Updated on 01.19.12

Make Your Own Powdered Laundry Detergent (18/365)

Trent Hamm

I’m often stunned at the high price of laundry detergent. If you’re buying Tide, for example, even if you buy the jumbo pack in multiples, you’re still paying over $0.30 per load. Even generic detergents rarely cost much below $0.15 per load.

That’s why I prefer to make my own detergent. I can easily get the cost down to $0.05 per load, meaning I’m saving at least a dime with every load of laundry I make.

Make Your Own Powdered Laundry Detergent (18/365)

All I do is take a bar of ordinary soap and a box grater, then grate that bar of soap down into a fine powder, about a cup of it. To that, I add one cup of washing soda, half a cup of borax, and half a cup of an oxygen cleaner, such as OxiClean, which serves as the surfactant in the detergent. I mix this thoroughly in a Ziploc container, then toss in a tablespoon for measuring. Some people like to also add half a cup of baking soda, but I’ve never felt it necessary to get my clothes clean.

When I do a load of laundry, I just scoop two tablespoons of my mix into the washing machine and I’m good to go. This stuff works great – it gets my clothes clean and fresh every time.

So, what does this cost? A single batch of this detergent is enough for 24 loads. To make it, I need one bar of soap, which I can get for $0.30; a cup of washing soda, which I can get for $0.32; a half cup of borax, which I can get for $0.24; and half a cup of OxiClean, which I can get for $0.41. That adds up to a cost of $0.05 per load.

I’ve been extremely happy with this detergent. I’ve used it on all types of clothes – whites, reds, coloreds – and all levels of dirtiness without any problems. I haven’t noticed any significant dinginess over a large number of loads, either.

Making a batch of this powdered detergent doesn’t take a whole lot of time, either. Most of the time is spent grating the soap, which is something you can easily do while watching a television program or something like that. After that, you just put the ingredients in a container, shake it thoroughly, and you’re ready to go.

We’ll often make this in quadruple batches. We’ll just grate four bars of soap at once, add four cups of washing soda, two cups of borax, and two cups of OxiClean to the container, and shake it thoroughly. I’ll usually just add a little bit of each ingredient, shake it, and then add a little bit more of each ingredient, repeating the cycle, in order to make sure it’s well-mixed.

How much does this really save? In our house, we do an average of a load of laundry a day – that’s the end result of having two adults and three messy young children at home. If we’re comparing to generics, then I’m saving approximately $0.10 per load. Over the course of a year, that’s $36.50.

If we’re comparing to, say, Tide, we’re saving about $0.27 per load. Over the course of a year, that’s $98.55.

Simply put, we’re saving a hundred dollar bill a year by doing this. To me, that’s well worth the effort of mixing up some powder for about five minutes once every three months or so.

Give it a shot. Make yourself a batch of this at home using the ingredients described above and see if it works for you. If you like it, you’re going to save some significant money over time. Even if you don’t, the ingredients (borax, washing soda, OxiClean) can easily be used for other cleaning projects around your home.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.

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  1. Tracy says:

    “I’m often stunned at the high price of laundry detergent.”

    I don’t know why, but this sentence struck me as incredibly funny. Particularly when applied to 15-30 cents a load and imagining Trent walking into a store and being stunned AGAIN by the fact that the detergent hasn’t changed price.

  2. lurker carl says:

    I’d substitute a laundry soap like Fels-Naptha instead of a beauty bar like Dove. What’s up with the Blue Bunny vanilla ice cream instead of Oxyclean?

  3. Brian says:

    “…but I’ve never felt it necessary to get my clothes clean.”

    An odd sentence in a piece about making laundry detergent.

  4. Baley says:

    Yeah, washing clothes with Dove sounds like a particularly bad idea. Maybe the blue bunny container is his laundry container? Though the oxyclean is still missing from the photo. I do not find laundry detergent to be that huge of an expense around my house. It’s certainly never “shocking.”

  5. Baley says:

    Brian, he’s talking about the baking soda not being necessary to get his clothes clean.

  6. Johanna says:

    Have you ever tried washing your clothes with no detergent at all? If, as you say, most of the clothes you wash just need to be cleaned of a few dead skin flakes, water alone ought to do that well enough. You save more money *and* more time – win-win.

  7. Vicky says:

    I’ve had a lot of luck with this stuff.

    I’ve had it tackle loads of various kinds of dirt – even cloth menstrual pads – and I feel it does as good a job as any store-bought brand ever did.

  8. Angie says:

    Would it be more appropriate to use the word “colors” in the place of “coloreds?” Technically, I suppose the latter is correct, but you may want to check out dictionary-dot-com’s definitions of it.

