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  • Writer's pictureThe Pink Elephant Lady

Airing Dirty Laundry: The Sinner Circle and DIY Laundry Soap

Does homemade laundry detergent actually get clothes clean? What's better - a top-loading or a front-loading washing machine? Will a cold water wash remove stains? Considering the Sinner Circle can help us find the answers! Wait, what? What does laundry have to do with sins?

Although it sounds some sort of religious ritual, the Sinner Circle is actually a graphic organizer of the factors that influence cleaning, created by Dr. Herbert Sinner in 1959 (hence the name!). Dr. Singer was head chemist of the Henkel detergent department at the time; Henkel is a German multinational chemical and consumer goods company that includes familiar brands like All, Purex, and Dial.

According to the Sinner circle, for a given level of cleaning efficacy, the sum of the parts of the circle (chemistry, time, mechanics, and temperature) must equal 100%. If one component of the circle, such as wash temperature, is decreased, one or more of the other factors must increase to compensate for it. An updated version of the Sinner Circle presented in 2010 includes water as a fifth cleaning factor (A.I.S.E., 2013; Stamminger, 2010), acknowledging the critical role water plays during cleaning.

Why So Much Interest in Homemade Laundry Detergent? Does it Actually Work?

Recipes for homemade laundry detergent are EVERYWHERE on the internet - a Google search will turn up slight variations on the same basic formulation: shredded Fels-Naptha or Ivory soap, water, and Borax, washing soda, or baking soda. The reality television show that chronicled the life of the Duggar family and their 19 children inspired many a homemaker to try Michelle Duggar's frugal laundry recipe.

It's more than just saving money. Commercial laundry detergents often contain perfumes that can be irritating to sensitive skin and optical brighteners that may be carcinogenic and harmful to the environment. And brands that claim to be 'green' or 'natural' often come at premium price that some consumers are just not willing to pay when it seems so easy and inexpensive just to make your own soap.

Fear of chemicals plays a huge role in the popularity of homemade laundry soap. The advent of social media, mommy bloggers, and the likes of Goop, Dr. Mercola, Natural News, and the Food Babe has ushered in an era of 'chemophobia' (no, not fear of chemotherapy, but fear of chemicals). Any ingredient with a scary chemical-y sounding name is to be shunned in favor of 'natural' ingredients. Chemophobia takeaways include such gems as propylene glycol and isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol are antifreeze, margarine is 'only one molecule away from plastic!', there's an ingredient in Subway's bread that used in making yoga mats, and Starbucks uses bugs in making its drinks that have any red in them (this last one is actually true - the main ingredient in the natural red dye used in Starbucks' drinks comes from the Peruvian cochineal bug, but they no longer use it).

'X is only one molecule away from Y' claims simply don't make any logical sense. Scientifically speaking, even the slightest variation in molecular structure can make a world of difference between substances. Methamphetamine, or 'meth', for example, is eerily similar in molecular structure to the over-the-counter decongestant ingredient pseudoephedrine. And it wouldn't make sense to argue that hydrogen peroxide is perfectly drinkable because the only difference between it and water is one oxygen atom. There may be lots of good reasons NOT to use margarine, but claiming it's one molecule away from plastic is just silliness.

The decidedly unscientific "this ingredient is used in X and it's in your Y" schtick is also common in the chemophobia crowd. However, the fact that a chemical which is found in or added to food, cosmetics, shampoo is used for certain purposes tells us nothing about whether it is a hazard when used for other purposes. Under this same logic, I could make a Facebook meme that would be sure to go viral: "There's Drano in your eye drops!" If you look closely at

the label on the right, you'll see that both sodium hydroxide and hydrochloric acid are indeed listed on the ingredient label of these eye drops. The two active ingredients in Drano are sodium hydroxide (also known as lye) and sodium hypochlorite (bleach). So why aren't all eye drop users blind? Sodium hydroxide and hydrochloric acid are used in eye drops in very minute amounts to adjust the pH level so that the drops do not irritate the eye. Incidentally, sodium hydroxide is listed on the ingredient labels of two products revered by crunchies everywhere: Dr. Bronner's castile soaps and ALL of the all-natural, handcrafted bar soaps found at farmer's markets. Sodium hydroxide is also used in making traditional bavarian pretzels!

I do think there are chemicals in some commercial laundry soaps that are not environmentally friendly, cause skin irritation, and may possibly be carcinogenic. But fear of ALL chemicals is not the answer. Better, safer detergents and more efficient machines are the solution, not DIY laundry soap. Especially because DIY laundry soap not only doesn't work, but it can eventually damage your clothes and even your machine.

Why don't homemade laundry detergents work as well as commercial detergents? Read on! Looking at the Sinner circle, we see that if the 'chemical' section of the pie chart is greatly reduced, temperature, time, and mechanics would have to increase in order to provide the same level of cleanliness provided by a given commercial detergent. If you used NO LAUNDRY SOAP AT ALL, you would still get a load of laundry that appears to be cleaner, simply due to the action of the water in the washing machine and the machine's agitation. It's sort of like the placebo effect - it seems like it's working because you think it is. But the same effect would be achieved if you used NO SOAP AT ALL! That's the reason there are folks that swear by their homemade soap, even though it's not doing anything at all.

