DIY Laundry Soap

I think every blog out there that has any kind of focus on DIY, frugality, or saving money has a post on making your own laundry detergent.  This one isn't going to be anything life shattering or game changing, just documentation on how I make my particular version. 

I've been really happy with my recipe for some time now, the last couple years I haven't tweaked it at all.  I've been making and using my own laundry detergent for around 8 or 9 years now and I don't ever plan on going back to store bought.  This recipe makes a detergent that has very little smell, and the smell it does have is faint, and tends to disappear the longer it is stored.  My clothes come out smelling like wet cotton, wool, or whatever material they are made out of, not artificial or even natural scents.  I have a real sensitivity to artificial smells and to really heavy natural smells so my main focus with this recipe in the beginning was to get away from the smell of the commercial laundry detergents on the market. 

I'm not really sure how environmentally friendly my detergent is, to be honest.  That is something I am probably going to have to research and tweak in the future when we are able to get on a grey water system.  It's probably something I really should research currently also, since I am concerned with chemicals and sustainability….however, I just haven't.  No excuses there, just something I really hadn't thought about, given I've been making this for so long, far longer then I've been concerned with sustainability. 

Well, here it is:

I start with a big Rubbermaid container, like so:

I add a full box of Arm and Hammer Washing Soda and a full box of Borax:

Next I add a big box of Baking Soda:

Usually the 4lb box.  Sometimes I get the 13lb bag from Costco and just try to guess at about 4lbs.  Real scientific, huh?  Its not really a big deal on getting the amount perfect, this isn't rocket science.  I use the Baking Soda to help remove odors and soften the water a bit more since we have fairly hard water.  Apparently you can make Washing Soda out of Baking Soda by baking it in the oven, however, I've never actually tried it as it's readily available in my neck of the woods and comparable in price to Baking Soda.  

Next I add a medium sized container of Oxyclean:

This probably isn't necessary, however, I do it anyway.  I like the way the soap works better with it, then without it.  I've tried both ways and prefer adding in the Oxyclean.  

I mix up everything I've added so far so its fairly evenly mixed.

Then I add 2 bars of soap, any soap will work.  Usually I use Dr Bronners, or something organic.  If Fate has made soap recently I will use that.  I actually prefer the soap Fate makes, but I make due with whatever I can get when his isn't available.  

I use a microplane:


and grate my soap into the container. If you don't have a microplane, no worries, you can use your food processor, I will go into that at the end.  No food processor either? You can use your cheese grater, however, I just don't feel like it breaks the bar soap up enough to really be worth the effort.  If you don't have a microplane or food processor you should really consider making the liquid version.

Again, mix well.  I usually mix in the soap several times as I'm grating it, it helps it to not stick together as much and I feel I get a more even mix that way.  

Now for the fun part.  Grab your pastry cutter:

I strongly prefer the type that has blades and is nice and heavy.  The wire type is fairly useless for cutting anything in to anything else.  If you get a thin bladed or cheaply made one it is just as bad as using the wire type.  The blades bend and are useless.  Invest in a good pastry cutter, not just for laundry detergent, but for general kitchen use.  If you don't have a pastry cutter, and don't want to go out and get one, a food processor will work, its just a whole lot slower.  

So, next I add a bottle of Dawn:

I prefer the citrus scents, however, it honestly doesn't matter what kind you use.  The baking soda will pretty much remove the smell from both the dish soap and the bar soap, so in the end you end up with non scented soap.  I highly recommend using Dawn over pretty much any other dish soap out there.  I've tried quite a few different ones, natural, organic, whatever, and I keep coming back to the Dawn.  It just seems to work a whole lot better at removing random grease and other stains from our clothes.  

I take my pastry cutter and a couple squirts at a time cut the Dawn into my powdered mix.  It really doesn't take much time at all to do this.  I make sure that the Dawn is cut evenly into all the powdered mix.  You should be able to make a ball of soap that holds itself together if you squeeze it in your hand, but shatters easily when you poke it.  As the mix ages it does tend to get a bit clumpy, however, its easy to break the clumps up with my spoon.   

If you don't have a pastry cutter, or want one, then I recommend using your food processor.  You can even grate up the soap with the food processor as well. I recommend using two large containers for this method.  First, mix the baking soda, washing soda, oxyclean, and borax together in one large container.  Take your bar soap and cut it into 1 inch x 1 inch or smaller chunks.  One chunk at a time run it through your food processor with your powdered mixture and dump it into the other container.  Repeat until all chunks are blended in. If you have anything left in the first container dump it into the second and mix everything well.  Next do the same thing with your Dawn.  Fill your food processor with your powdered mixture and drizzle the Dawn in until its ever so slightly sticking together. Empty your food processor into your empty container and run another batch until all the Dawn is gone.  If you have any powder left pour it into the second container and mix everything really well again.  

