UPDATE: Several alert readers have raised questions about the safety of borax, a.k.a. sodium tetraborate or sodium borate. Though borax’s power as a green cleaner has been touted in dozens of DIY recipes for years — it’s even on a list of recommended “environmentally preferable cleaners” on the EPA’s website — other sources point to evidence that the stuff is an irritant to the skin and mucous membranes and worse, a hormone disruptor that affects the reproductive system (yikes).
To borax or not to borax? There’s a ton of conflicting and confusing information out there. A different page on the EPA’s site warns that “Borax, commonly considered a safer DIY ingredient, actually presents concerns for potential human health effects.” The National Library of Medicine’s HazMap page reports both that “Studies of workers exposed to sodium borate dusts found no evidence of pulmonary function or reproductive impairment” and “In high-dose reproductive studies of animals, boric acid causes testicular damage and fetal loss.” (Boric acid isn’t exactly the same as borax, but they’re closely related compounds.) A kids’ page from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences advises kids to “use fewer chemicals in your home!” by mixing borax and powdered sugar … to control cockroaches.
I called Rebecca Sutton, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, for some clarity. Bad news: “It’s something we should be watching out for,” she said, noting that several studies have tied testicular atrophy (in animals) and reduced fertility (in men) to borax. Sutton also pointed out that a European hazard system has classified borax as possibly harmful to development. Bottom line: There are enough concerns about this once-revered cleaning agent to take it off the shelf — and out of our DIY detergents.
Thank you to the readers who brought this to my attention. Though borax seems like a great laundry alternative at first glance, I should have dug deeper to ensure its safety. I’m looking into non-borax detergents this week and will report back on even better formulations.
Maybe I’m late to the party on this one, but I had no idea that laundry detergent had such a long rap sheet.
I’ve bought all-natural detergent for the last year or so, yes, but it hasn’t been a reasoned consumer decision. My shopping rationale usually goes something like this: Aw, crap, I have 36 other things to pick up and we’re out of detergent, too. Let’s see … go for the cheap one with Triple X Stain-Stomp? Or shell out for the plant-based one with the soothing water droplets on the bottle? Better go for the hippie one, just in case.
Recently, I was finally curious enough to check into this purchasing pattern of mine. I started looking into the case against conventional laundry soap — and let me tell you, I was shocked. Those super-fresh soaps I grew up with are actually toxic stews of optical brighteners, synthetic fragrances, dyes, surfactants, and other weird chemicals. And they stand accused of some scary s**t, like irritating eyes and skin, causing headaches and respiratory problems, killing Nemo, monkeying around with your babymaking parts, and, you know, just causing cancer. That’s not all. (Have mercy!) They’re petroleum-based, making these innocent-looking laundry soaps card-carrying members of the Evil Stuff That Warms the Climate and Contributes to Complicated Geopolitical Disasters Brigade.
So what’s a concerned citizen to do? Forswearing clothes altogether presents legal problems, but luckily there are plenty of petrochemical-free, plant-based cleaning options out there. Still, it got me thinking: Even the good stuff comes in a plastic jug, and it’ll cost you a few bucks more than conventional detergents. Could I skip the middleman and just make my own detergent? One that actually works on stinkified socks, I mean?
I was skeptical, despite having found great success with homemade housecleaning products. So I decided to test three different DIY formulations to see if they could stand up to my household’s typical laundry loads: sweaty (hey, we’re active), dirty (and play outside), all-around stinky (oh, like your delicates smell like cotton candy).
I’d expected my research to turn up dozens of recipes for homemade detergents. But to my surprise, pretty much every one — powder or liquid, scented or non — boiled down to three ingredients, albeit in different proportions: washing soda (not to be confused with baking soda), borax, and some type of natural soap. Recommended soap brands include Fels-Naptha, Sunlight, Zote, Dr. Bronner’s or Kirk’s castile, and Ivory, the one I chose. Some recipes also recommend adding white vinegar as a kind of all-purpose brightener/deodorizer/freshener. I dunno exactly how it works its magic, but the stuff is an effective fabric softener and helps break down soap residue.
Borax (sodium tetraborate) and washing soda (sodium carbonate) are two wonder powders found in the laundry aisle (though I had to go to six different stores before I found the washing soda, no joke), trumpeted as miracle cleaners for not only laundry, but also fine china, ovens, microwaves, tile, diaper pails, and garage floors. If you happen to have a soiled dodo-feather boa on hand, I bet they’d clean that, too. Each box warned me in no uncertain terms not to eat the product, nor rub it into my eyes. This concerned me until I realized that doing a shot of Tide wouldn’t do me any favors, either.
