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Suds or duds? We test effectiveness of homemade laundry soap against Tide

For more than a year now, I've been hearing of people who make their own laundry detergent. Friends, relatives and even some of my co-workers have tried it. They rave about how inexpensive the homemade stuff is and how it seems to wash clothes ju...

Tide vs. homemade
Whis is better? Tide or homemade? Dave Wallis / The Forum

For more than a year now, I've been hearing of people who make their own laundry detergent.

Friends, relatives and even some of my co-workers have tried it. They rave about how inexpensive the homemade stuff is and how it seems to wash clothes just as well as its brand-name cousins do.

Yet it seemed so time-consuming and over-the-top crunchy, like sewing all your clothes from humanely harvested cornhusks.

Even so, I remained intrigued. The checkbook savings - about a penny per load vs. the 10- to 20-cents per-load price tag of professional detergents - seemed pretty apparent. Especially when you consider that the typical American household washes about 400 loads of laundry yearly, according to the California Energy Commission.

But I remained skeptical. How could a homespun soap possibly outshine the performance of store-bought detergents, with their fancy talk of enzymes and cold-water polymer technology?


The people who make Tide and Cheer are backed by years of experience, armies of chemists and nearly bottomless resources.

How could a detergent made with a wooden spoon and a cheese grater possibly compete?

But I really wanted to try. I decided to launch my own experiment. I would make my own soap and then see how it stacked up against market juggernaut Tide in cleaning identical stains.

Use for old-school soap

The first order of business: finding the right detergent recipe.

There are literally hundreds of recipes online, although most seem to share the same core ingredients: borax, washing soda and shredded bar soap.

In the end, I settled on a formula from tipnut.com because it also contained a fourth ingredient: baking soda, which is supposed to help soften fabric.

Most of the recipes also call for bar-soap brands I'd never heard of previously: Fels-Naptha or Zote. Fels-Naptha is a heavy-duty laundry soap, which can be used as a rub-on pretreatment and is supposed to help cut through greasy stains. (If you can't find either of these brands, many online frugal-philes also swear by common bar soaps like Ivory.)


Fels-Naptha is manufactured by Henkel North America, which also makes Purex detergents and Dial.

Henkel seems to view this old-school soap, first formulated 100 years ago, as an embarrassing great-aunt.

It's hard to find detailed information on it, and my attempts to interview someone in Henkel's media relations about it were soundly ignored. (Could this be because this 99-cent soap is being used to make detergents at home so consumers don't have to buy the pricier, ready-made versions Henkel also manufactures? Hmmm ...)

Although some people have found Fels-Naptha hard to track down, I was able to get all of my detergent ingredients at Cashwise Foods in Moorhead.

That included:

  • Borax, or sodium borate, acts as a water-softening agent. It removes ions like calcium and magnesium from hard water and replaces it with sodium. This keeps the magnesium and calcium from bonding with the detergent being used, so less detergent is needed. The sodium also helps disperse dirt from fabrics into the wash water.
  • Washing soda, or sodium carbonate, also acts as a water softener and detergent booster. It consists of two sodium atoms, a carbon atom and three oxygen atoms. It should never be confused with ...
  • Baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate. Baking soda has the same ingredients as sodium carbonate, except a hydrogen atom replaces one of the sodium atoms. It is less powerful and caustic than washing soda but offers its own fabric-softening and odor-eliminating qualities.
  • Fels-Naptha provides the primary cleaning action of soap along with the abrasive cleaning action of the washer's agitation. Soap acts as the emulsifying agent, which allows oil and water to mix so the oily grime can be rinsed away.

The Tide throwdown

All ingredients assembled? Check. Soap grated until blister forms on index finger? Check. Everything mixed into one slightly lumpy powder? Check.

Now we needed to get down and dirty. I painted two T-shirts with four identical tough stains: grape juice, black clay mud, motor oil and ketchup. I let them dry overnight.


The next morning, I washed one shirt in powdered Tide and the other in the homemade stuff.

To level the playing field, I kept the washing conditions identical. Both shirts were washed in hot water for the same amount of time. Each one also shared space with three white towels so mechanical agitation would be equal.

The first thing I noticed was that the homemade detergent barely made any suds. Even so, the wash water seemed plenty dirty. The Tide water had a foamy, fragrant appearance - as if it had been formulated to make the consumer think, "Wow, all these suds must mean it's working!"

But did it work any better?

To be fair, it did. But not as much as I would have predicted. Both formulations completely eliminated the ketchup and the soil stains. Both left a trace of the grape stain; in fact, the homemade detergent actually seemed to remove more of the purple color in the stain.

But Tide was much better at eliminating the motor oil. (Undoubtedly, a pretreatment on a greasy stain of this magnitude would have made a big difference.)

The Tide T-shirt also seemed softer and less wrinkled.

But all in all, I felt like the homemade detergent performed admirably. So, yes, it certainly is a respectable alternative if you're looking to shave a few dollars off your housekeeping costs.


Even if you have to use a cheese grater.

Powdered Detergent

1 bar bath soap or Fels-Naptha soap, finely grated

1 cup washing soda

1 cup baking soda

1 cup 20 Mule Team Borax

Mix thoroughly. Add 2 tablespoons to wash water before adding clothes (a little more if clothes are heavily soiled). Keep in tightly covered container at room temperature.

Detergent-making tips


  • You'll want to consult with an appliance repairman before dumping homemade detergent into a high-efficiency front-loader. These models use a lot less water and soap. Online chat forums are filled with horror stories of people who gummed up their expensive new front-loaders with homemade detergents.
  • Homemade liquid detergents may be gloppy and weird-looking, but they are easier to use. (For instance, you won't need to dump them into the water before the clothes like you should with powdered detergents.) Because many of the recipes for liquid detergents make fairly large batches, try storing them in plastic 5-gallon pails with tight-fitting lids.
  • The most time-consuming part of making detergent is grating the soap. One tip: Leave the soap unwrapped overnight before grating it. It will dry out, which makes it easier to grate.

Some online sources say you can grate the soap quickly and easily in a Magic Bullet or food processor. That seems like a clean-up nightmare, though, so I didn't try it.
Sources: R. Jay Goos of NDSU, Graeme Wyllie of Concordia College, boston.com , ArmandHammer.com , chemistry.about.com

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525

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