Lye Soap Use #2 – Laundry Soap

Doin' laundry the old-timey way

My favorite use for lye soap is for my laundry. I’ve made liquid laundry soap, powdered laundry soap, and even grated the bar directly into the washing machine. Traditional lye soap is just so well suited for the job, much more than for skin in my humble opinion!

As I discussed in the last post, traditional lye soap is “lye heavy”. In other words, there is leftover lye in each bar of soap. This happens because there was not enough fat in the recipe to balance out the amount of lye used. The amount of “free lye” varies per old-time recipe. Some traditional lye soap recipes must’ve had quite a lot of extra lye from the stories I hear. It’s this free lye, combined with the soap, that makes it so good for laundry soap.

From the oral accounts I’ve collected, plus my personal experience, lye soap cuts grease, helps whiten whites, and is the soap of choice for many mechanics and plant-workers’ uniforms. In our modern day, lye soap makes an excellent choice for front loader machines. Made solely from tallow or lard, these fats do not create a bubbly or foamy lather in soapmaking. If you’ve ever washed with lye soap, you know that you’ll get a nice cream going but definitely not any lather with bubbly loft. Since it’s the foam and bubbles from modern detergents that break down the front loader rubber seals, lye laundry soap works wonderfully in these new machines. Don’t you just love it when something old, tried, and true is the simple answer!

grating lye soap

As I wrote above, the simplest way to use lye soap for your laundry is to grate the soap right into the washer. It only takes a tablespoon or so. And no, I’m not kidding. If you wash with cold water, it helps to soak your grated soap in some warm water. A half hour or so will do. You can prepare a whole bucket of soap gel ahead of time and just scoop out a bit for each load. That’s often what I do.

Recipes are all over the internet for making your own laundry soap concoction. They all include various combinations of washing soda, borax, maybe some baking soda, and one type of soap or another. Whether the recipe calls for Fells Naptha, Zote, or anything else, lye soap will work just as well. Probably better. The following is the recipe I use:

baking soda, washing soda, borax, and soap

  • 1 cup finely grated lye soap
  • 1/4 cup washing soda
  • 1/4 cup baking soda
  • 1/4 cup borax

Spread grated lye soap on wax paper and allow to dry overnight. Mix with remaining ingredients. Use 1-2 tbsp. per load. To make a gel, combine all ingredients with 1 gallon warm water in a soup pot. Stir over low heat till melted. Pour melted lye laundry soap into a 3 gallon bucket (with lid for safety). Add an additional gallon of water to the bucket and stir till blended. As mixture cools it will thicken to a gel. Use 1/2 cup lye laundry gel per load.

You may wonder, why add the extra ingredients? Didn’t I say you could just grate soap straight into the washer? Good question! It depends on the hardness of your water. Before the soap can clean your clothes, it will react with the minerals in your water. So, if you have hard water, you’ve used up some of your good soap fighting the minerals and your load won’t get as clean. Washing soda and borax can be tricky to find. Where I live, Wal-Mart carries borax. My local Krogers grocery store carries washing soda.

After using lye soap for awhile in your washer, you may notice a soap scum build-up. I’ve never had that issue, but some people do. Soap scum is easily avoided by adding vinegar to your fabric softener dispenser once or twice a month. If you don’t have a dispenser, a downy ball comes in handy. And no, your clothes do not come out smelling like vinegar.

orange essential oil

Another thing I like to do to boost my lye laundry soap is add a touch of essential oil. You can add a drop or two to the load. A tablespoon or so to your bucket of gel. Or stir in a similar amount to your powder. Let the powder dry on wax paper before storing. My favorite essential oil to use is orange. It adds additional grease cutting power. Some people add lavender for its antiseptic properties and calming scent. Tea tree is helpful if you’re fighting any kind of virus in your family. We fought fleas off once with eucalyptus.

