Washing machine and 3 bottles laundry detergent

Using Regular Detergent in a High-Efficiency Washer is Risky Business

If you’ve ever wondered what’s the difference between regular laundry detergents and those designated as “High Efficiency” or HE, if they’re interchangeable and if you could possibly make your own to cut the cost, you are not the only one! Those are questions that frequently show up in my mailbox.

Washing machine and 3 bottles laundry detergent

Dear Mary:  First, thank you for your column, I love it! I just inherited several bottles of regular laundry detergent. I have a HE front-loader washer. Is there a way to use or modify regular laundry detergent for HE use? Christin

Dear Christin: Standard washing machines that use traditional laundry detergent (the type of detergent you’ve inherited) use up to 35 gallons of water per load. Full-sized energy efficient top-loaders like my beloved LG High-Efficiency Top Load Washer (which I loved and gifted it to my son when we moved and our new laundry room configuration could not accommodate it), use about 13 gallons of water per load—a savings of more than 3,000 gallons of water per year—operate much differently than a standard machine. This is one of the reasons that HE detergent is quite different than the standard type of detergent.

So, can you use standard detergent in your HE machine? I must advise you that your owner manual is not likely to support such an idea, potentially putting your warranty at risk. That being said, I will admit that I did use standard detergent from time to time in my LG top-loader that required HE detergent. But I used MUCH less per load because it uses so much less water.

Too much detergent will clog up the machine because the amount of water it uses is not sufficient to rinse it out. That build up can cause the machine to malfunction and to eventually create an offensive odor.

When I say “less” I mean a lot less. Like one-fourth the amount you might normally use. I measured it in tablespoons, not capfuls. And I diluted it in a large container of water before pouring it into the machine.

Would I do that again? Yes, but not on a regular basis. I want you and all of my readers to know that to do so would be, according to the manufacturer’s guidelines, taking a potential risk should the machine require service under its warranty.

Given the potential harm you could do to your machine, you might want to consider re-gifting the detergent to friends, family or a shelter in your area that uses traditional washers. Then make a big batch of my new and improved liquid homemade HE detergent (read on to learn more about that). That way others win and you win, too. Hope that helps. And thanks for loving EC.

Dear Mary: I made up the laundry soap recipe that you published back in 2012. It seems like there is way too much Fels-Naptha soap for the recipe. I bought a similar jar of laundry soap mixture at the local Farmer’s Market and the vender did not have nearly as much soap in it. It did quite well in my HE washer. I just want to make sure there wasn’t a misprint in your article.

I look forward to your articles each time they are in my local newspaper. Thank you for your diligence and pithy advice. Cheryle

Dear Cheryle: The recipe for powdered laundry detergent you refer to (1 cup grated Fels-Naptha soap, 1/2 cup Arm and Hammer Super Washing Soda and 1/2 cup 20 Mule Team Borax) is correct. It may seem like a lot of Fels-Naptha but keep in mind, you use only 2 tablespoons of the final product per washer load.

This recipe is suitable to be used in any clothes washer including those designated “high efficiency” or HE, as this detergent does not create suds. You would want to use a bit more in a standard washing machine, however.

Since that column ran more than three years ago, I’ve discovered what I believe is a much improved  recipe for homemade liquid laundry detergent; one that does not require Fels-Naptha soap (somewhat difficult to find these days plus all that grating!) and is also HE compliant. I find it performs better, too.


Briefly, you mix 3/4 cup Arm and Hammer Washing Soda, 3/4 cup borax and 3/4 cup blue Dawn dishwashing liquid (any variety as long as it is Dawn and it is blue) in a one-gallon container, then fill it the rest of the way with water. 

To use: Add 1/8th to  1/4 cup of this beautiful, concentrated liquid detergent to one full load of laundry (more or less depending on your machine’s size, age and capacity—a little experimentation will help you determine the exact amount for your machine). It works beautifully in top-loaders as well as front loading machines. It is HE compliant because it is basically “sudsless” and rinses away very well.

You are going to find it a little tricky to make a full gallon of detergent without creating a mess of suds as you add the water to the container. I’ve created detailed instructions for how I do this mess-free—complete with a photo tutorial—at Quick ‘n Easy Homemade Laundry Detergent: Update with Tutorial.

Quite possibly the best thing about this new and improved recipe is that it costs about 5 cents per load, as opposed to 35 to 50 cents per load for commercial brands of HE laundry detergent.

I hope you give this new recipe and mixing method a try. I can’t wait to hear how it works for you.

