Thursday, May 23, 2013

Does Homemade Diaper Detergent Work?

Disclaimer: For anyone not cloth diapering, or considering it for the future, this post might not be very interesting for you!

After three years of using cloth diapers, and about six months of having two kids in diapers, I began to wonder if there was a way to save some money on diaper detergent.  So a few months ago, we decided to give homemade detergent a go.  I searched around the internet, and found a lot of similar recipes. 

A good representative example can be found at Moms Everyday:
1 cup washing soda
1 cup borax
1/2 cup of oxiclean

And a very similar one at Fractured Fairy Tales:
1/2 cup washing soda
1 cup Borax
1/2 cup oxiclean
1/2 cup Baking soda

I had to do a little research (via Wikipedia, mostly) into what all these chemicals really did, and whether they were safe for cloth diapers (which need to be treated much more delicately than regular clothes, since their ability to continuously absorb liquids is crucial).

A little glossary:
washing soda = Sodium carbonate.  Water softener and good degreaser.
baking soda = Sodium bicarbonate.  Good at removing odors and stains.
borax = Sodium borate.  Increases the effectiveness of other cleaners.
oxiclean = Sodium percarbonate + Sodium carbonate.  Good at removing organic odors and stains.


Okay, sounds simple enough.  But how does this compare to the ingredients in the commercial brands of diaper detergent?  I looked at the ingredients of the three brands of diaper detergent I have used in the past.

Bumgenius: Sodium Carbonate, Sodium Sulfate*, Sodium Percarbonate, Sodium Alkyl Aryl Suflonate**, and Linear Alcohol Ethoxylate**   
This detergent works well and you get a lot for the price
($15/66 loads/4 lbs)

Rockin' Green: Sodium carbonate, Sodium percarbonate, natural chelating agents**, Sodium sulfate*, biodegradable surfactants**  
I didn't feel like this cleaned the diapers as well, and got used up quickly
($16/44 loads/2.7 lbs)

Lulu's in the Fluff: Sodium bicarbonate, Sodium carbonate, Sodium percarbonate, additional surfactants and cleansers**  
Cleaned well, but didn't stretch as far as Bumgenius  
($15/44 loads/3 lbs)

* Wikipedia says this is used as a filler in powdered detergents
** Ingredients that basically break up the stains and/or help the detergent to penetrate better.


So all the ingredients in the DIY recipe are found in at least some of the major brands...with the exception of Borax (why??).  The only thing missing seemed to be the addition of certain surfactants.  Although, isn't baking soda essentially a surfactant?  I believe so...
I mixed up a batch according to the first recipe, but added about a half cup of baking soda as well.  Everything was found easily at the grocery store with the exception of washing soda.  I really had to search for that.  I tried a number of stores which claimed to carry it on their websites, but had none on the shelves.  Eventually we found some at a local Ace Hardware.  Of course, it's widely available online.  We were just trying to avoid shipping costs, because we're cheapskates...

Three months later I have to report that it's been worth making the switch.  The potential savings is enormous (my rough calculation is about $17/many many loads/11 lbs).  The diapers get "satisfactorily clean".  I can't say that they seem every bit as "fresh" as when we used commercial diaper detergents, but I'm not sure how to quantify what I mean.  Well, let me put it this way: When a diaper has been properly laundered, it should smell like nothing.  Ours still smell like nothing after washing with the DIY detergent.  However, it seems like "the stinkies" tend to set into the fabric about a week earlier than they used to (which just means a tablespoon of bleach is called for in the next load).  I'm willing to deal with that for the huge amount of savings.


Does anyone have experience with homemade detergents?  What did you think?  Do you know anything "bad" about using borax that I haven't been able to dig up?


  1. What kind of diapers do you use? I have friends who use a lot of microfiber (or bamboo with microfiber inside) and they have had issues with homemade detergent. I use almost exclusively cotton though and from what I hear you can pretty much use anything with them. We've gotten some great deals on big things of All F&C, but once we run out, I'll likely make a batch of my own too!

    1. We use almost all pre-folds and some fitteds. We have only four microfiber diapers (Bumgenius 3.0), and I haven't noticed any issues.

  2. Wow! That's surprising to hear that there is actually something somewhat cheaper here in Vancouver! We pay about $10 per 5 lb box of Country Save. We are on our third box total, but we use it also for our delicate cycle (Pippa's clothes + other delicates). I find it does really well at breaking up organic stains (which are basically all toddler stains) even in the cool water.

    But we have such soft water, and we have an HE machine, so we only use a half scoop for a load of normal clothes, and maybe 1/6th scoop for diapers. (I used to use even less soap when we were washing more often, but now that we're tending to cheat and go five or more days without washing, I find it needs more soap and another short hot cycle to prevent stinkies and ammonia.)

