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Building an effective laundry detergent

My son is still in preschool and he comes home with a variety of staining from tomato soup to playground filth. The only product I have ever used to treat his stained clothes is Castile Bar soap. The oils from the soap cling to the stains while the surfactants wash it off. For stubborn stains, I soak them for a few hours.

Borax has a fiery debate all over the web. The environmental working group believes borax to be toxic. However, some counterclaims suggest it isn’t. I say, why use it if you dont need to? In order to come up with satisfactory detergent recipes without borax, I ran an experiment.

Why Make Your Own Laundry detergent

Well, here its the truth. There are many responsible and natural laundry detergents out there and you don’t need to make your own. However, there is some level of satisfaction knowing you have a bit more control over the ingredients. It might also be a bit cheaper.

The staining

I got an old cotton t-shirt that was ready to be thrown out, cut it in many pieces and stained them with tomato sauce, cherry juice, and olive oil.

I allowed the stains to dry for more than 24 hours. As a disclaimer, I didn’t expect any laundry detergent to completely get rid of these stains without proper stain treatment. But, the stains will make it easier to see how well the ingredients performed.

The Ingredients

I didn’t want a detergent that was overly complicated. Many ingredients have the same function and mixing them together doesn’t necessarily make for a better outcome. I used only 4 ingredients for my test. I used washing soda, borax, liquid Castile, and solid castile soap. The liquid vs solid Castile was to prove my suspicion that bar soap has more stain cleaning power.

Let’s talk briefly about the purpose of these cleaning ingredients.

Liquid Castile Soap – This pulls oil and dirt away and suspends it in the water. The now dirty water will be washed away when rinsed. Liquid Castile Soap is a little less moisturizing than the solid Castile Soap, which might not matter as much when doing laundry.

A note about the liquid castile soap. I used the lavender-scented version in the experiment, and it is pretty strong (great if you love lavender). I prefer to use the unscented version, like this one. Dr. Bronner comes in a variety of scent and the best way to try them all out is to get a multi-pack sampler.

Solid Castile Soap – This performs the same function as the liquid version, except it is a bar of hard soap. To be able to use it in a washing machine it needs to be grated. It is slightly more moisturizing than the liquid alternative. You can check the price here.

Washing Soda – This is used as a water softener to boost the power of detergent or soap. Metal deposits can make water hard and difficult to clean with. Washing soda softens the water which will then allow the detergent or soap to do its job. You can check the price of it here.

The Experiments

I am using the word experiment here very loosely. This is clearly not done or sponsored by a research scientist. Also, my method is very manual and there might be natural variations in the process since I am human.

The hypotheses (assumptions)

  • Borax helps the clothes get cleaner than washing soda
  • Solid Castile cleans better than liquid Castile
  • Borax, washing soda and Castile will make the best combination with the greatest cleaning power

The testing combinations

  1. Washing soda only
  2. Borax only
  3. Liquid Castile Only
  4. Solid Castile Only
  5. Solid Castile and washing soda
  6. Solid Castile and borax
  7. Commercial detergent (I used All)
  8. Solid Castile, borax and washing soda

Washing soda and borax are not cleaning agents on their own. They are more effective as a booster, which means they need to be used with a cleaner. Testing them individually though can give a hint as to which is more effective. I do know that Borax is an effective booster. What I do hope for is that a detergent without it can be as effective.

The Method

It would be extremely wasteful to put each of the stained fabric in a washing machine just to see how well the combinations above worked. So, I opted for a manual method.

The instructions on both the borax and washing soda are 2 tablespoons of product to a gallon of water, for manual washing, but 1/2 cup for a machine. This measurement equates to 1.5 teaspoons of product to 4 cups of water so that was the formula I used for all the product tested.

Next, I added the stained cloth and swirled it with a spoon for about a minute, then I left it in the water for 5 minutes. I then lightly hand-washed the cloth and rinsed. The steps are illustrated below, except for the rinsing step.

The results of the test

Washing soda vs Borax (part 1)

Washing soda isn’t a detergent by itself so my expectation was really low as to how it would perform. It did lighten the stains a bit and so did the borax.

It seemed like the washing soda did a slightly better job. This is just a gimmick though because neither washing soda nor borax is used alone. Let’s see what happens when we pair them with castile soap.

Washing soda vs Borax (part 2)

I used 1.5 teaspoons of solid Castile with 1.5 teaspoons of washing soda and repeated this measurement for borax. This is double what is used when a single product is used so it is expected to perform better but it is obvious how effective borax is when used as a booster. I can see why it is a popular ingredient in home-made detergents. The stain is almost gone and tomato stains are tough. This proved my hypothesis that borax is a better booster than washing soda.

The washing soda did perform well though as it did also lighten the stain a lot, but my hypothesis is proven, borax is more effective than washing soda. Even though this was suspected I was still disappointed.

Liquid vs solid Castile – which performs better

I don’t know the science behind it but I always believed that bar Castile Soap performs better than the liquid version. These photos seem to prove that theory. In fact, the way I remove stains from my laundry is to rub it with a bar of Castile Soap and handwash the stained area. I have never used any kind of boosters or commercial stain removers. If the sun is available I will let the stain side be exposed to sunlight as well.

Looking back at the previous ‘experiment’ where washing soda was compared with borax, it didn’t even seem that the washing soda had any effect since the Castile Soap was so good at removing the stain on its own. My water is quite soft, though, so washing soda would definitely help those with hard water.

Solid Castile with Borax and Washing soda

The pictures here show an example of what one of the stained cloth looked like and then what it looks like after washing with a combination of solid Castile, washing soda and borax. The stain is virtually gone. The combination seemed to perform slightly better than solid Castile and borax only.