I really prefer the pastry cutter method to the food processor method.  Using the food processor tends to produce a fair amount of dust from the detergent that is probably not all that great for you to be breathing in.  You should be careful about that if you use that method, a face mask might be a good idea.  I never used one….but probably should have.  With the pastry cutter method there is little to no dust, especially if you are careful when you pour in the dry ingredients.  The food processor method also takes a whole LOT more time.  It always seemed like it would be faster to me, but it always turned into a really slow mess, with a whole lot of extra dishes to clean up.  I can seriously mix in the whole bottle of Dawn with the pastry cutter in less then two minutes.

Next, I jar it up!  I use quart mason jars for this:

Seriously, though, you can use anything.  I just use the mason jars because I have a ton of them….and I use them for practically EVERYTHING.  I tend to buy them at garage and estate sales for $.50 or less each, whenever I see them for that price.  We also recently got severl hundred jars from my Grandmother's basement, so I'm pretty set on jars.  

The last time I made soap this recipe as posted made me 11 quarts.  The cost worked out to a hair under $3.00/qt.  A batch of this will last my household around a year.  I have a front load, high efficiency washer, and I'm doing laundry for just the two of us.  I use about half a teaspoon per load for normal loads, and at most, for really dingy loads, I will use a full teaspoon, but that's rare.  This takes me about 15 minutes to make, including jarring it up.  

I highly recommend checking local prices and shopping around for your ingredients.  I linked to for reference, however, I can find all the ingredients locally for a lot cheaper then the prices online.  I can buy everything listed at my local supermarket, I'd check yours before ordering online.  

My DIY solution to fabric softener?

I buy it in bulk and use it for just about everything.  Its the best bathtub scum remover I've ever used.  Spray it on, let it sit for five minutes or so, and it comes right off with very little scrubbing!  


All About Soap Part Two

Sometime toward the end of my college career, I made a sudden switch away from the standard bar soaps into the domain of “body wash”. One of the common questions I get when discussing soap is if I can make a liquid soap. The answer is yes I can, but it wouldn’t be body wash. Body wash is interesting to me, in that it’s recently become more and more popular.
On the package, you’ll find this ingredient list:

Water, SODIUM LAURYL SULFATE, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Sulfate, FRAGRANCE, Sodium Lauryl Sarcosinate, Lauryl Alcohol, Decyl Glucoside, DMDM Hydantoin, Lauryl Glucoside, Tetrasodium EDTA, Citric Acid, Polyquaternium-10, FDC GREEN 3, Green 5, Red 33

Now, let’s compare these ingredients to another ‘liquid soap’:

water, sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium pareth-23, sulfate C-12-14-16, dimethyl amine oxide, SD alcohol, undeceth-9, propylene glycol, cyclohexandiamine, polyacetate, protease, fragrance, FD&C blue, no phosphate

Of note for us are the first two ingredients in this recipes: “sodium lauryl sulfate” (SLS). This is actually the common surfactant in just about any ‘liquid soap’ you find. It’s also the primary active ingredient of (wait for it) dish washing detergent, our second soap here.

Interestingly enough, the primary reasons why people prefer “Body Wash” to soap are based less on how their skin feels, and more on the “shower experience”. Making this even more interesting to me is that women are more likely to prefer body wash than men. Why is that interesting? Sorry guys, but women tend to care more about skin care than we do.

Despite what a few pages on the internet will tell you, SLS, is NOT going to turn you into a mutant cancerous growth while deforesting the world and killing puppies. SLS is known to be a skin irritant. It’s also a strong part of the body wash pull. A major effect of using it as the primary ingredient is the extremely “sudsy” nature of a body wash. But still, SLS is not good for your skin. And so, the manufacturers of body wash usually add other concocted surfactants (the vast majority of the chemical names in the ingredient list). These others often are milder and known to be “more gentle” on the skin. Sometimes, manufacturers will even include moisturisers to help reduce the effects of the detergent.

From the aspect of this blog, body wash suffers from being environmentally unfriendly. Soap is distributed in easy to recycle paper, body wash is distributed in plastic. And then, in the case of the actual product, body wash often contains multiple chemicals which aren’t nearly as biodegradable.