Ingredients in hand, I set up a trial to see which concoction worked best. Drumroll, please. The contenders are:
- Liquid detergent with melted Ivory
- Liquid detergent with peppermint castile soap, plus vinegar
- Powder detergent with shaved Ivory
I assembled three basically equal loads of laundry, each containing dirty socks, a towel, various combinations of jeans, T-shirts, and underwear, and to make things interesting, a cleaning rag I’d splattered with pizza sauce. I usually do all my loads in cold water, but I went with warm this time around (several detergent recipes mention they do better in hotter water) to give each its best chance to shine. (Yes, warm water requires more energy, but for this test at least I didn’t want to do the laundering equivalent of hobbling Tom Brady’s elbow.) Finally, I settled on five variables on which to judge the concoctions: cleaning power, scent, fluffiness, ease of use, and stain removal. Each variable earned the detergent 1 to 5 points, 5 being the best.
Let’s get washin’!
1. Liquid detergent with melted Ivory
General cleaning power: 4.5
Fluffiness factor: 3.5
Ease of use: 3
Triple X Stain-Stomp factor: 1.5
Overall score: 15.5
This sucker is the most time-consuming to make: You’ve got to grate and melt the bar soap, then let the resulting concentrate sit overnight, then you get to dilute and use. But all that front-loading begets flawless results. The load came out scentless — but totally fresh and clean. It fluffed up the towel fairly well, too. It didn’t do much on the pizza-stain removal front — but, as you’ll see, neither did the other two.
2. Liquid detergent with peppermint castile soap, plus vinegar
General cleaning power: 4.5
Fluffiness factor: 3
Ease of use: 5
Triple X Stain-Stomp factor: 1
Overall score: 17
I had high hopes for this formula from the get-go: Not only was it the easiest one to prepare, but everyone knows peppermint castile soap smells like the mane of a unicorn. The finished results didn’t retain that joyful aroma, sadly — but on the plus side, they didn’t cling to the vinegar stank, either. The washed load came out just as spectacularly: fresh, fairly fluffy, oh-so-clean. Minuses: This was the worst of the stain busters — the sauced rag went from murder-scene red to faded-food-fight-in-the-middle-school-cafeteria red — and also the most expensive (unicorn hair don’t come cheap).
3. Powder detergent with shaved Ivory
General cleaning power: 4
Fluffiness factor: 3.5
Ease of use: 4
Triple X Stain-Stomp factor: 2
Overall score: 16.5
This plain old powder did the best at neutralizing my pizza stain (though it was by no means good at it) and it’s easy to make, too (though you do still have to grate the soap). And while this load lacked a little something in the so-fresh-and-so-clean department compared to the other two, it still got the job done. Next time I’ll add a little more to see if that helps.
The bottom line
Cheap, simple, effective detergent that won’t give me rashes or choke off my neighborhood aquatic invertebrates? Homemade soaps that pass the armpit-sniff test? I’m sold. True, you don’t get that warm and fuzzy, fresh-dew-on-a-mountain-meadow scent that comes with conventional soaps — remember, artificial fragrances are part of the reason you want to get away from standard detergents in the first place — but clothes don’t need an added scent to be clean. And true, they left something to be desired in the stain-fighting department, but pretreatment would have helped, and pizza sauce is a toughie for regular detergents, too. All in all, though, I’ve bought my last bottle. Take that, Big Soap.
How about you? Do you have a favorite DIY detergent recipe? Have you figured out how to remove pizza stains? And if so, you wouldn’t mind laundering a few cleaning rags for me, would you?
¼ bar Ivory soap
¼ cup washing soda
1/8 cup borax
Yields 2 gallons; use ¼ cup per load (HE machine), 5/8 cup per load (regular)
Make it: Grate the soap chunk (a plain old cheese grater works perfectly; the smaller the shavings, the better) and add shavings to 1 cup water in a saucepan. Heat over medium-low, stirring, until melted. Fill an old gallon jug* half full with hot water, then add melted soap, washing soda, and borax. Add more hot water until full. Shake it around until powder is dissolved, then let sit overnight to thicken. This is your concentrate. To use, fill another jug or other container half full with concentrate, half water, shake, and wash.
¼ cup Dr. Bronner’s peppermint castile soap
¼ cup washing soda
¼ cup borax
+ ½ cup vinegar with the load
Yields 1 gallon; use ¼ cup per load (HE machine); 1/3 cup per load (regular)
Make it: Mix soap, washing soda, and borax in a gallon jug*. Fill the rest of the way with hot water. Shake until powders dissolve.
1 bar Ivory soap
1 cup washing soda
1 cup borax
Yields about 3 cups; use 2 Tbsp per load
Make it: Grate the soap chunk. Combine remaining ingredients in a bowl, reusable container, or baggie. Mix well.
*Apparently, you should never do this if you have kids. No rugrats have access to my laundry closet, though, so this didn’t concern me. I was more worried about my boyfriend mistaking stray Ivory shavings for coconut flakes.