Laundry soaps for the adventurous

This contribution to your eco-journey is based on input by Cindy Scott, my chief laundry adviser (she wrote the guest post on dryer sheets).


Cindy has been experimenting with homemade laundry soap…..and she assures me that it really works, even beating out commercial soaps when it comes to stinky running gear, which is certainly impressive. It is also very cheap to make.

Cindy used the laundry soap recipe from the Suzuki site. As long as you put in pure soap granules, you can pretty much guarantee that this is an eco-friendly concoction (see here for a discussion of the green credentials of soap).

By contrast, even some of the greener commercially available laundry soaps (including my favourite, Biovert) contain surfactants which are likely derived from petrochemicals and are certainly not naturally occurring (i.e. even if plant-derived, they require a grand amount of processing). So, for purists, making your own is a good bet. Once you have established your sources for borax and soda you are in business…you can even supply your friends.

Being a keen laundress, Cindy experimented with different ways to keep her whites sparkling. She found the best solution was to add 1 tablespoon of Nellie’s all-natural oxygen brightener to the water first and let it soak for 30 minutes.


Nellie’s All Natural is a Vancouver-based soap company. I use the washing soda (which is really washing detergent) from time to time, though it is hard to find in the east (I actually got mine at HomeSense). I am not 100% convinced by the company’s eco-credentials (their dryer balls are made out of the über-evil PVC which they proudly announce is `widely used in the healthcare sector, children’s toys and food packaging’….), but their products generally seem pretty good and the packaging is attractive if you go for the retro laundry-room look.

The oxygen brightener is made from sodium carbonate, sodium percarbonate, primary linear alcohol ethoxylate (those surfactants again) and sodium sulphate. Pretty benign, in the scheme of things, and with no fragrances or dyes.

I did a bit of research to see how the Nellie’s product stacks up compared to OxiClean, a more readily-available oxygen stain remover. It turns out that the active ingredients are the same (sodium carbonate and sodium percarbonate), but that OxiClean contains undisclosed fragrances and other ingredients (see here for a discussion of the pros and cons of OxiClean).

The purest product in this class seems to be Oxo Brite, made by the Earth Friendly Products company in the US. This contains nothing but the two active ingredients. I wonder whether it would work as well on Cindy’s whites: do the surfactants make a difference?

Anyway, back to the point. The soaking step is fine if you have a top-loading washing machine (and a good memory) but not so good for folks like me with precision-engineered German front-loaders. I guess I could use a bucket to pre-soak, add some dilute solution to the drum before hand, or use the pre-wash function. I suspect, though, that I will just let my whites gently yellow so I look all natural and non-bleached….

Not to be outdone, I have been doing my own laundry experimentation, using soap nuts (literally seeds from the Chinese Soap Berry Tree) in my wash.

soap nuts

The Green Virgin products website (from where I was kindly sent my nuts) tells you all about what these are and how to use them.

So far they have done a pretty good job for me. I use them mostly on bed-linen and other fairly benign stuff. I recently conducted one of my scientific stain tests, pitting them against `my regular detergent’ on red wine, tomato, olive oil and banana. They didn’t do too badly, but they were definitely worse than Biovert. They are, however, self-evidently natural (usually you only find seed pods in your laundry when you have inquisitive kids who don’t empty their pockets) and a very cheap option too (around 12 cents per wash).

So that’s that on laundry adventures for now.

Finally, let me apologize both for this too-long post and the errant emails subscribers have received from time to time with old postings. I am doing my best to get to the bottom of that problem.

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  1. Fiona says:

    I tried a natural laundry powder recipe with soap flakes, washing soda, and borax – just mix them together. I've seen this recipe a lot of places but I had problems in that it didn't seem to dissolve in warm water. Might be my crappy apartment washer (top-loader) doesn't agitate strongly enough. I'd be interested in other people's experiences as I was disappointed – I really wanted it to work. Because I couldn't convince my boyfriend of this now we're back to Tide :-( Maybe the liquid format is key.

    By the way, a really good source for the ingredients in bulk cardboard boxes is the Pioneer brand. You can get it here in Ottawa at the Arbour environmental store or by mail order from

  2. Diana Fox says:

    Thank you, Fiona for your thoughts. Anyone out there tried the dry mix? And how is it dissolving the stuff before hand?
    Also, great to have a source for the ingredients.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Laurie says:
    I love using hydrogen peroxide for laundry stains. I used to use it straight up or diluted in water, but it can be tough on clothes and had a tendency to turn them yellow if you leave it on too long. I now use Safe Bleach by a Toronto-based company called The Soap Works. It contains only hydrogen peroxide and sodium carbonate, works wonders on underarm stains, gets red wine out of tablecloths and can be used on coloured fabrics. Doesn't yellow whites either. I soak my stained items for 20-30 mins or overnight if stains are really stubborn.

    Their website says you can use it as a grout cleaner and deck wash, among other things. I use hydrogen peroxide to clean my cloudy drinking glasses, so I'm not surprised that this works as well.

  4. Kelly says:

    I’ve been using a dry mix (washing soda, soap flakes, baking soda, Borax) for about six months, and it’s been fantastic. No problems dissolving in a cold-water wash in a top-loader. I do hold off on adding the laundry until the detergent has had a bit of a chance to dissolve in the water, mind you.

    Good to know that Arbour has the Eco-Pioneer ingredients–I live close by, but didn’t even think to check. I got them from, with free shipping and good service.

  5. sandra says:

    There is another solution which gets white white. Buy some Borax add to your wash, it works very well on top loaders, for front loading add it in the soap dispenser. For the white specks you find on black, you have to dilute it. Actually you need to dilute it completely in hot water.

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