At this point you may be wondering why anyone would want to go to the trouble. Here’s a few reasons that comes to mind:

  1. Lye laundry soap is an all natural product (no synthetics of any kind).
  2. Because of #1, people with allergies often do well with lye laundry soap.
  3. Lye laundry soap is biodegradable. You’re being gentle on our local ecosystem, especially the water supply.
  4. It’s cheap! Or rather, frugal, if you like that term better.
  5. Especially since lye laundry soap requires no fabric softener, except on maybe the driest of winter days.
  6. There’s a unique satisfaction in making such a useful product yourself.

Granny Slagle's 1860 Lye Soap

If you’re ready to give lye soap a try for your laundry, here is a summary to ensure success:

  1. Use the soap in a gel form.
  2. Add washing soda, borax, and maybe some baking soda for boost.
  3. Treat your stains. Remember when our grannies used this soap for laundry, they scrubbed on a washboard. They were intimate with their laundry!
  4. If you’re wanting to whiten your whites, line dry. The sun boosts the whitening power of the lye.

Click on Granny Slagle’s picture over there and order yourself some $4 bars of Lye Soap to give lye laundry soap a try! )

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34 Responses to Lye Soap Use #2 – Laundry Soap

  1. Excellent, excellent post. I was raised in the city so my heritage is quite different from that of my “Country Boy” husband. I love reading your blog, Beth. You are as talented at writing as you are at soapmaking.

  2. Catherine says:

    You are such a fabulous writer! I hung on every word – such a fascinating post. It wasn’t until I left for collecge that I used store bought soap to wash with. My Mom made our soap and that was used for bathing, doing laundry and loads of other things. What was once considered old fashioned is now the new “New”. Look forward to more informative posts!

  3. Roni says:

    I have a lye soap questions , I have found some soap that i know has to be at least 20 yrs old my Mother in law made , I would like to use it for bathing /hair laundry if it is still safe to use ,
    I know there is no cure time problem with it,
    I was getting ready to make some of my own but theres so much of this left I dont want to throw it out if still good to use
    Thank you
    Roni in southern ohio

    • Roni, it’s perfectly safe to use. Lye soap doesn’t contain extra fats (such as cocoa butter or other moisturizers) that might go rancid. Lye soap is one of the longest lasting soaps around. It will just get harder and harder as water content evaporates, but it always be soap. Depending on your mother-in-law’s recipe (if there’s any free lye in the bar), your soap may or may not be good for bathing. I would try a bit on the inside of your elbow and see how your skin feels by the end of the day. But it definitely will be great for laundry! I hope that info helps. :)

  4. Roni says:

    Yes thank you , My DH and i were just talking about not knowing what for sure she had in it being all she used it for was laundry she most likely saved up pan drippings to make it with, so i told him I best use it for laundry/stains and his greasy hands . I do know she made a sil bath in it when she had poison ivy. I love your site!
    This same sil told me today I was nuts for wanting to bath in lye soap i didnt want to do that .I just smiled and let her have her say .

  5. Charlotte says:

    I am going to start making liquid laundry detergent using KOH (potassium hydroxide) for the lye. Do I need to add a preservative. I am planning on using a mixture of Lard, Coconut and palm oil, plus borax and washing soda. I will take any recommendations. I do have and front load washer that requires the detergent be low sud.

    Thank you

    • Charlotte, I have not made liquid soap myself. But from my research on the subject I’ve never seen a preservative in liquid soap recipes. The chemical reaction would be the same, the potassium hydroxide (lye) is combining with the oils to make soap. Soap in and of itself does not need a preservative. It’s interest to contemplate that KoH is the form of lye our ancestors leached out of their ash. So years ago, all soap was liquid or a gel. Some soap makers threw in salt to harden their recipe. I’m sure this relates chemically to the lye I use, being SODIUM hydroxide. It would be a fascinating study and experiment to test all that. Maybe some day I will! :)

  6. Marie says:

    I’ve made lye soap (lard) several times, and while I’ve been expressed with how well it cleans, but no matter how careful I am while melting, I never am able to get this to work for use for laundry? It leaves a piggy odor on the fabric!

