Is Homemade Detergent Safe to Use in Today’s Washing Machines?


Dear Mary: Today a Sears repairman came to put a new part in my washing machine. He saw soap residue on the inside and told me I was using way too much detergent. Also, he didn’t like that I was using a homemade detergent that contains Dawn liquid.

He said borax should never be used for laundry in modern washing machines. Mine is 10 years old. He also said dish detergents, especially Dawn, should never be used because they don’t rinse out completely. That leaves soap residue which becomes a medium for mold and microbial growth.

Washer full of cloths

Modern detergents, he said, should be used at the rate of one tablespoon per load. Water level should be medium, large at the highest, and never the super or plus level I often used. That leads to spill over which results in soap residue in various unreachable parts of the machine (unreachable unless you take the machine apart, as he did).

He showed me all the mostly dried residue, which he cleaned and vacuumed out before putting the machine back together.

He also recommended a second rinse to get rid of soap residue. I had been using only one rinse on most loads.

And he recommended a product called Affresh, which is supposed to clean out residue.

He says you can tell if you’re using too much detergent or the wrong kind of detergent by filling the tub with water, adding nothing to suds and noticing if there are suds in the water.

Now I’m flummoxed as to whether or not I should continue to use your washing machine detergent recipe.

Thanks for any advice you can give on the subject. Jean, MN

Dear Jean: Using too much of any product in a washing machine is not good for it. So whatever product you use, you need to measure carefully, erring on the side of too little, not too much. I am curious to why a manufacturer would create a super or plus level if doing so is bad for the machine. But I’ll leave that part up to you. I guess I would stop using it for the reasons he mentioned.

I do take issue with some of the information he gave you. Dawn is a safe product for clothes washing provided you are not using too much. So is borax (I get letters from readers saying that borax will ruin your machine, but I can find no credible evidence for this statement, nor for using Dawn). As for his recommendation for Affresh, there are many commercial products out there for washing cleaning. Curiously, many manufacturers, such as General Electric (I currently have GE stackable washer and steam dryer and love them to bits), recommend chlorine bleach for the cleaning cycle, together with exact instructions for how to perform this clean once every couple of months.

I regularly use the second rinse option along with a bit of white vinegar to make sure all detergent is getting removed, leaving clothes soft and fluffy without any softening products.

So there you go. Who can you believe? I guess in the end you must go with your heart. As for me, I’m sticking with the homemade recipe. It’s better than anything I’ve ever purchased and I’ve been using some version of homemade for many years. I haven’t seen a washing machine repairman in more than 30 years. Thanks for writing, it was great to hear from you.

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25 replies
  1. Norma Jean says:

    I’ve been using the home made detergent for about a year or so now and love it. I use vinegar in the rinse cycle as well. I had a Kenmore front load machine for ten years that I absolutely loved, but left it behind when we moved as it was a gas dryer and we are total electric where we are now. It was a wonderful machine! When we moved here four years ago I purchased a GE front load from a local business. I absolutely hated it! It vibrated so much I thought the house would fall apart! The repairman told me that I was washing loads too small which caused it (not true!). He also said having it on pedestals upset the center of gravity and caused the vibrations. So, why make them??? My daughter needed a new machine and she got this set and I bought a new one. This set is a Samsung and I absolutely love it! No problems at all, very little vibration. I have not had any problems with the home made detergent and vinegar in the rinse cycle, and I also do not get that nasty smell in my washer that people complain about because I leave the door ajar, if not all the way open. I intend to continue using this detergent. I also use the scented crystals because I like the scent, but all in all, I’m a happy camper!

    • NF says:

      Norma Jean, my new set is samsung, too. Not high end,not low, very mid priced. VERY quiet, very little water, dryer rocks. As I said below, use homemade det and softener. Both work great and as u said, no smell in these machines like the old front loaders(my bosch smelled like a dead cat on a hot day no matter what I did). Glad u like ur samsungs too.

  2. lindas. says:

    I noticed lately that the original scent non-concentrated Dawn I always bought for my laundry detergent recipe and many other recipes, has changed to or been replaced with non-concentrated Dawn Simply Clean. Does anyone know if it is the same formula as the old original Dawn? It appears the old Dawn is disappearing soon…..

  3. Elsie says:

    Hi Mary: I have been using the homemade laundry detergent for years and love them!! Just recently though have started having an issue with the liquid. When I make it up I get crystals in the container. I guess it’s the borax and washing soda that are forming the crystals?? Do you ever have this problem, or know of a fix?? thank you,

  4. NF says:

    Have been using homemade detergent and softener for about a year. I tweaked Mary’s recipe just a hair and it works great in my front load he machine. The fabric softener probably has more vinegar in it than anything else as I tweaked that recipe too. Easiest way to tell if ur using the right amount of detergent (other than sudsing level) is to feel the clothes while washing is in process. Water or clothes should feel just barely slick to the touch. Mary’s recipe rarely has suds but clothes feel slick while washing. They come out clean and soft. I also use inexpensive powdered oxygen bleach on whites rather than chlorine bleach. Other than scent, I’ve noticed no difference in the clean factor. I am a sucker for scents, so i use the scent crystals from purex. A little goes a long way.
    My machine insists i clean it once a month via it’s computer and i oblige or it keeps warning me. I can attest to affresh tablets, they do work better than other he machine cleaners. Bleach OR vinegar also works(don’t use together, please…NASTY fumes and who knows what damage could occur to u or machine).
    I’ve lost newer top loaders and front loaders when they reached about 10-11 yrs old, no matter what detergent/softener I used. I keep with front loaders because they use so much less water/detergent(have septic). To each his own. My new front loader is awesome so far and easy to maintain and I do skads of laundry(6 dogs).
    Don’t take to heart everything a repair person recommends. Three service people recommended quantum dishwasher tablets for 3 different dishwashers i’v owned and all three were misinformed as to performance of that particular detergent. Always went back to my preferred brand.
    Good luck to all and don’t be afraid to experiment with saving money.

