“Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.” –Thoreau

09 May 2012

Chemical-Free: Who, Why, and How

I've been slacking badly in the blog world. I know it. You know it. I had a good reason, lots of good reasons, but it's time to get back on the proverbial horse. Actually, it'd be great to get back on a real horse. But they're harder to come by.

Tomorrow I will put up a lengthy post on my own writing, and the impact my graduate program at Vermont College of Fine Arts has had on my process. It will be epic! Angels will sing! Probably not the angels part, but I will include a picture of my cat.

Today, I need to write about anything but writing-- since that is all I've been doing for four months now. So instead, I am going to talk about something I am almost as passionate about as writing for teens.

Chemicals. Or, actually, a lack of chemicals.

Here's the thing: I joke about being something of a hippie, and in many ways I'm not. I like living in a busy, urban area. I like eating out at restaurants that serve ridiculously expensive imported cheese. I like taking the car to the grocery store; I don't even know how to ride a bike. I'm a very bad hippie, indeed, and so my jokes about being one are just that. Jokes. But there are some parts of my life in which I am committed to "living lighter": to protecting the temple that is my body and reducing my impact on the planet I love. It's a lot easier than it sounds.

Every few days, I'm going to offer up some easy ways to avoid needless chemicals. I'll also explain why I made the switch. Take what you want, leave what you don't, and let me know how stuff works for you. I'm interested to hear your thoughts and opinions. Let's start with...


I want to be clean. I want my husband to be clean. But conventional, store-bought laundry detergent is both expensive and laden with unnecessary chemicals. Did you know that there is no practical reason for your laundry soap to have suds? It's true. Suds are the result of the addition of Surfactants-- chemical substances added to detergents to promote suds and (soap companies say) to help break down stains. They are completely unnecessary and harmful to the environment (especially fish). They don't wash completely clean, and we wear those chemical additives against our skin. There's evidence that they might act as an endocrine disruptor, which can adversely affect metabolism, reproduction, and growth. And this is just one of the many chemicals in store-bought detergents! Don't even get me started on "optical brighteners"...

Plus, fun fact: HE washers can't even handle the suds. The large soap companies now have to offer "low-suds" formulas for use in these machines.

So what do I do about it? I make my own laundry detergent. Fact: It is incredibly cheap. Also fact: It is fast and easy. Further fact: It is the best option if you have folks in your house with sensitive skin.

The recipe I use can be found all over the internet. There are a million variations. Casey and I don't get our clothes and linens very dirty because we have clean, indoor jobs. You may want to increase the concentration of your liquid if you're dealing with more serious grime. The basic recipe is as follows:

1/3 cup washing soda (similar to baking soda, and made by the same companies)
1/3 cup borax (usually found in the cleaning section)
1/3 bar of Fels-Naptha laundry soap (or any bar soap)
big pot
container large enough to hold two gallons
funnel, if you need it

1) Fill your container with water, leaving space at the top for future shaking. Filling the container with water ensures you'll never make more detergent than you can store.
2) Pour half the water into the pot. Put it on medium-high heat.
3) Grate your bar soap into the pot. A Fels-Naptha bar is large, so I use 1/3 of the bar per batch. A Dove bar is smaller, so I'd use 1/2 of that size.
4) Let the soap flakes melt into the water completely. Stir occasionally.
5) When soap is completely incorporated, add your borax and your washing soda. Stir it up well.
6) Let that sit on the heat, stirring occasionally, so that it can thicken a bit. It will not get as thick as store-bought detergent. I usually wait until it just begins to bubble. Don't let it boil; it will cause a mess... personal experience talking here.
7) Take the pot off the heat and stir in 1/2 of the water left in in your container (1/4 of the total water will remain). Let this cool for a while. You can wait until it gets to room temperature if you want but I'm too impatient.
8) Using the funnel (if you need to) pour your detergent into your two-gallon container. Put the lid on. Shake the whole thing to mix it up.

Each full load requires about 1/4 cup of detergent. Heavily soiled items might need more, delicate items a little less. I just eyeball it, but you could measure it out if you want. I always give it a good shake before I use it. Remember: This will look much thinner than you're used to. That's okay, it's still going to work. Your clothes will still smell fresh and clean, but they will have no scent (unless your bar soap is scented). You can dry them as normal.

When I first started making my own laundry detergent, I kept track of my costs. I bought my ingredients online, and I bought the exact ingredients I've linked to in the list above (although not at those exact prices). I use a well-cleaned container that originally held cat litter, which has worked very well for me. Each batch makes roughly two gallons, and each load takes about 1/4 cup. I have been making my own detergent for five months now and have only repurchased the bar soap. I still have plenty of washing soda, and I'm pretty sure I bought enough Borax to last me an entire year. My math isn't complete, since I still have product to use up, but I can tell you for certain that my laundry costs me no more than a penny a load.

That's right: one penny per load. Or possibly less.
You absolutely cannot beat that.

I encourage you to give this a try. I swear it takes very little time and effort (certainly no more than getting down to the store to pick up some Tide). If your first batch doesn't seem perfect, play with the proportions a bit. If you just aren't sold in the end, fear not! I will be posting more good ways to use up those ingredients. It's better for your body, better for the environment, and better for your wallet. It's Win-Win-Win!