Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A Soap Nuts Primer

Back in the 1960's, phosphates in commercial laundry detergent were turning our lakes scummy and green and were ruining the fragile Great Lakes ecosystem. Phosphates were banned in New York state in the early seventies and my mother frequently commented on that fact as I watched her doing the laundry. Thus, before I had started kindergarten, I understood that human activity can damage the beautiful world around us and that we must be stewards of our environment.

As the manager of my own household, I worried more about water usage, or the impact of laundry detergent containers than I did about the detergents themselves. We bought an HE washer and I dabbled in buying environmentally-friendly laundry brands, but they are so expensive and then somewhere along the way I became addicted to Tide. Tide of all things, the detergent my mother never would have bought, since it is expensive, overly-scented, and made by the evil Proctor & Gamble, but man, did I love a big load of freshly washed, Tide-smelling clothes. Unfortunately, modern laundry detergents are also bad for the environment.

When I heard about soap nuts I decided to give them a try. Soap nuts are the fruit of the Sapindus tree. The berries (or "nuts") contain a chemical called saponin, which acts as a soap. I ordered a bag from Amazon.



How does it work? The soap nuts come with a comprehensive instruction booklet. They're not difficult to use, but they do require some minor shifts in your laundry workflow. The way it works is that you put five or six soap nuts into a little muslin drawstring bag, and toss it in with your laundry. You can wash four to seven loads from the same set of nuts.

What about cold water wash or high efficiency machines? Soap nuts need to be thoroughly wet in order to release their saponin. If you wash with cold water, or if you have a high efficiency machine, you get better results if you pre-wet your nuts. To do that, you put your bag of nuts into a container and pour hot water over them, as if making tea. Let sit for a few minutes, then dump the "tea" and the nuts into the washer and start the load. I know, if you are used to expending absolutely no effort when adding detergent to your machine, this seems like a lot of work. I was a little annoyed myself at first, but I'm used to it now and it's fine. First of all, if you are doing multiple loads back-to-back, you only need to do the wetting process before the first load. I'm a tea-drinker so it has now become my habit to wet the soap nuts if I already happen to be making tea.

What's this muslin bag you keep mentioning? You can buy the muslin bags (sold separately), or you can make one yourself. I happened to have linen scraps, so I sewed one up. I was too lazy to construct a proper drawstring casing, so I just close it with an elastic hair tie. Easy!

But do they really clean your laundry? I was skeptical at first, but our clothes are just as clean after washing in soap nuts as they were using conventional detergent. At first, I did cautious loads of clothes that weren't particularly dirty. I thought I'd keep some conventional detergent on hand for things like workout clothes. Then I decided to put the soap nuts to a test. We have two washable area rugs in our house. There's a runner in the front hall and with  two dogs and all the rain we've had lately, it was easily the filthiest textile in my house. There's also a rug in the computer room that gets heavy wear. I took them both to the laundromat and washed the computer room rug with Tide and the runner with soap nuts. The soap nuts effectively cleaned the filthy runner. (Not to say it looked brand new, but it looked just as clean as it would look after I had washed it with conventional soap.) After that experiment, I started using soap nuts for all our laundry, even sweaty workout clothes. You will still need to pre-treat stains and you can use soap nuts with bleach. The instructions recommend a water softener such as borax if you have very hard water. The instructions discourage you from washing huge loads. I do keep a little Tide on hand, just in case, but I rarely use it. I never use fabric softener, but the instructions say that using soap nuts eliminates the need for it.

What do clothes smell like if you use soap nuts? They smell like clean cotton. Soap nuts do not impart a scent to your clothes, so if you require that they smell like a mountain meadow or an arctic breeze in order to believe that they're really clean, you might want to invest in a linen spray. Soap nuts themselves smell a bit like vinegar. Soap nuts do remove odors from clothes. In the early weeks, I sniffed our laundry before and after a wash, like some kind of laundry perv, so I have confirmed that they will remove odors, even from workout clothes. (Hint: you will catch a little shade at the laundromat if you stick your head into the machine where you just inserted a dirty rug and take a big whiff.)

