One of the most popular recipes I’ve written about here at The Make Your Own Zone continues to be the Big Batch Powdered Laundry Soap recipe. In a nutshell, this recipes mixes together one complete box of washing soda, one complete box of borax, and a grated bar of Fels Naptha laundry soap. You use two tablespoons of this powdered mix for a load of laundry.
I recently received some questions about this mixture from Valerie who left the following comment:
“I made this recipe using 3 bars of Ivory soap. I had someone comment that this will not work because it is too alkaline and there is not enough soap in the mixture. On the other hand, I’ve had someone tell me that the washing soda and borax ARE soap. Do you know anything regarding these comments I’ve received? Also, how has the soap worked for your clothes and your washing machine?”
I have wondered some of these same things myself so let’s dig a little deeper into the chemistry behind our homemade laundry soap and see if we can answer some of these questions.
Why do we use soap to clean laundry?
Soap is used as an emulsification agent. Oil and grease are not soluble in water, meaning they do not dissolve. As most of us know, oil and water do not mix and will separate if we try to combine them. If we want to remove oil or grease from clothing, the oil or grease must be made soluble. Soaps work to emulsify oils by “bridging the gap” between the molecules of water and oil, allowing the oil to be rinsed away with the water.
Are washing soda and borax a type of soap?
My understanding is that washing soda and borax are minerals, not soap. The minerals help to soften the water which allows the soap to work better, and also is very effective in neutralizing odors. Minerals also function as laundry boosters as they can help brighten clothing and keep it from graying.
What about alkalinity?
Substances are categorized as either alkaline (base) or acid using a ph scale that goes from 0 (acid) to 14 (alkaline). Pure water has a ph of 7 and is considered neutral. Some examples are vinegar which is very acidic and has a ph of 2, and bleach which is very alkaline and has a ph of 13.
Washing soda has a ph of 11 and borax has a ph of 9 so they are both alkaline. Most soaps are alkaline too however some soaps like Ivory, or glycerin or castile soaps, are not as much so.
How does alkalinity affect my laundry?
The chemistry here is that a stain that is acid based or protein based needs to be neutralized with an alkaline substance. A stain that is alkaline based needs to be neutralized with an acid substance. The two ends of the ph scale cancel each other out. My research so far seems to show that most food stains fall more into the acid based area and therefore alkalinity is the more needed substance to counter-act it. Examples of alkaline stains are grass stains or rust stains which is why they might tend to be such stubborn stains.
OK, there’s some background chemistry. Let’s get to the heart of Valerie’s questions:
Does she have enough soap in the mixture?
I have also wondered about this. I have been going on my first batch this whole time and only last week made a second batch. I decided to add a second bar of grated Fels Naptha to see if it made any difference, although I was not really dissatisfied with the first batch. I am in the process of just starting to use it and test it out and I will share more about that once I have used it a little longer.
If your laundry is heavy on food stains (most likely because you have children), you will probably want a higher soap ratio. I would think Valerie’s three bars of Ivory are sufficient. The primary role of soap is to help lift out oil and grease.
Will the mixture not work because it is too alkaline?
I have seen no evidence of this. In fact I have found this mixture to be great at neutralizing odors which is a primary function performed by the washing soda and borax which are alkaline. My research has indicated that almost all soaps and detergents are alkaline.
How has the big batch powdered laundry soap worked for me?
I like it! I should make it clear, however, that I am doing laundry for just me and hubby and it is not heavily soiled laundry like when you have small children. I have an old washing machine, and this mixture has had no adverse impact on it at all.
Perhaps the only thing I have wondered about is if it is fading bright clothing. I had one very bright blue sweatshirt jacket that seemed to fade after I used this soap. My sister-in-law also thought she noticed this on some clothing too. This could be the case as the mixture is heavy on the minerals that perform the laundry boosting function of brightening. I’m wondering if the “brightening” is translating to “fading” on a very colorful piece of clothing.
A quick summary, please . . . .
The pros? This mixture freshens laundry, is great at neutralizing odors, has laundry boosting minerals for brightening, is an easy recipe to remember, and lasts a long, long time. I have been happy with it although I am currently testing increasing the soap ratio.
The cons? It might not have enough soap in it to lift out heavy stains. It might also fade bright colors. I am not sure if this has to do with alkalinity or with the other properties of the washing soda and borax.
Whew! Hopefully you are still with me and your eyes have not glazed over yet! There is one more subject I want to explore but we will give our brains a rest and save that for the next post. That subject is the difference between a soap and a detergent.
I freely admit that I am still on a learning curve on this whole subject. I welcome your comments, advice, and stories.