Homemade Laundry Soap or Detergent??


Have you proudly told someone you’re making your own homemade laundry “detergent”? If you have, you may want to rethink your choice of words. The majority of homemade recipes are for a laundry “soap”.

Ok, maybe I’m being a little technical here, but there is indeed a difference between the two terms. If you’re grating up a bar of Ivory soap or Fels Naptha soap for your homemade mixture, you are really making a homemade laundry “soap”. In the interest of accuracy, let’s take a closer look at the subject.

soap v detergent

A Quick Overview

Soaps, for the most part, are made from materials found in nature, and detergents are made from synthetic (made made) ingredients. In fact some detergents are made from petrochemicals which are a nonrenewable resource and a waste product of the petroleum industry derived from crude oil or natural gas. This can be a big turnoff for some folks against detergents, and soap seems to be the friendlier choice for the environment,

Both soap and detergent are surfactants meaning they are “surface acting agents” necessary to reduce the surface tension of water. Water will hold to itself (such as when water beads up). For water to soak into a surface, such as your laundry, it needs a substance to cut the surface tension and this is where soap and detergents come into play.<

The History

Soap has been used by many, many generations of people to clean clothing. It wasn’t until World War I when fats used to make soaps were in short supply that efforts began to make some other sort of synthetic cleaner.

As washing machines gained popularity too, the soap flakes that had been used in the past were found to not be as desirable anymore because they could dull colors or gray the whites (some of the same complaints we still have today with a homemade laundry soap). When detergents came on the scene in the 1940’s they gained popularity very quickly because they functioned in a way that solved these problems.

Is one better for cleaning than the other?

Many people feel detergent is in fact better for cleaning the laundry for one main reason – it rinses away better in hard water.

Soaps can leave a scum in hard water that does not rinse away easily. This residual soap residue is what can make white clothing in your laundry take on a grayish tinge. Detergents will rinse away better, especially in hard water, which in turn can leave your laundry “cleaner”.

You may also find that if you have hard water, you may experience some of the common complaints such as the graying or dulling of clothing because of soap’s lesser ability to rinse away completely.

Things to consider

Although detergents have the upper hand at rinsing away better, I have not found soap to be that bad either. Perhaps my water is not that hard. I think soap is easier on the environment, and it’s cheaper too. When you grate up a bar of Ivory soap for a batch of the homemade liquid laundry soap, you get a lot of laundry soap for very little money. There are also ways to get around the hard water issue such as adding some baking soda or vinegar to the laundry water.

A new recipe to try

I recently found a recipe that may in fact be a laundry “detergent” because it uses Dawn dishwashing liquid, which I think is a detergent, not a soap, (although a quick Google search on that subject was not very enlightening). It also saves the step of grating the bar of soap which is the most boring and tedious part of making your own mixtures. Although this recipe is just for one gallon, you could probably make several gallons at one time. Dawn dish liquid is probably not as gentle on skin as Ivory soap, but it would probably do a good job of cutting greasy stains on clothing.

Update: Here’s how I’ve been making laundry soap with Dawn dish soap. It’s simple and works great!

Homemade Laundry Soap made with Dawn dish soap

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    1. All the homemade laundry cleaners are more low sudsing than commercial laundry products, but the suds aren’t needed for cleaning. The low sudsing is helpful if you want to use a homemade laundry cleaner in an HE machine too.

  1. Wow! just used the dawn recipe with the dawn escapes cherry blossom and my clothes smell and feel amazing! P.s. I did add a touch of baking soda to the wash.

  2. I thought I had done my research before I made a batch of laundy soap with Ivory and washing soda, but when I was cleaning my grater I had soaking I noticed a gray scum floating around. Not in my clothes, this is one lost batch. BUT folks it’ll clean a filthy stove quick and easy! It’ll have a use. So now that I have found this recipe with Dawn I’ll be giving it a try! Thank you Beverly for the recipe and thank you folks for the tips you’ve added too!

  3. I made the homemade laundry soap with Zote bars, borax,baking soda and washing soda. I am itching all over. Any suggestions?

