Dirty Laundry Come Clean: A Homemade Laundry Detergent Recipe

Several weeks ago I blogged a comparison of Fels Naptha and Zote laundry bar soaps. That’s here:

BAR FIGHT: Fels Naptha vs Zote Laundry Bar Soap.

Since then I’ve experimented with small batches of homemade laundry detergent. I’m really impressed with how well it cleans! And it doesn’t make my skin itch.

I’ve seen a lot of recipes for both powder and liquid versions. From my little batches I’ve found a couple of things that work well for me.

Powder Laundry Soap or Detergent is much easier and quicker to make than liquid since it requires no cooking or pre-dissolving. It’s also easier to store. Though keeping a small amount of liquid on hand can make a great spot treatment (recipe to come).

Homemade Powder Laundry Detergent:

1 Cup of grated*** Laundry Bar Soap lightly packed (I like Pink Zote*.)

2 Cups of Washing Soda

1 Cup of Borax

I use about 3 Tablespoons** of the mixture per load. Folks with HE machines may want to start with 1T or 2T. My washing machine is anything but high efficiency!

Grate the bar soap, measure ingredients, mix, and use. I can make a double batch with a hand cheese grater in less than 15 minutes (larger quantities will require more time). It dissolves best in hot or warm water. If you need to wash in cold water see below.

The small batches are quick & easy to make. You can double the recipe and put the ingredients in a gallon-size Ziplock-type baggie and mix by stirring and kneading it in the bag. The baggie isn’t nearly as attractive as the vintage glass I’ve seen others use, but it has some advantages. It’s super easy to mix the ingredients. If clumps start to form you can easily break them up. I keep a measuring spoon right inside and close it tightly between use, squeezing out extra air. It takes up very little space. And I reuse the same bag several times.

I found Zote and Fels Naptha at Walmart for 97 cents each. I can find Zote at my local hardware store and international market too. Check in the laundry section or with other bar soaps. Washing Soda ($3.99/box) and Borax ($3.99/box) are carried in the laundry section of many of the same stores and at many grocery stores too.

*I like Zote because it’s so economical and has a few simple ingredients. I like the Pink variety because I can see how well I’m mixing the soap with the other ingredients. Is there a bunch of pink on one side and hardly any on the other? Then I need to mix it up more. Because grated soap can be kind of “fluffy” you’ll want to pack lightly as if measuring brown sugar. Don’t pack too firmly or you’ll end up with a whole new bar of soap.

**I see a lot of Laundry Detergent recipes calling for much less laundry soap per load. If your clothing is getting clean with that, great! Use less. But if you think about it, the box of Washing Soda itself tells you to use 2 Tablespoons a 1/2 Cup per load. I guarantee if you mix it and use only 1T of total mix, you’re getting a lot less than 2T of Washing Soda in your laundry. High Efficiency washers may very well be fine with 1T since those use less water, but anybody with a regular washing machine is probably not getting very much active ingredient. Even plain water can clean out some dirt, so you should probably do some experimenting to see what works best for you. I found that to get our clothing clean in our machine I need 3T. The mix is low sudsing, and it’s still very economical.

Our machine kind of sucks (pardon my language), so it needs all the help it can get!

I like to start the machine on the Hot water setting no matter what fabric I’ll be washing. (I can switch later.) This helps it dissolve more quickly. I set the load size to Small and let the hot water start flowing, then I add the homemade laundry detergent. After the homemade laundry detergent has been in the hot water for a few minutes, I can switch the water setting to warm or cold as needed for the fabric. Then I switch the load setting to Medium or Large as needed to fill the machine the rest of the way. The detergent doesn’t have to be totally dissolved before adding clothing. As the machine agitates the mixture will dissolve even more. But the more the detergent dissolves before I start the load, the more the active ingredients have a chance to do their job.

I should mention that my washing machine lives in my kitchen. Not sitting in the middle of the kitchen next to the fridge, but it’s a stackable in a closet/pantry. So it’s not exactly the “large” size it claims to be, and it doesn’t wash as well as I’d like. But I don’t have to go far to switch a setting. If I am going to walk away I can leave the lid open so the wash cycle won’t start until I’m ready. More on that soon.

I haven’t had a problem dissolving homemade laundry soap with any temperature water — my clothes still rinse cleanly. But you can try putting the ingredients in a blender to make finer particles that will dissolve more quickly. Let the dust settle before you take the lid off the blender. Keep it dry to help prevent clumps.

If you tried the above suggestions for cold water and still have a problem with powder dissolving enough then you might try a liquid. Water in some areas may respond differently. I’ll post a recipe for that soon. Liquids also make good spot removers and may be necessary for some HE machines.

***Editing to add that about 1 inch of Zote laundry bar grates to make about 1 Cup of grated soap lightly packed. About 2 inches of Kirk’s Castile equals 1 Cup. I’d expect Fels Naptha to be similar to 2 inches of bar per 1 Cup of grated soap, but having actually measured.


