There’s a big problem with your homemade laundry soap, and you’re not going to like it. Read this before doing your next load of laundry!
NOTE: Just a little forewarning that this is a pretty long post – one of my longest, actually. It’s jam-packed with information about this homemade laundry soap issue, so grab a cup of your favourite beverage, get comfortable, and join me for this in-depth discussion…
Also – please note: This is just my experience with this issue. I know many people who are still using – and loving! – their homemade laundry soap, which is awesome. But this post is meant to share my personal experience, in case it’s helpful for anyone who has had similar issues.
One last thing – several readers have mentioned that the liquid version is better than the powder version because it doesn’t cause build up. Or even dissolving the powder version in some boiling water first before adding it to your washer. These are great tips, and if they work for you, awesome!
Ok, on to the post!
I still remember being pregnant with my first baby. I was over the moon excited!
But after the initial shock and thrill calmed down,
things got real.
I realized right at that moment that everything I put in, on, or near my body would affect this precious new baby growing inside of me. Every bite of food, every bath product, every cleaning product…
All of a sudden, my whole house seemed like a toxic no-go zone. Nothing felt safe. Everything was going to kill me. And I couldn’t touch, let alone breathe in, any of the chemicals that were now taking over my house!
Yes, I know I was being a little over-dramatic, but I’ll just blame that on the pregnancy hormones. 😉
Either way, I knew one thing, and I knew it well – when the time came to wash the baby’s new clothes, I was NOT using the same conventional laundry detergent (cough – Tide® – cough) I’d been using since well…pretty much as long as I can remember.
And by that time I was on a small DIY-kick with my homemade non-toxic deodorant, so I was already feeling up to the challenge of making homemade laundry soap. I mean, how hard could it really be?
Turns out, not that hard at all.
Just a few simple ingredients, stir them all up, and you’re on your way to the cheapest, non-toxic homemade laundry soap you’ll ever find.
I washed a few loads to test it out, and it seemed to get the job done. And it really was cheap – I’m talking pennies per load. That’s a huge win in my book!
I later replaced all my other laundry products with a few simple alternatives to help naturally freshen my laundry.
But ever since that day, there’s been a big problem brewing in the background.
Something I’d never considered before. Something so small I didn’t even notice it…at first. Until that small thing started getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Until one day I woke up and realized, you know what?
This laundry doesn’t feel right.
Something is wrong here. Something is off. There’s an odd smell coming from the linens. These shirts don’t feel as soft as they used to. And why on Earth is this bath towel not absorbing water like a normal towel?!?
But even after all that? I still pushed these thoughts and feelings to the back of my mind. I convinced myself that the laundry was indeed getting cleaned. I mean look, I put this muddy shirt in the machine, and 20 minutes later it came out clean, see?
Except, it wasn’t clean.
Far from it.
Sure, the mud got rinsed away in the water and it now looked cleaner, but something else was left behind. Something pretty gross, when you really think about it. And after some digging, I finally figured out what it is.
Yep, buildup. Of minerals from hard water. Of the soap flakes in my homemade soap. Of dirt, and grime, and pretty much any particles that ever came in contact with our laundry.
It was all still there.
Building up. Slowly. Over time.
And here I am, five years later, putting it all together for the very first time.
It all started when I read a post from ButterBeliever.com telling me why I needed to stop using my homemade laundry soap.
I must admit, when I first read it I was feeling completely defensive. Like, pshhh my homemade laundry soap is awesome, and there’s nothing you can say to convince me otherwise…
But I was in denial.
Because that post planted a little seed in my mind, which slowly grew and grew, until it became too big to ignore. And when a friend of mine emailed me to ask for my opinion on this same exact issue?
That was it.
I was determined to research the heck out of this buildup issue and get to the bottom of it once and for all.
What is laundry buildup?
Laundry buildup happens when any type of matter becomes lodged in the fibers of your laundry because they aren’t being properly washed/rinsed away. It’s the minerals from your hard water, like magnesium or calcium. It’s the soap flakes in your laundry soap/detergent (homemade or store bought). It’s also dirt, dust, grime, and bacteria. Ewww.