  9. Valerie says:

    I’d love to make detergent, but my parents told me about detergent that work great at 11 cents/load. This is unbeatable for me – it would be more expensive in my time to make detergent at what I make (although, I know for many, this could be a cost savings) A couple times of year, Sears’ Ultra Plus Concentrated laundry detergent goes on sale for less than $20. One large box does 180 loads of laundry at 11 cents/load. It’s great concentrated powder and really dissolves fast in the bottom of the washer, so I can put my clothes in before the water fills the washer. For those short on time, i recommend this.

  10. Melinda says:

    Can you use this homemade detergent with the new washers that say to only use high efficiency detergent or risk ruining the machine?

  11. JC says:

    Most loads of my laundry probably don’t require detergent to get them clean. I probably use 25% of what the box tells me to use. But then I’m single and not doing laundry for kids.

    There are exceptions – but even then I probably use only 50-75% of what the manufacturer recommends or I pretreat stains. Using less is a good way to save money, too without having to make my own detergent.

  12. Kerry D. says:

    Wondering what anyone knows about the high efficiency (HE) machines? I had a repairperson out a few weeks ago, since I thought clothes weren’t spinning out very well… And he told me to barely use any detergent, since residual bubbles could trick the machine into thinking it had spun completely… So, I’m now putting in about a tablespoon for an entire load, plus a splash of white vinegar! Everything is as clean as ever. That cost has dropped to nearly nothing!

    But, I still would like to use Oxi clean on really dirty loads, or oxi spray. or “spray n wash” on my son’s grass stained baseball pants… wondering if that is going to cause issues.

  13. moom says:

    I’m stunned that Trent can buy Dove soap for only 30 cents a bar. It costs $2 a bar at full price here in Australia but laundry detergent costs about $7 a kilo and does 25 washes or 28 cents a wash.

  14. Valleycat1 says:

    If you can purchase detergent in bulk for 15cents a load, then saying you are saving $100 per year compared to a major brand is cherry picking the benefit to make it look better. Looking back to your first article on this, linked above, your homemade recipe has increased in price by 66% but commercial price has remained the same.

  15. Riki says:

    I use less than half of the recommended amount of detergent and once calculated that my store-bought, on-sale (with coupon!) detergent runs me about 3 cents per load.

    I bought enough for like the next 4 years.

  16. Aerin says:

    I make similar detergent, but only use borax, washing soda and grated bar soap. I use a bar of laundry soap from the bulk store, or Sunlight brand laundry soap from the grocery store. I prefer the bulk store soap because it is unscented.

    The cost savings are appealing, but I make my own detergent mostly because I have chemical sensitivities and commercial laundry detergents give me a horrible rash. Occasionally I will need to do laundry while travelling, and have to use a detergent like Tide. I will get a red, raised rash all around my lower legs from my socks after washing them in Tide, Sunlight, etc. I never get a skin reaction from my homemade detergent.

  17. kiki says:

    While I’d love to make my own laundry detergent, it’s pretty much impossible to find a recipe that doesn’t include borax.

    Unfortunately, borax can impair fertility (for those trying, which includes us), can potentially cause damage to a fetus, injure children or pets…we’ve decided it’s not a safe item in our household.

    Sometimes the money is worth it!

  18. Josh says:

    I buy a 105-load bottle of Arm & Hammer detergent at Target for $8. This comes out to 7.6 cents per load.

    They also have 80-load bottles with oxi-clean (not sure if that makes a difference or not) for $8, which comes out to 10 cents per load.

  19. Emma says:

    Drugs stores constantly run sells for detergents- $2 or $3 for a gallon or so. Not Tide. I buy cheap detergent plus I keep a small Tide for dirty clothes and stains. Thank you for news about Borax- all detergent other than”green” are not healthy. I double rinse my wash, if remember.I do not use any fabric sofeteners, any added chemicals, nothing in a dryer.

  20. Sarah says:

    While I understand the importance of being mindful about money, finances etc. sometimes I get really fed up with calculating the cost of living…at the end of my life I don’t want to know how much money living my life cost me. I want to know that I’ve lived a life and enjoyed it, too.

    Like my mother used to say, “Maybe we didn’t accomplish what we planned to [financially] but we lived a life anyway – in spite of it.”

    This week I contacted an old friend in my hometown about good local sources for flowers ( a niece living there is looking for carnations for a special occasion) and my friend’s response was “I have no idea about buying flowers in our area.” Made me feel sad. No fresh flowers ever…

  21. Gretchen says:

    I’m more interested in the 30 cent Dove.

    We don’t use enough laundry detergent to make this worth my while.

  22. Jane says:

    There’s no way I could save $100 a year on laundry detergent, because right now I don’t even spend close to that. I probably spend around $40 a year on detergent, and this includes a small amount of Oxy Clean in each load. And with a family of four I probably do 8-9 large loads a week.

    I just use around a third of what is recommended. This combined with a small amount of Oxy Clean does the trick for me.

