Soap has been around long before the need to whiten whites became a thing. Detergents that we know today that brighten and clean have been used around the home for just over 100 years. You can make your own soap or detergent at home for a nontoxic and effective cleaning agent.

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How Soap and Detergent Are Alike

Both soaps and detergents contain surfactants, also called surface active agents. These are compounds that have molecules that surround water molecules to break the surface tension of each and every drop of clean water. This allows the detergent to adhere to the fabric or surface you are trying to clean and mix with grease and water to wipe away grime.

The surfactants contain a combination of triglycerides, or fats, and alkalis. These create molecules with two chemical ends, hydrophilic and hydrophobic. The hydrophilic is attracted to water, while the hydrophobic is repelled by water.

The hydrophobic tends to do the hard work. It is the part that attaches to grease and oil and lifts it from the soiled surface. It bonds with dirt while the hydrophilic lines around them to remove the dirt from the item and moves it into the surrounding water to be rinsed away.

How Soap and Detergent Are Different

Soap chemistry is fairly simple and uses all-natural ingredients. Detergents use synthetic ingredients and became household cleaning go-to products during World War II. They were developed in response to the lack of oils available that were previously used to make soap.

Preparation of Soap

The soap sold on grocery store and beauty shop shelves today use organic and petroleum-based fatty acids paired with sodium or potassium hydroxides along with fragrances and oils. There are a few ways to make soap at home.

Saponification requires cooking the chosen fats and adding alkali to the mix to form soap via water and glycerin.

Hydrolyzation uses steam under pressure to split the fats and oils into fatty acids and glycerin. This process distills the acids, and the alkali neutralizes them. A pound of oil paired with 2 ounces of alkali, such as lye, and a cup of water can create about a half dozen bars of soap.

Preparation of Detergent

Preparation of detergent at home is a fairly easy project and creates an inexpensive yet effective cleanser.

  • 4 cups Castile soap or bars of soap with petroleum distillates (two to four bars)
  • 4 cups of washing woda
  • 4 cups of borax
  • 2 cups of baking soda
  • 10-20 drops of essential oil

Grate the bar of soap into a fine powder. You can also use a food processor or blender for this process. You may want to wear a mask. Boil the soap in a pot with just enough water to cover the fine soap particles. Once it has melted into a slick glob, pour it into a clean 5-gallon bucket, mix the washing soda, baking soda and borax and stir. Add enough water to fill the bucket and stir until it is well mixed. Leave it overnight before using it. If you are using essential oil, add it once the mix has cooled.

Gloves will ensure your skin doesn’t get irritated by the powdered detergents as you add them. Protective eyewear and a face mask are recommended as well.

Drawbacks of Both Soap and Detergent

Some may favor soap because it is made from completely natural ingredients, while others prefer detergent for its powerful cleaning action.

  • Soap – The natural ingredients can leave a film behind on some materials and surfaces. It can turn clothes dull and gray and leave a waxy-feeling residue. Hard water can make the soap less effective than detergent.

  • Detergent – Some detergents can be toxic if the residual water mixes with fish and wildlife habitats. Detergents prepared with biodegradable products such as liquid vegetable oil or Castile soaps are environmentally friendly. 

About the Author

Kimberley McGee

Kimberley McGee has written for national and regional publications, including People magazine, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Las Vegas Review-Journal and more. The award-winning journalist has covered home decor, celebrity renovations, and sat down with reality HGTV stars to discuss the latest trends.