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A Simple Solution for Gross, Smelly Towels

If my inbox is any indicator of what’s going on in the world, and I believe it is, smelly towels are a growing problem for consumers—and for sure my dear EC readers. And it’s a rather new problem, the result of modern things like front-loading high-efficiency washing machines, detergents, fabric softeners, and damp conditions.

If you’ve noticed gross smelly towels in your houses, albeit appearing to be washed, dried and ready to go, perhaps you’ve also noticed that your towels have begun to repel rather than absorb water.

woman holding nose in stinky situation

Smell

That moldy, mildewy, gross smell? It’s the result of the build-up of detergents and fabric softeners that have not been rinsed out properly, together with damp, moist conditions. What you have there is a breeding ground for bacteria. No wonder you’ve got a big gross smelly laundry problem.

Absorbency

If your towels have stopped doing what they’re supposed to do well—absorb water—that problem stems from the same source: Detergent and fabric softener build-up. Seriously! With detergent and laundry, more is decidedly not better.

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How to Get Yellow-Stained Bed Pillows White Again

Favorite bed pillows get a lot of use every night. We keep clean pillowcases on them and don’t think much about the pillow inside until it’s time to change the bed linens. Lately, have you looked?

Soft serene bedroom with bed pillows

 

Yikes! The pristine white pillows have turned blotchy with disgusting yellowish-to-brownish stains. What on earth…? The most common response is to stuff an ugly, stained pillow into a clean pillowcase and hope never to look at that mess again!

What are those stains?

The culprit is sweat, the chemical composition of which varies from one person to the next, depending on what that person has been eating and drinking, or medications he or she is taking. Now add drool, body oils, makeup, hair products transferred to the pillow from lying down with wet hair—all of these things over time discolor pillows. But why not the pillowcase? Because we launder them frequently so stains are banished quickly before they have a chance to become a problem.

But the pillow itself? When did you last launder yours? Hmmm …

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10 Brilliant Ways to Use Washing Soda That Will Make Your Life Easier

It looks and feels for all the world like laundry detergent. White. Coarse. Powdery. Its real name is sodium carbonate, but this stuff also goes by soda ash, Na2CO3, and good old Arm and Hammer Super Washing Soda.

A mineral mined from the vegetation in dry lake bottoms in the Middle East, kelp from Scotland and seaweed from Spain, this all-natural miracle-in-a-box is used to make glass, bricks, paper, rayon, and toothpaste. It cleans silver and softens water.

 

Yellow Arm & Hammer box of super washing soda

Washing soda and I go way back. For years, I have added washing soda to the washer for cleaner, whiter, brighter laundry. It’s one of the key ingredients in our homemade laundry detergent.

More recently, I am discovering that washing soda is much more than a laundry detergent booster. With a powerful pH of 11, washing soda acts as a solvent all around the house, garage. Sodium carbonate removes dirt, grime, greasy build-up and a range of stains. Best of all, depending on the source, sodium carbonate is cheap.

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How to Make the Best Homemade Liquid Laundry Detergent

I’m not proud to admit it, but there was a time that I would’ve rather shoved toothpicks under my fingernails than be bothered with making my own homemade laundry detergent. Are you kidding me? Why on earth would I do that? I’m happy to live in modern times, not the stone age for goodness’ sake!

Oh my, how arrogant and ignorant I was. And deeply, horribly in debt to prove it. Long story short, I learned how to cut expenses—to scrimp where it doesn’t matter in order have what matters most. And yes, I most willingly learned to make my own homemade laundry detergent for cheap—less than a nickel a load, giving up spending $ .35 or even $.50 a load for the ready-made options. And I got paid off a massive amount of credit card debt, now happily debt-free with more joy than I can possibly express.

 

 

Look, I’m not saying that making laundry detergent is going to get you out of debt. That one move on its own will, at best, make a small dent in your weekly grocery tab. But add that to hundreds of other changes (hang around me with and I’ll teach you), and your life will change in dramatic ways. Just think about it.