    I was thinking more about the post on cold water and washing, and like most things in life, there is a middle ground! I usually make it luke warm, which doesn’t use that much hot water but still manages to get the dirt out of clothes for two young boys. I start the wash with hot water to dissolve all of the Oxy Clean and then switch to warm (which is pretty cold on my washer) before I leave the basement.

    Count me in as being dubious about 30 cent Dove. On sale at Walgreens, it is usually $1, and even with a coupon, I couldn’t routinely get it down to 30 cents.

  23. SwingCheese says:

    @Kiki: I can’t speak to Borax impairing fertility, but as far as its danger to kids and pets, I looked into that when I began using it as a cleaning product in our household. It is a danger if they eat it, as it is slightly caustic, but on the whole, it is as safe a cleaning product to use as the commercial cleaning products out there. After all, regular detergent is also dangerous to children and pets if it is eaten. I’d never thought of it in those terms, and you need to be careful with all chemicals, of course, but Borax really isn’t more of a danger than anything else.

  24. gail says:

    I wait until laundry detergent goes on sale, then use a coupon, which is doubled in my area, and rarely pay more than 50 cents for a bottle of HE detergent, which does 32 loads of laundry. Hope this helps…..

  25. Lilly says:

    I once read an article that said most of us are using way too much laundry detergent. Apparently, the quantity suggested by the manufacturer is excessive. The article suggested you try an experiment. What you do is take two clean towels previously washed as usual. Put the two towels in the washer and run it through the wash cycle without adding any detergent. In the middle of the wash cycle, open the lid. If you see any suds, it’s the excess laundry that wasn’t rinsed out from the previous washing, meaning you used too much detergent. Since doing that experiment, I’ve cut down to about 2 tablespoons of detergent per washload. My husband is in construction and we live in the desert, which is very dirty and dusty, and this amount of detergent gets our clothes perfectly clean. Whites, however, do require hot water, bleach and a bit more detergent. Since we use Tide with bleach powder, this saves us a huge amount over the course of a year.

  26. Kathy F says:

    I was using the homemade laundry detergent for about a year or two. Worked OK, but some of my white nylon items (bras, slips) start to become dingy grey. I read other people have the same problem if your water is hard. So I looked up the hardness of my local water on the county Internet site and found out my water is moderately hard. So I starting adding white vinegar in the rinse and that seems to help.

    I was using the homemade stuff in my front loading washing that normally uses HE (High efficiency) detergent. I had no sudsing problem with the homemade.

    Over the past couple of years, I had developed ezcema on my chin and neck. Could not really get rid of it, just treated it. I finally thought maybe that the use of the homemade detergent may have been a factor. So I stopped using it recently and the ezcema seems to be getting better. So I may have to give up using it and go back to using the Kirkland HE detergent from Costco.

  27. Kathryn says:

    A reasonable and environmentally friendly alternative are soap nuts.

    I bought 2 pounds a few years ago, and they lasted for 4-1/2 years. I bought another bag last spring, and i’ve used about 1/8th of the bag so far. The outlay up front is big (near $30), but then i don’t have to think about it again for a long, long time. We got many more than the 320 load advertised. At 320 loads, at current prices, that is 7-1/2 cents per load, I would guess that ours last much longer, say 5 cents a load. I do add a small amount of borax and baking soda to a wash, and often add some vinegar to the rinse water. My MIL comments on how soft our towels feel.

    To me, this is the best of all worlds. Good for the environment, our clothes, and our pocketbook.

  28. Kittie says:

    @#27 Kathryn What the heck is a “soap nut” and where would you buy it?

  29. Kathryn says:

    Kittie, i put in a link, but that is caught in moderation, and in my experience here, it is not likely ever to get out of moderation. Google them. They grow on trees and have a natural saponification. They don’t really suds much so they are especially good for HE washers. I got my first bag from Maggies Soap Nuts, but more recently have gotten them at naturoli dot com (so as not to get caught in the never-ending moderation). Great product. We are very happy with them.

  30. sewingirl says:

    I would probably have tried the homemade laundry detergent when I had 4 kids at home. But now theres just 2 of us, and TIDE is the best at getting out the heavy grease and manure stains on our farm. So I just try to catch the sales with a coupon to add and call it good.

  31. moom says:

    Update: My wife just came back from Costco. She bought 7.5kg of Biozet for $A30.49. Which is $A0.16 cents a wash. Still, I guess Trent thinks that is still stunningly expensive.

  32. Chris says:

    We by SUN detergent at Giant Eagle, and typically use about half the recommended amount. The regular price is $6 for 96 loads, when on sale the 120 is $6… Using half the amount per load means we typically pay 3.1 – 2.5 cents a load and spent 0 minutes prepping and creating something special. We normally only need to buy it two or three times a year (only do 4-5 full loads a week between the two of us)… Even if we used no detergent we wouldn’t save $20 let alone $100.

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