Most homemade laundry detergent recipes suggest using only 1-3 tablespoons per load of laundry. But when we look at the recipes, very little of the mixture is soap (the other ingredients are actually water softeners) - the shredded soap is the only actual cleaning agent. When using 1 to 3 tablespoons of the mixture, only a teeny tiny amount of the ingredient that might actually clean your clothes ends up in the machine. Would using more soap mean cleaner clothes? Maybe, but problem is that using say, a cup or more of soap would cause the residues from soap to build up on the clothes and the machine itself more quickly. This still happens when you use only 1 to 3 tablespoons, but it takes a lot longer to notice. Again, this is why people will remain faithful to their homemade soap for months (or even years) - using so little of the homemade recipe produces less build-up that doesn't show up right away.

But what happens to clothing fibers washed with DIY soap? Over time, clothing fibers are coated with buildup that is initially impossible to see. Laundry buildup happens when any type of matter becomes lodged in the fibers of your laundry because it isn't fully rinsed away. Minerals in household water, like magnesium and calcium, react with the soap in DIY laundry soaps to produce a build up (we know it as 'soap scum'). Only true soap makes soap scum; commercial surfactants and detergents do not produce soap scum. Households with harder water will notice the ineffectiveness and buildup of DIY laundry soap sooner than households with softer water. This further explains why some people continue to swear by their DIY recipe (for now) - they may have softer water.

Homemade laundry detergents also do not have stain-fighting enzymes. The human body produces enzymes to help break up and digest starches, fats, and proteins - enzymes in laundry detergent essentially do the same thing. Laundry detergent enzymes help to break up and remove stains from blood, grass, oil, starches, and more. In fact, the presence of enzymes can make for a safer, more environmentally friendly laundry detergent! By reducing harsh surfactants and cleaning chemicals due to the presence of enzymes, detergent producers can deliver better cleaning performance using less water, energy and effort.

Still not convinced that homemade soap doesn't work? Do a Google search on stripping laundry after washing with homemade laundry detergent. If you've been using homemade laundry detergent for a long time, you can even go a step further and strip your laundry at home. The results will assuredly surprise you!

(Note: For a more in-depth discussion about product safety, be sure to check out our report 'Separating Fact from Hype: Cleaning and Personal Care Product Safety').

There are many personal care products and cleaning supplies that are great to DIY that can be just as effective as store-bought products. Unfortunately, laundry detergent isn't one of them.

What's the Difference Between a Front-Loading and Top-Loading Machine?

Top load washers are usually cheaper, and that's why they're usually found in rental apartments, commercial uses, and short-term living situations. Front-loading machines use significantly less water and less energy per wash cycle for the same cleaning results as a standard top-load agitator washer, but take longer to wash clothes. Make sense - if we look at the Sinner circle, we see that using less water and energy means that another factor (time) has to increase to produce the same level of cleanliness.

Front load machines also impart much less wear and tear on clothing than their top loading counterparts. The reason: the lack of the central agitator that top load washers have (the central agitator is the large central post in the machine with wide rubber fins that spins in a quick and halting pattern during the wash cycle). That agitator can catch stray threads and slowly rip clothes apart; the gravity-aided tumble wash of front load units, however, is much gentler on clothes.

Front load washing machines are built for efficiency. They can use one-third the amount of water, energy, and detergent when compared with top loaders. So while the initial investment is higher, the efficiency of this washer will save money every month on energy, water, and shopping bills.

Front loaders also require fewer repairs on major parts partially because they use gravity to toss clothing instead of using the central agitator featured in top load machines. The agitator is tougher on the hardware of the machine. Top load washers also have more parts, which means more parts that can break. And front-loading machines make far less noise during the spin cycle than top-loading machines.

So, a top-loading machine is initially less expensive and has a shorter wash cycle (reference the Sinner circle) as compared to a front-loading machine, but it's clear that the front-loading machine is the better bet if your budget will allow it. One more thing that bears mentioning - the door on a front load washer needs to stay closed so all the water doesn't come out, which means you can’t make any last-minute additions to the load once it starts!

Is Cold Water Washing Effective?

Modern innovations in detergent formulations and in washing machine mechanics have greatly improved the efficiency of cold water washing. As illustrated in the Sinner circle, reducing temperature means another part of the circle has to increase - better chemistry and better mechanics can mean less energy use.

According to Consumer Reports, 'Even though they use less water, newer washers are much better at cleaning than the top-loaders with a center agitator made 15 years or more ago. Manufacturers have been lowering wash temperatures over the years to meet the Department of Energy’s tough energy standards for hot water use. Heating water accounts for about 90 percent of the energy needed to run a washer, according to Energy Star, so the less hot water used, the more energy saved.' In a nutshell, colder water works better nowadays than it used to. Detergents have gotten much better at putting enzymes to work in removing dirt and stains at lower water temperatures, and can even be LESS effective at higher temperatures.


  • Homemade laundry soap is just as effective as using no soap at all and certainly does not remove stains as well as enzyme-enriched commercially available products

  • Front-loading machines use less water and energy and cause less damage to clothing. They are initially more expensive but save money in the long-run.

  • Improvements in modern detergents and washing machines mean that washing in cold water is much more effective than in the past.


Boston Appliance: Front Load Versus Top Load Washers

Consumer Reports: Don't Bother Using Hot Water to Wash Your Laundry

For the Love of Clean: Why We Don't Recommend Homeade Detergent

American Cleaning Institute: Technical Brief: Benefits of Using Cold Water for Everyday Laundry in the U.S.

Stamminger, R. (2010). - “Reinigen”, in Lebensmittelverarbeitung im Haushalt, aid-Verlag, U. Gomm (ed.). aid-Infodienst, Bonn. (978-3-830°8-0851-0).

A.I.S.E. (2013). The Case for the “A.I.S.E. Low Temperature Washing Initiative. Substantiation Dossier, October 2013. I prefer 30o campaign. Retrieved from

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