In the meantime let me show you how quick and easy it is to do this:

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How to Make the Best Homemade Powdered Laundry Detergent

Powdered laundry detergent

To make one quart powdered laundry detergent, you need these items:

  • 32-ounce or larger container with lid
  • 1 (5-oz.) bar Fels Naptha laundry bar
  • 2 cups (14 oz. ) borax
  • 1 3/4 cups (14 oz.) washing soda

 

Ingredients for homemade laundry detergent powder

Three ingredients required for homemade laundry detergent powder.

Fels Naptha

This product is available in the laundry aisle of many supermarkets and department stores like Walmart and Target, and the soap I use in powdered detergent. However, you may prefer to substitute with 5 oz. of a similar product such as ZOTE, Dr. Bronner’s Castile bar or Ivory.

Borax

You can find Twenty-Mule Team borax, or any brand of borax, in the laundry aisle of your supermarket or a department store like Walmart or Target.

Washing soda

Arm & Hammer Super Washing Soda (sodium carbonate) is the brand of washing soda available in many supermarkets and stores like Walmart and Target and online.

An alternative to branded washing soda is soda ash (also just plain sodium carbonate). Soda ash is the generic form and exactly the same thing as Super Washing Soda  (not to be confused with baking soda) and is used in swimming pools to fix the ph. It’s readily available in pool supply stores or even larger department stores that carry pool chlorine and so forth, or online.

Step 1

Grate the entire bar Fels Naptha or other laundry bar soap using the fine side of a cheese grater.

Ingredients for homemade laundry detergent powder

The pile is the result of grating one full soap bar. The wrapped bar in the back is a prop, and good to have on hand for the next batch.

Step 2

Pour grated soap, borax, and washing soda into a large mixing bowl.

 

Ingredients for homemade laundry detergent powder

It’s not cheese!

Step 3

Stir to mix well then transfer mixture to quart-size or larger container. Apply the lid and label (which, clearly, I failed to do before snapping this photo!)

 

Ingredients for homemade laundry detergent powder

This is how it looks mixed up and ready to go. Just one tablespoon is likely all you’ll need per wash load.

To use: Add 1 tablespoon powdered laundry detergent to the wash load. You may need to adjust depending on your conditions and washer size. You will not need much to produce excellent results.

Pro-tip: This recipe for powdered laundry detergent multiples well. Shake or stir it a bit before each use to keep everything evenly distributed.

Frequently asked Questions

This recipes has, over the years, prompted many questions from my readers. What follows are those asked most frequently:

Which is better, the liquid or powdered version, and why?

That’s a tough question because there are so many variables. I prefer the liquid version because my HE washer uses so little water, I find the powdered version doesn’t dissolve well. That’s why I recommend powder users to throw the powder into the washer itself (not the dispenser) first, before the clothes. Now it will get hit with water first, giving it more time to dissolve and get to work. The liquid version does involve a few more steps which is why some readers do prefer it.

Can I use homemade laundry detergent in HE washer?

Yes. Both this powdered and the liquid version are non-sudsing, even though they contain soap. What makes the HE-compatible is that the soap becomes highly diluted. Remember that this homemade detergent—either version—is not going to produce bubbles or suds. If you need that to be satisfied, you won’t like these recipes! The proof for how well they work is in the dirty water you’ll see. It’s amazing that so little homemade detergent can produce such great results.

Won’t borax, washing soda or Fels-Naptha void my washer’s warranty?

Please consult your owner manual. While many manufacturers recommend a specific brand of detergent because they have marketing partnerships with major brands, I have yet to see where any warranty was put at risk in writing for using borax, washing soda, Fels-Naptha or another laundry bar soap in the machine.

I’ve used all of those products including white vinegar (1 cup in the final rinse) by the gallon in my machines and have never had a repair issue, let alone warranty problem. However, please make this determination for yourself. I cannot guarantee your outcome.

Are these recipes fragrance-free?

Technically, no. Dawn does have some amount of fragrance as does Fels-Naptha. But again, compared to fragranced commercial brands of laundry detergent, it’s minuscule. Remember the dilution with these recipes. You can substitute ZOTE laundry bar soap for the Fels-Naptha, which is all-natural and fragrance-free.

How much should I use per load?

