Cheap and Natural Laundry Detergent

From the July 2006 issue of Debt-Proof Living:

"Soap v. Detergent

A century ago, Fels-Naptha [heavy-duty laundry soap] was the most commonly used laundry product in the U.S. prior to the development of moder laundry detergents. Which brings up and interesting question: What is the difference between soap and detergent?

Briefly, laundry soap is made from natural ingredients. Soap works well with soft wter to remove dirt and odors from fabrics. But when soap meets up with hard water some chemical thing occurs and traps it into the fabric fibers turning clothes and linens a dingy shade of gray. Trapped soap also makes fabrics stiff and scratchy.

The development of commercial detergents fixed this problem. Simply put, detergent is a little soap and a lot of synthetic water softeners, perfumes and other additives. You can spend $.30 on the low side, up to $1.18 (no kidding, check per lead for laundry detergent. But what if I told yo0u that with just a modicum of effort you could make your own highly effective (some say more effective) laundry detergent that rinses out well even if you have hard water—leading clothes clean and soft, for as little as $.02 per load? Two cents!

Homemade Laundry Detergents

Grate one 5.5 ounce bar Fels-Naptha soap into a sauce pan and add enough water to cover. Heat over low heat until soap is dissolved, stirring constantly. Remove from stove. Pour 4 1/2 gallons of hot water into a 5-gallon bucket. Add the melted soap and 1 cup Arm and Hammer Super Washing Soda. Stir until combined. To use: Add one cup per wash load (up to 2 cups for heavily soiled loads). Cost per cup: $.02.

Powered. Combine 1 bar grated Fels-Naptha soap, 1/2 cup Arm and Hammer Super Washing Soda and 1/2 cup 20 Mule Team Borax. Mix and store in airtight container. To use: 2 TBSP. Cost per TBSP: $.06."

You can either find Fels-Naptha online at Mast General Store and possibly other sites, or in some stores.

Fels-Naptha also is good for shower/tub, paint brushes, aphids, baby stains, chocolate, makeup stains, white canvas shoes, old stains, poison ivy, bug bites, and stains on hands. To save space, I will not put instructions for all that up. Post on my blog if you would like info on those other uses.
  • matthew_and_brooke
    just for the record... the fels naptha at my store does have perfume in it. But as long as you don't have perfume allergies in the family, this sounds great.
    by matthew_and_brooke at 12/11/06 9:00AM
  • mrs_dante
    Do you know if the perfume is synthetic? I'm assuming from your comment that you do, but I couldn't find anything about it myself.
    by mrs_dante at 12/11/06 9:12AM
  • matthew_and_brooke
    It's listed in the ingredients as "perfume" rather than essential oil or something, but I haven't looked any farther. The smell was fairly strong. (I brought it home before I thought to read the label)
    by matthew_and_brooke at 12/11/06 9:23AM
  • matermagistra
    I used to make this. I was never fully pleased with the results. I used the liquid version. I just never felt like my clothes were really clean. It was fun to make though.
    by matermagistra at 12/11/06 9:49AM
  • windblownlilac
    Can you find the Fels-Naptha in stores like Wal-Mart, or grocery stores? Dolloar stores?
    by windblownlilac at 12/03/08 3:02PM
  • greatestislove
    I know this is an old post, but I was amazed and HAPPY that I actually found the Fels Naptha soap, Washing Soda and Borax all in one spot at one of the little WalMart stores by me. Woohoo! lol

    You can ask the store manager of the WalMart for a particular item and they might actually order it to be carried in the store. Worth the try if you'd like it close and easy to get to. :-)
    by greatestislove at 06/01/11 11:12PM
  • deputyheadmistress
    It depends on where you live. I find it the laundry section of my local grocery store in this tiny northern Indiana town. You can get it at Amazon.
    We've been using Kirk's Castile Bar Soap or Dr Bonners Mild Baby Organic Bar Soap   Both of these are better for babies and people with sensitive skin.
    Both Kirk's and Dr. Bronner's have bar soaps that are unscented.

    You can use any kind of soap that is really soap. I suspect the Fels Naptha brand was specified by our grandmothers and people have just copied those older recipes without realizing why Fels Naptha is specified. I think it’s because back in the day the naptha was really naphthalene. Napthalene is the stuff that you find in moth balls. Ew. But there is no naphthalene in Fels any longer. There IS scent, so we don't use it anymore.

    What makes Fels Naptha better than most soaps from the store is that it contains only animal fats (sorry, vegetarians), no vegetable oils. That’s probably why it works so well, too. Any homemade soap using lard, milk, cream, or other animal fat will work very well. Vegetarian soaps work okay- but we have found, not so well on really grimy clothes. Most bar soaps are not really soap, they are detergents. Read the labels.

    If you've been using laundry soaps with optical brighteners before, then you probably won't like the look of clothes, especially whites, cleaned with this soap:

    "The optical brighteners found in many common laundry detergents are actually tiny particles that stick to the surface of your clothes. These particles make colors appear to be brighter by absorbing invisible ultraviolet light and re-emitting it as blue light. This blue light offsets the yellow light that is produced when colors begin to fade and lose their intensity. Although these optical brighteners may make your clothes appear brighter, they are chemical residues that are intentionally left behind on your clothes and may cause skin irritation or other allergic reactions." Or maybe they do construction work or something like that.

    If I was unhappy with the whites, I would just do a load with an extra 1/2 cup of baking soda, washing soda, or borax in it.

    You can also boost the washing power with a bit of trisodium phosphate, which we also use to wash walls and in our dishwasher powder, also homemade. Recipe here
    by deputyheadmistress at 08/18/11 12:20PM
  • praguer
    I don't mean to be gross or personal, but does this cleaner really get men's smelly shirts clean? Or do you have to pre-treat them somehow? I've tried another recipe, and I struggle to get my hubby's shirts clean. I'd like some input before I go to the effort of trying to find these ingredients. :) Thanks for any help you can give!
    by praguer at 08/23/11 2:48AM
  • praguer
    ^If I understand correctly, trisodium phosphate (TSP) has (almost) been removed from detergents because of environmental issues. Do you have other information to suggest that it's safe? Please share! :) I've also heard that TSP doesn't have an equivalent in terms of cleaning power . . . . and that's why commercial laundry detergents don't clean as well as they "used to."
    by praguer at 08/23/11 10:31AM
  • deputyheadmistress
    Yes, environmental activists did lobby to remove trisodium phosphate (TSP) from both laundry and dishwasher detergents. But I don't trust that those activists have my best interests at heart or are in possession of much common sense, either . It wasn't banned because it was dangerous to humans, but because they wanted to reduce the level of phosphates in the environment. I do not believe consumers adding it back to our dish and laundry detergents is dangerous. It's also approved as a food additive in the EU.
    It's also (or at least was) the main ingredient in Spic and Span. If you're going to handle it with your hands you should wear gloves, as with almost any cleaner.
    by deputyheadmistress at 02/28/13 12:56PM