14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: BAR FIGHT: Fels Naptha vs Zote Laundry Bar Soap | alightningbug
  2. Trackback: What kind of freak uses laundry BAR soap? | alightningbug
  3. nancy u.
    Mar 10, 2016 @ 19:29:34

    Ive been making mine about 3 years. I grate 1 lg pink zote. Let it sit out on a paper plate, or newspaper, a few days and it will get dried out and crumbly. I add 2 cups each washing soda and borax. I take small amounts at a time and put in my magic bullet. A food processor or blender will work too. It will pulverize it to a fine powder. I have to do it outside because the powder, being so fine, will get in your face. I use 2 tab, but 4 tab for large or stinky dirty loads. I use white vinegar in a downy ball. I also use warm or hot water, so I cant vouch for cold water. But its supposed to work in cold too.i clean my washer with the affresh tablets once a month. Ive never had any deposits on clothes. Fels naptha can be used too, works as well. But I prefer the pink zote. Smells fresh and citrisy. Ive made this and put in pretty containers with a ribbon or bow, and given as christmas gifts with a 2 tab coffee measuring spoon. This really works very well. I wont go back to bought detergent again.


    • Jessica Mitchell
      Jun 23, 2016 @ 09:57:44

      So u don’t use a bunch of water in a 5 gal. Bucket as some recipes call for? Because I have tried that recipe & didn’t see my clothes were really clean@ all ?


      • alightningbug
        Jun 26, 2016 @ 17:25:10

        Hi Jessica, thanks for stopping by. Yes, I leave the mix as a powder. This works for me. I don’t have a lot of storage space, so storing a bunch of extra water mixed with soap isn’t what I want. I use a medium to medium-small cheese grater on the soap so it will dissolve fairly quickly in the water. Some folks use a blender or food processor. (I like a little extra arm exercise.) From some recipes I’ve seen online for liquid laundry detergent or soap, there’s such a small amount of active ingredient that I feel like it won’t be much more effective than plain water — at least for me & my machine. With the powder, it’s easy to store and it cleans well. A little extra spot treatment is still helpful for some stains and spots. Good luck!

  4. Jody Pratt
    Aug 24, 2016 @ 15:38:13

    if you have time- and don’t like to portion later- you can lightly dampen a mix and press into an ice tray – let it sit till dry– store in a container of choice that won’t break them up- so then you can throw a cube or tow in the wash and be done.


  5. Kimber Barton
    Sep 23, 2016 @ 13:46:26

    Unfortunately, the newer washers don’t have the selection for load size anymore. They “magically” determine this for you. And some of them will not let you make changes to some selections, like temperature, once you’ve started a load.

    On a friend’s machine, I said FINE! I’ll just turn you off and back on then! Well, it would not let me turn it back on until it had drained the water that was in the tub. All the soap literally went down the drain before being used…


    • alightningbug
      Sep 23, 2016 @ 17:59:12

      Yeah, it will be tricky with newer washers. If it is truly not dissolving there are a few things I would try. 1.) leave out the Borax. It’s harder to dissolve (especially in cold water). You could substitute baking soda for the Borax. Or use just Super Washing Soda and grated bar soap. If you do that, reduce the amount of homemade laundry soap you use. Start with one or two tablespoons per load. Adjust as needed. 2.) be sure to grate the bar soap very finely. You can grate it. Let it dry a bit and the crumble it to a fine powder. Or use a blender or food processor. 3.) if the other options fail, then you might want to make a liquid. It involves “cooking” the soap in water until it dissolves then add the powdered parts until they dissolve. Again, I have a harder time dissolving Borax, so try with and without.


    • Linda
      Aug 24, 2019 @ 15:34:31

      I’m going to keep my 20-year old washer going as long as possible. I’ve seen those new washers. No thanks!


  6. Chris
    Nov 17, 2016 @ 21:26:56

    For some time now, I take 8 cups of boiling water and put it in a bucket that has the washing soda and borax in it and keep stirring till it is dissolved. Then in a second kettle have my fels naptha grated on the stove to start dissolving in the water as it starts to boil I just turn the burner down. Then I just keep stirring to insure all is dissolved and put into the bucket with the dissolved power ingredients. And then add the rest of the water needed for the recipe. I have done this for some time now and is sure seems to help mix these much better together with much less precipitate left at the bottom of the bucket.


    • Silence DoGooder
      Jul 14, 2019 @ 20:32:14

      I make my laundry soap, by grating either Fels-Naptha or Zote it to the hot water, stir until dissolved then add the Borax and the Washing Soda. And Stir.. and the rest of the water and pour into a plastic laundry jug. Had a empty laundry jug and I used it to store the liquid laundry detergent. Some stains are a little harder, rub either the Fels or the Zote into or some Dawn Dish soap if I’m in a hurry.


  7. Roberta
    Jan 07, 2017 @ 11:40:42

    The Zote website doesn’t mention using other ingredients to make liquid soap for laundry. Basically, it seems like they are just saying to use only the Zote. What is the purpose of the other ingredients in the above recipe?
    Zote also doesn’t say how much to use, so I guess you have to experiment on that. Anybody have any experience just using Zote in a front-loading machine? Also, the Zote website translation uses the word “dunce” when referring to washing soap. I don’t know what that means. Any insights on that?


  8. Ossy Emmanuel
    Mar 22, 2017 @ 18:09:38

    that’s great!


  9. Marcie Miller
    Feb 26, 2020 @ 22:48:03

    Love the info, very helpful. My husband and I lived down om the baja peninsula of Mexico for a few years and the bar laundry soap was very popular, in fact I found that Mexico has more cleaning products than we do in the USA! Thank you for the great advice!!


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