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How to make simple and cheap detergents

The cost of name-brand dish and laundry detergent and other cleaning products really adds up each year -- easily a week's pay in many households. Here's how to save.

By Stacy Johnson Jun 9, 2011 8:55AM

This post comes from Brandon Ballenger at partner site Money Talks News.


According to the latest government data (.pdf file), Americans spend an average of $659 a year on housekeeping supplies. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also says the average American earns about $787 a week -- which means many people are spending most of (if not more than) a week's pay every year on dish soap, laundry detergent, and other cleaning products.


If that sounds crazy, here's a better idea: Make your own. In the video below, reporter Jim Robinson explains one simple recipe for homemade dishwasher detergent that costs a third of the commercial stuff. On the other side, we’ve got more recipes and advice for scrubbing your cleaning budget.

Online recipes for cleaning products are in great supply. Here are just a few to help with dishes and clothes:


Dishwasher detergent

Here's the simple recipe for dishwasher soap you saw in the video above:

  • 1 cup of borax.
  • 1 cup of baking soda.
  • ¼ cup of table salt. 
  • 2 packets (half an ounce) of unsweetened lemon Kool-Aid.

You can try to save even more by buying ingredients in bulk, but you can also find smaller and much cheaper boxes at your local dollar store -- a good idea since you'll want to try a small amount at first to see if you like the results. The amounts listed above are good for 16 loads -- one tablespoon each -- so even small batches will last for a while.


Other recipes online vary. For example, we found one that suggested combining only borax and baking soda, 1 tablespoon each per load. Another suggested adding a little citrus essential oil to make it smell nice. We didn't try that one, however, because we had difficulty finding inexpensive citrus oil online. Then there's this recipe, which goes in a different direction altogether:

  • 2 bars of shredded Octagon soap
  • 1 cup of baking soda.
  • ¼ cup of washing soda (not baking soda).  
  • ¼ cup of lemon juice.

This one calls for melting the shredded soap in 5 quarts of water and then mixing in the other ingredients. If that sounds a little like the recipe for laundry detergent we wrote about last year, that's because it is.


Hand dishwashing liquid

No dishwasher? No problem. Here's what to get:

  • 2 bars shredded Octagon soap.
  • 1 cup baking soda.
  • ¼ cup washing soda.
  • ¼ cup lemon juice.

For this one, shred the soap into about 5 quarts of water and heat until it melts. Then add the other ingredients and pour it into a sealed container. It isn't supposed to create a lot of suds, but it's supposed to work well.


Laundry detergent

Here's an easy recipe for laundry detergent. You'll need:

  • 4 cups of water.
  • 1/3 bar of cheap soap, grated.
  • 1/2 cup washing soda. 
  • 1/2 cup borax.
  • 5-gallon bucket for mixing.
  • 3 gallons of water.

First, mix the grated soap in a saucepan with 4 cups of water, and heat on low until the soap is completely dissolved. Add hot water/soap mixture to 3 gallons of water in the 5-gallon bucket, stir in the washing soda and borax, and continue stirring until thickened. Let the mix sit for 24 hours, and voila! Homemade laundry detergent.


Other cleaning products

If you like the results of your homemade concoctions on clothes and dishes, why stop there? The next time you’re at the store, instead of picking up a bottle of some expensive cleanser, grab these six items and make your own cleaning supplies:

  • Vinegar. It may smell a little weird, but vinegar can handle everything from dishes to laundry and even weeds. We’ve written about the wonders of vinegar before in "Household products vinegar can replace."
  • Baking soda. Eliminates odors and helps with stains, and also works as a natural method of pest control -- ants hate it.
  • Borax. Thismineral salt beats bleach as a toilet cleaner and is also useful for scrubbing walls. And as you saw in the recipes above, it works with laundry, too.
  • Fels-Naptha soap. This one is actually made by one of those big cleaning companies: Dial. They recommend it for "pre-treating" stains. In other words, use this in addition to a bunch of our other expensive products, like Purex! But you can turn the tables by using it as part of a recipe for your own laundry detergent.
  • Rubbing alcohol. Works as a disinfectant and is also a great glass cleaner. It also gets grime off plastic and metal surfaces like patio furniture or bathroom fixtures.
  • Lemon juice. This cuts through dish grease and is an ingredient for homemade furniture polish -- but it's not the easiest thing to preserve long term.

If making your own cleaning products sounds a little extreme, there are still simple ways to save. The best? Buying generics. (See our story "7 things you should always buy generic.") And if you insist on using name brands, at least clip those coupons -- but only the ones worth your time.


More on Money Talks News and MSN Money:

Mar 12, 2012 11:14PM

After you buy the ingredients, and make a batch of it, you will see that you have plenty of ingredients left over to make several batches not just the one, you must not have ever looked at the boxes of these ingredients that you have to have or you would know by looking at them you would have plenty left over to make more later, unless of course your not to bright. And when you factor in the time which probably took me about 15 minutes to make 5 gallons of laundry soap. So yes it was worth the time and the energy that it took to make it, being at .7 cents per kwh it took .0175 cents of energy to cook. and as for my time, I was in the kitchen doing other things anyway so it just took a couple stirs every now and then,  I use the Fels-Naptha soap in mine as I love the smell. 
If I made the dishwasher soap it would take even less time than the laundry soap, some people are to lazy and don't care to save a dime, Your actually saving quite a bit and being productive in your own life, some just pay more than they need to for things for the convenience of not having to do it your self.
May 22, 2012 12:41AM
I buy the brand Xtra laundry detergent with color-safe bleach. I purchase the 75 Fl oz on sale for $ 2.00. It does 39 loads per bottle. It costs just a smidgen over $ 0.05 per load. This is cheaper than making your own at $ 0.08 per load. Sometimes I buy it for $ 1.75 which is less than $ 0.05 per load. Why would you want to make your own when you can buy it cheaper?
Jun 9, 2011 12:42PM
After you buy all of the ingredients needed and you factor in your time needed to mix them, you're better off just buying it.  What are you really saving by making it yourself?  In the video they say it costs 8 cents a load vs. 22 cents.  Did they factor in the cost of the energy needed to heat the ingredients?  If you're concerned with that miniscule amount, you've got way too much time on your hands.  I seriously question the savings here.
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