    1. I’m wondering if perhaps it’s the fragrance in Zote soap? Apparently it’s fragranced with citronella oil per this article: http://www.zote.com.mx/english/about.htm If you want to keep using a homemade laundry soap mixture, I would first try switching to either Fels Napha soap if you can find it near you, OR Ivory soap. Even though Ivory soap is very gentle, it is not marketed as a laundry soap like Zote or Fels Naptha, and so it might not have the same cleaning power.

      1. But Ivory soap WAS marketed for laundry for many years, and it hasn’t changed substantially since then. It’s just positioning of the brand; it’s not like it stopped working! In fact a couple times when we ran out of laundry detergent at home, we put in a cake of Ivory soap just as is in the wash cycle. But note that it was a top loading machine, the water was hot enough to dissolve much of the soap, NYC water here is “soft”, and we had to fish the remainder out before the rinse cycle. The fact that Ivory is whipped meant it’s of low density & didn’t bang around too hard against the works, and floats so it’s easy to find. One time we forgot to fish the bar out, but fortunately the rinse water was cold so not much soap dissolved in it.

        I’d say just use whichever soap you wash yourself with, and that should eliminate the allergy factor. However, if the itching occurs only while the clothes are worn, it’s possible that the fabric has been stiffened and/or chalk-impregnated by the use of a high proportion of washing soda & “hard” water.

      1. I know. Most sources are not the sticklers on terminology that I am.

        There is no single word to encompass the meaning of “detergent that is not made of soap”, so a lot of people started using the word “detergent” incorrectly to mean something IN DISTINCTION TO “soap”. The phrase “soapless detergent” could be used, except that there are some of those products not based primarily on soap but containing a small amount of soap, so they can’t be said to be soapless. “Syndet”, short for “synthetic detergent”, was used for a while, but that didn’t fit either, since soap is synthesized too (unlike the situation with synthetic vs. natural fiber fabrics).

        BTW, just as not all detergents are made of soap, not all soaps are detergents either. Some soaps have no cleaning property at all and are used for such purposes as lubricants.

  4. Just wondering if people are keeping track whether they’re using the regular DAWN or the concentrated version. It might make a difference in HE washers. If you use the same amount of concentrated DAWN you’re going to get more suds.

    1. As to the question above of non-ultra vs. ultra Dawn, you might not get more suds with the same volume of the ultra. The ultras are lower sudsing than the non-ultras for a given amount of detergency.

      1. I beg to differ here… my parents bought non-concentrated dawn, and I buy ultra. Way more suds and cleaning power with the ultra over then non-concentrated.

        1. At the dilution used in dishwashing, it may not make a difference, but the ultra contains more alcohol, and people who make bubble blowing solutions out of them seek the non-ultra formulas for their better performance in blowing bubbles.

          However, your comparison may not be apples to apples, because since the ultras were introduced there have been changes in both the ultra & non-ultra formulas that may affect sudsing. First magnesium and then calcium salts were added, which increased detergency with the ether sulfates but decreased bubble production, and then they were replaced by amines that brought the suds back. So if you’re comparing non-ultra from one time with ultra from a later time, there are such differences.

  5. Just thought I would pop in and say, I have used this recipe for several months in my He Washer and have had no problems. I lost the recipe, so I’m glad I found it again here! LOVE making stuff myself!

    1. Thanks for giving your input that this works well in HE washing machines. That was my understanding too, but its good to hear it first hand from someone who actually has this type of machine.

  6. Hi there! I wanted to let you know that I found myself in a pinch today and had to use this liquid laundry soap (made with Dawn) in my dishwasher today and it did a great job! Thought I would share this with you and your readers as I have not found a powdered dishwasher soap that I like yet.

