Emergency Laundry Detergent Alternatives

Laundry detergent substitutions
Illustration: Catherine Song. © The Spruce, 2018 

It's happened to most of us. You're out of clean underwear or you must have a certain piece of clothing washed immediately and you discover you're out of laundry detergent. And, of course, it's the middle of the night or you just can't get to a store. What can you do?

The best idea is to hand wash just the one thing you really must have (we'll get to hand washing detergent alternatives). But, if you need to do a larger load of dirty laundry in the washer, there are some safe alternatives for your usual detergent and tips you can use to eke out enough detergent for one more load.

Laundry Detergent Alternatives for Machine Washing

  1. Rinse Out the Detergent Bottle or Box: Fill your "empty" laundry detergent bottle with warm water; give it a good shake and empty it completely into the washer drum. You can do the same thing with an "empty" detergent powder box. You'll get enough product to do an average-sized load of essentials. Most of us use too much detergent anyway: a high-efficiency washer only needs two teaspoons of high-efficiency detergent. The cleaning action of the water and washer agitation will remove a great deal of soil especially if you pretreat stains. Be sure to follow the washing guidelines on the garment's care label and use the correct water temperature for the fabrics.
  2. Use Laundry Borax or Baking Soda: To enhance your last bit of detergent, add one-half cup of borax or baking soda. These products work as a detergent booster and will help get your clothes clean. Place the dry product directly in the washer drum before you add detergent, soiled clothes, and water.
    If you have no detergent at all, use one cup of borax or baking soda for a normal load. The clothing will be cleaner than you imagine thanks to the action of the cleaning agents, water, and the agitation from the washer. Again, pretreat stains before washing and use the warmest water temperature recommended for the garments.
  3. Oxygen-based Bleach: As a last resort when you have no laundry detergent, use one-half cup of powdered oxygen bleach instead. Add the powder to the empty washer drum before adding the dirty laundry and water.

3 Products to NEVER USE in a Clothes Washer

  • Automatic Dishwasher Detergent: Most automatic dishwasher detergents contain ingredients that are much harsher than laundry detergent and can cause fading and bleaching of colors. The ingredients can also leave residue in the fabrics that can irritate the wearer's skin.
  • Dishwashing Soap, Shampoo, Bubble Bath, or Body Wash: These products produce too many bubbles that will be difficult to remove during the rinse cycle. Using dishwashing soap in a high-efficiency washer can produce so many suds that they will overflow and harm the machine's electronics system and void the warranty.
  • Household Cleaners or Ammonia: Both of these products are too harsh for most fabrics and can be irritating to the skin. The cleaners also contain ingredients that can cause color loss and spotting on fabrics. Household cleaners can also contain sudsing ingredients that will damage a high-efficiency washing machine.

Detergent Alternatives for Hand Washing Clothes

If you are out of detergent and decide to simply wash a few items in the sink you have more options as alternatives for your regular detergent. It is much more simple to control suds in a sink or bathtub than in a washer because you can use much less of the substitute cleaner.

If the garment is heavily soiled, you'll get the best results if you allow it to soak for 30 minutes or longer in the cleaning solution. This gives the cleaning agent time to break down the soil in the fabric so you can rinse it away after some agitation.

Always add the alternative cleaner to the water to dissipate before adding clothes. Do not pour the cleaner directly on the fabrics to prevent spotting.

  • Shampoo
    When hand washing clothes, choose a gentle shampoo like baby shampoo. Do not use a combination shampoo and conditioner or one that tints hair. Use only one teaspoon for a bathroom sink full of water. Use more for a larger sink or several items.
  • Bar Soap
    As you know, there are several laundry bar soaps (Fels Naptha, Zote) that are used to treat stains. The laundry soaps or regular bath bars can be used for hand washing clothes by shaving a bit into hot water to melt or by rubbing key soiled areas with the bar. Choose bars that do not contain oils or skin softeners to prevent spotting.
  • Body Wash or Hand Washing Gels
    As with the recommendations for shampoo, use only a small amount and choose a wash without added moisturizers.
  • Hand Dishwashing Liquid
    In a real pinch, reach for the hand dishwashing liquid. Use the smallest amount possible and double check that the formula does not contain bleaching agents.