my laundry. The bars were a little smaller than Fels Naptha, so I used one and a half bars of Irish Spring and it got my clothes clean.

Good Luck!


Shannon said...

I have made almost the exact same detergent. Mine has equal parts of FelsNaptha, washing soda AND baking soda. along with the borax.
Our clothes don't smell strongly either.. which I like. They smell clean, but aren't overpowering.

Unknown said...

I've seen the receipe for homemade HE detergent before, but this is the first time I've seen it also adding regular detergent. But whatever the receipe, how much do you recommend using per load and what is the size of the load either in pounds or volume? Woulddn't it depend on how big the drum is in your machine?

Lisa Nelsen-Woods said...

Robert - I fill the scoop from an old box of detergent. I use one scoop per full load of laundry.

Jack said...

Just got an HE washer and was wondering how peoples machines were doing after using homemade detergents for a long period of time? Any problems?

I'm thinking the bar soaps would cause too much scum build up on the sensor and even the washer. Has anyone tried liquid hand soap rather? Or do I know nothing about the make up of bar soap?

Lisa Nelsen-Woods said...

Jack - I've been using Homemade powdered HE laundry detergent for two years. I'm still impressed how well it cleans. After doing laundry I empty the water that collects in the detergent drawer and keep the washer door open so it dries out overnight. I haven't had any problems with smells (I did when I tried using a smaller amount of conventional liquid detergent.) I also run the cleaning cycle every couple of months with either a capful of Smelly Washer or Vinegar. That helps keeps ick from growing in the washer too.

Leila said...

I know it's an old comment but the Wikipedia posting on Fels Naptha says that it USED to contain Stoddard solvent, and according to the Fels Naptha folks, doesn't anymore. I've been conflicted about using it in my first stab at making detergent. I use so much homemade CP soap that I figure I'll just use one of those and some eco-friendly bleaching product. I didn't like BioKleen too much; didn't seem to make one whit of a difference to me. So that's my next search...

gf said...

Can someone tell me how many loads this HE powder laundry soap recipe will wash?

gf said...

Can someone tell me how many loads this HE Powder Homemade Laundry Detergent will wash? Thanks!

bennett1200 said...

i just made a batch and washed a load of laundry it did great i had a dirty pair of jeans they looked great I am sold bye bye tide cheer and gain .I used nels naptha soap. I found a use for my magic bullet

Anonymous said...

I have used this recipie for years and love it! I also used the fels naptha. I actually made a bunch of this to take with me when I was deployed to afghanistan last year, and I loved it! you can add a few drops of essential oil in the scent you like too. I did also add a tablespoon of baking soda to help with the whitening. If anyone is a cloth diapering mama, this is perfect to use! If anyone tries this and doesn't like it, another great option is Rockin' Green detergent. eco friendly, non sudsing, great scents and only use a tbsp/load for HE washers... Happy washing!!
-sarah wilkins

Kat said...

Love the post!

I am very tempted to switch to homemade detergent, though most of laundry I wash is brightly coloured and I would hate for the colours to fade. Clothes are rarely heavily stained (I bite skin on my fingers so little drops of blood are here and there, that's about it).

What would you advice? Is the homemade detergent hard on colours? Would it remove touch stains gently?

Thank you!

Lisa Nelsen-Woods said...

Using the dryer fades colors more than detergent in the washing machine. That said, I haven't found any fading of my bright colors beyond normal with my homemade detergent. I also toss in some color safe "oxygen bleach" in every load to keep everything colorful and to fight stains - it's made with hydrogen perxiode and is safer than chlorine bleach.

Robj98168 said...

Honestly I have never had a problem with Trader Joe's detergent causing my clothes or washer to smell. Buy then again I don'y have an HE washer or Midwestern water. Not that midwest water is a bad thing. OK I will stop now before the hole I dig is impossible to climb out of.

Lisa Nelsen-Woods said...

Trader Joe's is formuulated for HE washing machines. You can use an HEndeterggent in any type of washer without it stinking up the place but not the opposite. The stinky regular stuff I tidied was the plant based Arm & Hammer detergent.

Anonymous said...

This article has converted me! :) Planning to switch soon, though I'm still unsure about a few things.

Cup of what volume do you use for measure or how much would 1/2 cup be in ml?

Also is carbolic soap ok to use and what is the difference in performance between that and usual laundry soaps?

And is there a point in adding a bar of stain removing soap to the mix (or maybe using it on it's own instead of the normal laundry bar, would this reduce the amount of powder needed per wash?)

What steps in making a DIY detergent are vital in preserving colour and durability of clothes?

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I will be making this tonight. only i will br adding a capful of Downy Unstoppables to make it smell extra nice

Anonymous said...

I use Purex HE powder detergent. I think I bought it at Dollar General. I like it a lot and I am very picky about the scent of my detergent.

Dani said...

I started experimenting with this basic recipe awhile ago and tried using less and less to see how low I could go and have it still work. My less expensive version: 1 c. fels naptha shreds to 1 c. borax and 1 c. washing soda. I can get away with using only 1 T. of this mix in my he machine unless the duds are extra stinky.

Unknown said...

Does anyone know if this detergent is cloth diaper safe?

Unknown said...

Love this post! I have been making my own for a little over a year now thanks to Pinterest! I get grease out of my husbands work clothes and the barn smells come right out. My husband was TIDE all the way and I told him we were spending far to much money on laundry soap for the name brand. switched over and he does not complain at all.. Takes me about 30 mins to mix up my batch of soap and I am good for 6 months. People have commented on my smell of clothes and I tell them what I have done. I am gong to try the bar soap next time I am due to make a batch here soon! Thank you for the tip!!!

Unknown said...

I love these DIY projects. We switched over a year ago and the clothes I feel are cleaner and smell just as nice as the store bought name brand detergants. I do feel as though people by the smell and not the cleaning agent itself. side note I would think that it is safe to clean cloth Diapers in the homeade detergants after all this is what you grandparents used to use!!!

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