Detergents that are homemade, high in soap or contain no surfactants

Making your own detergent may seem like a good idea. Before you do so it is important to understand that many of the ingredients in homemade detergents have minimal cleaning properties and can damage your washing machine.

Homemade detergents typically contain water softeners, bicarb soda, stain removers and soap. Without the surfactants found in commercial detergents, soap-based detergents lead to soap scum and inhibit cleaning.

Common ingredients in homemade detergents

Traditional soap

Traditional soap (for example Sunlight Soap or Lux Flakes) is a saponified triglyceride. It is a very mild surfactant and works for spot stain removal. When a soap-based detergent is used inside a washing machine it reacts with minerals in water and forms soap scum. This is the same soap scum that builds up in showers and baths.

Soap scum on fabrics traps bacteria and ammonia. Soap is not recommended for washing clothes unless you are using a washboard.

Washing soda

Washing soda (sodium carbonate) is a water softener. It does not clean or remove soiling.

Washing soda is used in commercial detergents to bind to minerals in water and prevent minerals from binding to surfactants. Harder water contains more minerals, which why is powders are more suitable for harder water areas

Bicarb soda

Bicarb or baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) is a pH adjuster. Bicarb is not a water softener and does not have any surfactant qualities.

Commercial laundry detergents

Modern detergents are clean rinsing and do not build up. Commercial laundry detergents contain surfactants. Surfactants are active cleaning agents, they remove soiling from fabrics and do not lead to soap scum. Surfactant molecules consist of a hydrophilic head that holds onto water and a hydrophobic tail that holds onto soiling.

Using the right amount of an effective detergent and washing in warm-hot (40-60┬░C) water is the best way to keep your cloth nappies clean. Patreon members and website subscribers have access to our detergent indexes. We have reviewed 218 different detergents and included dosing guidance for those that are suitable for cloth nappies.

For more information on what is in detergents and the function of the raw materials see our information on how to select a laundry detergent for cloth nappies and general laundry and the WashWise information sheet on Laundry Detergent Ingredients.

References and further reading

  1. Wikipedia, Surfactant (July 14, 2023) <>.
  2. Wikipedia, Saponification (July 14, 2023) <>.
  3. Wikipedia, Sodium carbonate (July 14, 2023) <>.
  4. Wikipedia, Sodium bicarbonate (July 14, 2023) <>.