    Any suggestions

    • Marie,
      The lard you are using must have a very strong “bacony” odor, and yes that odor does survive soap making. Melting it carefully will not affect the smell, unless you burn the oil. This is a natural occurring smell and you won’t be able to change it. BUT, not all lard smells so strongly. You might try a different brand or source for your next batch.

      My lye soap does not smell like pig when it’s cured and my laundry definitely doesn’t smell either. I get my lard 50 lbs. at a time from a bulk supplier, and I recommend it’s mild smell, but I know it’s not practical for most people to buy 50 lbs. As I wrote above, try a different source for your next batch.

      Another option would be to add some essential oils to your next batch to cover the scent. Or add a few drops right to your next load of laundry. Essential oils, in soap making, are typically used in a ratio of 3/4 oz. to 1 lb. of fat. You add them at the very end when your batch has come to “trace” or is well mixed and starting to thicken. For laundry soap I recommend orange oil, tea tree oil, or lavender oil which all should be easily found at your local health food store or even a well-stocked pharmacy.

      I hope this info helps. Stop by again and let me know what worked for you!

      • Marie says:

        Hi Beth Ann.
        I’ve tried 3 different brands for my lye soap, and love it but still can’t make it work for laundry! Noticed that the piggy smell seems to stick to certain type if fabric? I’ve tried scenting it with different E/Os and can’t get it right.
        So! I ordered some of yours to try. I’m doing laundry with it now LOL. The bar are lovely, and have a very light clean mint smell to them. Don’t know how the laundry will smell yet, but will let you know!
        Do you use anything in this soap to have them smell so nice?
        Thank you!

        • That’s interesting about the smell sticking to certain fabrics. I’ve not heard that before in regards to lye soap, but it surely makes sense as I’ve had other smells cling to synthetics and really never come out. Thank you for your kind words about my lye soap. I use no scent in the bar, but the bars do pick up scents off of whatever they’re stored with. Those were stored with some minty bars and they’ve picked up a bit of the scent. :) I doubt it translates into your laundry, but who knows. I’m eager to hear what you think of your laundry.

      • NaRisa says:

        Beth Ann,

        Thanks for this wonderful information. Can you share your “lard” source with me. I would like to buy in bulk as well.

        Thank you,

  7. Marie says:

    Hi Beth.
    I absolutely love “Granny Slagle’s 1860 Lye Soap” she really knew what she was doing, and so must you. It did not leave any “barnyard smell” at all, and the clothes came out clean, and soft. It even left the inside of my washer cleaner, and the laundry sink that the washer drains into clean and bright!
    I’ve also used it for a couple of sink ful of dishes, and it preformed beautifully!
    I’m very pleased with it!
    I may suspect that I may be using more than I need to LOL but I’ll figure the dosing as I get use to it.
    The “Lye Soap” I’ve made has always been nice, and good for cleaning, but have never been satisfied with it for laundry. I use “SoapCalc” and calculate it at a 0% super fat, and done it cold process, and hot, but it has never been as nice as yours!
    The only thing I can think of is (as you mentioned above) is the brands of lard I’ve tried?
    I hate to ask, but is there a brand you can recommend?

    Thank you so much ( and thank granny ) for this beautiful soap.

    • Marie,
      Thanks for your kind comments about my lye soap! Part of the success of lye soap in laundry is to make it “lye heavy”. So rather than a 0% superfat, go for a ratio that has slightly too much lye in it. That leaves lye free in the bar to help cut grease and dirt in your laundry. Therefore, I don’t usually recommend lye soap for skin, but it does make it great for cleaning!

      As for brands, I have only used a couple store brands: Armour and Field, and it’s been quite a while since I used either. If my memory serves me correct, I believe I liked Field better, but either had varied results regarding smell. Sorry I couldn’t be more of a help!

      Beth Ann Weber

  8. spring says:

    can this be used in he washer?

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  11. Carrie Hodges says:

    Maybe it’s my own lack of savy, but when I attempted to print the recipe, I got all 13 pages of comments, etc. Maybe there was a printer friendly version that I missed; if there’s not, you need one–I wasted a bunch of paper and ink. I do appreciate the recipe.
    I have made my own detergent but not with lye soap. My sister is bringing me some this weekend. So thank you.