For a final note, I’d like to point to the one item that bothers me most about standard commercial soaps: “FRAGRANCE”. I have no way of knowing the breakdown of oils or chemicals used. This is in stark contrast to the more premium or natural soap makers, where the full ingredients are listed.

All About Soap

It constantly amazes me the number and amount of things we take for granted on a day to day basis. Personally, I like to think I’m rather smart. For all of my modern day “knowledge” if I was thrown in the wilderness, I likely wouldn’t live past a season. Think for an instant about everything you use without thinking about it – electricity, microwave ovens, natural gas heating, internal combustion engines. Part of this blog was attempting to understand such things, and what better place than something people have taken for granted in our society for decades – soap.

Now, I haven’t read the book “Fight Club”, but I don’t think it’s without reason that a major component was soap. Given that (hopefully) everyone uses it on a regular basis, you’d think people in general would know where it came from. As I discovered on attempting to make soap for myself, you’d be wrong. People don’t.

When I announced my intent to a few people to find out how soap was made, I ran into multiple misconceptions on a repeated basis. The biggest, and most substantial, also demonstrated the common level of knowledge –

“Lye soap, doesn’t that suck?”

I believe this is the unholy combination of marketing and history. Home made soaps where often made by combining potash with animal fat. After burning a hardwood, water run through the ashes of the wood will pick up Potassium Hydroxide (POH). This water could then be added to animal fat to create a surfactant which we call “soap”. A surfactant is simply a substance that lets oil and water mix.

Obtaining, and burning, hardwood, then leaching out the required compounds is something of an involved and time consuming task. So, I, like many others, took a short cut and purchased what I needed, in the form of “100% Lye”.

Now, at some point the term “lye” stopped referring to “Potassium Hydroxide” and instead started referring to a very similar “Sodium Hydroxide”. Sodium hydroxide however, can be manufactured from a simple chemical process involving water, electricity, and table salt. While lye is somewhat dangerous to deal with, it’s been sold as years as drain cleaner, and is also used in other janitorial applications. Go figure Fin would know something about dealing with it before I even brought it home.

In fact, I quickly discovered “cold process soap making” is something of a popular hobby across the states. A multitude of websites, how to guides, and instructions are out there. Many of the “soapers” will say they make “old fashioned lye soap”, and many will sell their soap online or at places like Whole Foods. For a nice premium you can find “organic vegan soap”. Others will tell you about the many evils of store bought soaps, all the while advertising their own “all natural soap made with saponified oils”.

One quality local vendor is Indigo Wild – manufacturers of “Zum Soap” that you’ll find at a multitude of locations. At the store, you’ll find it a lot more expensive than other soaps. Now, I think Zum soap is in general a high quality product, Fin and I have been using it a while now. We both have very sensitive skin, and Zum tends to work better than any other brand we’ve tried. Talking to a Whole Foods hippy about Indigo Wild products versus what you’d buy at the supermarket, would likely make Zum soap sound completely different than any of your discount soaps. While I might agree on quality, the same argument doesn’t jump into “what the soap is”.

Looking at your standard store purchased soaps (we’ll ignore those anti-bacterial for now as well as body washes), you’d likely see the following ingredient list:


Allow me to simply all that for you: Saponified animal fat and vegetable fats, salt, and Tetrasodium edta

Now, the Vegan had one small point – if you’re vegetarian and/or animal killing is high on your “do not” list, store bought soaps tend to have animal fat in them. More than likely, a part of your soap is coming from rendered animal fats. Also note, I didn’t include any added glycerin in there – that’s part of what you get saponifying fats.

The only real additive worth noting in the majority of non-premo-organic soaps is Tetrasodium EDTA. Now, there is some valid concern over the chemical, it’s effects, and it’s safety. There are a couple different websites out there making it seem completely safe, and a cancer inducing death toxin. In general, it’s purpose in soap is to make it less reactive. The vast majority of your “natural soaps”, will not contain it.

After a weekend of effort, I managed to produce my own soap, comparable in quality to those of premium soap manufacturers. And while, Fin and I will be making soap for our own reasons, we could just as easily go the store and purchase a similar product without being confused by the “Natural” on the logo. Some of the natural soaps might be better quality, but some aren’t anything more than repackaged bargain bin discount soap.

In summary, the assumptions we make on something we use on a daily basis can lead to surprising results when pulling back the covers and taking a look at how things really work.

As I continue making soap, I hope to post a bit about it here, what and how I did, how well it worked, and so on.