What causes this buildup in laundry?
A few main issues are usually at play here. If you have moderately hard water (most of us do), then the mineral deposits in your water can slowly buildup in the fabrics of your laundry.
And if you’re washing with a good, strong detergent and adding a water softener (like borax or washing soda) that’ll usually do a good job of keeping the buildup issue in check.
But when the buildup is from the soap flakes you used in that homemade laundry soap recipe? Well, then there’s a bigger problem.
What’s the difference between soap and detergent?
The problem comes when we start using the terms ‘soap‘ and ‘detergent‘ interchangeably, when in fact they are not the same thing! I’ve always wondered what the difference is between these two terms, and I finally have a clear, concise explanation.
Bear with me – we’re about to get a tiny bit technical here…
Both soaps and detergents are a kind of surfactant – a compound which breaks the surface tension between a liquid (water) and a solid (dirt). These guys are actually pretty cool, because on one end they attract water (hydrophilic), and on the other end they push away from water and attract dirt and oil, etc. (hydrophobic).
So in your washing machine, surfactants get to work by attaching themselves to the dirt, oils, and other particles on your laundry, as the washer agitates to help loosen them up out of the fabrics and into the water, where they stay suspended until the rinse and final spin cycle flushes them out without the dirt getting redeposited back onto your now clean laundry. Fascinating, isn’t it?
But there’s a major difference between soap and detergent:
- Soaps are made with fats or oils. They’re great for cleaning hard surfaces that don’t have tiny holes and crevices, because they’re scrubbed hard, then rinsed away easily without getting trapped in any fibers. Soaps are not great for soft, porous surfaces because they’re oil-based, they can embed themselves within fibers, and they don’t rinse away easily (hello, soap scum!).
- Detergents are either synthetic or plant-based. They’re better at cleaning laundry in a machine because they’re more soluble, especially in hard water, meaning they won’t bind themselves to the minerals in your water and buildup in the fibers of your laundry. They also rinse away easily, leaving no residue behind on your laundry.
What’s wrong with the homemade laundry soap?
Simple. If we look at the recipe I have here at Nature’s Nurture, you’ll see it uses 4 main ingredients: soap flakes, washing soda, borax, and baking soda.
The washing soda and borax are great water softeners, and either one should be regularly added to your laundry routine, especially if you have hard water. The baking soda is for deodorizing and brightening your fabrics.
But what about the soap flakes?
This is supposed to be the cleaning agent in this recipe. Only problem is we’re not using it to clean a non-porous surface like our hands, or the kitchen counter, or that one wall in the house that the kids have declared their personal Picasso wall.
No, we’re trying to clean soft, porous fibers on our clothing, our towels, and our bedding. And soap? Soap is just not going to cut it. Not unless we have a way to scrub the living daylights out of these fabrics, like say, a 1920’s washboard, maybe?
We need something different from soap. Something that was made for cleaning laundry in a modern day washing machine.
What we need, of course, is a detergent.
And since we can’t make a detergent without an advanced degree in chemistry and a fully-equipped lab, we have to buy one.
I know what you’re thinking…
You’re thinking, “But Sarah, this homemade laundry soap is awesome, and it’s safe, and it costs pennies for each load!”
I know. Believe me, I know. Making this soap every few months was one of my favorite projects ever. But I also know that there’s a delicate balance between the products we can make at home and the ones that we’re better off just buying from the store.
For me, laundry detergent is being moved from my “make it” list to my “buy it” list.
And maybe you’re not quite there yet.
Maybe you’re using the homemade laundry soap, and your laundry is coming out so fresh and so clean. That’s great! If you have softer water (most people don’t), then you might not ever notice a problem with using soap, and I must say, I kind of envy you right now.
But if you have even the slightest feeling that maybe this homemade deal is feeling a little…off? Like it just doesn’t feel quite right? Like your laundry shouldn’t have to feel or smell or look the way it does?
