Practical homesteading is all about harnessing the aspects of homesteading that make sense in a modern age. And laundry soap isn’t one of them.
For the past few years, a variety of homemade laundry soap recipes have unearthed themselves from the deep shadows of great-grandma’s Depression era cabinet for the world to enjoy. Most of them boil down to a simple combination of borax, washing soda, and a soap bar (Fels Naptha is a popular one). Throw in some essential oils to make it smell nice and you’re on your way to a huge bucket of dirt cheap soap!
These recipes are actually pretty great, and many of them stem from soaps that were used in years past to clean laundry for thousands of farm workers and their unruly children.
However, one MAJOR difference stands in the way…
When was the last time you used a washboard? Or even saw one?
No one uses a washboard anymore. Or, at least no one I know. If your intent is to hand wash every bit of your laundry and dump the auto-washer forever, then by all means make your own soap. It’ll be far more cost efficient for you, albeit far more time consuming.
Personally, I don’t have that kind of time or energy. And I definitely don’t have enough coffee.
Why modern laundry detergents matter
I once bought my mom a 1,000-piece puzzle of a completely blank picture. The puzzle is all white. It seems impossible to complete! But then you find that first piece that fits with the second piece. And suddenly, there’s hope. The planets have aligned and the world is a better place. Ultimate satisfaction and harmony.
That’s how modern detergents and modern washers fit together. Ultimate harmony.
Store-bought detergents are a pleasant-smelling blend of chemicals concocted to work in harmony with the mechanics of your machine and the chemical makeup of your water supply in order to effectively remove dirt, oil, mites, dander, and whatever else you can imagine from your favorite textiles. They are specifically designed with a distinct type of cleaning agent called surfactants.
Wait, you said the c-word!
Chemicals? Yes, yes I did.
Did you know water is a chemical? And so is the air you breathe.
Look, I get it. When my husband and I first got married, I wanted to live a more “chemical-free” lifestyle. I’ve always dreamed of living more naturally, such as looking to herbal remedies to find a cure for things like headaches and colds instead of spending my time and money on an unnecessary doctor’s visit.
So naturally, we heard of homemade soap and crunched the numbers. Would we save enough money for it to be worth it? Turns out we would! We spent two years using our own DIY recipe and at first it was great. We were saving tons of money, we were feeling more self-sufficient, and we had clean clothes!
Then, sometimes my shirt would smell a little off. I worked at a bakery and it was pretty important for me to have clean clothes, but my work uniforms started smelling weird. I thought maybe we weren’t using enough soap – many DIY soap recipes state you need to use a certain amount in order to get the proper clean. So, I would add an extra scoop to our loads.
It seemed to work for a bit, but then my husband said his work shirts started to smell. So, I tried to troubleshoot. I thought, maybe we aren’t using the right combination, so I’d test out a different recipe. That didn’t work.
Then I thought, maybe it’s our water! It’s hard water, after all. Nope. We had water softeners, and two recipes filled with water softeners didn’t change things.
Nothing really clicked for me until I began researching cloth diapers after I became pregnant. I knew I had to clean them, but I quickly learned this wasn’t my real problem. My problem became, how do I clean these properly without creating some serious health issues for a helpless child?
This is when I learned about detergent surfactants, and began to approach my “chemical-free” lifestyle with a more sensible outlook. When it slowly dawned on me that maybe the DIY soap wasn’t working after all, I decided to strip our clothes.
Now, “stripping” your clothes in the laundry world means to soak them in a large container of water (or even your bathtub) filled with hot water, laundry boosters like washing soda, Borax, and Calgon, and a bit of store-bought detergent. Then, after a long soak, hard-to-clean dirt and grime will eventually loosen off of your clothes and they’ll be far cleaner than before.
After the strip, our clothes smelled ahh-mazing. And we immediately switched back to store-bought detergents.
You see, chemicals and their crazy reactions are literally everywhere. Trying to live a life escaping chemicals isn’t practical homesteading. You wouldn’t be able to eat, touch anything, or even breathe. You’d literally die.
And then you still wouldn’t escape because a rotting corpse is an amazing symphony of chemical reactions.
Isn’t science great??
The difference between detergents and soaps
Surfactants, or “surface-active agents”, are molecules that are both hydrophobic (“water fearing”) and hydrophilic (“water attracting”). The molecule contains a tail end – the hydrophobic end – which will bind with the dirt and oil you’re trying to wash from your clothes. The hydrophilic head will bind with the water in your machine.
When the machine agitates your laundry, these molecules hold tight to the dirt, binding it into tiny spheres that trap it and wash it away from your clothes when the machine drains.
Now, soaps don’t have these. Traditional laundry soap – the ones used on washboards – never had surfactants in them because they didn’t need them. In fact, they didn’t even know about them.
The rough agitation of a washboard cleaned fabrics enough to make it through another few days of hard work around the homestead. But remember, this was back in the time when true hygiene wasn’t a thought. It was before Florence Nightingale presented the idea of washing hands to prevent spread of disease during the Crimean War. It was before indoor plumbing was commonplace, and when soap was heavily taxed as a luxury item.
