This Is Why You Should Stop Using DIY Laundry Detergent Right Now

Whether you like to keep things green or just enjoy DIY projects, you’ve probably considered making your own laundry detergent. You can make your own version of just about any cleaning product. So it makes sense that tutorials for DIY laundry detergent are all over Pinterest. But that homemade laundry detergent may not be as effective as you think.

In fact, there are several very good reasons that you should stop using DIY laundry detergent. Read on to learn how this seemingly harmless project can actually do more harm than good.

Homemade laundry detergents don’t clean very well

Man Doing Laundry
DIY detergent won’t get the results you want. | iStock/Getty Images tested four different formulas for DIY laundry detergent. The reviewers conducted a test cycle to see how well each formula cleaned compared to a standard, store-bought detergent. After each cycle, they used a photo-spectrometer to measure how good or how bad each detergent was at cleaning a series of stains.

The results? explains, “We’re sad to say, none of the DIY detergents performed very well—at least not compared to the name-brand detergent. Even just glancing at our test strips, the store-bought soap visibly cleaned the fabric more effectively than any of the hand-made options.”

DIY laundry detergent is actually soap, not detergent

Laundry Stuffed In Laundry Bag
There’s an important difference. | WendellandCarolyn/Getty Images

While we all call our homemade concoctions DIY laundry detergent, the truth is that most aren’t actually detergent. Instead, they’re soap. That doesn’t sound so bad. But it makes a very big difference. As the American Cleaning Institute explains, water has a property called surface tension that pulls the water molecules at the surface into the body of water. Chemical agents that reduce that surface tension — in order to clean your clothes — are called surfactants.

Surfactants not only reduce surface tension, but they also loosen dirt and hold it in suspension so it can wash away. Soap is a surfactant. But it leaves a film that doesn’t rinse away easily. That can make the fabric feel stiff. Soap molecules also aren’t very versatile, and don’t adapt well to today’s variety of fabrics, washing temperatures, and water conditions. Detergent, on the other hand, contains one or more surfactants that perform well under a variety of conditions, and don’t leave a film on your clothes. So your soap-based DIY laundry detergent can’t clean as effectively as a formula that contains actual detergent. 

Your washing machine is designed to work with detergent, not soap

Laundry Room
Machines are built for use with detergent. | Irina88w/iStock/Getty Images

Another reason to think twice about using a DIY laundry detergent that uses soap? As Butter Believer explains, the surfactants used in traditional laundry detergents are formulated to trap dirt and suspend it in the water. That way, your machine can rinse your clothes off cleanly, and carry the dirt away. However, soap doesn’t do this. In fact, it needs a lot more help rinsing the dirt away.

You could effectively wash your clothes with soap if you did it manually with a washboard. But a washing machine doesn’t give your clothes that level of friction or agitation. (That would wear them out a whole lot faster!) Because washing machines are designed to work with detergent, not with soap, the soap won’t all rinse away. So soap residue sticks to your clothes, which serves to trap dirt and bacteria inside the fabric.

Soap residue can build up in your washing machine

You don’t want soap buildup in your machine. | iStock/Getty Images

The soap residue left behind by DIY laundry detergent doesn’t just stick to your clothes. As Butter Believer explains, the soap residue can also stick to your washing machine. And that can cause real damage over time, especially if you don’t take the time to scrub it away. It can even host mold or bacterial growth, which is about as gross as it sounds. As the blog explains:

Think of bathtub ring — built up soap scum around the tub, which just sits there until you scrub it off with a brush. Well, soap scum from homemade laundry soap gets into the parts of your washing machine that you can’t reach to scrub out even if you wanted to. That’s a big risk to take, considering your washing machine is a very costly investment, and could be completely ruined by homemade laundry soap.

Your DIY laundry detergent also lacks enzymes

Trader Joe's Laundry Detergent
You can’t make the same thing at home. | Trader Joe’s

It also bears mentioning that your DIY laundry detergent lacks one other important component: enzymes. As an associate professor at the University of Maryland explains, enzymes help break down stains that a laundry detergent containing only traditional surfactants would struggle to remove.

Detergents are usually formulated to clean oil and grease. So that means that they have a hard time removing protein-based stains. Proteins can make all kinds of dirt stubbornly stick to your clothes. (Just think of how difficult it is to clean a blood stain, sweat, or grass stains out of a piece of fabric.) Laundry detergents that contain enzymes can break down those stains. But if you don’t specifically add enzymes to your DIY laundry detergent, you miss out on that stain-fighting power. 

Making laundry detergent with enzymes takes weeks

You can make your own enzymes from brown sugar, but it’s probably not worth it. |

Even though most tutorials for DIY laundry detergent don’t yield a detergent with enzymes, figured out a way to make one. The resulting detergent performed almost as well as a store-bought detergent thanks to the addition of the enzymes. Plus, preparing the enzymes only requires about $5 worth of groceries. The only problem? DIY enzymatic laundry detergent takes about two weeks to make, start to finish.

You can make the enzymes with brown sugar, a packet of dry yeast, the rinds of a few oranges, and some tap water. But you need to add those ingredients to a flask and leave them in a cool, dark place for two weeks. The process works. But as explains, the long wait “means that if you don’t plan properly and end up running out, you may have to fall back on the store-bought stuff anyway.” Plus, you either have to use the enzymes immediately, or refrigerate them for up to a month. Not exactly practical.

A DIY laundry detergent may void your washing machine’s warranty

Laundry dryer
You might wreck your warranty trying to save a few bucks on DIY detergent.| Brizmaker/iStock/Getty Images

You’ll need to get the details on your specific machine, but using a DIY laundry detergent can void the warranty for some machines. That seems especially true for high-efficiency machines, which use smaller amounts of water than conventional machines. The upshot? If your DIY laundry detergent does damage your machine, that damage probably won’t be covered by the manufacturer’s warranty.

Many people argue that they’ve used DIY laundry detergent for years, and that their clothes and their washing machine look and smell fine. We can’t argue with that! But it’s always a good idea to do your own research and draw your own conclusions, especially when an expensive appliance like your washing machine is involved.

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