cleaning and laundry

What Is In Homemade Laundry Detergents?

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laundry Making our own laundry detergent, or buying eco brands, seems to be more and more common these days. Making our own saves money, and is better for the environment. But do you ever read the ingredients and think what are all these chemical names? Are they really better for the environment? I’ve been making our own laundry detergent for over a year now, but recently I investigated some of the common ingredients in homemade laundry powder to find out whether they really are good for the environment.

Washing Soda – otherwise known as Sodium Carbonate is made up of sodium salt and carbonic acid. It was traditionally extracted from the ash of plants and for this reason is sometimes called soda ash. It is related to baking soda and bicarbonate soda, but is not the same thing and they are not interchangeable.

Sodium carbonate is highly alkaline, is caustic and acts as a solvent in laundry powder. It is also used to treat hard water. It is generally considered safe for the environment as it is naturally occurring and easily biodegradable.

Laundry Soap – I am yet to make my own soap, but I was using natural soap from the health food store in my laundry powder. The reality is that at $1.50 per bar, it’s pretty expensive. So I bought some home brand laundry soap ($1.99 for 4) and looked up the ingredients.

The ingredients are common to many soaps: Sodium Tallowate (combination of sodium hydroxide (also known as lye or caustic soda; don’t let it come in contact with your skin as it burns, however the process of saponification – reaction with fat, renders it non-caustic) and animal fat), Sodium Cocoate (combination of lye and coconut oil), glycerine, Sodium Chloride (common table salt), Tetrasodium EDTA, colours, Potassium Hydroxide (more lye).

The bad ingredient here is the Tetrasodium EDTA which is a synthetic preservative that makes water soft. It is classed as a persistent organic pollutant, which means that it doesn’t readily break down in the environment and has be shown to be harmful to humans and animals. The artificial colours aren’t great either.

We’ve been using animal fat and lye for thousands of years to produce soap so they don’t worry me too much but vegetable oils are preferable. Of course, palm oil has recently become controversial also. Natural or homemade soap is the best environmental choice when making laundry detergent.

Borax – Also known as Sodium Borate it is a combination of the naturally occurring mineral boron and Salt of Boric Acid and is often said to be a green cleaner. But this claim is somewhat controversial as it is highly soluble and potentially toxic (it is used as an insecticide). Use in small amounts is considered ok by many, but look it up and make your own decision. If using your laundry water as grey water on the garden, then leave out the borax. While it has many uses, in the laundry it is used for brightening laundry, softening hard water, removing soap residue, neutralising laundry odours, disinfecting, and stain removal.

Nappy Soaker  – Nappy soaker is often said to be biodegradable and safe to use. I purchase home brand nappy soaker (it’s cheap) and use it as a pre soaker for stain removal and to boost my homemade laundry detergent. Of course, the ingredients aren’t listed on the label so I contacted Woolworths to find out what exactly is in their product. It took over three weeks to get a response – actually I’d already written this article, but better late than never: Dense Soda Ash, Sodium chloride, Sodium percarbonate (active ingredient as stated on label), Sodium metasilicate pentahydrate, Optical Brightener, Tixosil 38, Fragrance, Triple Enzymes, Sodium Salt of LABSA.

Dense Soda Ash is Sodium Carbonate (above). Sodium Chloride is common table salt.

Sodium Percarbonate  is made from Sodium Carbonate and Hydrogen Peroxide (which breaks down into water and oxygen. It is produced naturally when sunlight acts with water and is a more green alternative to chlorine bleach). It is used to bleach and disinfect. This ingredient is considered environmentally safe.

Sodium metasilicate pentahydrate softens water and enhances the cleaning efficiency of the other ingredients. Although it has been claimed that it is environmentally safe and at least a better choice than it’s functional counterparts, the jury is out in my opinion on whether this ingredient is safe or not. The only info I could find was that it is commonly used in skin care products, that you shouldn’t let it get in contact with skin and that it is toxic to marine life.