As for your mention of reading my posts in your newspaper, I should remind my online readers that Everyday Cheapskate is syndicated by Creators Syndicate under “Advice” and appears in hundreds of print newspapers across the country.

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26 replies
  1. binba9 says:

    I’m figuring how to wash my technical-wear – this kind of clothing has a DWR coating (Water-repellent) which should not be used with laundry detergent because it washes off the coating. There are special detergents for it like Nikwax and Granger G-Wash, but seems like they’re just…soap.

    So the bottom line is, some specialized garments *require* simple soap to wash them – I’m curious how that works out in machines, particularly modern HE and front-loader machines.

  2. BOB7732 says:

    I live in an apartment building & we have front end loaders that says to use HE soap, so got tide pods [my sister did] & my neighbor told me it makes her itch, she told me to ask others what they use, so was wondering if it is smart to ask others or not? Thanks

  3. Amissa says:

    I’d like to point out that the above recipes for laundry soap are not actual detergent, because detergent has surfactants in it, unlike soap. Surfactants are not available to the consumer for mixing their own laundry detergents, so one must buy detergent. Surfactants are the effective cleaning agents of detergent, and with the use of soap instead of detergent, soap scum forms and clings to fibers. http://www.cleaninginstitute.org/clean_living/soaps__detergents_chemistry.aspx

  4. Toast Points says:

    The idea of ordering an appetizer instead of an entree makes little economic sense, since most restaurants are charging more and more for the few bites of sustenance an app provides for $10 of sometimes more. Go for a couple of apps, only if that’s what really want to eat, not to save money.

  5. Gehugh says:

    I have to say that I think there are way too many chemicals (including coloring and triclosan)in Dawn to use (in addition to the Borax and washing soda, which BTW are both salts and can act as softeners) in this cheapskate laundry detergent. I use a recipe similar to the first recipe with Fels Naptha, making a large batch that lasts forever; no complaints on cleaning power.My two adult kids use it, too. I have a front loader HE and have not had a problem with suds lock.. I use very little detergent and if I have tp pre-treat, I make a little paste of the detergent and use that to pre-treat. I don’t want to think what Dawn would add to my leach field.
    My front loader allows me to stop the cycle at anytime and add or remove and item. It is a 5 year old Kenmore. We had a 2000 Maytag Neptune that serves us better (well at least the tub does) as a planter than it did as a ‘water saving’ washing machine.

  6. Patricia says:

    I grew up with a HE front-loader washer in Germany (they had them years before the states did) and I hate them. I will never use them. They are just so awkward to use. You can’t walk a way and then find a sock and open it and drop it in after the water was turned on. They take longer to wash and I don’t think they was any better than a normal washer. I don’t like the German dryers either cause they take longer to dry but we never used our dryer except in the winter. Everybody had a clothes line in their backyard (as I do now) and they hung their clothes because it was ingrained in them I guess. People in an apartment had the clothes line in the bathroom over the tub. It folded out and you could hang your clothes there. When I go to visit my mother I have to use them and still dislike them to this day. It takes longer cause they are only hooked up to cold water so if you want hot water the machine has to heat up the water inside it. LOL. The new detergent Persil is not new either. It has been sold in Europe since the late 1800’s. It is our high priced Tide. LOL.
    If somebody gave me one I would sell it or donate it to a good home. I would rather use my older models. They last longer than the new ones. I bought a new dryer in the early 90’s and when it broke down a week after the warranty expired I was told that things weren’t meant to last forever. I don’t consider 3 years forever. My washer is 20 years old and I paid $10 for it 3 years ago and it is still running fine. My dryer is about the same age and I got it free 10 years ago and it is running fine too. I heard it is the plastic parts they put in them now that make them not last as long as the ones with metal parts.
    Thanks for reading my two cents.

    • poster says:

      wrong. the modern machines allow you to open them at any time. the barrel is tilted slightly back and the water level never comes up to the door.

      • Pat says:

        Thank you for sharing. I didn’t know that. However I still will not buy them. I do laundry at my mothers every year when I go and see her and I just don’t like the machines. Hers are only two years old and they seem to take forever to wash and dry. Just not a fan of them I guess.

    • Midimagic says:

      We started out with an “He” washing machine in 1954 (when I was a child) with that wonderful old Westinghouse front-loader matching washer and dryer set. I remember we started having to use twice as much detergent when we switched to an agitator machine in 1974.

