Rethinking Laundry and Cleaning Detergents

How to clean with baking soda
Baking soda shaker: good for cleaning and economical.

I’m feeling duped right now. For years, I’ve been using Borax and touting it as an “old-fashioned cleaning” product and one that our grandmothers probably used. While that may be true, several readers brought to my attention its health risks. After doing some online research, I’ve decided to mostly discontinue (* see note at bottom) using this product. Yes, it’s a hassle because I have to change my routine since I’ve used it for several years but the health of my family is worth it and I’ve been busy testing alternatives.

Here’s what I found (I call this “they blinded me with science”)

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), which is an online, independent resource for consumer health products, lists all of what’s in our cleaning supplies and laundry detergents. They also share which ingredients have been banned in other countries, but not here. They rate the products based on their ingredients. I think it’s important to note that the EWG does not endorse any products or brands.

“EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning is an online safety guide for household cleaning products, launched in 2012 to help people find safer products that fully disclose their ingredients and contain fewer ingredients that are hazardous or that haven’t been thoroughly tested. The database combines product ingredient lists gleaned from product labels, company websites and worker safety documents with information in more than 16 standard toxicity databases and extensive searches of peer-reviewed scientific literature. The database provides easy-to-navigate safety ratings for more than 2,000 cleaning products.”

These are the questions EWG used to rate cleaning and household products:

  • Does the product contain hazardous substances?
  • Do we know about all the ingredients?
  • Do other factors come into play?
  • How does this product rate overall?

Here’s the information about Borax from the EWG. It received a product grade of “F” on a product grading scale of “A” to “F” with “A” being the best.

For more reading and information on Borax from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, click the link. The study about Borax is here.

A reader, Brenda, sent me this link from EnviroBlog, which is what got me questioning Borax in the first place. (Thank you, Brenda, for bringing this to my attention.)

What am I going to use for laundry? First, I’m making detergent based on this recipe from Lisa Bronner, the granddaughter of Dr. Bronner. (Dr. Bronner’s products all got an “A” rating.) Really, I’m not making anything, just using a little bit of this and that.

  • 1 squirt of Sal Suds from Dr. Bronner’s. I have a squirt top that fits the 32-ounce size bottle of the Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds and this is enough in my washing machine. The “squirt” amounts to about 1 Tablespoon. I’m adding this at the beginning of the load.
  • 1/4 cup baking soda. I’m adding this at the beginning of the load.
  • to the rinse cycle, add 1/2 cup white vinegar (optional but I do this. I set a timer when I start a load of wash to remind me when it’s time to add the vinegar.)

Also, the super washing soda (another laundry booster) from Arm & Hammer received an “A” rating from EWG and I think this is a good alternative to Borax. After trying this for our laundry, it seems to work well but I have very sensitive skin and it did irritate me a bit.

Chickens don't like to clean
Chickens are messy and don’t like to clean. Millie liked the dirt more than the Dr. Bronner’s peppermint castile soap.

What am I going to use for cleaning? Since we’ve been using Borax for cleaning the toilet, we tried baking soda and white vinegar (1/2 cup of each) in the toilet bowl and and it seemed to work well. We cleaned the toilet (“we” meaning my kids – it’s an “allowance chore” around here and done on Saturdays) bowl with the baking soda and white vinegar and then used the toilet scrub brush.

I buy only non-processed foods and (I thought) household products for my family that are good for us, good for the environment, and have a good price. I was under the (misguided) mind set that the government was making sure that our cleaning and household products were good for us, too. (Have you ever seen ingredients listed on cleaning supplies?) From here on out I plan to examine my cleaning supplies more closely. Thank you to everyone who brought these facts to my attention.

* To sum up: I’m going hold onto my Borax that I already have and use it to kill the moss on the driveway. Next, I plan to mix it with water to spray on and kill the ants who invade my side porch in the spring. And, finally, if we ever get cockroaches or bedbugs (highly and hopefully very unlikely), I’ll use it to kill those. It’s also good for killing fleas on dogs – or so I’ve read. So, basically, from now on, I’m only going to use it only for killing things. Once my Borax is gone, I’m not buying it anymore.

What are your thoughts on cleaning supplies and health? Do you consider the environment in making purchases?

Go Gingham related links:

Cute and clean for the kitchen: make a baking soda shaker for soaking those stubborn pots and pans
The mop cover is a re-purposed t-shirt: how to make a mop cover
Parenting: Children’s Allowances – yes, I like my kids doing chores!

