Homemade Detergent for a Cheap and Effective Wash

It's quite easy to make a simple homemade detergent for washing clothes, at least as a get-you-by until you can get to the shops.

Here's how to make a simple but effective homemade laundry detergent from common household ingredients.

Real detergent?

OK, maybe this isn't strictly what we generally mean by detergent. Wikipaedia defines detergent as: "a compound, or a mixture of compounds, intended to assist cleaning." Which is what this is...but, it goes on: "The term is often used to differentiate between soap and other chemical surfactants used for cleaning purposes."

Well I won't split hairs about it! This mixture certainly works well and you don't have to be so concerned about the chemical surfactants, phosphates and the complex chemical fragrances present in many detergents which can cause both health and environmental problems. Of course some block laundry soaps may contain added chemicals. I prefer to use olive oil soap which is just pure soap.

This homemade laundry detergent is also quite cheap - though probably not quite as cheap as eco washing balls.

If you have a laundry tip or green cleaning tip you would like to add please see the "Add Your Tips" button on the navigation bar.

Washing machine safety

This recipe for homemade detergent is suitable for use with all common types of washing machine, though you should check with your manufacturer if you have a gleaming new machine and/or you are of a nervous disposition!

It should not cause any damage to your machine (at least not for occasional use) but if your washing machine drum is developing rust spots the salt will worsen the problem.

See below for another method of making homemade laundry detergent which does not use salt.

I find this homemade detergent is a great solution for when the wash ball has (finally) run low and I can't find time to re-fill it. Eco wash balls are one of the very best solutions to a cheap and effective laundry day.

You can also use this homemade detergent as a stop-gap solution for when you don't want to travel to the shops solely to buy detergent! This helps to keep your carbon footprint lower as transport is a major contributor to greenhouse gases (around 24% of carbon emissions in the UK, for example).

A simple homemade detergent - the ingredients

The basic ingredients are laundry soap, salt and sodium bicarbonate.

You don't strictly need the bicarbonate for this homemade detergent. However, it helps to keeps things fresh-smelling and it helps to soften the water, so the soap goes further.

You can also add a little essential oil for a fragranced washload if you like. Always choose fragrances which are recommended for diluted application on skin. See An Aromatherapy Air Freshener Using Essential Oils for more information on using essential oils.


Buy some ordinary household soap. In Britain, the Co-op stocks laundry soap. You can use ordinary soap if you prefer but many commercial soaps contain all manner of additives. You can buy a large block of olive oil soap for laundry use in some outlets. You can also use homemade soap if you prefer.

Zote laundry soap is one choice - though I do not know if the perfume used is natural. Castile soap such as Kirk's is ideal as it is a pure vegetable soap with no artificial additives. Octagon bar soap from Colgate is a good basic soap. But check out the side of the pack on whatever you buy. Often laundry soaps will contain optical brighteners and some chemical additives.

In my view a pure Castile soap is the best option for making homemade detergent - after all, the point is to avoid harsh chemicals! Castile soap is made with olive oil and should be pure and free from chemical additives. You can buy it as a liquid, which saves on grating.

First, grate the soap into a vessel such as a storage jar.

Add one dessertspoonful of salt to every ounce (30gms) of soap grated. (A dessertspoonful of salt also weighs in at about an ounce.)

Put this mixture into the detergent drawer of your machine. The exact amount depends upon your washing loads but I find that similar amounts to normal detergent work fine - i.e. between an half ounce and one ounce of the detergent mix.)

If you live where the water is very soft you may need to increase the amount of salt you use. (Soft water generally lathers up more.)

Add about two teaspoonfuls of sodium bicarbonate. This will help your wash to smell fresh after the washing cycle and helps soften the water.

You can use this mixture on practically everything, though perhaps you might not want to wash your finest clothes this way.

An even easier way to do this is to just grate a little soap into the detergent drawer of your machine and add a dessertspoonful of salt.

Salt does make water harder, so you may want to add a fabric softener (or some more baking soda) to the wash to prevent your clothes feeling starchy. Vinegar also works well as a fabric softener and does not leave a smell after use.

Buy your soap from a reputable and green outlet; a good deal of commercial soap contains palm oil. The palm oil industry is responsible for the destruction of some of the great rainforests in Indonesia. It is also destroying the habitat of orangutans - one of our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom.

How does it work?

Before synthetic detergents became available people used laundry soap to wash clothes. It is a perfectly good cleansing agent but it's not great for automatic machines because it may create too much suds. The salt damps down the production of suds and is also a cleaning agent in its own right.

Most washing machines should suffer no harm from this mixture; if in doubt, please contact your washing machine manufacturer for advice. I have used this mixture for some time as an occasional alternative to washballs and I have had no problems.

If you do notice a lot of suds being produced, just add a little more salt to your homemade detergent mix next time.

Rinsing your machine

Of course, it's a good idea to rinse your machine through from time to time to clear out any greasy deposits or soap scum. it's also a good idea if you don't plan to use your machine for a while after using salt in it. As pointed out above, there may be a slight risk of salt causing corrosion, especially in old machines or ones which do not rinse effectively. Salt might also affect rubber seals.

Use a proprietary cleaner or use vinegar to rinse your washing machine. Vinegar is one of the best natural cleaners around. It is also far more eco-friendly than most proprietary cleaners and does a great job.

Please see my page on cleaning with vinegar for more about this.

An alternative to salt

If you are not happy putting salt into your machine a washing soda and soap mix also works well as a homemade laundry detergent. You can also add a little borax, if you have some. It is good for seeing off grease and has a mild bleaching effect. There you have it - a simple homemade detergent for occasional or emergency use!

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