Wednesday, July 31, 2013

baking soda & laundry: is it a conspiracy or a miracle?

I'm off my rocker--gone plum baking-soda-crazy.  I'm telling you, I love that stuff!  I wash my hair with it, brush my teeth with it, bake cookies, do the laundry, slap it under my arms in great powdery puffs, then turn around and scrub the tub and toilet with it. 

I'm hauling it out of the grocery store in 4 lb. boxes and storing it in recycled 1 gallon grain buckets in my laundry room, and it occurs to me: I hope this isn't a raw material for some kind of homemade explosive device (baking soda does everything after all). If it is, then my repeated trips to the grocery store, where I have swiped my card with my cart loaded down under boxes of suspicious white powder, have most certainly earned me a spot on one of those top secret government watch lists that prevent you from flying on planes or crossing carelessly into Canada. 

Rather than a threat to public safety, however, I wonder if this miracle stuff isn't more of a threat to corporate profits in the cleaning and beauty industries.  In my shift to no poo almost a year and a half ago, I managed to replace shampoo, conditioner, hair gel and hair spray with just baking soda! What was a no frills girl like me doing with all that crap to begin with?  (More on that later in my highly anticipated follow-up post, "no 'poo, part...III?!" or some such title).

There are a ton of websites packed to brimming with how-to-use-baking-soda advice.  You'd think you wouldn't need any more from me, but last year I found several that included recipes and advice for washing hair and doing laundry with just baking soda and vinegar--and I don't seem to be able to find those sites this year.  Everything I can find, like this Life Hacker  list and this Care 2 make a difference list suggests adding baking soda to your shampoo or your laundry detergent in order to "boost" their performance, That both lists (and others) use the word "boost" suggests to me that their information came from the same source--perhaps there is a detergent or chemical association out there somewhere that has adopted a clever "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" stance, flooding the internet with green living advice that suggests baking soda should be used only in conjunction with store-bought products?

I don't know why I'm going all conspiracy theory on baking soda today!  Really, I'm just hear to tell you that while I think both of these above lists are otherwise useful (check 'em out! get excited about sodium bicarbonate!), for laundry and hair, you don't need to couple baking soda with anything but it's good friend vinegar.  I assure you that together these two are good for more than just volcano making.

After I gave up shampoo last march, I began looking into how baking soda might substitute for other household products. As with shampoo, I had a lot of concerns about what my Trader Joe's laundry detergent contained.  Check out how it is rated by The Environmental Working Group.  Not good. You can search that same site to see how your brand is rated, and if you want to know still more about toxicity in detergents, you can read here, and here.  Unfortunately, you will see words and phrases like "hormone disruptors," "fertility problems, "eutrophication" (excessive growth of algae), and "loss of aquatic life."

Eventually, I learned that I could wash my laundry (and my moldy shower curtain, btw!) by putting 1/2 C of baking soda in the wash cycle then adding 1/2 vinegar during the rinse cycle.  (Do not mix them in the same cycle.  Of more concern than the creation of a possible volcano, they will neutralize each other, leaving you with little more than a mildly salty solution with much less punch.) 
Steve is not particular about most things, but for whatever reason, the laundry matters to him.  He has long complained that our "natural" detergent from Trader Joe's doesn't work.  Sometimes the wash would just randomly smell bad, and it didn't have a long life at all if forgotten and left to sit wet in the machine by a certain member of the family who cares deeply about a lot of things like the environment, social justice and local food sources but who can't seem to get into much of a dither about forgotten laundry. 

Since Steve already felt I'd compromised the cleanliness of our clothes with my TJ detergent, I worried that he would reject my new laundry strategy out of hand.  So naturally, I snuck the suspect ingredients into our wash routine without him knowing.  I carried on in that clandestine way for a month, letting him whittle away at our last bottle of detergent when he washed, but then, when it was my turn, creeping furtively around the laundry room like a fiend, as if I were trying to slip the laundry a mickey when no one was looking.  Now we're getting to the real conspiracy, I suppose.

The results were amazing!  Baking soda removes odors and stains, vinegar acts as a fabric softener.  Our clothes came out bright, soft, fluffy and smelling fresh--which means, by the way, that they smelled like nothing.

If you use this method to wash your clothes, you should know that they will not come out smelling like a synthetic blue sky or a chemically induced meadow complete with faux-smelling butterflies (what do butterflies smell like, anyway?).  If you've grown to rely on these smells for assurance that your clothes are indeed clean, no worries: it doesn't take long to forget about them.  In fact, once you're desensitized, a trip down the detergent aisle of the grocery store will overwhelm you with perfume so thick you'll feel like you just licked a dryer sheet.

I feel like I need to spit just thinking about it.

Once I'd determined the baking soda and vinegar were effective, I broke the news to Steve--unveiling my deception as if it were the most casual thing in the world.  He was leery until I told him I'd been doing most of our laundry this way for a month.  Since then, he actually agrees our laundry seems cleaner and brighter, and even Gareth has learned to set the timer so that he can add vinegar to the rinse cycle. 

As for cost, I wish I could say the BS&V way is cheaper, but that depends on your current method.  If the number of loads advertised on detergent bottles are to be believed, then it seems buying baking soda and vinegar together costs about the same as purchasing an equal amount of detergent.  If you count fabric softener, however, then BS&V is cheaper.  Regardless, it's certainly not more expensive, and it's absolutely more green.

And I think it's more clean. 

So hooray for no more store bought detergent! No more reading labels and wading through articles about toxicity! And most importantly, no more crapola going down our drains from the washing machine!

Perhaps it's a miracle after all.



  1. I just bought a huge box of oxiclean, mostly to clean the grout on my floors. I know it's better than bleach, so I went for it. But after reading about it, it seems that it has some blue specks in it that is not explained in the ingredients. I will be throwing it in with wash, too. I may be brave enough to try your baking-soda-only laundry trick some day. I am already on vinegar as a rinse agent. I put mine in a downy ball. NEVER Downy!

    I am a bit nervous about using only baking soda as sometimes it doesn't get all the grease out of my hair. Why might this be? I am not an unusually greasy person. At least no one has ever told me that I am...

    I want to tell you also how green I am today: I am drying some of my laundry out on my patio! It is taking forever to dry, I need my sheets to sleep, and it will only be daylight for a few more hours. So really, I wanted to tell you how I am only attempting to be green.

    1. Hey Franny,
      How funny you left this comment about hair as I was just writing a post tonight about that. You probably need a stronger solution if your hair doesn't always come out clean...

      So, it is almost 12:30 where I live. I wonder if your sheets got dry!? Line drying - you are a hero! We had a clothesline in our backyard when we moved in but we pulled it out almost immediately. It never occurred to me to line dry back then. I just saw the posts as a nuisance: something else to get the lawn mower around. I regret pulling them out now...The line even had a grape vine growing on it. :(