A 4-Ingredient Recipe For Natural Homemade Laundry Detergent

mbg Senior Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care."
DIY Cleaning: Homemade laundry detergent
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Making your own detergent is surprisingly easy, affordable, and addicting—as long as you're working with the right recipe and have an agreeable water supply (more on that below). Here, natural cleaning authority and author of Simply Living Well Julia Watkins shares her absolute favorite 4-ingredient DIY detergent recipe to get started with.

DIY laundry detergent ingredients:

This recipe can get away with so few ingredients because each one is so good at its job. Here's a little introduction to each:

Castile soap

It starts with a base of castile soap—a vegetable-based soap (often made from coconut, hemp, or olive) that has the same grease-cutting power as traditional soap, which is sometimes made with animal fat. This recipe calls for a solid bar of castile soap to achieve a powdered consistency, though liquid would also work in a pinch.

illustration of bar of castille soap
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Washing soda

Then comes the washing soda, or sodium carbonate, a whitening agent that's a safer alternative to borax, which has toxicity concerns. The inexpensive powder typically comes in a box—similar to baking soda—and can be found in the laundry aisle of the grocery store.

illustration of washing soda
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Baking soda

Next up: Baking soda. This DIY cleaning staple is a natural deodorizer and abrasive. It'll help lift stains from clothes and give them that fresh-from-the laundry scent.

baking soda illustration
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Salt

Finally, coarse salt is another natural abrasive that will help softens clothes and give them a lived-in feel.

salt illustration
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Note: All these ingredients are shelf-stable, so feel free to double or triple this recipe and store extra in an airtight container at room temperature.

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DIY laundry detergent recipe (borax-free):

Makes enough for approx 25 loads of laundry, depending on your machine

Ingredients:

  • 5-ounce bar of pure Castile soap
  • 1 cup washing soda
  • 1 cup baking soda
  • 1 cup coarse salt

Method:

  1. Place the Castile soap in the bowl of a food processor and blitz it until it's finely ground. If you don't have a food processor, finely chop the soap or use a cheese grater instead. The finer you can get it, the better.
  2. Then, add your washing soda, baking soda, and salt. Blend until you have a fine powder.
  3. Once it's well blended, store in a labeled glass jar with an airtight lid.
  4. Use 2 tbsp. per load of laundry if you have a standard machine, and 1 tbsp. per load if you have a high-efficiency machine.

How to customize your detergent.

For a more fragrant wash, you can either add 2-3 drops of essential oils directly to your DIY detergent or onto a wool dryer ball that you then pop into the dryer. For safety, go with oils that have a flashpoint above 180 degrees Fahrenheit, like sandalwood, geranium, and cedarwood. Citrus, mint, and eucalyptus scents are a no-no, since they have lower flash points and can be a fire hazard in a hot dryer.

Homemade potpourri is another risk-free alternative. "Stuff small cloth drawstring bags with dried lavender and add them to your drawers and linen closet," Watkins proposes.

The do's and don't of using homemade laundry detergent:

Do:

When first using your detergent, try laundering a load with 1 tbsp and see how it comes out. If clothes look slightly dull or are still smelly, work your way up to 2 tbsp.

The finer the detergent, the more evenly it will distribute in the wash—especially in cold water—so do be sure to give it a good blitz!

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Don't:

The most important caveat about using homemade laundry detergent is that it is not effective in machines that use hard water. The soap in this recipe can cause minerals in hard water like magnesium and calcium to latch onto clothes, which can lead to yellowing over time. High-density areas that have the hardest water include Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Minneapolis-St. Paul. Phoenix, San Antonio, Tampa and Los Angeles. If you live near any of these cities, consider swapping your homemade detergent for a packaged but eco-friendly option off of the Environmental Working Group's database.

The benefits of homemade detergent.

If your water supply can take it, homemade detergent tends to be a less expensive alternative to the bottled stuff, coming in at just a few cents per load.

The DIY route also has some environmental merits. If you buy your ingredients in bulk, you can nix plastic packaging altogether. Plus, you can save on unnecessary emissions by making your own product instead of reordering ones that have been sent across the country. Conventional detergent bottles can be heavy and full of water, making them somewhat cumbersome to ship.

A review of 39 popular laundry detergent ingredients found that certain ones (sodium carboxymethyl cellulose, sodium silicate solution, and perborate tetrahydrate) had potentially toxic effects on aquatic environments in large doses. Making your own blend is one way to ensure that you know exactly what's going into your wastewater, so you don't have to worry about inadvertantly harming nearby wildlife.

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More eco-friendly laundry practices:

In addition to making your own detergent, here are some more tips on how to keep laundry day as low-waste as possible:

  1. Add ½ cup of distilled white vinegar to the rinse cycle in lieu of a store-bought fabric softener. "If you're worried about the smell of vinegar, you'll be relieved to know it dissipates in the wash," Watkins says.
  2. Swap your dryer sheets for reusable wool dryer balls.
  3. Instead of bleach, use white vinegar or ½ cup baking soda to brighten clothes during the rinse cycle.
  4. Hang your clothes to line dry when the weather permits.
  5. If you have your own washing machine, be sure to wash it every 1-2 months using a natural cleaner.

Finally, keep in mind that up to 75% of the energy used during each laundry load goes toward heating the water, so run your new detergent in a colder wash cycle unless you're dealing with heavy stains.

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The bottom line.

As long as you don't have hard water, making homemade natural laundry detergent is an eco-friendly way to clean clothes on the cheap. Julia Watkins' 4-ingredient recipe leaves plenty of room for customization and will stay fresh in an air-tight container, making it a fail-safe addition to laundry days everywhere.

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