31 thoughts on “Rethinking Laundry and Cleaning Detergents

  1. Sara ~
    Thanks for sharing the EWG website; for some time I thought that I was purchasing an environmentally safe (and therefore safe for my family) product with Green Works all purpose cleaner. Turns out it receives an F from EWG. Needless to say I plan on doing some research before settling on a new cleaner. I have recently seen ads from SC Johnson that claims they list all of their product ingredients but I am not sure if that is just on their website (which I did find to be true) or on the actual product as well. That being said, the few products of theirs that I checked on the EWG website did not receive any rave reviews. I guess it’s a step in the right direction to list the ingredients ~ knowing the ingredients can lead us to a more informed purchasing decision and to the choice that makes most sense for our family and our individual circumstances. Thanks for bringing awareness to the safety of our cleaning products!



    1. Darcy, you’re welcome.
      I have been busy this week with returning the unused cleaning and laundry products I have on hand. Right now, there’s a big jug of dish washing soap ready to be returned to Costco. It’s their store brand of dish washing soap that reads “environmentally friendly” and yet it received an F. This makes no sense to me and leaves me wondering who is policing this sort of labeling and product truth.
      Thanks for leaving a comment.


  2. If you have a front loading washing machine how would you add the baking soda and the vinegar as the door lock when it turns on?



    1. Hi Leigh,
      Thanks for reminding me to say this – I don’t have a front loading machine. I have a 17-year-old top loading washing machine so the amounts of laundry detergent used on a top loader is more than a front loader. The top loader means I can fill the wash tub and then soak items as well as add the vinegar to the rinse cycle. Side note: it has been a great washing machine but has broken a few times and we’ve fixed it ourselves. We have a parts supply place near us and they’ve had all the parts. Thanks for leaving a comment, Leigh!


  3. I began been making my own household cleaners almost 20 years ago. I started mainly as an effort to quit poisoning the planet, but when I became a mother 11 years ago, I became very much interested in not poisoning my children – and not disrupting their hormones, either!

    I have used Dr. Bronner’s soaps and Sal Suds, vinegar, baking soda, and essential oils for pretty much everything. I use Seventh Generation dish-washing liquid, as well, and not just for dishes, but for washing floors and general cleaning, too.

    I also use Sal Suds for my laundry detergent. I have a front-loading machine and use more like a teaspoon or two per load, along with vinegar in the rinse. My machine has a “fabric softener” dispenser that I put the vinegar in. The machine releases the vinegar during the rinse cycle. If I want to add baking soda or washing soda, I just add it to the detergent dispenser along with the Sal Suds.

    I have never had any problems using Sal Suds in my front-loader, but using too much detergent (of any kind) can ruin these machines, so you have to be careful.


    1. Amy,
      Great job! I love that you’ve been doing this for years.
      I don’t have a front loading washing machine. We still have a working 17-year-old machine that keeps going – with a couple of fixes now and then.
      I like to fill the washing machine and then soak items so for me the top loader works really well. Your amounts of detergent for a front loader are an excellent guide so thanks for sharing those.


      1. Hi Sara – I WISH I had an old top-loader! When it comes to newer appliances, all I can say is, “They sure don’t make them like they used to!” My mother had the same top-loading washer for 27 years, but that was before “planned obsolescence!”

        When I had to buy a new machine, the guy at the appliance shop told me that most machines these days are basically made to fall apart in about 8 years! It really makes me mad. (Mine has lasted 9 so far…but I feel like I’m washing on borrowed time!)

        I have to admit that I miss having a top-loader. You can soak things more easily in them, and you don’t have to be nearly so careful with detergents, and leaving the door open when not in use, and mold build-up in the machine. Yes-the front-loader is sort of a pain.

        That being said, I really appreciate how much water is saved with a front-loader, and that was the main reason I decided on one. It spins the clothing much drier, too – so they dry much faster whether on the line or in the dryer. (I hang dry almost everything, too.)


    1. Deirdre,
      I found the Sal Suds at the People’s Food Co-op in SE Portland. It is available on line on Dr. Bronner’s website, too. It should last me awhile because it takes very little when adding it to a spray bottle. It works really well on cutting grease – I was giving it a work out yesterday in the kitchen.
      Thanks for asking, Deidre.


  4. Wow! Thanks for the awesome website. Makes me sick thinking about some of these products that I have trusted, and used for so many years! And to think I was spending a little bit more, thinking I was getting a better product for my family.


