If you’d rather save money and spend that $83 some other way, try making your own detergent — it’s a fun, easy project, and your laundry will cost only pennies per load.

Bonus: Homemade detergent smells like soap, not the artificial scents that are added to commercial detergents, so it’s good for people who are averse to fake scents.

But which recipe works best? Here’s what we found.

The Experiment

To test each detergent, I cut an old T-shirt into four strips and gave each strip a good smearing of mustard. Each strip was washed with a regular load of laundry, in cold water, on a normal spin cycle. I didn’t pre-treat the stains.

Before washing

The first rag went in a load washed with a commercial liquid detergent made by Method. It came out looking like this:

Commercial detergent after washing

That stain is still pretty bright. I didn’t expect it to come out completely — that’s a tough stain, after all — but the detergent did little to fade it. The rest of my laundry came out perfectly clean and smelling fresh.

The Ingredients

I easily found all the ingredients for homemade laundry detergent at my local grocery store.

  • Borax: $5 for a 76-oz. box.
  • Washing soda (chemically similar to baking soda): $3 for a 55-oz. box.
  • Fels-Naptha bar soap (in the laundry section of the store): $3 for 1 bar.
  • OxiClean: $4 for 1.3-pound box.

Recipe #1

½ cup borax
1 cup washing soda
1 bar Fels-Naptha soap
3 gallons water
5-gallon bucket with a lid

Recipe 1 ingredients

1. Using a box grater, grate the entire bar of Fels-Naptha soap. You’ll end up with a pile of little soap curls.

Recipe 1 grater

2. Pour 4 cups of water into a large pot and bring to a boil, then lower the heat until it’s simmering. Add the entire pile of grated soap, handful by handful, and stir with a wooden spoon until it’s all dissolved.

Recipe 1 cooking

3. Pour 3 gallons of water into your bucket. (Make sure the bucket is clean first.) Pour in the borax, washing soda, and pot of soap; stir until dissolved.

4. Cover the bucket and let the mixture sit for 24 hours.

The mixture will be a little clumpy, so give it a good stir before using. The globs will dissolve in the washing machine anyway. Use 1 cup of detergent per regular-size load. Makes 52 loads.

Cost per load: 7 cents

Effectiveness: The detergent didn’t get rid of the mustard stain, but it did a better job than the commercial detergent.

Recipe 1 after wash

But the rest of my clothes are perfectly clean. Minor stains on other garments are gone, and everything smells fresh.

Recipe #2

1 bar Fels-Naptha soap 

1 cup washing soda

1 cup borax
Container with air-tight lid

1. Grate the entire bar of soap using a box grater.

2. Pour the grated soap into a blender; blend until the soap is chopped finely. (You may want to blend in smaller batches.)

Recipe 2 blender

3. Pour the mixture into the container, and add the borax and washing soda. Mix it all together and seal tightly.

Use a heaping tablespoon of detergent per regular-sized load. Makes about 40 loads. Add the detergent as you fill the washing machine with water, before you add clothes.

Cost per load: About 10 cents

Effectiveness: The mustard stain is still very visible, and somehow some reddish spots appeared. But the rest of my clothes are still perfectly clean.

Recipe 2 after wash

With homemade powdered detergents, it’s important to add detergent before adding clothes to the machine, to make sure all the detergent dissolves in the wash. If you don’t, you may end up with some undissolved powder on your clothes post-wash, but it’ll rinse right off.

Recipe #3

1 cup washing soda
1 cup borax
1 cup baking soda 

1/2 bar Fels-Naptha soap

4 ounces OxiClean
Container with airtight lid

Recipe 3 ingredients

1. Grate half the Fels-Naptha soap bar, then put the grated soap into a blender or food processor and blend until it’s a fine powder.

2. Pour the soap into the container, then dump in all the other ingredients. Mix well.

Recipe 3 powder

Use 1 tablespoon per load; 2 tablespoons for extra-dirty clothes. Makes about 60 loads.

Cost per load: About 6 cents

Effectiveness: The stain is still there — less visible than the rag that was washed with commercial detergent, but more visible than the stains from recipes 1 and 2. The addition of OxiClean doesn’t seem to have made a difference.

Recipe 3 after wash

Again, as with the other homemade detergents, the rest of my clothes are perfectly clean.

The Verdict

4 rags after wash

The winner is homemade detergent #1!

It caused the stain to fade the most. As for the cleanliness of my clothes in general, it’s a wash (pun intended). Everything came out clean and fresh, regardless of which detergent I used. Other small stains are gone, as well as any dirt or grime.

Interestingly, all three homemade detergents did a better job of fading the mustard stain than the commercial detergent. None of them got the stain all the way out, but mustard is a toughie to get out without pre-treatment. The liquid homemade detergent seems to be more effective than the two powdered recipes.

So, I think I’ll stick with recipe #1 for my homemade laundry detergent, but I’ll also invest in a pre-treater in case I ever get attacked by a mustard bottle.

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