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.

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BAR FIGHT: Fels Naptha vs Zote Laundry Bar Soap

20140525-193814.jpg White Zote, Pink Zote, and Fels Naptha

Battle of the bars!

In a battle of laundry bar soaps, which one is champ? Didn’t know there was a battle of laundry bar soaps? Or didn’t know there even where laundry bar soaps? I didn’t exactly know until recently either. And they don’t fight each other, but they do fight tough stains and dirt!

Both Fels Naptha and Zote are bar soaps made specifically for laundry, though you may find other uses. From washing dishes or treating poison ivy to catfish bait. I kid you not.

** Note that the English version of the Zote website seems to be either down or gone for good. All links that went to the English version of the Zote website no longer work. Sorry about that. I’ll update all the links, below, as time allows (if posssible). In the meantime, here’s an English translation of their current website. https://alightningbug.org/2016/09/23/zote-soap-in-english/**

The Winner

Because of its simple ingredients, amazing size, and low price, the winner in my court is Zote. Both Fels Naptha and Zote put up a good fight and cleaned extremely well. Using these for laundry has me questioning why other types of detergent were ever made in the first place. Expensive liquids and powders left behind several spots and stains that both bars have busted. I’m really impressed!

Zote is a HUGE bar — more than twice the size of Fels Naptha for the same price.

Zote is all natural with very few ingredients and no fillers. Check out the ingredient list, below. I find the fragrance to be fresh and pleasant. It’s citronella, but not like a patio candle. Fels Naptha doesn’t specify its fragrance.

Zote was easier for me to find in local stores, and I found the softer consistency was easier to work with. My arm muscles got a nice mini workout from grating Zote, but it doesn’t feel like they’re about to fall off. Fels Naptha is much harder like really hard parmesan cheese.

Both soaps can be used to spot-treat laundry stains, as a laundry detergent booster, or as a component of homemade laundry detergent itself. Find my recipe for Homemade Laundry Detergent here. Both bars do the job surprisingly well! Individual results may vary. You may find one bar works better for your needs or preferences. Details below.

You may have trouble finding one or more of these bars in a grocery store near you. If you don’t find them in the laundry section, check near the other bar soaps used for washing your body. You might also check hardware stores. Can’t find either, try regular ol’ Ivory soap. It actually works too. Or if you don’t want to use an animal-based** soap look for castile soap like Kirk’s Castile.

What do you use?

The Details

Fels Naptha:

SIZE: 5.5 oz, 165 g
COST: from $0.97 (at a Walmart, only price I found so far)
COLOR: yellowish, semi-transparent
CONSISTENCY/TEXTURE: hard, grates like a hard Parmesan cheese (mmm, cheese)
RESIDUE: none noticed when grated, pulverized, or powdered pieces are used. Larger slices may not dissolve all the way, but they’ll be transparentish. May depend on water temperature used and water conditions in your area.
WHERE MADE: USA
AROUND SINCE: 1894
FRAGRANCE: soapy, clean, similar to Dial soap
INGREDIENTS: “Soap (sodium tallowate*, sodium cocoate* (or) sodium palmate kernelate*, and sodium palmate*), water, talc, coconut acid*, palm acid*, tallow acid*, PEG-6 methyl ether, glycerin, sorbitol, sodium chloride, pentasodium pentetate and/or tetrasodium etidronate, titatium dioxide, fragrance, Acid Orange (CI 20170), Acid yellow 73 (ci43350)
*contains one or more of these ingredients”
VEGAN: probably not**
HOW IT WORKED: Useful for spot treating. You’ll need to either moisten the end of the bar or the area of the stain before you can rub much soap onto the stain. Rub firmly and thoroughly to cover the stain with a film of soap and let sit a bit before laundering. Since this bar is yellowish it will likewise leave a yellowish spot where you rubbed it. The stain will probably look worse, eeks, but at least you can easily see where you put the soap. Wash. Spot comes clean. Works especially well for oil-based stains like the greasy chicken I dropped down the front of my shirt.

To use in your laundry as actual laundry detergent you’ll need to grate it with a cheese grater or pulverize it in a blender or food processor (cut into medium small chunks first). You can also put smaller slices into the microwave and zap a couple minutes until the soap foams up. It will look a lot like shaving cream is growing out of the piece of soap. It’s way awesome fun to watch! (Maybe a little too much fun for some of us.) Let the foamy mound cool completely, then just crumble it to a powder with your fingers. Add to laundry per directions or use in an online recipe for homemade laundry detergent.