Surfactants were introduced into laundry detergents as a response to the two world wars, when animal and vegetable fats and oils traditionally used to make soap faced a shortage. Advancements in chemistry and technology allowed for the development of modernized detergents alongside the “housewife-friendly” automatic machines, pushing away the laundry soap bars and washboards of years past. Naturally, they formed a symbiotic relationship.
Jump back to the 21st Century, and take a look at what we have to work with today: a plethora of detergent options, built on nearly a century of surfactant research and development. There are now four types of surfactants used in today’s household cleaners – three of them in laundry detergents alone.
Making your own detergent is harder than it looks
I don’t care what Pinterest says. You cannot make your own detergent at home without surfactants.
I’ll say this again.
You cannot make your own detergent at home without surfactants.
And you cannot buy surfactants – not unless you buy detergents, of course. The kind you need simply aren’t for sale. No detergent company in their right mind would allow that to happen. Their sales would plummet as soon as word spread, and anything that hurts a company’s bottom line is a no-go.
Homemade soaps also won’t give you the total clean we desire in society today. Normally, soap is used to clean smooth, nonporous surfaces, such as cutting boards, dishes, and counter tops. Even our skin is a smooth barrier protecting us from soaps (and so many other things, so remember to take care of your skin).
But our clothes are a different story. It’s no secret fabric is made of small fibers woven or knitted together. In between those fibers are small holes and crevices that will trap every dust mite, dead skin cell, and pollen molecule it can find. Things like flour dust from baking bread, or dirt from the garden will find their way into those tiny areas.
When you wash these dirt particles away with soap in a modern machine, they’re literally only scratching the surface. Traditional soaps won’t be able to reach into those porous areas and pull the dirt away. The technology simply isn’t there.
Earth, laundry, and the 21st Century
The beautiful thing about these modern times we live in is the ability to avoid the more harmful chemicals and opt for a gentler approach. Recent years have shed light on more natural resources to use in surfactant development, including plants, fats, and oils, rather than the traditional petroleum base. Renewable resources are on the rise, and rightly so.
And, according to the American Cleaning Institute, corporations and manufacturers within the soap and detergent industry are actively reducing their environmental impact through improved packaging, product development, and increased public education.
Check out the American Cleaning Institute’s quick guide “Going Beyond Green”, which is full of great tips you can use to practice practical homesteading.
How you can help
These days, everyone is concerned with environmental impact – and rightly so! We only have one planet to live on, so we need to make the best of it. Planet Earth will survive without us. But if humans want to survive, then we need to make sure it’s a habitable planet.
If your main concern is the environmental and health impacts of detergents, then homemade soap isn’t going to solve it. Borax, a popular ingredient in most DIY recipes, and its friendly cousin boric acid, were found in a 2006 EPA study to have detrimental effects on both short-term and long-term health. The study concluded that overexposure can cause immediate symptoms including nausea, vomiting, eye and skin irritations, and respiratory issues.
These symptoms can present after doing something as simple as inhaling dust or sprays, hand-to-mouth ingestion (common in toddler cases), and accidentally swallowing pool water treated with the chemical.
As for long-term health issues, Borax and boric acid were also found to cause testicular dystrophy in mice, rats, and dogs, and decreased sperm count and libido for men who worked in boric acid factories.
For women, these chemical compounds can cross the placental barrier, disrupting fetal skeletal development and birth weight when exposed in high doses. It has also been found to decrease ovulation and overall fertility.
Homemade soaps might save you a buck or two in the long run, but with the amazing options we have today, DIY soap isn’t worth the headache. And practical homesteading just isn’t cut out for headaches. Here are some easy steps we can all follow in order to truly “go green” when it comes to detergents:
- Choose a tried and true plant-based detergent. Brands such as Charlie’s Soap, Method, and Mrs. Meyer’s are well-loved in the green cleaning world, and now more affordable than ever.
- Use less and save the world. These days, highly-concentrated detergents are making a big splash. Buying a concentrated soap and properly measuring your usage not only saves you money, but it saves the planet as well. Many brands, including Seventh Generation, have concentrated detergent options to choose from.
- Recycle your bottles. Whether it’s reusing them in the workshop or dropping them off at the your nearby center, recycling ought to be a major part of not only your detergent usage, but your homesteading practices in general. Also, look for post-consumer recycled packaging, and take note of the company who makes it (like the awesome Seventh Generation bottle in tip 2!). Because these are the companies willing to help us all leave a smaller footprint.
- Combine your DIY with modern technology. If you’re heart is set on homemade soaps to lower your household costs, there are ways you can do that without sacrificing a true clean. Foca is a great addition to a DIY soap that will provide the surfactants and technology you need while providing you with a cost-effective solution. It’s also a great detergent by itself, so if you find you simply don’t have the time to make your at-home soap, fear not! Foca to the rescue.
If we follow even some of these steps, we can all have a better impact on not only our health, but the health of our environment. Before you decide to mix up a batch of DIY soap, be sure to weigh your options. I’m a firm believer in truly understanding the motivation behind an action, and as a budding homesteader you should, too. Like Newton said, every action has a reaction (but we’ll get to that in another post).
Happy (practical) Homesteading!