The best all-purpose detergent powder
August 7, 2011 10:45 AM   Subscribe

What's an inexpensive powdered detergent that I can use for dishes, laundry, and scrubbing sinks?

Searching Google for `all-purpose detergent' brings up tons of hits, but they're mostly manufacturer websites which say "Our product works perfectly for everything!" So let me explain what I'm looking for, and get some real advice.

I'd like a powdered detergent, since I find them easier to measure out. Something I can buy in a big box, for not too much money, and just use for all my washing needs. It shouldn't add scent, because I don't want lemon-fresh dishes. It doesn't have to foam impressively. Just something that removes grease and dirt without being dangerously harsh and toxic.

When I was living in a hostel in India, we washed our dishes with some sort of detergent powder. We took a wet scouring pad and sprinkled a little detergent powder on it, then scoured the dish and rinced it clean. The powder seemed just like the 'washing powder' that I was washing my clothes with. It made me wonder why, here in North America, I use laundry detergent for laundry, dishwasher detergent for dishes in the dishwasher, liquid dish soap for dishes in the sink, cleanser for scouring sinks clean, and on and on. I should have asked what detergent the Indians were using, but I didn't think of it.

If anyone is using a box of detergent powder to clean lots of different things, and likes the results, please let me know what it is and where I might get it.
posted by Net Prophet to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Not an answer, but I'd like to know what folks think of 20 Mule Team Borax as an all-purpose cleaner (company linky, and it has that 'too-good-to-be-true' feel about it). I've often seen it, but have never purchased. Will be watching the answers here with interest.
posted by MonkeyToes at 10:53 AM on August 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, my first thought was borax powder. It can do just about...anything. I'm not sure it would be a very good laundry detergent on its own, though. You'd probably want to mix with some soap flakes or the like (I add it along with detergent in my washer.)

Past that, it can do a lot. Heck, I've used it to effectively ward off ants that were sneaking by a French door I have.
posted by Fortran at 10:57 AM on August 7, 2011

Borax is great for getting stains out, but it's a skin irritant, so if you're using to for dishes you'd need to wear gloves. Which can be a pain.
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:01 AM on August 7, 2011

Baking soda
posted by rabidsegue at 11:07 AM on August 7, 2011

Dirtex or Perfex. Sold in hardware stores. Washes dishes walls floors and laundry. Even at its strongest you only use about a tablespoon of powder per gallon. About two tablespoons per washer load.
posted by yesster at 11:10 AM on August 7, 2011

Mix 1 cup of borax, one cup of washing soda (this is different from baking soda) and one bar of grated soap. Stir it up. Stir some more. Store in a pretty jar, or a 16 oz yogurt tub.

Use one tablespoon in laundry or dishwasher. Use liberally for scrubbing grubby sinks and floors.

Does not get super sudsy, so it's great in HE machines too.

And it's dirt cheap.
posted by bilabial at 11:17 AM on August 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Charlie's Soap.
posted by cabingirl at 11:40 AM on August 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

I love Charlie's Soap, but only if you're doing laundry at home. It will clean the petrochemical residue out of the inside of the washing machine, and if you're doing wash at the laundromat that means you have lots of residue on your clothes. Otherwise, it rocks.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 11:52 AM on August 7, 2011

Please do not use Borax to do your dishes. Borax is listed as a poison, fungicide and pesticide.
From the National Institute of Health:
The infant death rate from boric acid poisonings is high. However, boric acid poisoning is considerably rarer than in the past because the substance is no longer used as a disinfectant in nurseries. It is also no longer commonly used in medical preparations.

I wouldn't even use it to clean. If you're using borax because you want a "green cleaner" here's what the Environmental Working Group says: Read more here but in short: "Borax can be irritating when exposure occurs through skin or eye contact, inhalation or ingestion. Poison reports suggest misuse of borax-based pesticides can result in acute toxicity, with symptoms including vomiting, eye irritation, nausea, skin rash, oral irritation and respiratory effects. Toddlers and young children face special risks from hand-to-mouth transfer of carpet or crack and crevice, dust or spray borax treatments.

Hormone disruption. Borax and its cousin, boric acid, may disrupt hormones and harm the male reproductive system. Men working in boric acid-producing factories have a greater risk of decreased sperm count and libido. According to EPA's safety review of these pesticides, chronic exposure to high doses of borax or boric acid causes testicular atrophy in male mice, rats and dogs.

posted by hellochula at 12:02 PM on August 7, 2011

Doesn't Oxyclean do all these things? I've used it for dish and clothes washing.
posted by thylacine at 12:47 PM on August 7, 2011

Feel free to clean with borax. It is toxic if consumed in quantity, but so is table salt.
posted by Maximian at 1:15 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I use Borax since I got Linda Cobb's book, Talking Dirty with the Queen of Clean. Borax is a great laundry additive, and I also use it to scrub the tub. The book has a good recipe for an all-purpose spray-cleaner using Borax, lemon juice, baking soda, dish detergent and water. I've saved many dollars making my own spray cleaner (and it's not so irritating to the nose).
posted by Koko at 1:50 PM on August 7, 2011

People wash their dishes with bleach... A lot of restaurants do this, in fact. I see no difference from borax.
posted by two lights above the sea at 1:54 PM on August 7, 2011

I don't know about some of this, but I will say that the dish soap you use in the sink and the stuff in the dishwasher is different for a reason. Using anything that lathers in the dishwasher can turn into a giant disaster very quickly.