Zote:

SIZE: 14.1 oz , 400 g
COST: $1.99, $1.27, $0.97 (prices from Home Depot, H Mart international grocery, and a Walmart respectively )
COLOR: comes in white and pink, both semi-translucent (The two colors have identical formulas with the exception of non-staining color added to pink. The white is natural and free of added color.)
CONSISTENCY/TEXTURE: firm but pliable, like slightly warmed candle wax
RESIDUE: None noticed when used grated, pulverized, or powdered. Larger slices may not dissolve all the way. May depend on water temperature used and water conditions in your area.
WHERE MADE: Mexico
AROUND SINCE: 1970
FRAGRANCE: clean, soapy, citronella***
INGREDIENTS: for white: “sodium tallowate, sodium cocoate, fragrance, optical brightener.” (And that’s it. Which is pretty cool if you ask me.)
For Pink, all the above plus “violet 10.” And that’s it.
OTHER INFO: 66% fatty acid. Alkalinity of 0.04% (bath soap is 0.02%) Website claims some folks use it to bathe. Everything but the optical brightener is just soap, right? Maybe it will impart a bright, glowing complexion. Who can say?
VEGAN: no **
HOW IT WORKED: Useful for spot treating. Fresh out of the wrapper you can squish it with your hands like firm clay. It was soft enough to rub directly onto the spot or stain with no water. It leaves a wax-like film. But the bar seems to get a little firmer once opened for a while so you may find it helpful to either moisten the end of the bar or the area of the stain. Rub firmly and thoroughly to cover the stain with a film of soap and let sit a bit before laundering. White Zote leaves a cloudy colorless film, while pink Zote leaves a pinkish film where you rubbed it. Let sit a bit. Wash. Spot comes clean. Like Fels Naptha, it works especially well for oil-based stains.

I was able to remove some exceptionally tough stains by adding a little hydrogen peroxide to the stain along with the Zote treatment. There were some really hideous stains at the underarm area of a cream-color, short sleeve sweater I rather like. How did I sweat that much? Maybe it was some icky brand of deodorant that left the stain? Anyway, I tried several commercial spot removers as well as pre-treating with conventional laundry detergent and adding a small amount of bleach to the laundry. But those stains did not budge until I rubbed liberally with Zote and added a little peroxide. Then I let it sit a bit and laundered with a homemade laundry soap (made with Zote, washing soda, and borax). The stain was darn near 100% gone except a small streak right at the seam which probably didn’t get as much Zote.

To use in your laundry as actual laundry detergent you’ll need to grate Zote with a cheese grater. A blender or food processor might work, but because it’s softer it may also clump unless you let the bar cure and firm up first. You can also put slices into the microwave. Cutting into manageable slices is especially important with Zote since the bars are HUGE. So, really, cut maybe 1/16 off and then zap that. It would take forever to heat the entire bar all the way and even if you managed without destroying your microwave, the resulting foam would take up more cubic inches than can fit in a microwave. Maybe more than a whole kitchen! This might be amusing for some, but it would be bad. Just bad. So smallish pieces, okay? Zap a few minutes and it will also look like shaving cream is growing out of the piece of soap. It’s also way awesome fun to watch! Who needs a TV? And it leaves a fresh scent in the microwave for a little while. Let the foamy mounds cool completely — they’ll deflate some. Then crumble. Add to laundry per directions or use in an online recipe for homemade laundry detergent. Zote’s website also offers a recipe for making liquid Zote by cooking it with water on your stove until it dissolves. You can let it cool to a gel for future use. Check out the list of other uses for Zote! Wacky. Use per directions.

***OF NOTE: Neither Fels Naptha nor Zote is fragrance free. I thought they were before I purchased them. Lots of recipes for homemade laundry detergent for sensitive skin call for one of these bars. Perhaps the bars are already more skin-friendly as they’re really just classic soap and not not a blend of strong detergents. I find that the scent in these bars is not overwhelming and doesn’t stay with my laundry for long. Neither bar irritates my skin or causes itching. If you have very sensitive skin you may find that one works better than the other for you. On their website Zote specifies citronella oil as the ingredient used to fragrance their bars. It’s natural and diluted citronella oil is skin friendly for most people. Plus it can keep mosquitoes away! Though I don’t find that the fragrance stays on the clothing for very long. Fels Naptha does not specify anything other than “fragrance” as far as I can tell, but it smells more like a blend of somethings to me. I’ll update if I find out.

Can be good at removing the oil of plants like poison ivy. Use before rash shows up for best results.

**Neither bar is vegan — both do or probably* do contain tallow / tallowate which is usually derived from cow fat. Presumably the tallow is a secondary product of the meat industry and cows aren’t actually slaughtered for the exclusive purpose of making laundry soap. Because yeah. The same could be said about most commercial body bar soaps on the market. Which is pretty creepy if you ask me. I’m glad they use as much of the animal as they can if they’re going to slaughter at all. But it kind of gives new meaning to body bar soap, no? Ack. I’ll probably get over it for laundry purposes for now …

Looking for a vegan suitable bar? Kirk’s Castile Soap is made of mostly coconut oil. Castile soaps are, by definition, vegetable-oil based soaps. Other tallow-free soaps include Dr. Bronner’s, Kiss My Face, Burt’s Bees, and Zum Bar. Amazingly you should be able to use any of these on laundry, but A.) They usually cost way more, though I found Kirk’s Castille soap for only $1.29/4oz bar at MOM’s Organic Market — not too bad, really. B.) Be careful to use a lighter-color bar as darker ones may have clay, charcoal, or other ingredients mixed in. Those could potentially stain your laundry.

Copyright 2014 Debora Kapke

Updated 8/10/2014 to add a link to my recipe for homemade laundry detergent (above).

Updated 09/23/16 to add a link to a temporary English translation of the Zote website and some notes.