    • To print from the internet, highlight the text you want, right-click, choose “print” from the pop-up menu, then make sure that the “print selection” button is checked. Hope that helps.

  12. Heather Vaccaro says:

    Hi Beth!
    Just came across your page today after my cousin’s hubby mixed up some soap for me yesterday to donate to our local animal shelter. He told me to add enough water to fill a 5 gal bucket. My question is can I just use 1-2 tbsp. of the dried mixed powder rather than adding water to the dry ingredients since it appears to settle, thus making it necessary to agitate before each use. Also, the shelter uses a large commercial grade Speed Queen washer (think Laundromat size) so I wasn’t really sure how much they should use since I’ve read that lye can have harmful effects on clothing when use in too high a quantity. Any suggestions on this would be most appreciated! Love you page!!

    • Heather,
      Thanks for your question! If you are starting with a dry mix, you need to heat the water and dissolve the soap mix into it. Then you’ll have a bucket of gel laundry soap to work with. When working with gel, you use up to one cup depending on the dilution of soap to water. The thicker the gel, the less you would use varying anywhere from 1/4 cup to 1 cup. As for using the powder, yes you can use just 1-2 tbsp of powder in the washer without diluting. The main reason to mix with water is to cut the time it takes your soap to dissolve in your washer and therefore get to work. If you’re using a cold water wash or have high mineral content in your water, it is best to make your powdered soap into a gel. The key is heating the water. Hope that helps!

  13. Levi G. says:

    Use coconut oil instead of lard or tallow to avoid animal scents. Its very cleansing, excellent at degeasing. Odor neutral

  14. joanne says:

    A friend told me to wash laundry with caustic soda to save the environment. I now have a bucket with 4 T c. soda + some cottons. It got hot. What now? Many rinses? I am presently doing volunteer work in a 3rd world country so no corner store. Email is intermittent so please no questions, internet a treasure when it happens. Best, Joanne

    • Caustic soda is, I assume, lye. It reacts with water and gives off heat. It is not safe for your skin and could damage some fabrics. Yes, lots and lots of rinses. Handmade soap is not dangerous for the environment. I recommend next time making your own laundry soap out of the recipe above using handmade, natural soap.

  15. Marie says:

    Levi G
    I’ve tried that. While coconut oil cleans well, lard is better for laundry. It less apt to leave a film and rinses better than C.O and leaves fabric softer than C.O

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  18. Ada says:

    In the past, I used to be able to find lye soap flakes online to mix with the super washing soda and borax to create my lye powdered laundry detergent. When I ran out of my homemade laundry detergent (it lasts an incredibly long time!), I could not find any lye soap flakes but the whole bars instead. I’ve ruined many a grater trying to grate bar soaps for recipes. Recently, I ordered lye flakes online and was wondering if this can be mixed with the washing soda and borax to create the powdered laundry detergent. Please clear this up for me. Thank you!

    • Lye flakes and lye SOAP flakes are two different things. Please do not use lye flakes in any laundry detergent recipe. Lye flakes is pure lye, sodium hydroxide, which is a very strong base and will burn your skin. Have you tried using a food processor to grate your lye soap for your recipe? I agree, using a traditional grater will scrape your knuckles and be very frustrating. But a food processor makes the job much easier.

  19. Valerie says:

    This is exactly the post I am looking for! I make laundry powder that I trade out for other homemade products and want to use a soap like this in my powdered formulation (we have hard water so I use borax and washing soda, currently using Kirk Coconut Castile. I read through the posts and it seems that the best results are achieved when you make a gel using the washing soda, borax, grated soap method. If you have a moment can you explain why this is and what problems we might encounter if we use the powder in our machines instead of making it into gel. I went to a powdered formulation so that we don’t lose cleaning capacity of the ingredients if it stored awhile. But I have never been able to figure how long a liquid formulation would remain effective, do you have any advice in case I decide to switch back to a luquid gel formulation? Thanks for this amazing blog!

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