Washing Clothes the Old Fashioned Way

Julia Earl
Preventing Harm Minnesota

Many readers may be familiar with cleaning their home with homemade non-toxic cleaners. Have you thought about washing your laundry the same way? It’s a great way to save money, reduce the amount of pollution entering our water, improve human health downstream from us and… clean our clothes without using a wash board!


Based on research and conversations with people who have tried making their own laundry detergent, there are three consistent ingredients:

  1. Washing soda (Arm and Hammer Super Washing Soda®)
  2. Borax (20 Mule Team Borax®)
  3. Bar soap (suggestions include : Fels Naptha, Ivory® Bar Soap and Pure and Natural®)

Bar Soaps

A word about bar soaps—for the most environmentally and human health friendly formula—check the Material Data Safety Sheet (MSDS) for more information regarding the ingredients and their potential toxicity. The MSDS will provide information on sensitization, carcinogenicity, mutagenicity, reproductive/fetal/developmental toxicity and target organ toxicity. For example, none of the ingredients in Fels Naptha® are known to cause these problems. Also be sure to use a soap that is not labeled anti-bacterial. (Many MSDS sheets may be accessed for free using the internet at msdssearch.com and msdsonline.com. Another option is to go to the specific product website and then search for the MSDS from there. A third option is to enter the “product name + MSDS” in a search engine.)

NOTE: Some of the products noted above may be challenging to find in conventional stores. First, try the grocery store, co-op, hardware store or box store in the laundry and soap sections. Second, ask the manager to order some if it’s not available. If those avenues fail, the internet is the next best alternative.

Read Up

Naturally Clean: The Seventh Generation Guide to Safe & Healthy Non-Toxic Cleaning by Jeffery Hollender and Geoff Davis. New Society Publishers Gabriola Island 2006.

Healthy Child Healthy World: Creating a Cleaner Greener Safer Home by Christopher Gavigan. Plume 2008.


Recipes include dry formulas of shaved bar soap mixed with washing soda and Borax, while wet formulas include water and entails boiling the mixture together to create a liquid soap. Some examples include the following:

Dry Recipe

  • 1 bar of shaved bar soap
  • ½ cup of borax
  • ½ cup of washing soda

Thoroughly stir together for five minutes. Use one tablespoon per load and two tablespoons for heavily soiled clothes. Cost: $.05/load. Several sources indicate that this recipe is fine for high efficiency (HE) washers as well because it is a low sudsing formula. This process may be found at debtfreeadventure.com.

Wet Recipe

  • 1½ pints water
  • 1/3 bar of soap, shaved
  • ½ cup borax
  • ½ cup washing soda

Mix shaved soap with water and place in pot on stove over low heat until the soap has completely dissolved. Then add Borax and Washing Soda. Continue to stir over heat until they have dissolved. Allow to cool slightly and pour into an empty one gallon clean container such as a milk carton or laundry detergent bottle. Then add hot tap water and fill container the rest of the way. Alternative: Heat one gallon of water at the beginning and add ingredients as described above. The mixture will look goopy—and that’s normal.

Washing Clothes

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