Back to Basics: Fels-Naptha

Happy 2010 and welcome back to another edition of “Back to basics,” a series of posts where I feature old-school (gotta love the retro packaging) household products that have stood the test of time for good reason: they’re often cheaper, more effective, and more planet-friendly than chemical-heavy modern concoctions.

I thought I’d start off 2010 on a thrifty note with Fels-Naptha, an often overlooked and under-stocked bar laundry soap that’s been around for more than 100 years. Manufactured by Dial since 1988, petite yet potent Fels-Naptha is most commonly used as a pre-stain treatment that lasts longer than remedies sold in giant plastic bottles. Not only is Fels-Naptha cost- and planet-conscious, it’s also highly effective particularly on stubborn, oily stains like lipstick, chocolate, baby formula and perspiration.

Grated Fels-Naptha is also a staple in homemade laundry detergent recipes along with 20 Mule Team Borax (Fels-Naptha’s sibling product in the 1890s) and Arm & Hammer Washing Soda. It’s said that one bar of Fels-Naptha can help make a year’s worth of laundry detergent. Talk about cost efficient....

And like any good “Back to basics” product, Fels-Naptha is extremely versatile. It can be used to remove soap scum in bathrooms, clean paintbrushes, sooth bug bites, treat poison ivy, oak, and sumac rashes, and when used in combination with other natural ingredients, a Fels-Naptha-based tonic helps keep bugs and weeds at bay in gardens. And here’s an interesting tidbit: it’s rumored that in the 1920s and 30s, jumbo-sized Fels-Naptha was the preferred type of soap used by mothers when “washing out the mouths” of potty-mouthed children.

It must be noted that Fels-Naptha isn’t environmentally flawless. As one point, it contained a key petrochemical ingredient, Stoddard Solvent, and continues to contain artificial colors and fragrances. And, like most household cleaning and laundry products, Fels-Naptha can irritate the skin and eyes when overused. So please, even though it’s a bar soap, don’t take showers with the stuff.

Fels-Naptha can be purchased from online retailers like and the fabulous, informative Soaps Gone Buy. It can also be found at most home improvement and grocery stores (sometimes it’s misplaced in the body soap section instead of the household/laundry aisle so be sure to look around).

Have you used Fels-Naptha in the laundry room or for various tasks around the house, particularly in the laundry room, and garden? What have your experiences with it been?

Photos/Images: Pattyanne:made (top), Joan Thewlis (bottom)