    1. Martha,
      I completely agree with you! That’s exactly why I’m feeling duped. The truth is, it was costing a lot of money to buy the different cleaning/laundry supplies compared to how much I’m going to spend now. (Trying to find the positive here…)
      Thanks, Martha!


  5. Very, very helpful information! I especially appreciated the advice about how to use up the borax I still have. Thank you, Sara.


    1. Dormilona,
      Thank you. I don’t have much of it left but it seems like the best choice rather than just throwing it into the garbage.
      On one of the sites I looked at, there was a lively discussion debating the use of Borax. One commenter said she uses Borax to brush her teeth with. That made my stomach turn!
      Thanks for leaving a comment, Dormilona.


  6. Thanks so much for this! I used to check EWG for sunscreens, but didn’t know they had such a great user interface for cleaning products. I was dismayed to find that the “Bi-O-Kleen” products I use, which I had assumed from the name were good environmental products, all received F grades! I am now researching new laundry, dishwashing, and toilet cleaners.
    I see that Dr. Bronners can be used for laundry, but has anyone tried it in an HE machine?


    1. Liana,
      I use BioKleen laundry detergent also and was disappointed to read that as well.
      Several readers have suggested HE washer amounts listed.
      Here’s Amy’s comment:

      I also use Sal Suds for my laundry detergent. I have a front-loading machine and use more like a teaspoon or two per load, along with vinegar in the rinse. My machine has a “fabric softener” dispenser that I put the vinegar in. The machine releases the vinegar during the rinse cycle. If I want to add baking soda or washing soda, I just add it to the detergent dispenser along with the Sal Suds.

      Also, check Lisa Bronner’s site because I think she has a front load washing machine, also.
      I plan to use their website to check out our sunscreen products next….
      Thanks, Liana.


  7. If Borax isn’t safe for the wash, how could it possibly be safe for the environment? Do you really think it’s a good idea to use it to kill the moss on your driveway and then wash into your yard, your neighbors yard and eventually the Willamette river?


    1. Stephanie,
      I totally agree with you. I really debated about what to do with it since I do have a some left. Borax is sodium tetraborate or sodium borate which is a mineral and does occur naturally. My thought was instead of putting it in the garbage all together, why not add it back into the environment slowly.
      If you have any suggestions, I would love to hear.
      Thanks, Stephanie!

      This is from Borax’s website:

      20 Mule Team® Borax is 100% natural, and 99.5% pure (there is about a half of 1% of naturally occurring trace minerals). Once removed from the ground it is washed, dried, and boxed for consumers.


  8. Great post, Sara. I really feel lucky to benefit from your experience and research and experimenting. You are so thoughtful about everything you do. Thank you!


    1. Thanks, Annie. I try to be thoughtful but it’s not always easy. Honestly, this entire process has made me reexamine our routines and in the end – is going to cost a lot LESS money, which I love!


    1. Katie,
      You’re welcome! I’m so glad Dr. Bronner’s received an A also. I just made some liquid hand soap with a bar of Dr. Bronner’s and will share the recipe soon. You’ll love it and it was super easy.
      Thanks for leaving a comment…


  9. If you don’t want to bother with a timer to remind you when to put the vinegar in, you can use a downy ball. I think they still make them. Obviously you would be using vinegar instead of downy, but it is just a plastic ball, and when the spin cycle hits, the centrifical force created unplugs the top and allows the contents to be released in the rinse cycle. Also, the truth is most clothes don’t need any detergent to wash them, unless they are stained or soiled. Water alone will get most clothes clean. To extend the life of jeans especially, it is recommended that you use a water only wash and hang them to dry.


  10. I have used Borax for killing ants — works a lot better than the other potent sprays.

    Personally, we pollute rivers, oceans, ground water with a lot more potent chemicals than Borax. The little I use to clean the moss/mildew is a lot better than the chemical concoctions in fancy spray bottles.

    Think of all the cleaners used in residential, commercial and industrial sites. That alone will make you not want to touch anything. Then think of all those meds people toss out.


  11. I noticed that new appliances do not last as long as the old ones did/do. That alone should be a call to action. We are becoming more of the Waste Makers than Vance Packard originally wrote about in 1960.

    My refrigerator has been in my kitchen since the mid 1980s. The stove (which was purchased used) was manufactured in the 1950s. I just had to say good bye to my old black-and-white rabbit ears 13″ TV set in my kitchen. It was purchased in 1980. A lot of tech folks told me I could never get it to work with the converter box. I proved that to be incorrect — a lot of folks got rid of perfectly good TV sets with the switch from analog to digital TV signals. I doubt new TV sets will last 30 some odd years.