Start with 1 tablespoon. And do not judge the outcome by the number of bubbles and suds you can observe during the wash cycle. Know now that you will see none.

Do I still need to pretreat stains, or will these recipes take care of that?

Absolutely, you need to pretreat stains. Without question. You have many very effective options: Dawn, Lestoil, Soilove, Fels-Naptha (dampen a corner of a Fels-Naptha bar and rub it into the stain). Treating stains ahead of time is another reason you can use so very little detergent in the wash load.

Why has this homemade detergent turned my white things gray and towels stiff and stinky? 

Remember what I said about learning things the hard way? This is it. I know from experience that using too much detergent will make white things dingy, and towels and other items stiff, scratchy, and stinky too. The problem is the detergent you’ve added to the wash cycle was too much to get rinsed out fully.

Detergents build up in fabrics and become breeding grounds for bacteria. Those bacteria and all that build-up of detergent create that grayish color and the stink, too.

Why should I bother to make my own laundry detergent?

Two reasons: You’ll save a ton of money and you’ll know what’s in it. These days, many laundry detergents and softening products are laden with harsh chemicals and overpowering fragrance. And compared to the basic ingredients that go into them, they’re expensive!

Over the past 20 years, the price of ingredients for homemade detergent has pretty much held steady. I can still make my own for less than a nickel a washload. Compare that to these currently published prices for popular commercial options:

  • Tide Pods $.34/load
  •  Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day $.20/load
  • Kirkland Ultra Clean liquid $.20/load
  • Kirkland Laundry Powder $.16/load

Can I use these recipes to wash clothes in cold water?

Yes. However, I prefer the liquid option with cold water as there is much less product that needs to get dissolved for the detergent to work well.

First published: 5-13-13; Most Recent Update: 9-30-19

Print Recipe
5 from 2 votes

Powdered Laundry Detergent

Making laundry detergent is easy, cheap, and effective in standard and HE washers. Save money and avoid harsh chemicals with this ORIGINAL recipe and procedure for making powdered homemade laundry detergent. It is so good and costs less than 5 cents per load.
Prep Time20 mins
Total Time20 mins
Course: Housekeeping
Cuisine: Laundry
Servings: 75 wash loads

Ingredients

  • 1 bar (5 oz.) Fels-Naptha laundry bar (Note 1)
  • 2 cups (14 oz.) borax (Note 2)
  • 1 3/4 cups (14 oz.) washing soda (Note 3)

Instructions

  • Grate the entire bar Fels Naptha (or other laundry bar soap (Note 1) using the fine side of a cheese grater.
    Ingredients for homemade laundry detergent powder
  • Pour grated soap, borax, and washing soda into a large mixing bowl.
    Ingredients for homemade laundry detergent powder
  • Stir to mix well then transfer mixture to quart-size or larger container (Note 4). Apply the lid and label clearly.
    Ingredients for homemade laundry detergent powder
  • To Use: Add 1 tablespoon powdered laundry detergent to the wash load. You may need to adjust depending on your conditions and washer size. You will not need much to produce excellent results.

Notes

Note 1: Or ZOTE, Dr. Bronner's Castile Bar, or Ivory.
Note 2: Twenty-Mule Team Borax is one brand, which is available in the laundry products aisle of most supermarkets and stores like Walmart and Target. 
Note 3: Super Washing Soda is a brand name by Arm & Hammer. The product is sodium carbonate (not the same as baking soda). Soda ash is its generic name and much cheaper! Buy soda ash in swimming pool supply stores, or online for a fraction of the cost. 
Note 4: Alternatively, you can pour the mixture into your blender or food processor to create a fine powder that will dissolve more readily in a cold water wash cycle. It's a messy process because you'll create a lot of dust needs to settle before proceeding. Be careful not to breathe that fine powder that will be produced.
Pro-tip: This recipe for powdered laundry detergent multiples well. Shake or stir it a bit before each use to keep everything evenly distributed.
Pro-tip: This recipe for powdered laundry detergent multiples well. Shake or stir it a bit before each use to keep everything evenly distributed.

