Along with my growing interest in real food came a growing awareness of the scary stuff that most of us use to clean our homes, wash our clothes, and wipe down our kitchen counters with. A simple first step that many turn to is buying “natural” products, and there actually are quite a number of cleaning products declaring themselves thusly.
I don’t inherently have a problem with them, other than the fact that most are beastly expensive and like a lot of things, the “natural” label doesn’t necessarily mean a lot. When we lived in Costa Rica we would go through phases of feeling that it was worth the price, no matter what else we might have to sacrifice, to buy the less harmful laundry detergents since our washer (as nearly all do there) just drained right out onto the ground, which meant a fairly short downhill trek to the river.
On our occasional journeys to the wonderful (but oh-so-pricey) store, AutoMercado, (home of almost any imported product you could be lusting after), we would buy one of the “eco-friendly” brands of detergent but, aside from the price, discovered a problem when all of our clothes started changing colors. Not just becoming dingy, as you might think was possible, but actually changed—the dark blue stripes in one of my husbands polo shirts became a sort-of taupe-ish brown, for instance. Odd.
Anyway, price continues to steer me away from most of the commercial alternative detergents, so like everyone else does when they have a question, I set out to see what Mr. Google could tell me. I found several recipes for liquid detergent, but most seemed incredibly fussy in their preparation (lots of heating ingredients, stirring, mixing, remixing, cooling and doing certain things at certain points in the process) and I’m just not-so-good with fussy preparation.
Then I stumbled across some instructions for a powdered detergent at Michael Nolan’s My Earth Garden website and knew I’d found what I needed. I’ve since run into these same basic instructions elsewhere and I must say that I have no idea at all who actually “invented” this method, but I will say it’s easy, cheap, effective, and we haven’t bought laundry detergent now for a long time.
Enough preamble? Let’s go. The first “warning” is simply that both Michael’s instructions and my own experiences are using a high-powered blender like a Vita-Mix (what he uses) or a BlendTec (what I use). I know they work, but even so they can sound like they’re struggling if you put too much in them, so I don’t know if it would work in a “regular” blender. If you want to try (which, of course, you do at your own risk, but you knew that, right?) I would recommend doing it in smaller batches, which I’ve started doing anyway with my BlendTec just because it seems easier.
Other than the blender, there’s three simple ingredients:
- Borax (like 20 Mule Team)
- Washing soda (Arm & Hammer makes some, NOT the same as baking soda)
- Bar soap (More on that below, but I’ve found simple Ivory works well)
For each “batch” you’ll use 2 cups EACH of the borax and the washing soda to one bar of soap. (And, yes, I realize that a bar of soap doesn’t have any universal “size” so just use common sense and go for a “normal” sized bar. That alone should tell you that this recipe is pretty forgiving.)
Second warning: You’ll often see these instructions using Fels Naptha soap and that’s actually what I used first. It works well and certainly cleans clothes. (That is its primary mission in life, after all, as a laundry pre-wash stain remover.) But in a possibly completely coincidental experience, some while after we started using this version of our homemade laundry detergent, our precious little granddaughter started having a not-terrible but somewhat persistent irritation on her sweet face, on her cheeks.
It took a long while to make any connection, but those same sweet little cheeks would lie nestled against me—sometimes for a half-hour or more at a time—while I rocked her to sleep several times a week at nap-time or spent a few hours at a time on her pillowcase. Hmmm… might the Fels Naptha be irritating her skin?
We’ll never know, but I can’t help but observe that the persistent irritation vanished as mysteriously as it had begun after we switched over to using Ivory as the bar soap in our laundry detergent. If you have particularly dirty clothes and no small children (or others with sensitive skin) in your family, you could certainly try this same thing with the Fels Naptha. We’re happy to just stick with our Ivory, although one could likely take it even a step further down the “homemade” and natural path if you used homemade soap. That’s definitely an alternative that folks report online works fine, too.
The borax and washing soda are both already powdered, so the primary “task” for this is to turn the bar soap into a powder as well. You can grate it, or use your vegetable peeler to peel off thin strips, or do this crazy-fun trick and nuke it. Yes, put that bar of soap on a plate and pop it into your microwave for about 90 seconds. (Just run it for another 30 seconds or minute if it doesn’t all puff up.)
This is, by the way, a great activity to do with kids! I will say that occasionally it doesn’t puff that big, or once in a while a portion—like one corner of the bar—will stubbornly resist puffing at all. No worries, it’s certainly not a necessary part of the process. It’s just an easy way to reduce the soap to a powder since this “puffed up” stuff will grind very easily in the blender.
I’ve tried different things over the past year and discovered that even with a super-powered blender, it’s so much easier to just do a small bit at a time. So my suggestion is dump 1/2 cup of the borax, 1/2 cup of the washing soda, and approximately 1/4 (no need to fuss about precision) of your grated or puffed up soap into your blender. Whirl it about on high speed for 30 seconds to a minute, just until it all seems to be a fine powder. Dump that out into your container, and repeat with another 1/2 cup of each powdered ingredient and another portion of your soap. Repeat until all ingredients are used.
Should you use up your bar soap before you’ve mixed it with the full 2 cups of powdered borax and washing soda, just dump whatever is left into your container and then mix it all together.
We’ve come to enjoy the simple unscented version, but should you like—you can sprinkle a few drops of whatever essential oil you’d like into the mix as you’re blending it. Some obvious choices would be anything in the citrus family (lemon, orange, grapefruit, etc.) for a fresh touch or almost anything else that suits you.
You need a container to store your detergent in, obviously, and we cleverly just keep re-using the last box of powdered detergent that we had on hand. It’s not too big, but big enough to hold a double-batch of detergent if I feel especially inspired, but clearly anything will do.
You only need 2 tablespoons of this detergent for each wash load and I’m told it works fine in HE washers, although our washer is ancient so I have no direct experience with that.
Happy laundry day!
P.S. I’ve seen folks comment that 2 tablespoons doesn’t seem like very much, but when you think about how you can wash your whole body with a quick swipe of bar soap on a washcloth, then even the teaspoon or so that’s in the two tablespoons of total mixture is actually a lot of pure soap. All I can say is it works fine. :-)