You need to stop using the homemade laundry soap.
And the next step? You need to strip your laundry.
Because your laundry has accumulated a ton of buildup from the water, the soap, and then other particles like dirt and bacteria, you really should do a chemical strip of your laundry in order to remove all of those nasties before going any further. Full details and instructions are at the link below.
The first load that I stripped was our light-colored towels and linens. Then I went on to strip a load of dark towels and linens, and then a load of just my and my husband’s whites (and greys).
Take a look at what the leftover stripping water looked like after I soaked each load in the stripping solution for about 4 hours, then wringing out the water from each item:
That was it for me.
This is what finally lit a fire under me and pushed me to get this information out there to you. Because I need to take responsibility for the fact that I’ve been recommending this homemade laundry soap recipe to you for years – YEARS!
What I saw in my bathtub seriously freaked me out. To say that I was horrified by this water would be an understatement! (Side note: I would love to do an experiment to see what the strip water would look like from a load of laundry that’s only been washed in a conventional detergent. Any takers?)
So I’m here to help you. I’m here to save you the trouble of constantly wondering if that homemade laundry soap really is getting your clothes clean, or if that weird dinginess is just all in your head.
But don’t sweat it, because everything will be ok.
It’s simply an adjustment in your routine, and once you find the right product – the right detergent – that works for your family, you can move on and tackle the rest of your home and bath products. One small step at a time.
This is just a little bump in the road. You will get past it, you will move on, and you will have truly clean laundry once again.
Where can you buy safe, non-toxic laundry detergent?
Thankfully, there are lots of companies formulating new and safe laundry detergents, made from plant-based and biodegradable ingredients, that work just as well as conventional detergents. A good place to start looking is the Environmental Working Group’s ratings of the most popular detergents, on a scale of A-F. Stick to the detergents on the A and B lists.
But a word of caution
Even these lists are not 100% reliable, and I’ve found lots of discrepancy in their ratings, with A-list detergents that contain ingredients that I would never allow in my products, and even detergents on the F-list that I didn’t see a problem with.
Greenwashing (claiming a product is “green” when it’s anything but) is alive and well, but don’t let it get you down. It just requires a little more research so you can make confident, informed decisions about the products you use in your home.
NOTE: The buyer’s guide for laundry detergents mentioned above was released a few years ago. For an updated list of the detergents I recommend, please visit my Non-Toxic Shopping Guide and check the “Laundry Room” section.
It’s time to face reality.
If you’re using a homemade laundry soap, chances are your laundry is not getting cleaned properly.
It might look clean. It might smell clean. It might feel clean.
But deep down, within the fibers of your clothing, your towels, your linens – there’s a problem that’s slowly building up. And over time, it’s going to grow and grow until you just can’t ignore it anymore.
So whether you nip it in the bud right now, or you wait until it becomes more noticeable later, the truth is that soap is just not rinsing away completely.
Maybe if you’re using an old-fashioned washing board, you’d be able to create enough friction to help the soap rinse out effectively.
Maybe if you’re using the hottest water setting on your machine for every load of laundry, the heat is effectively melting the soap particles and rinsing them away properly.
Maybe if you have soft water that isn’t holding onto dirt and minerals, your soap has no problem doing it’s job.
And maybe if you’re making sure to boost your laundry soap’s effectiveness with extra add-ons like borax, washing soda, and vinegar added to each and every load, they may be able to tackle the issue and prevent it from getting worse over time.
Otherwise, your washing machine’s agitator is probably not strong enough to create that same kind of friction. Your cold water washes may not be effectively dispersing and dissolving those soap flakes. And that hard water? It can be a homemade soap’s worst nightmare, because it’s packed with minerals like calcium and magnesium, which are probably building up in your laundry anyway.
So we might be stuck with detergents.
And having to BUY our laundry detergent.
But it’s ok. You can do this.
Again, for an updated list of my recommended non-toxic laundry detergents, please check out the Shopping Guide here.