"I'm only spending $0.001 per load—yes, a tenth of a cent! I don't understand why anyone would buy commercial laundry detergent!"
That's what I said over 2 years ago—November 2015—when I brewed a 1 litre concentrate of homemade laundry detergent and diluted it with 10 litres of water. I'd just caught the Lotions and Potions bug, and was gleefully replacing all of my household cleaning solutions with DIY recipes.
When a friend who repped Amway products touted their laundry line, I said gaily, "Well, I just made 11 litres, so maybe when I run out I'll call you!"
Don't get me wrong, I did my research. I read blog after blog swearing how effective natural ingredients were, how little soap was actually needed to wash one's clothes (never mind greedy Big Corporate insisting we needed a full capful of their chemicals to do the job), how much money they saved, how fresh and non-irritating their clean clothes were. I was convinced.
And for the past two years, I wasn't disappointed.
Sure, my white towels looked a little dingy, but that was because they were 7 years old and I had never bothered bleaching them or adding any kind of whitening/blueing agent. The only fabric that I was mildly watchful of were our favourite ivory bedsheets. Silky soft and breathable, they were also getting dingy. I wondered if it was normal for light-coloured sheets. Or maybe because I had also swapped all our moisturizers to coconut oil & shea butter. Oh well, no system was perfect.
I never wondered if these fabrics were actually fully clean—because they smelled clean! I'd washed them, with soap. So surely, they must have been... right?
You're probably sensing a turn in the story, so here it is. A pregnant friend who's also planning to use cloth diapers asked me what detergent I was planning on using. Apparently her research had uncovered evidence that homemade laundry detergent wasn't sufficient enough to clean poo.
I could concede to that. My homemade recipe was frugal and efficient and altogether praiseworthy, but I was willing to admit that it might not have the enzymes or power required to neutralize human waste.
So I jumped down the Internet rabbit hole with my fellow expectant mother.
"Uh oh," she said. "Look what I found. Homemade detergent might not actually be cleaning your clothes at all."
"There's no way," I scoffed. "They're clean! And besides, most of my clothes aren't that dirty to begin with."
She sent me the link (For the Love of Clean).
I couldn't believe it. I certainly didn't want to, anyway. How dirty were our clothes, really? The sweaty, grimy socks we washed came out clean. Not grimy, not stinky—so they were clean...right?!
I kept Googling. Had I been misguided two years ago? Was this one neat-freak's opinion, or were there other DIYers who had begun to doubt?
SOAP VS DETERGENT
It seems that the discrepancy lay with how these two separate molecules functioned. SOAP and DETERGENT are chemically different, and thus clean differently. Soap naturally attracts to dirt, and our scrubbing and scouring enables us to wash away the grime. Cue bar soap + face cloth, or dish soap + mug + sponge.
However, without sufficient agitation (scrubbing), not all the soap will wash away. The traditional laundry soaps of centuries ago worked in tandem with the ol' washboard and elbow grease. Lots of manual labour, lots of wear and tear on the fabrics, but they were washed until the water ran clear (no more soap/grime).
But the invention of the modern washing machine also brought a different kind of cleaning: less agitation, less wear and tear, and the fabrics essentially swished each other clean. This called for a different kind of molecule: DETERGENT.
Detergent pulls dirt out of fabric, suspending it in water. This is different than the soap binding to wherever the dirt already is (in the fabric). Because of this property, detergent is easier to wash away. It doesn't need the same kind of agitation and scrubbing.
According to what I was reading, using the classic laundry soaps in a washing machine meant that not all the soap was getting agitated out of the fabric. There was residue left behind, which would gradually attract a build-up of more grime.
It pains me to say it, but I began to wonder if that was what had happened to my white towels. And my confident little DIY heart began to doubt.
The Queen of Clean, with whom I was disinclined to agree, urged us homemade soapers to at least be willing to put our fabric to the test.
"Strip your white towels with half a bathtub of hot water, 1/4 cup of borax, and 1/4 cup of washing soda. If the water is no longer clear in 6 hours... then there was build-up residue in your fabrics."
I didn't feel good admitting it, but I knew it had to be done.
The pictures speak for themselves. I also stripped my ivory sheets... they were even worse.
Time for a change.
After a week of obsessive research, I chose the most readily available (in Canada), most economic plant-based detergent: Seventh Generation 4x Geranium & Vanilla. It's also approved for cloth diaper cleaning.
Don't take my word for it.
Maybe you're using homemade laundry soap. Or maybe you're thinking of starting. Hopefully this post saves you some Google rabbit holes, but if you are still skeptical, try it for yourself.
Wonder what's in your fabric? Dare you to strip your laundry. Let me know how it goes =)