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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 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

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.
5 from 2 votes
Print Pin Rate
Course: Housekeeping
Cuisine: Laundry
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
Servings: 75 wash loads
Author: Mary
Cost: $3

Equipment

  • 1-quart (32 oz.) or larger container with lid
  • cheese grater

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.
Tried this recipe?Mention @EverydayCheapskate or tag #EverydayCheapskate!

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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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Simple Solutions for 3 Common Laundry Problems

What do stinky, yellowed, and crayon-stained laundry items have in common? They’re the reason lots of people write to me. Fortunately, each of these problems has a unique remedy—a way to reverse the stains and get those items back to looking good as new.

Stinky towels

No matter how many times you wash those items, you just cannot get rid of the disgusting sour, mildewy odor. They’ve become stiff and scratchy and have begun to repel rather than absorb water. The problem is clear evidence of a build-up bacteria that continue to live along with soap and softeners that have not been rinsed out—despite having been previously washed and dried.

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