    $30 in two years is at the level where I don't think it's worth it to try to find a way to make it cheaper lol. But if I used it up faster, I'd probably try it.

  3. We use homemade detergent on our clothes but not our diapers... the only thing we add to our homemade detergent is the addition of soap (we use Zote). The one comment I would say about your version of home made detergent is that it doesn't actually contain any detergent, only softeners & boosters. When you look at the items you have "double asterisked" in the lists of commerical detergents those are surfactants, which is the chemical classification for detergents that actually dissolve the things you want to remove and trap them. In fact, all cleaners (dish soap, shampoos, etc.) all contain surfactants because that's what does the work when cleaning. Surfacants are "surfact active agents" and typically have one end of the chemical molecule that dissolve in water and the other in oil substances (i.e. poop) that work by running interference on the surface between 2 substances/liquids. This wikipedia article is a good one for a basic diagram of how a surfactant works: (just imagine poo liquid in the middle & water on the outside of the diagram on the right). Sodium bicarbonate is mainly water soluble, so it isn't going to have that "trapping of poo" effect that you need to really clean... it may help with urine though. Why I am a complete nerd and know this stuff: I work as a formulation chemist and use surfactants A LOT (just not in cleaning applications for my job). Since you are using mostly natural fiber diapers you could probably add a grated laundry soap (i.e. Fels Naptha or Zote) to your mix and I suspect that would help with the cleaning power of your detergent (and avoid the stinkies).

    The only thing I've read about borax and being worried about diapers is the fact that in its solid form it can be abrasive... from what I can tell it isn't as harsh once it's dissolved. I'm guessing it's just due to physical form that maybe if it doesn't dissolve all the way before coming in contact with diapers/covers it could damage PUL covers or the structure of the fabric? Most "complaints" I've read are that it can lead to holey diapers or leaking PUL but I don't know if it's really a huge issue so long as it gets dissolved.

    Personally, I don't use our homemade detergent on diapers because we have VERY hard water, have a front loader (uses less water) and use mostly diapers with microfiber... Maybe one day I will get brave enough to try it but Rockin' Green Hard Rock has been working for us after a lot of things didn't.

    Sorry for such a long comment... hopefully it contained a bit of helpful information! Glad it is working for you!

    1. No need to apologize! Thanks for all the information. I was a chem minor in college, so I appreciated the slightly more technical explanation as well.

      I feel like I've heard a few people suggest that maybe using an actual soap on my cotton-fiber diapers wouldn't hurt them. I'll have to "research" this a bit, but perhaps I'll change up the formula in that way.

      I will have to watch out for that with the borax. Some of our diapers are getting holes (though it started before switching to homemade detergent), and one or two of our covers are getting a little less water-resistant...but it's hard to know if it's the borax, or just their age.

    2. I would guess that it's not a question of soap v. no soap but how much soap with your kind of water... I don't know! Definitely not a cleaners chemist even though I have tried to research it a bit!

      I have some hemp doublers that have started to get some holes in them and we use Rockin' Green so my thought is that it is probably just that natural fibers tend to break down easier over time. The holes don't really bother me personally as long as the diapers are working. The PUL is a whole other thing that I'm not sure about... but with a top loader and using enough water I would guess your borax gets dissolved pretty easily?! All just a theory...

  4. I have a recipe that contains Borax, washing soda, and naptha soap. It's designed to make liquid detergent, which we need for the better dissolving properties (name a skin issue, we have it).

    Of course, I bought all the ingredients to do this last August, and then my washing machine promptly died! All those ingredients have been taunting me while I spend $15 on jugs of Gain to use at the laundromat. However, the new washer gets delivered tomorrow and I'll be making a batch as soon as I use up the Gain.

    Granted, we don't have kids in diapers, but the benefit of homemade is well worth it!

    1. I've heard that recipe is a great one for regular laundry...but some caution against the soap with cloth diapers. I hope it goes well for you!

  5. I've a question..what else can I replace Oxy with...considering its not available here in India?

    1. It's a mixture of Sodium percarbonate and Sodium carbonate [baking soda]. Perhaps you can find straight sodium percarbonate, or some product that contains it?

    2. Excellent article Christine! I appreciate all your research and your explanations. I plan on trying out these recipes with my cloth diapers. Quick correction to your comment just above, though... sodium carbonate is washing soda; baking soda is sodium bicarbonate. :)

      I was able to find bulk sodium percarbonate online.

  6. I just saw through Google Analytics that I am getting lots of referral traffic through your page, thank you for the mention! hope all is well with diaper washing!