Depending on how long you’ve been reading this blog, you may have noticed that I mention a lot of the same household cleaners in my posts about cleaning and laundry solutions, including hydrogen peroxide, dish soap, vinegar, and others. These “usual suspects” (which you can read more about here) make up the majority of my favorite natural or green cleaning solutions. And if you keep them on hand like I do, you’ll always be prepared for whatever cleaning or laundry problem life can throw at you!
Among the cleaning ingredients that I use most frequently, there are three in particular that are easy to get confused: baking soda, washing soda, and borax. Back when I first started making my own cleaning and laundry products, I got them mixed up all the time (and not least because they all just look like white powder once you get them out of the box!)
But experience is often the best teacher, and after nearly a decade of making and using my own cleaning products, I now have a much better understanding of the characteristics that make baking soda, washing soda, and borax unique (and why they’re not necessarily interchangeable!) So I think it’s high time that I clarify those differences between these three cleaners here, so that you can feel more knowledgable about what they do and confident about putting them to good use around the house! 🙂
Note: Even though baking soda, washing soda, and borax are all different, rest assured that they are safe to combine. In fact, I add all three to the recipe for my favorite homemade laundry detergent, along with Fels-Naptha bar laundry soap!
The Differences Between Baking Soda, Washing Soda, And Borax, Explained
What Does Baking Soda Do?
Baking soda is the common name for sodium bicarbonate, a naturally occurring compound with the chemical formula NaHCO3. (If you’re like me and struggled in high school chemistry, don’t worry! I’m only including chemical formulas because they help show that each of these cleaning agents are unique in structure, and you definitely won’t be quizzed on them.) 😉
Baking soda has a pH of 8, and since 7 is neutral, it’s considered only slightly alkaline. It is often used in baking for both leavening and browning purposes, and it’s highly useful for cleaning too! You can use baking soda to absorb moisture, neutralize odors, scour surfaces, and more.
And in your laundry room, adding 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup of baking soda to your washing machine can help eliminate odors and break up detergent and fabric softener residues. It won’t pack quite the same punch as borax and washing soda (more on those shortly), but it’s the one you’re most likely to already have on hand!
To learn more about baking soda and how to use it, check out these posts from the OGT archives:
- 25 Impressive Uses For Baking Soda
- What You Need To Know About Cleaning With Baking Soda And Vinegar
- How To Fix Smelly Towels In 3 Steps
What Does Washing Soda Do?
Washing soda (sometimes called “soda ash”) is the common name for sodium carbonate, a naturally occurring compound with the chemical formula Na2CO3. With a pH of 11, washing soda is considered highly alkaline, similar to household ammonia and soapy water.
Adding washing soda to water creates a basic solution, and because of this, it’s really useful as both a laundry booster and cleaning agent. Basic solutions work to break down acidic, fatty, and oily substances, like the ones that lead to food stains and greasy messes.
Washing soda also helps to counter the effects of hard water in your washing machine. The minerals in hard water can hamper the performance of laundry detergents and stain removers, and prevent your clothes from getting properly clean. Because of its high pH level, washing soda can be caustic and irritating to skin, so make sure to handle it with care.
You can find store-bought washing soda in the laundry aisle—the Arm & Hammer brand is typically available at the grocery store and big box chains. (Or you might want to try the DIY version at home by putting baking soda in your oven at 400 degrees for 1 hour!)
And to learn more about washing soda and other uses for it, check out these posts from the OGT archives:
- 11 Helpful Household Uses For Washing Soda
- How To Make Your Own Washing Soda
- How To Make A DIY Grease-Cutting Floor Cleaner
What Does Borax Do?
Borax is the common name for sodium tetraborate, a naturally occurring mineral with the chemical formula Na2B4O7⋅10H2O. Borax has a pH of 9.5, placing it roughly halfway between baking soda and washing soda on the pH scale.
Unlike baking soda and washing soda, borax is mined instead of manufactured. The majority of household borax comes from dried lakes in California and Turkey, and popular brands like 20 Mule Team Borax advertise it primarily as a laundry booster.
Because borax is alkaline and forms a basic solution in water, it offers many of the same laundry benefits as washing soda, making it another worthy addition to homemade laundry detergent. But there is one difference worth noting: borax doesn’t dissolve very well in anything other than hot water. So if you normally prefer to wash your clothes in cold or warm water, you may want to use washing soda instead.
To learn more about how to use borax, read these posts from the OGT archives:
- 27 Handy Uses For Borax You Ought To Know
- How To Wash And Whiten Your Yellowed Pillows
- How To Strip Your Laundry
Do you use baking soda, washing soda, or borax at home?
Make Your Own Washing Soda
- 4 cups baking soda
- Spread four cups baking soda out onto a cookie sheet in an even layer.
- Preheat your oven to 400°F, then bake the baking soda for 1 hour. The heat of the oven will cook water and carbon dioxide off of the sodium bicarbonate, leaving sodium carbonate (AKA washing soda) behind!
- Allow the washing soda to cool after baking it, then transfer it to an airtight container for storage. If you compare your homemade washing soda with baking soda side by side, you’ll notice the washing soda feels a bit grainy compared to the silky smooth baking soda.