    I used to have an old 1963 car which I had to sell when I could no longer buy parts for it — after 25 years of use (and I bought it used).

    My stove has required parts for it, which are getting harder and harder to come by. I just replaced a stove-top element but finding it was so so hard. I was told many times that the stove is too old. Yet new ones are not as sturdy — the doors are too flimsy, or some doors have rubber gaskets, or they will not fit into the kitchen or the existing electrical infrastructure.

    Vance Packard wrote a long time ago about planned obsolescence — a way of making consumers buy new items because the items are created to wear out more quickly. This produces a large degree of waste, wasteful use of resources, and harmful chemical by products.


  12. I’m coming late to the party but by the date of this article I see you found the Borax information about the same time I did. So I’ve spent the past few months reviewing my cleaning supply list and looking for new ideas. Two questions:

    For laundry, would you use washing soda in addition to the Sal Suds or instead of? In light of my EWG discovery I’m looking for something to replace the Method detergent I’m currently using and Sal Suds is in the running.

    Secondly, what are you using for dish soap? We hand wash all our dishes and the Earth Friendly stuff I was using is only a “C”. I purchased a case of Planet Ultra from Amazon and I love it. Just wondered if you had another idea (that’s maybe not $4 a bottle!). Sal Suds?

    BTW, I’ve been using washing soda in my toilets (it used to be Borax). It’s my understanding that vinegar and baking soda cancel each other out when used together so they’re not good cleaning partners (but hey, I could be wrong!). I do use them in my drains every few weeks to dislodge clogs, however. Seems to keep the kitchen sink drains more fresh.


    1. Hi Beth,
      I’ve been using Sal Suds for the laundry and baking soda as a “booster” to get things extra clean. I also add white vinegar to the rinse cycle on smelly clothing – which quite honestly is just about everything around here!
      For dish washing liquid detergent, I use Seventh Generation diluted with water. The detergent straight from the bottle is too thick and too expensive. Diluting it makes it last longer. For soaking overnight, I sprinkle with baking soda. If I have Sal Suds (1 tsp to a spray bottle with water) out for cleaning the kitchen, I use it on whatever is soaking in the sink.
      Yes, you are correct about the baking soda/white vinegar cancelling each other out. Like you, I do add them both to our drains (sinks and toilets) once a month with a chaser of boiling water to keep the drains cleared out – we have old plumbing.
      Thanks, Beth! We sound similar in our new found detergents/cleaning approach.
      I’ll have a post soon about my new routines!


  13. Also, add me to the list of people angry about appliances not lasting as long as they used to. Often it’s due to said appliances having computer parts. My FIL was an appliance repairman and my husband worked with him for years and they frequently complain that computers have no business is household appliances. Like the programmable slow cooker I had that died after two years. Or the 7 y/o refrigerator we’ve now spent $400 repairing because the computer board has died twice in three years. Financially it might make sense to replace it rather than keep paying to repair it but I can’t bring myself to chuck it in a landfill when it works fine after a simple part replacement. So I guess we’ll keep shelling out every few years and grumbling about the “olden days”. 😉


  14. I know I am coming to this discussion late – but we use soapnuts to wash our laundry – we bought them from Mountain Rose Herbs and have been using them for a year and a half – still on the same $6 bag! They are all natural (seeds from a tree or a bush, I believe) and our clothes smell great and are clean – what more could you ask for?


    1. Marie, better late than never I say! Great tip. I will check them out.
      I’ve been very happy with the Sal Suds and the container is only half way gone. It’s also been great for other cleaning – a solid grease cutter in the kitchen.
      Thanks for the tip, Marie, and for stopping by. 🙂


  15. I just checked out that EWG website. That’s great info to have! I’m a little curious about the A rating for Sal Suds, though. If you scroll down, they give ratings for each ingredient. There are 4 Cs and a B. Not sure how that adds up to an A. There’s “some concern” for cancer, respiratory effects, organ effects and aquatic toxicity. So maybe it’s not THAT great. Perhaps they grade the products on a curve? Anyway, it’s apparently better than a lot of other stuff and we’ve gotta use something I guess. The ingredients in the liquid castile soap got all As and 1 B, but I understand it’s not as effective. I’m just starting to explore greener options and the products and recipes are numerous and a bit overwhelming.


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