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How to Make the Best Homemade Liquid Laundry Detergent

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Fabric Softeners are the Problem Not the Solution

Homemade Fabric Softener

How to Use Wool Dryer Balls and Why You Should

Laundry Problems, Mistakes, and Mysteries—and How to Solve Them

Laundry challenges, it seems, come in every size, shape, and intensity. Rather than thinking there is no solution for that stain, shrunken item or another laundry disaster, consider the ways you can recover and renew situations gone bad.

 

Man's sweater shrunken to toddler size

Photo credit: Northpole.com

Honey, I shrunk your sweater

Don’t be too quick to toss out that favorite sweater that just got shrunk in the hot wash or went through the dryer accidentally set to hot. Chances are good you can unshrink it if you move quickly:

In a large container, make a solution one-gallon lukewarm water and 2 tablespoons baby shampoo. Soak the shrunken garment in the solution for about 10 minutes until totally saturated. Now the important part: Don’t rinse! Simply blot out all the excess water with a dry towel and very gently lay it flat on a fresh towel. Reshape slowly and carefully as you stretch it back to its original size. Dry away from direct sunlight or heat.

This technique will work provided the fibers have not become permanently damaged, or “felted.”

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Fabric Softeners are the Problem Not the Solution

In the laundry room, most of us are prone to overkill. We want beautifully clean, brilliantly white, soft, and fluffy laundry results. And we don’t measure. We pour stuff out of jugs, straight into the washer, often adding a second big glug just to make sure.

 

Supermarket aisle shelves filled with laundry softening products

We use liquid fabric softener by the gallon and dryer sheets by the hundreds because there’s no such thing as too soft when it comes to towels and sheets. And when things come out looking gray, and feeling stiff and crunchy, what do we do? More detergent, more softener—even more dryer sheets!

Grungy build-up

The problem is product build-up that never gets rinsed out. Every time you do the laundry, more and more product gets left behind. This build-up of detergent and softeners can make appliances stink, colors look dingy, whites turn gray and linens feel stiff and scratchy. Towels, especially, can turn sour and stinky no matter how much you re-wash and re-soften. The detergent and softeners that aren’t properly rinsed away begin to harbor odor-causing bacteria. The washing machine gets stinky, too. But that’s not the worst.

MORE: Stinky Laundry, Smelly Machine: How Nasty Germs Survive in Your Washer and What To Do About It

Health and respiratory issues

The medical website, WebMD.com reports that the perfumes and additives in laundry products may cause skin problems—from itchiness to full-blown dermatitis. Fabric softeners are very allergenic and can cause eczema, which can appear as dry, flaky, chronically itchy skin.

Dryer sheets contain volatile organic compounds like acetaldehyde and butane, which can cause respiratory irritation. Fabric softener chemicals known as quaternary ammonium compounds have been linked to asthma. Acetone, also used in dryer sheets, can cause nervous system effects like headaches or dizziness. Read more

Simple Secrets to Make Clothes Look Better and Last Longer

You should see the big wad of lint I just plucked from the trap of my clothes dryer. Ack! Where does all of that come from? I know I emptied all pockets and I’m certain I did not wash a bag of pillow stuffing.

I’ll tell you what it is, and I am not happy about this: It’s visual proof the dryer is wearing out our clothes. Those fibers were neatly woven into these clothes only 30 minutes ago. For all the convenience a clothes dryer offers, it may come at the price of having to replace clothes much too often.

Overdrying clothes causes them to shrink and not only the first time they’re washed. Sleeves and pant legs continually get shorter and shorter when machine dried improperly.

 

Colorful clothes hanging to dry on a laundry line and sun shining in the blue sky.

 

There are tactics to counteract the abuse suffered by a clothes dryer and you don’t have to go back to the days of sheets frozen stiff on the clothesline (does anyone but me remember that?). You don’t have to machine dry your clothes to death to end up with comfy jeans and fluffy soft towels.

Get the soap out

Residual detergent in fabrics causes them to feel rough. Measure carefully erring on the side of too little rather than too much detergent. Add 1/2 cup white vinegar to the last rinse. This will help remove the residual detergent from the fabrics. Even when air-dried, they will be softer.

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