Not that I once grabbed the Dawn instead of my liquid dishwasher detergent when I was on the phone and not paying attention or anything...
posted by gracedissolved at 1:54 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Indeed, don't snort or eat borax. Don't bathe yourself, pets, or children in it. Keep ALL cleaning supplies out of reach of children. Use clean water to Rinse all surfaces cleaned with cleaning agents.

Do not sprinkle borax in the cracks and crevices of your home, or leave dishes of it out.

1/3 of a tablespoon mixed up in x gallons of water and then rinsed out of the clothes does not constitute a high dose, for a mouse or a human.
posted by bilabial at 2:06 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes, dishwasher deterg is quite specific. It can be used to clean really greasy or dirty dishes; it's gritty and bleach-y and very strong. I've used cheap powdered laundry detergent to clean floors, tubs, and dishes, but it really needs to be rinsed, so it's best in a pinch. I'm a minimalist when it comes to household products, and I use laundry deterg, dish soap (cheap, so it can be used freely), and PineSol for floors and general cleaning. I like the smell of pine cleaner, and pine oil is a natural disinfectant. Blue spray for windows and glossy surfaces (fridge) and Comet for scrubbing (tub).
posted by theora55 at 3:29 PM on August 7, 2011

Best answer: My first job was at an A&W restaurant, and we used industrial Tide for cleaning everything.

By everything, I mean greasy trays, sinks, un-dishwashable cups, fry baskets, kitchen utensils, freezer lids, rags, and so on. We used it to mop the floor - mop, scrub, rinse with clear water. It worked well on almost everything and was not as toxic or expensive as other specialty soaps. I liked how it handled, too.

We added a splash of bleach when we needed disinfecting power or more cleaning power.

Here is an even more bulk/industrial/better suited product from AJAX. Uses like yours specified on the box.

It would not work as a dishwasher detergent, but it did everything else you want to do. It's cheap in bulk. I wouldn't recommend pure Borax as above, because of the aforementioned toxicity issues, but you can pick almost any scentless detergent and buy in industrial quantities - you won't need to buy again for years.

FWIW, I've found the world of detergents and soaps to be full of weird woo-woo greenwashing language. There's all kinds of enviro-soapy, for-sensitive-skin-y stuff that is extraordinarily expensive and not particularly effective - some of it even being a little dangerous, like pure borax. My Dad is a retired chemist/water quality analyst and we've spent a lot of time talking over all these labels, ingredients, surfactants, perfumes, etc... and the woo-foo stuff is just loaded with weasel words and chemical euphemism. Which is not to say that the whole thing is bunkum, but it should be taken very cautiously. There is something to be said for the industrial-class stuff and the approach you're taking, especially since you can often get MSDS on them - straightforward information on the ingredients and toxicity that you can see for yourself.

Furthermore, it is common to see soaps of this kind in small packages in Hispanic and middle-eastern markets, at least in LA and SF, where I've been the last year or so. But they are much less common in Whole Foods or Trader Joes. So instead of searching online, or in standard grocers, you may have much better luck just swinging by a local "ethnic" market and looking at what they sell in the laundry section. There's often matching bar soap designed for laundry, too. Dollar stores even have their own brands of the stuff.
posted by fake at 4:58 PM on August 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

20 Mule Team Borax is pretty much good at all the things it says it is. I use it primarily for general household cleaning as opposed to using it to wash dishes or laundry. I also use it to clean the toilet bowl so I don't have to get a special "toilet bowl cleaner," and I use it to clean mildew off my bathtub mat. I like using baking soda to clean kitchen surfaces like the refrigerator, stovetop, to get coffee build-up out of my travel mug, etc. It leaves behind no odor. I also like baking cookies and cakes with it.

As for toxicity, I think they're both fine as long as you don't actually eat or inhale them. (Baking soda can be toxic if abused too.) Wearing gloves while washing dishes isn't actually that much of a pain if you get nice gloves that don't make your hands stink.
posted by wondermouse at 7:27 PM on August 7, 2011

Nthing 20 Mule Team Borax. YMMV, but I've never reacted to Borax and I react to everything - I switched to Borax because I'm so sensitive to many cleaning products.
posted by _paegan_ at 5:52 AM on August 8, 2011

Your question inspired me to go back to my old powder-soap ways. At Target, I found "All Free/Clear powder detergent" which turned out to be, as far as I can see, exactly what you are looking for. It is great on dishes, sinks, floors, and everything else I've tried it on, even on greasy hands after the shop.

I do my dishes more often now. Thanks for bringing this up.
posted by fake at 5:12 PM on September 5, 2011

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