Monday, July 16, 2012

Getting Clean and Going Green (without cleaning out your wallet) Pt.1: Laundry

Green cleaning is currently a hot source of marketing for big companies like SC Johnson and Proctor and Gamble.  Unfortunately, most of their products don't hold up to their environmentally-friendly image as some would hope.  Not to mention, although most are made with "natural" products, you'll be forking out an unnatural amount of money to restock your cleaning pantry with the goods.

This will be the first of a multi-part series on cleaning your home and your body without breaking the bank or poisoning our waterways.  Fish like clean water, too!  

Today's topic is most people's  most-hated chore, but happens to be my favorite... laundry!  I'm the weirdest housewife you will ever meet because I LOVE TO DO LAUNDRY.  Granted, I don't have children yet, and my tune will probably change rather quickly when I'm having to do a load or more a day, especially with the our planned use of cloth diapers... Long story short, I love hopping into freshly washed sheets and clean clothes absolutely fantastic on my skin.  

For now, we're not going to go into the specifics about water use, so that's a topic for another day.  Today, I'm going to discuss laundry products.  

There are many "green" laundry detergents on the market.  See this link for a review of 6 of the most commonly available.  The biggest complaint with nearly all of these detergents is that they don't actually remove stains!  Why?, you ask.  Watch out, I'm about to bring the science.  

Most of these "detergents" don't actually contain what chemistry would call a detergent. DISCLAIMER: THIS IS ABOUT TO GET VERY TECHNICAL Most of them contain mild or plant-based surfractants, while a "detergent" is indeed a member of this group, not all sufractants are detergents. Let me explain. A surfractant breaks water tension by having two ends, like a magnet. One end is hydrophilic, meaning it likes to hang out with water (anything "aqueous" or "water"-like). While the other end is hydrophobic, meaning it would like to get away from water, as far as possible (like fat). Having this property is termed "amphiphilic". A surfractant diffuses through water to allow hydrophobic and hydrophilic things to interact more readily. This can produce a phenomenon that almost allows fat or oils to dissolve into water. A detergent, however, is similar, but oh so very different. It is a SURFRACTANT that has "cleaning properties". Therefore, not all surfractants get stuff clean. For example, some salad dressing companies put surfractants in their salad dressings to keep the oil and aqueous components from separating as readily, but you don't see people washing their clothes with salad dressing, huh? Therein lies the real difference.

Photo: Courtesy of

In addition to these "eco-friendly" detergents not really being detergents at all (for the most part), they are pretty hard on the pocketbook. A 20 oz bottle of Method brand Free+Clear will cost you about $12.50. It claims there are about 50 loads-worth in there. I would say this is reasonable if you have a high efficiency machine and aren't doing a large load, which for me is ALL of the time, because I almost never run a load unless it is full. Wastes water, wastes energy, wastes my time, and I don't like it. Anyway, if you go by their calculations, that's $0.25 a load. Not bad, right? Look at it this way. I am a two-person launderer. I do about 4 loads a week if I am doing all of our bathroom and kitchen towels, and our sheets. In a 30 day month, that leads to approximately 17 loads of laundry a month. That means I am spending almost $4.30 a month, just on the detergent. That's over $50 a year. That may not seem like much. But just wait, there's more.

Essentially, I am saying that not only is almost every "eco-friendly", but you are spending $50 a year on something that doesn't do it's job.  Now what if you want to get out stains?  That means you are probably going to spend at least another $50-100 a year on an additive or pretreament that will get out the stains your green laundry detergent was supposed to get out to begin with.  Not to mention, you may suck it up and wash your clothes with your green detergent alone, only to find out you need to wash the item again to get out the stain it missed the first time around.  This cost does not include fabric softener. Which, let's face it, there's not really an environmentally-friendly option for, even though some companies claim this.  After all, it's essentially emulsified wax (they did that with a SURFRACTANT!) that coats your clothes to make them feel and look soft, but actually it seals in stains and makes odors harder to get rid of.  

Boy, do I have a solution for you.  Thank God, right?  Because you were wondering where I was going with all this chemistry and cost analysis junk, right?  OK.... here it goes....

MAKE YOUR OWN!  Yes, I said it, and no I'm not crazy.  I know you're overworked.  I know you don't have time.  I know one of the main reasons you buy this multifunctional detergent to begin with is so that you'll save time and money.  But I also know if you somehow found your way to this obscure blog, you're probably serious about greening up your life and your wallet. Here's what you need for a powdered detergent. You can also make the liquid version, which is the same recipe, but requires A LOT of hot water and overnight dissolving, and my opinion, is a huge waste of time and water. Plus, all of these are great for cleaning things other than your laundry. More to come at a later date.

All of these products can be found at *most* chain grocery or superstores.  I have had luck finding it at Wal-Mart (as long as it's not laundry day and I'm out of everything listed).

