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I remember my heart sinking in a French supermarket as I looked for Ecover washing powder. The small store boasted aisles of detergents, fabric softeners, bleaches and Lord-knows-what-else but nothing truly environmentally ‘considerate’*.

Wartime privations

The plethora of products available would have stunned my wartime peers. Due to extreme shortages of animal and vegetable fats, soaps (of all types) were rationed in the United Kingdom from 1942. As the level of rationing would probably shock modern sensibilities, I thought I would share it in full.

From 1942 to 1950 each person received four soap coupons per month to meet all their cleaning needs, from personal hygiene to the dishes! By the end of the war one coupon would get you one of the following:

4oz** hard soap (for scrubbing);
3oz toilet soap (for washing hands);
1/2oz liquid soap;
6oz soft soap (for washing hair);
3oz soap flakes (for soaking delicates); or
6oz soap powder (for regular laundry).

And forget about any fancy soap products, face washes, shampoos, bubble baths…!

These rations are brutal, even with the economies of scale in a larger household, but reading about them prompted me to wonder about my own soap usage, including in the laundry department.

Eking out the washing powder

Until earlier this year I used Ecover washing powder. It comes in 3kg boxes and claims to do 40 loads, working out at 75g per load. On that basis, one coupon would equal just over two loads of washing per month! Of course, I got considerably more than the recommended number of loads out of a box, as I am sure resourceful wartime women would have done too. How…?

I gleaned many important lessons from my mother. For one, a healthy degree of scepticism about almost all marketing information, but also that suds do not equal clean. My mother was still of a generation that believed cleanliness was next to godliness, so she was hardly sloppy where hygiene was concerned! However, she also believed in elbow grease and knew that a bit scrubbing or agitation gets things clean. Having grown up with London’s hard water she fully acknowledged that adding something to soften the water was helpful but in her experience a tablespoon of laundry powder with a dash of soda crystals (washing soda) was plenty for most washes.

I have perpetuated my mother’s habits, eking out the more expensive Ecover powder with a spoon of soda crystals. For whites or dish clothes I also used some borax# for its bleaching and degreasing properties, but the three powders never amounted to 75g of powder per load! And so my laundry powder practice remained until recently.

Mixing my own

In Paris I came across Marius Fabré’s excellent Savon de Marseille (Marseille soap), a soap containing at least 72% olive oil. Marius Fabré goes one better than most manufacturers. Its range includes a soap made only of olive oil and lye. A natural soap without palm oil## is very rare so before leaving France, I invested in a couple of kilos. (Yes, eyebrows were raised!) I have since found a UK supplier and now use this soap for everything from showering to hand washing my delicates… until earlier this year that is.

Three of my key laundry products

Three of my key laundry products

One day I ran out of washing powder and needed to turn a pile of undies and teeshirts round quickly. As needs must, I grated some Marseille soap into a bowl, mixed in a little borax and soda crystals and popped a tablespoon of the mixture into the washing machine drawer. The result was a revelation. The clothes smelt fresh, looked whiter than ever and felt softer than before… What is more, the washing powder drawer had never been cleaner!

After further research I tinkered with the ‘recipe’ and concluded that for my water area a powder made of four parts grated soap to two parts each of borax and soda crystals seems to work a treat. To my satisfaction I recognise every ingredient in this homemade laundry powder (with a little help from my trusty Oxford Dictionary of Chemistry) and as the ingredients are few and limited to naturally occurring elements, the detergent involves less manufacturing than an ‘eco-friendly’ washing powder that contains over a dozen ingredients. What is more, a kilo of my homemade powder costs a fraction of 3kg of Ecover powder and lasts just as long.

Detergents may only account for six to seven per cent of the embedded energy of a garment but thanks to home-mixed powder made of a few natural, biodegradable ingredients rather than a commercially produced ‘green’ detergent, my wardrobe’s footprint shrinks a little more. And by replacing fabric softener with an egg cup of cider vinegar, it is possible to shave even more embedded energy off my clothes, at no extra cost or effort!


Common sense warning

Although borax and washing soda are naturally occurring minerals, they are highly alkaline and the latter is corrosive, so please be sensible when handling them. Wear gloves, use designated/non-food spoons and containers and keep both out of the reach of children and pets.

* A truly environmentally friendly washing detergent is hard to find. E.g. whilst Ecover washing powder is free of phosphates (i.e. a chemical that causes excess algae in watercourses and depletes oxygen available for other aquatic life), the company cannot guarantee that its powder does not contain surfactants derived from palm oil. Some advocate soap nuts but from what I have read, these work better at higher temperatures, which requires more energy.

**1oz equals 28g.

# Recently I had to switch to borax substitute, a salt derived from bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) and soap crystals, following changes in EU legislation due to borax’ mildly toxic nature.

## Palm oil is a cheap vegetable fat but an increased ‘demand’ for this oil has led to much of the deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. This oil is everywhere in cleaning, hygiene and food products but it is very difficult to avoid it as, in the European Union at least, manufacturers are not obliged to list palm oil as an ingredient.

  • Lucy December 5, 2013, 8:37 pm

    Ah yes. Marseille soap. I read about it being used by someone for practically all their washing needs and found it hard to believe. Amazing sounding stuff. Who is your UK supplier?

    • Meg and Gosia December 5, 2013, 10:33 pm

      Labour & Wait in Shoreditch. It’s not cheap but we also use it for pretty much everything. Just don’t leave it in a watery soap dish as it is very soft!

  • jackiemania December 11, 2013, 12:30 pm

    Is there a benefit to using cider vinegar over white vinegar? I use white vinegar in cleaning and laundry, but am always refining my practices! I do have cider vinegar but use it mostly as a hair rinse and in food.

    Intrigued by the Marseille soap! Will start looking for a supplier in the US.

    • Meg and Gosia December 11, 2013, 6:53 pm

      I use white vinegar for cleaning but cider vinegar for the laundry as a lot of the ‘white’ vinegar in the UK is actually malt vinegar, which has a distinct “Fish & Chips” smell! Whilst the smell does dissipate, it does not do so as quickly as that of cider vinegar. My choice is driven by practicality (i.e. ease of adoption) rather than chemistry.

      Like you, I also use cider vinegar on my hair to avoid chemically ladened conditioners. The result is great but going to the hairdresser does involve UN-style negotiations to stop them dumping a load of shampoo and conditioner on my hair 😉

      • jackiemania December 11, 2013, 7:38 pm

        That’s funny about the malt vinegar — I have to go to a special grocer to get it here! I love it on roasted potatoes.

        I cut my hair and my husband’s hair — my grandmother used to cut my hair so then I took it over when she became sick so it never seemed like a big deal. Most people are surprised, though, and say they would be too afraid to cut their own hair. I have been to the hairdressers a few times and it makes me jumpy in a million ways since I’m not used to it!


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