      There wasn’t any He detergent back then. The box told us to use half a scoop for a front loader, and a full scoop for a top loader (the scoop came in the box).

      My reason for wanting to use the old non-He detergent is that the HE detergent is not getting some mysterious black substance out of my white shirts. It started appearing when I switched to a new He washer and He detergent..

      • Brandon Chapman says:

        I know this is an old article, and you probably found out what that black substance was by now, but for other readers’ information, it’s likely black mold.

        Mold and mildew build up in a front-loading washer because of the way they’re designed. They have to be cleaned out at least once per month and it’s best to keep the door open for the water to dry out or else the humidity will turn the washer into a giant petri dish…

  7. ABC says:

    any variety as long as it is Dawn and it is blue

    I really don’t see how this can be correct, as some of the blue Dawns are concentrated. This would affect the ratio of Dawn to water.

  8. Kathy N Bob Griffis says:

    Mary, do you have a recipe for homemade dishwasher detergent? I searched but couldn’t fine one. Thanks, I love your column and read it daily.

  9. Cheryl says:

    My daughter recently moved out to the country and their house has a septic system. Is this laundry detergent recipe OK to use with a septic system?

  10. Ann says:

    I’ve had a high efficiency front load washer for over 15 years, and have mostly used regular detergent. (It’s a Frigidaire) I use a smaller pump dispenser for the liquid detergent, and only use 3-4 pumps of detergent. I once bought a pump dispenser of Method detergent, and I’ve continued to use the bottle by refilling it with whatever detergent I had on hand. It probably works out to be about 1 tablespoon or so. Plenty of detergent, no problem with suds, and my clothes come out clean and smell fresh.

  11. Jan says:

    I tried the recipe with blue Dawn, and over time, my clothes turned dingy gray. Any ideas as to why this is? We do have very hard water. What could I do to help this problem?

    • ABC says:

      I would think you could add some type of water softening agent to the mix? Google natural water softeners and see what you come up with. Hope you find a solution! 🙂

    • Jean says:

      We have hard water as well. I went back to Mary’s powdered laundry detergent recipe with Fels Naptha, Borax and Super Washing Soda because I felt like our clothes were getting gray. I like the powdered version better. I have a front load HE machine, and we are in the country with a Septic system. We haven’t had any problems. I usually use one Tablespoon per load. If heavier soiled, I use 2. For Fabric Softener, I pour White Vinegar into one of those plastic Downy Fabric Softener balls, and toss it in with my clothes. We are very happy.

    • Amissa says:

      It sounds like you have hard mineral deposits and potential soap scum on your clothing. I recommend buying some RLR Laundry Treatment by Cadie (which removes mineral deposits from the fiber) and add a packet to a cycle. Or, if you prefer, you can soak your clothing in a half-full bath tub of hot water with three packages of RLR for at least two hours or simply overnight.

      My recommendation to avoid future soap scum buildup on your clothing, buy detergent (with surfactants in it) and add a water softener, such as Borax or Calgon. Given that you have very hard water, you’re likely to find Borax and Calgon in your laundry aisle. You may very well find RLR Laundry Treatment there too. Good luck!

      • Gehugh says:

        RLR IS washing soda (sodium carbonate–a salt that softens the water, not thd clothes) and washing sodia one of the three ingredients in the laundry recipe above. Using less washing ‘detergent’ and non chemical (whole home carbon filtration, for one) treatments for your household water may help. I beleieve Dawn is a detergent and not a dish ‘soap’. Remember the old days of Ivory soap when you used the bar for your body and the flakes (no detergent at that time) for your clothing. Nowadays there are detergents, antibacterial agents, excessive perfumed additives and more chemicals than we know what do with that are added to our body and household cleansers.

      • Amissa says:

        Since RLR does not disclose all of its ingredients online, I’m curious as to your reputable source that RLR is washing soda. And even if the main active ingredient is washing soda, there must be a something different about RLR that gives it the properties of removing mineral deposits on fiber. Given that Jan is experiencing dingy gray clothing after using a DIY recipe, the evidence suggests that washing soda is not the only ingredient needed to keep mineral deposits at bay. RLR specifically targets its audience with the caption on its package, “Can’t stand dingy wash?”

        Even IF Dawn has surfactants in it and is technically a detergent, it is not designed for use in a clothes washing machine as a detergent for fabrics. Yes, it is usable as a pre-treatment for stains (and the manufacturer recommends less than two tablespoons for a top loading machine), but it is because Dawn removes grease, which stains fabric, not because it is a laundry detergent.

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