-1 bar Fels-Naptha **(note:  this cleans the best from what I've seen, but almost any dye-free bar soap will do, and if you are vegan, this bar contains tallow and is not 1st choice for your beliefs)
-1 cup Borax (boric acid... you know... 20 MULE TEAM???!!)
-1 cup washing soda (read:  NOT!! baking soda.. you want sodium carbonate, not bicarbonate.  Small name difference, huge chemical property difference)

That's all you need!  Now, take that old rusty cheese grater you kept because you knew one day you'd find a use for.  Lock your children in their room with a super pack of Legos and a promise of a much-desired prize if they keep quiet and build the biggest Lego fort ever.  Send your husband out to change the oil.  Turn on that show you haven't seen since before you got married.  Yes, I am giving you permission to waste some electricity.  Just please tell me you've invested in a low-energy usage TV.....

Now that you've set yourself up, grate the crap out of that bar of Fels-Naptha.  Some food processors can take the beating out of crumbling up a huge bar of soap, but I wouldn't recommend this method.  It can get messy really quickly, it's hard to clean up due to the tallow in the soap, and your food processor will smell of Fels-Naptha for the next 3 cleanings (even in the dishwasher).  Plus, ew... you eat stuff out of there, and I doubt you want to feel like you just said a curse word and your mom made you clean your mouth out.

Now, take a big bowl and wooden spoon/stirring paddle.  Mix in your Borax and washing soda until everything is equally distributed.  Done!

It only takes about 2 tbsp for a big load of laundry. I like to use an old OxiClean scoop because it's just about the right size.  If the clothes are REALLY dirty, I use two of these scoops, but don't use too much.  This won't allow for the detergent to dissolve entirely, and you may get the notorious detergent scuz left over after the rinse.  To soften, you can use your regular eco poision fabric softener, but you really may not need it.  I find this detergent gets my clothes super soft and static-free.  If you want an eco-friendly option, I have used white vinegar in my bounty ball, which is great for people with fragrance allergies and kills residual odors (but if you're using this detergent, you probably won't have any leftover odors, even old ones!).  

The hardest part of all this is literally the grating and I find it relaxing in a monotonous sort of way.  Just don't try to grate your finger.  Been there, it's not fun!  I like to get about three batches together at the same time, so I just grate soap like crazy through an online episode of Army Wives and then I'm done for the next couple months.  

The best part of all this the cost and the fact that it's more eco-friendly than *almost* anything on the market and definitely gets your clothes cleaner than ANYTHING (eco-poision included) I have EVER tried.  Let me be clear... I took my husbands filthy dingy gray socks and without bleach (another topic), I washed them once in this detergent and they were cleaner than I had ever seen them since like the 2nd time he wore them. That's saying a lot!  My husband's feet are one of the nastiest things I've ever smelled, let alone had the pleasure of washing clothing that touches them.  (Love you, dear!)

SO.. for the cost break down. Fels-Naptha: $0.99/bar. Borax: ~$5.50/76 oz box (8oz/batch= 9.5 batches... approx $0.58/batch). Washing soda: ~$4.50/55oz box (8oz/batch= 6.875 batches.. approx $0.65/batch). That's $2.22 per batch. Each batch makes enough soap to fill up an old bulk potato salad 4 lb container I cleaned and reuse for this purpose. It's filled to the brim and I can barely get the lid on, so we'll estimate that a 70 oz instead of 64. Two tablespoons or 1 OxiClean scoop is 1 oz. That means one batch has approximately 70 loads-worth of detergent. That means each load is just a hair over $0.03! That's an insane difference compared to the minimum of $0.25 if you're using commerical detergent alone, without the cost of fabric softener or pretreatment added! Instead of $50/year spent on detergent, I am spending less than $6.20! That means I can go to the movies, out to eat, and still have money left over from the money I didn't spend on detergent (that is, if I had both time and the money I saved :) ). Now, how's that for the geeky green science wife who looks like an idiot grating soap with a cheese grater by the TV at 2 PM on a Saturday? Not such an idiot, huh?

Now, do you see the reason for my insanity? Just be glad I love laundry so much that I spent the last two hours doing all these calculations for you guys. Thank goodness I am putting my future PhD to good use!

Happy Green Cleaning!


  1. What a great blog! It's funny that you posted about this because just a week or so I was looking into making laundry detergent at home. We have a family of four and I am doing at least one load of laundry a day. Most days it's two loads! It is a huge chunk of money we're spending every month and I thought this would be a great way to save some cash. The next time I go to the store I will be stocking up on all the ingredients! =D

    1. Let me know how it works out for you!

  2. I'm in the process of making this now! But I used different soap. It's really soft and crumbly, will that make a difference? I'm worried about it mixing thoroughly. Anyways, thanks for the tutorial! I can't wait to see how this turns out! :)

  3. What kind of soap did you use? It can make a difference, especially if the soap has perfumes or a different type of fat in it. If it is Ivory or Zote (harder, pink laundry soap similar to Fels Naptha), it should work fine. If you are using just regular bath soap, it could have a lot of perfumes or moisturizers in it that will gunk up your washer and your clothes. Softer soaps may dissolve better, but it leads to residue. I recommend using soap specifically made for laundry, such as Zote or Fels Naptha.