Why not just buy one of the environmentally-friendly brands? Ah, but here is the huge advantage that soap nuts have over other detergents: they're cheap. I paid $18.95 for my soap nuts. After counting all the berries and assuming an average of five loads for each group of five berries, I calculated that I'd get 185 loads out of this bag, which works out to 10¢ per load. At Kroger, I compared the per-load price of various brands of liquid, powder, and pod detergents. I came up with an average of 24¢ per load. I used Amazon to compare the per-load price of environmentally-friendly brands like Method, 7th Generation, and Ecos, and came up with an average price of 40¢ per load.

How do you know when your nuts need to be replaced? I just wet the bag and squeeze it. If I see suds, I know the nuts are still good. They never make a lot of suds though. When they're spent, you can compost them. I sometimes toss mine out the window. Also, no plastic bottle to recycle. They come packaged in a cotton bag. There's also the cardboard box they were shipped in, but if you can find them locally, you don't even have to worry about the box.

Do you have to remove the soap nuts from the washer before the rinse cycle starts? No. I leave mine in for the entire wash cycle and there is no residue on our clothes.

Travel use. I realized soap nuts would be great to take along when you travel. We always do our own laundry when we travel and some of the places we've rented have provided laundry detergent and others haven't. Also, buying laundry detergent in non-English speaking countries can be confusing, as I learned in Rome. Pack a handful of soap nuts and you'll never need to spend several Euros on something that turns out to be fabric softener.



Have any of you tried soap nuts? What has your experience been? I've only been using them for a month or so, but I'm happy enough with them that I plan to continue to use them.

15 comments:

  1. Interesting. I've done a little bit of research into breaking our dependence on Tide, but have realized I'm not entirely up for making my own laundry soap.
    Do you have a front loader? I do, which is why I ask. I'm wondering how they'd do with that. I already use vinegar rinse in lieu of fabric softener (which removes smells but doesn't leave clothes smelling like vinegar) and dryer balls in the the dryer when I put clothes in there (love my dryer balls, but I also love my clothes line), but am really interested in this soap nuts thing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have a top-loading high efficiency machine. I don't think using a front loader would be a problem. The machine at the laundromat where I washed my rug was a front loader. I guess if you were going to make the soap nuts tea, you'd just toss it into the clothes.

      Delete
    2. I also need to use my clothesline more. I used to use it religiously, but I've gotten out of the habit. My washing machine is on the top floor of my house, so to get out to the clothesline, I have to carry the heavy, wet clothes down two flights of stairs.

      Delete
  2. Okay, this sounds cool. But I don't understand how the rinse cycle isn't soapy!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I guess because they're so low-suds? The bag that I keep the nuts in does seem to be building up a residue of some sort, but at this point, a lot of my clothes have been washed with soap nuts multiple times and I don't notice a residue. When I used powdered detergent, my he machine never rinsed it off effectively and we sometimes had white streaks on our clothes.

      Delete
  3. Mind blown. I never heard of these before! They sound wonderful. I'm inspired to try. After the huge gallon of 7th Generation is used up, which in this house should only take 2 months.
    I <3 my clotheslines. And like you, I often wash back-to-back loads so the prewetting part doesn't faze me.
    Thanks for this!

    ReplyDelete
  4. You have introduced me to soap nuts, something entirely new to me. I will keep them in mind. We bought an HE front loading washer which is very water and power efficient.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It seems that they aren't as generally known in the US yet, although I learned about them from a facebook group I'm in, in which a lot of the women have been using them. When I followed the soapnuts hash tag on instagram, it seemed like most of the posts were from Europe, Australia, or New Zealand.

      Delete
  5. Interesting... I wonder if I can get my husband to try this, too. Like you (but unlike him) I have been caught being a laundry-perv, sniffing thoroughly to see if something has truly gotten clean.
    I grew up with Tide but we've been using inexpensive liquid detergent (scent-free, color-free). When it comes to my boys' stinky towels, I also do some extra washing with baking soda and a vinegar rinse.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Vinegar is a miracle substance. Our dishcloths sometimes develop an odor, no matter how they're washed. I found that soaking them in white vinegar, then pouring boiling water over them, and then washing as usual removes that sour dishcloth odor.

      Delete
  6. Just want you to know I placed my Soap Nuts order yesterday. Kind of excited to try them out!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great! Enjoy! As I said above, though you definitely need to pre-treat stains.

      Delete
  7. Finally got around to using my soap nuts (I got them in June), and they are amazing. Larry is acting as though I am making his life unnecessarily difficult, though...

    ReplyDelete