  5. chrisp2n2 says:

    In order to kill bacteria and fungus and other bad guys, the water has to be a certain temperature. 140 is what is recommended. It would be ideal to have a separate water heater for the dishwasher and the washer, but that is also unrealistic for most if not all of us. A timer might help if that is practical. I guess you have to pick your battles. Pay a doctor or pay for heating the water.

  6. crabbyoldlady says:

    I agree about the older machines. When I bought my house 14 years ago, it came with an aging washer, which is still going strong. Of course, it’s a Maytag. I have had no success at all using vinegar as a rinse. Everything comes out so full of static, it all sticks together, and not particularly soft either. I’m using 5% regular vinegar.

  7. JN says:

    I find it puzzling that borax would be considered a problem as used in the homemade detergent. The borax packaging suggests adding 1/2 CUP borax per load to commercial detergent as a booster. The homemade recipe uses 3 tablespoons borax to make a gallon of detergent, which is sufficient for 16 loads! A little math and you see that you are using only about a TEASPOON of borax per load with the Dawn/borax/washing soda formula.
    If 1/2 cup is acceptable, surely a teaspoon is more than acceptable. Something is fishy here. It reminds me of the “nothing cures but big-name drugs” mentality in the medical community.

  8. Pat says:

    I don’t know about the new machines. It will be a long time before I get one of them and I am not sure I want a front loader. I grew up with them in Germany and I hated them. I used my mothers last year when I was home and I still hate them. Imagine that. I am still using the one I bought for $20 at a thrift store several years ago and it is from the 80’s I think. I only buy the old ones are they are made to last where the ones now are not made to last. Besides the older ones are easier to repair. I got my dryer free on freecycle and it has been running for almost two years now so if it breaks down I got my money’s worth out of it. The last new dryer I bought broke down a week after the warranty expired and when I called a repair man he told me that it was cheaper to buy a new one than repair it. When I called the company that made the dryer they told me that things weren’t made to last forever. three years is forever now I guess. People throw out or are willing to sell too many things that still work so why buy a new one in my opinion. Ha! I love the new laundry soap and have been making it for a year now. I shared the recipe with my girlfriend and she says her husband loves it cause there is no perfume in it and he hunts a lot and doesn’t like his clothes smelling like anything.

  9. C. Isler says:

    That’s interesting. The service technician replaced the computerized brain in my 12 yo Whirlpool Duet washer. His advice was to fix rather than replace, the older machines were sturdier. He said mine was the cleanest old-one he had ever seen (the inside, not the out, ha), and to keep doing what I was doing. That regime entails homemade washing powder, replacing the Fels Naptha soap with a homemade coconut oil soap, washing soda and borax, and vinegar rinses. Find a local handcrafter soap maker near you and see if they produce 100% coconut oil soap for laundry.

  10. Renea says:

    I’m curious as to when Mary switched to a stackable GE washer and steam dryer. I could have sworn she owned an LG and had made a couple of posts or columns with regard to how well they worked and how much she loved them.

    • Guest says:

      Hi Confused … You know from reading Debt-Proof Living Newsletter in the ongoing series, “Behind the Book That Rocked My World!” my life has changed radically in the past 7 months. So just keep reading. Next month you’re learn more that should help to clear the confusion.

      To say that writing “The Smart Woman’s Guide to Planning for Retirement” was a life changer for me, is to put it mildly. I think you are going to be fairly shocked by what I’ll have to tell you. And you’ll know soon enough what happened to LGs and why my new GEs have taken their place. And yessiree … front loading. More on that, too.

      • Martha says:

        Based on your recommendation, we bought the exact same LG washer/dryer that you had. Now you say they are not as good as you thought?

  11. Renita says:

    We have a 2-year-old LG top-load HE washing machine and the owners manual recommends running the “clean” cycle a few times a year, and while they would love to sell you the fancy machine cleaning stuff, it also notes that bleach is fine. So about 4 times a year I run a cycle with bleach, seems to work well.

  12. GinnyD says:

    I think the keys to keeping your machine in top shape are, as Mary said, not overusing detergent (either homemade or purchased) and the white vinegar rinse. With a front loader, you don’t have the problem of spill-over either.

    I find that the purchased liquid fabric softener accumulates quickly, so if you use it, do so sparingly.

  13. lynn says:

    I was wondering if anyone knows of something you can add to the water before you put in dark clothes that will neutralize the chlorine in my city water, so it doesn’t slowly bleach out my black clothes.

    • mom2childs says:

      It’s my understanding that chlorine evaporates after standing for 24 hours or boiling. If that’s true, keep a gallon or two of water in the laundry room that’s been sitting for more than 24 hours.

    • Gina says:

      Try salt. You add salt to set colors and salt definitely neutralizes chlorine. I have used it to take chlorine smell off of my hands. I believe the salt has a chemical reaction combining with the chlorine.

    • Ann, NC says:

      Vinegar: it takes the soap slick off of your
      hands when you hand wash dishes so you don’t have
      to rinse for 20 seconds; takes the clorox slick
      off of your hands.

      Black clothes. try black liquid Rit
      dye, test on a few pieces…would hand wash,
      and only clothes that can tolerate the
      heat of the dye bath.


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