Images of all testing combinations

Here are the results of all the testing combinations with numbers 6 and 8 being the most successful. The combinations are here as a reminder:

  1. Washing soda only
  2. Borax only
  3. Liquid Castile Only
  4. Solid Castile Only
  5. Solid Castile and washing soda
  6. Solid Castile and borax
  7. Commercial detergent (I used All)
  8. Solid Castile, borax and washing soda
Results of the 8 testing combinations.

Solid Castile by itself performed well enough. Of interest is the commercial laundry detergent. It performed worse than all combinations with solid Castile.

It is good to note that if you have very stubborn stains and want to use borax as a pre-treatment then it is effective. However, I would advise some caution when using borax and to ensure that the clothes are properly rinsed.

Also, clothes with tomato stains are an extreme example. Most of our laundry doesn’t need a potent cocktail to get them clean.

After completing this experiment I realized one thing. In my focus on finding out whether borax can be dropped from the detergent recipe without much loss, I forgot to work on practical measurements of the products. I had used 1.5 teaspoon washing soda, 1.5 teaspoon borax and 1.5 teaspoons solid Castile for a total of 4.5 teaspoons of product for 4 cups of water.

These product measurements are the equivalent of about half a cup of Castile, half a cup of borax and a half cup of washing soda for a washing machine. That would be an excessive amount of product and wouldn’t be economical to use for every wash. Also, the goal is to figure out how much washing soda can be used to replace borax.

I had to then run another mini-experiment with the focus of adjusting the washing soda and castile soap to practical levels and acceptable results.

Coming up with an effective homemade detergent

For the combination of all three products, I used 1/2 teaspoon of castile soap, 1/2 teaspoon of borax and 1/2 teaspoon of washing soda. Using borax was to satisfy a curiosity of how well borax performed when there is less of it. It seemed that borax needs more product (or less water) to eat through those stains.

For Castile and washing soda only I used 1/2 teaspoon of Castile and 1.5 teaspoons of washing soda. The results were pretty similar to the borax example even though I used three times as much.

Ok, let’s increase castile soap a little more. Let’s use 1 teaspoon castile soap and 2 teaspoons washing soda.

A side by side comparison with one of the original stained cloth shows the final result of 1 part solid castile soap and 2 parts washing soda. This works out to roughly 1/2 cup of washing soda and 1/4 cup of castile soap. The stains are not gone but have lightened a lot. The good news is we do not need a very strong concoction to wash every-day clothes unless you have a job that leaves your clothes well stained.

The recipes

Now that I have spent some time playing around with these products I can come up with a recipe that I can recommend.

Regular Detergent

Grate the castile soap with a grater. Thoroughly mix the castile soap with washing soda, using a glove to prevent the mixture from touching your skin. Use 1/2 cup in your washing machine.

Detergent with extra stain boosting abilities

Grate the castile soap with a grater. Thoroughly mix the castile soap with washing soda, using a glove to prevent the mixture from touching your skin. Use 1/2 cup in your washing machine.

One Ingredient stain buster (handwashing method)

If you have tough baked-on stains you want to get out, you need to hand wash with soap. A washing machine tumbles clothes indiscriminately. When you handwash you can apply the focus to the stained area.

Wet the garment and then rub the castile soap on the stain. If you have hard water, first add a tablespoon of washing soda to about a gallon of water. Use your hands to apply friction to the stained area. Rinse gently. For resistant stains, Set the clothes in a pan with a little water and soak for several hours to overnight. You may hang to dry or add the garment to the washing machine with the rest of the laundry.

Hard Water instructions

I dont have hard water, so the castile soap alone works well for me. If you have hard water, add 1 tablespoon of washing soda to a small amount of water (half-gallon or so) and mix thoroughly. Wet the stained area with this mixture and rub the castile soap on the stain. Apply friction with your hands to remove the stain. If needed soak the clothes for several hours.

Is handwashing stains time-consuming?

Spot checking your clothes before laundry and handwashing the stained parts is a good strategy. Many laundry detergents include many stain-fighting ingredients in their recipe as the washing machine is not great at removing stains that are concentrated in one location. These additional ingredients then contribute to wear and tear of clothes.

As I said earlier, my son is in pre-school, and he comes home with tomato soup, grape jelly, mud, sunflower butter, paint, and a variety of stains on his clothes. The only thing I do is handwash his stains and all his clothes are stain-free and last him until he grows them out. It takes me about 20 minutes to spot check, and remove the stains in all his clothes. In most cases, I dont need to soak the clothes.

The Stain Buster (washing machine method) – caution follows

Grate the castile soap and mix with the borax using a glove to prevent the mixture from touching your skin. Use 3/4 cup in the washing machine with warm to hot temperature. Use for laundry with heavy stains. Rinse twice.

More Borax Warnings

I am cautious about borax. The EWG doesn’t have the best opinion of it, but some say this is misguided. Since I dont have a lab with chemists, I can merely report what I have researched. I do not believe borax to be as terrible as some other cleaning options out there. So, I do see a specific use case for laundry if you have especially tough stains, and handwashing isn’t practical.

If you read my entire post, you will see that I have found borax to be a powerful stain remover. Borax is not included in my other laundry recipes above because many clothes dont have intense stains. If your work clothes have mainly sweat with a small food stain here or there, you dont need aggressive measures.


I hope you found this helpful. I have long wanted to make detergent, but I didn’t want to throw some ingredients together and hope they worked. I grew up in rural Jamaica, and a staple for our laundry, which is usually hand-washed, is a bar of blue soap. For years that’s all we used, and our whites remain whites, and our colors don’t fade.

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