  7. If you stick with the low amounts of dawn in this recipe, you shouldn't have a problem in an HE. Most of the suds come from when you're first making the solution in the gallon jug. Sort of like letting dishwater that was ultra-sudsy sit for hours, the sudss die down. If you swish the dishwater around, it gets a little sudsy, but only very little. It's good to get the gallon jug 1/2 full and start swishing it with all of the ingredients to get the suds out of it early on. You can also try adding 1/2 a cup of baking soda to the mix. People use baking soda to deodorize their HE washers as it is, plus there's a recipe for using dish soap as dishwasher detergent by adding baking soda to cut out the sudsiness (is that even a word?! lol). Baking soda can also soften the water, making it easier for the soap to do it's job. A super-sized bag of baking soda is cheap, and baking soda is so useful for so many things, it's worth just stocking up. Personally, every other shower I use baking soda as a body wash, b/c it cuts off dead skin like nobody's business while still keeping skin soft and semi-oily. It's great for keeping dandruff in check. Used to have very bad dandruff that even got on my cheeks, causing redness and scaling. Once I used baking soda…dandruff was gone. kaput. Bathing with baking soda also keeps the shower environment so saline that nothing can grow in there … no mold, mildew … and if you use a liquid hand soap as an inexpensive body wash shampoo for other showerings, then you will never get soap scum. The left over baking soda that gets on the shower walls and floor from bathing make it easy to clean up the shower once a week. I have the cleanest bathroom and shower my girlfriend has ever seen…and I'm a guy!

  8. I've experimented with various versions. Liquid versions work best, either melting zote/fels-naptha in a pot and mixing in water, or using this recipe above. I tried a dry version by food-processing zote/fels-naptha + wash soda + borax. It made a decent powder, but didn't seem to dissolve fast enough and well enough in the washer to be effective. It may depend on how aggressive your washer is with the wash. Mine isn't very aggressive (basically just lightly massages the clothes). Other folks with more aggressive washers may have better luck with powdered versions. I used to put oil on as a moisturizer while wet after a shower then towel off. This made my towels oily. The wash didn't cut the oil out, so they ended up smelling when the dryer cooked the oil into them. They started smelling like rancid grease, and didn't soak up water well. I tried washing them with normal detergent, simple green, automotive degreaser, but it seems like multiple washings with dawn is the only thing that really helped. Unfortunately, you have to be very careful with how much dawn you use. Too much, and it won't rinse out well, causing your clothes to make you itch and get a skin rash (chemical dermatitis). I stumbled across the recipe above on jillee's site, too, recently. I've used it for a bit, and it works good, b/c it dissolves the ingredients into solution, making it easier/faster to disperse once in the laundry. I just use hot tap water to make it. Fill gallon jug ~1/4 way with hot tap, add wash soda + borax, swish around for a minute. Add some dawn, then also 1 tbsp orange oil I had leftover (supposed to help cut grease out of laundry, but also adds nice orange scent). Orange oil is like $10 at home depot, and may be blowing the point of all this (ie: to save money). The towels are doing much better, plus the big change I noticed was my jeans don't come out of the dryer all stiff and tight. They come out soft, relaxed, and feel great to put on. It's important to note that homemade detergent/soap usually leaves clothes odor-neutral. This can be a bad thing, b/c commercial detergents make people think clothes are clean by making them stink pretty for a long time. You wear them 1 day, they don't stink, b/c the nice smell overpowers the malodors that may have gotten in them that day. Homemade solutions normally don't have that affect, so folks think the clothes get "dirty" faster. They're not dirty, they just absorbed some malodors. You can add scents to the solutions to counter this, or just give the clothes time to air out. When I started adding orange oil to the mix, my clothes smelled fresher longer.

  9. I use the dawn recipe but since my box of washing soda is larger than my borax box I increased the amout of washing soda to 4.25 tbsp and increased the dawn to 4 tbsp and it actually has made my whites whiter….dawn biodegrates so I felt it was a decent solution to my problem…the grating method just left everything coated and didn't work for our area.

  10. I know that HE washers need low sudsing detergents. The Dawn liquid in this recipe might create more suds than you would want in an HE washer. I have an old washing machine so I can't speak from personal experience on how it might perform in the high efficiency models. Sorry I can't give a more definitive answer to your question ๐Ÿ™

  11. Thanks for posting this! I have definitely noticed the "gray" when using homemade soap. Also, I need to be careful to use detergent on the towels and cloths I use for my work. The laundry soap leaves residue that effects their performance. I have actually been thinking of posting about this. Now I can just link back to you!I can't wait to see how this turns out.