I recently ran out of the powdered laundry detergent I buy in bulk at my local co-ops, so I decided to make my own. An internet search for homemade laundry detergent usually yields a wide variety of sources for a basic recipe that calls for washing soda, borax, and grated bar soap. But there’s also quite a debate raging online about the potential health risks of using borax for home and body care. Some sources adamantly claim that the median lethal dose of borax is no higher than the median lethal dose of table salt (about 3 grams per kilogram of weight), making it a perfectly safe laundry detergent ingredient. On the other side of the argument, studies indicate that borax powder is a skin, eye, and lung irritant and if ingested it could cause vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, and lethargy. There is also concern that high or prolonged exposure to borax can lead to infertility and damage to an unborn child.
While wading through some of this information, attempting to sort out factors like the credibility of sources and the dates of each study, it occurred to me that perhaps I was barking up the wrong tree. At some point I realized that I’d rather err on the side of caution and I refocused my energy to try to find some recipes for homemade laundry detergent that didn’t include borax. As it turns out, there are indeed several borax-free recipes floating around on the web and many are just variations of a few basic elements. Baking soda, washing soda, grated bar soap, citric acid, epsom salt, table salt, and white vinegar were the ingredients I came across the most. I’ve begun experimenting to see what mix I like the best, based on what I’m able to acquire within the package-free parameters of my project. For this particular venture I’ve decided to make an exception for products packaged in paperboard or paper bags that are compostable. But to start I did manage to make a completely package-free batch of detergent from one cup baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), one cup washing soda (sodium carbonate), and one grated 4oz bar of unscented glycerin soap.
I was unable to find boxed washing soda on any local store shelf so I decided to make my own. In my research of each ingredient listed above, I discovered that it’s easy to make washing soda at home by simply heating baking soda in the oven. Baking soda’s chemical makeup is NaHCO3 (one sodium, one hydrogen, one carbon, and three oxygen molecules). Washing soda’s chemical makeup is Na2CO3 (two sodium, one carbon, and three oxygen molecules). When heated, the glistening, grainy baking soda gives off water and carbon dioxide, leaving dull, powdery washing soda behind. I spread a thin layer of bulk-bought baking soda in a shallow pan and baked it at 400 degrees for one hour. I agitated it about a halfway through the bake time. I’ve only done a couple loads of laundry with my baking soda, washing soda, soap mix, but so far my clothes and linens have come out clean, odorless, and not too stiff. An there doesn’t seem to be any soapy residue left on my fabrics. I should mention that I’ve not yet tested this mix on any tough stains, though I’m sure it won’t be long before an opportunity arises.
I saw some recipes for soapless detergents, which call for baking and washing soda, epsom salts (magnesium sulfate), and table salt. Epsom salts are a natural surfactant—a wetting agent that reduces the surface tension of a liquid, allowing it to better penetrate solids. Today, surfactants made from a variety of petrochemicals (derived from petroleum) and/or oleochemicals (derived from fats and oils) are used in generic detergents to render water less likely to stick to itself and more likely to interact with greasy, organic soiling. Considered non-toxic, epsom salts are commonly used in homemade beauty treatments and cleaning solutions. Magnesium sulfate is also used in organic gardening and farming as a soil conditioner/fertilizer. Magnesium helps strengthen cell walls and improve plants’ uptake of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfer. And sulfer is critical to production of vitamins, amino acids (therefore protein), and enzymes. The other day while I was in the grocery store, I spotted some epsom salts in a paper carton and decided to purchase them. I transfered the salts to a glass jar, then shredded and composted the packaging. I’m looking forward to experimenting with them in my homemade detergent concoctions and I will post about my findings.