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DIY: Make Your Own Enzymatic Laundry Detergent

In a previous article, our man Tyler investigated the efficacy of various DIY laundry detergents. What he found was that none of them performed as well as the store-brand, or our standardized testing detergent. But that was to be expected, since they lacked one very important component: enzymes. In this Science Blog post, we rectify that oversight by making our own enzymatic laundry detergent, and find out whether it's worth the effort.

Making enzymes is pretty easy—so easy that we do it all day every day, completely unconsciously. Our cells are constantly pumping proteins and enzymes into themselves and the space around them to perform various tasks. The problem is that those enzymes are all relatively inaccessible if you want to use them outside your body. Your stomach is full of enzymes that could be used to break down the food stains on your dirty shirts, but there's no way to get them from your stomach into the dishwasher.

(Okay, maybe there's one way, but it's distinctly un-appetizing.)

So, you need to find a way to make enzymes without using your own cells, which is a much more difficult prospect. Enzymes are not alive, in the sense that they don't reproduce by themselves, so you can’t grow them. Making them by assembling amino acid chains is also pretty much out of the question, due to cost and degree of difficulty. As it turns out, the most efficient way of making enzymes in large amounts is by using nature’s enzyme factory: yeast.

Yeast under the microscope.

Humans and yeast have had a symbiotic relationship for millennia: We give them carbohydrates and they give us alcohol, vinegar, and carbonation. But yeast also makes something else during its proliferation: enzymes.

All that sugar and starch needs to be digested, and without a stomach, the only way yeast can break it down is by excreting digestive enzymes into its environment and harvesting the broken-down components. It is those digestive enzymes we're after, and to get to them, we need just four things: yeast, yeast food (sugar, in this case), dietary supplements, and time.

4 simple ingredients that you may already have in your home: orange peels, dry yeast, brown sugar and water.

We prepared our yeast culture by adding five tablespoons of brown sugar, a packet of dry yeast, and the rinds of three oranges to an empty 1L Erlenmeyer flask and filling it to the shoulder with tap water. After two weeks in a dark, cool spot we removed the particulates using a coffee filter. What was left was a yellowy brown, vinegar-smelling solution of pure enzyme power. Or so we hoped.

Flask after.jpg
After two weeks of fermentation, the enzymatic cleaner is cloudy with yeast and chock full of enzymes.

In order to test the efficacy of our home-brewed enzyme concoction, we decided to pit it against our standard detergent and the same washing machine testing strips we use during our washing machine testing routine. We added just a half cup of the enzyme mix to the test loads and ran it on the normal cycle; then we ran the same test using our standardized detergent.

After analyzing the spectra of the dried stain strips, we were able to compare performance in stain removal. Not surprisingly, our standardized, commercially available detergent won the overall head-to-head comparison. Still, we have to qualify that result with "...but not by much."

There was virtually no difference in performance when it came to removing cocoa and red wine stains from our test strips. In the case of the carbon/motor oil stain, the homemade detergent actually slightly outperformed the standard detergent. Only the sebum and bloodstains proved problematic for the homemade detergent; just enough so that the defending champion gets to keep his belt. However, this is an incredibly strong showing for something we put together from a total of five bucks worth of groceries.

Based on our data, homemade enzymatic detergent is quite good especially when dealing with food-based stains, which are likely to be the most common ones you come across. The question then becomes: Is this worth it? The answer here is a resounding "It depends!" The ingredients are cheap, the process is not too messy or unpleasant, and you can brag to your friends that you make your own laundry detergent. The only issue here is time.

Making this stuff takes at least two weeks, which means that if you don’t plan properly and end up running out, you may have to fall back on the store-bought stuff anyway. If you do find it worth your time and effort to make DIY detergent, definitely go with this one... now with Extra Enzyme Power.


If you want to make your own enzyme cleaner, here's the recipe we used:

- Container
- 5 tbsp brown sugar
- 1 packet dry active yeast
- Rinds of 3 oranges
- 1L tap water

1. Combine all ingredients, then incubate for two weeks in a dark, cool place. Do not cover your container tightly—it could explode.
2. After two weeks, filter out particulates using a kitchen funnel and coffee filter paper (the coarser, the better).
3. Use enzymes immediately, or refrigerate for up to a month.

Photos: Flickr user "TheJCB" (CC-BY-SA-3.0)
Recipe via: One Good Thing By Jillee