Optical brighteners are dyes that absorb light in one spectrum and re-emit light in the blue spectrum giving a lighter appearance. The dye remains on the laundry after washing as microscopic fluorescent particles. These brighteners are often derived from chemicals that are toxic and can cause an allergic reaction. They are not biodegradable and potentially toxic to marine life.

Tixosil 38 as far as I can tell is an anti-caking agent. It is also a brand name so who knows what’s in it.

Enzymes are proteins naturally produced by living organisms. In the laundry, enzymes act on stains and dirt so that this material can be washed away more easily. Protease acts on protein stains, lipolases break down lipid (fat) based stains and amylases break down starches and other carbohydrate based stains, which is where the triple part comes in.

Salt of LABSA or Sodium Laurylbenzenesulfonate is a synthetic anionic surfactant (reduces the surface tension of water helping oil and water to mix – needed for cleaning) that helps remove oily dirt. It is considered an environmentally better option than alternative chemicals as it is biodegradable and has a relatively short chemical chain but it’s still synthetic.

As you can see, commercial nappy soaker has some ok ingredients and some not-so-ok ingredients. The popular Napisan has similar ingredients. Next time I’ll be looking for a brand that is transparent and more environmentally friendly.

As a side note, the nappy soaker states on the packaging that it complies with the Australian Standard 4351 for biodegradability. That sounds good, right?

I did a little digging and the Standard only refers to surfactants so you can make this claim on you label even if only one of your ingredients is a surfactant and complies with the standard (biodegrades within 28 days). I checked out the standard (you can only read the first couple of pages unless you’re willing to fork out $40 to download the pdf) and the scope states the the standard refers to the “biodegradation of organic compounds in an aqueous medium. This Standard does not assess the impact of a material or its metabolites on the environment.” Not such a great claim after all.

Bicarbonate Soda – Sodium bicarbonate is naturally occurring and non-toxic. It has many, many uses and is one of those must-have miracle ingredients for the home. It is used in laundry to soften water, remove stains and odours and lift dirt. Use as a substitute for borax.

Vinegar – Another natural non-toxic ingredient with many uses around the home, in the laundry it helps remove soap residue, soften clothes, removes odours, used as a soaker to remove stains and prevents lint build up. Use in the final rinse.

Bleach – Contains Sodium Hyperclorite that is not naturally occurring. While it is often argued that bleach is safe for the environment, a better alternative to chlorine bleach is Hydrogen Peroxide (above) diluted to 3%.

While many of these ingredients occur in nature and are generally considered ‘safe’, they should never be ingested as they are still toxic. Safe storage such as keeping these products out of reach of children, should still be adhered to. Also, many of them have caustic properties – good for cleaning but don’t get them on your skin as they will cause severe burns.

Although many of the natural ingredients above are better than their synthetic alternatives, there is one word here that stands out. Sodium. It’s still a lot of salt to be pumping into our waterways and soil and underlying water table. So even with natural alternatives, it is best to use the least amount needed to get your laundry clean.


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  1. Hi, I made up the mix of soap and hot water with the washing soda. It turned nice and thick after a litre of water and the soda. I decided to add bicarb instead of borax. As soon as I added the bicarb, the whole lot separated. I added the remainder of hot tap water, but by morning I had about an inch of fat floating on the top of the water. Was this what was supposed to happen?

    1. Hi Ronnie, I usually make the powdered washing detergent, but from what I understand it is quite normal for the liquid detergent to separate. It should be fine if you give it a good stir so that the soap mixes in again, and then store it in a container that you can shake before adding to your washing machine. I used to use bicarb in my detergent, but found it wasn’t necessary (it’s cheaper now, and left powder on our clothes). It is supposed to soften the water though, so if you have hard water (whatever that means) you may need to keep the bicarb in.
      Hope your washing detergent goes well, it would be great to hear how you went with it.

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