Just one thing (soap nuts)

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A month or two ago I decided to share a semi-regular post about "just one thing" I'm trying to do to lessen my impact on the world around me. Living in a more sustainable and considered manner is important to me, but I'm realistic about how difficult it is to make wholesale changes in life... let alone to drag others along for the ride if they're not on the same page. 

Last time I wrote about our family's adoption of beeswax wraps to replace cling-wrap in our house, and those are still going really well. 

In this post, I wanted to talk about a relatively-new discovery of mine: soap nuts. 

Soap nuts are actually dried berries. They have a very high percentage of saponin, a chemical compound found in a number of plants, and it is great for cleaning. Saponins remove dirt and oil from clothing when used with water (and the soap nuts even lather up like "real soap"). 

So about three months ago, I started to replace the laundry detergent we use with soap nuts. I was keen to find an alternative to our regular laundry detergent, for a number of reasons. (A number of reasons which I managed to make all start with the letter P, because that's how I get my kicks and clearly I need to get out more): 

PERSON: My son Ralph and I both have skin irritations to a number of laundry detergent brands. Apparently this is a common response to two rather toxic ingredients frequently found in laundry detergents: sodium laurel sulphates (used to makes bubbles and foam, but can strip the skin of its moisturising protective barrier); and zeolites (which enhance the lathering effect of laundry detergents, but commonly cause skin irritations). 

PREVENTION: A lot of commercial laundry detergents contain synthetic fragrances. Again, Ralph is prone to allergies, eczema and dermatitis, so avoiding petrochemicals and other nasties in the clothes that wrap him all day long is quite appealing to me. 

PLANET: The high sodium levels and alkaline pH levels in laundry detergents can be toxic to plants and waterways. Also, a number of commercial laundry detergents are tested on animals, and I'm keen to avoid that if at all possible. Soap nuts, on the other hand, are low irritant, not tested on animals (duh), and can be put into the compost after use. 

PRICE: A 500 gram bag of soap nuts cost me less than $30 to buy, and lasts approximately 200 washes. 

The first time I tried soap nuts, I admit to being verrrrry skeptical. It just didn't seem likely that a handful of sticky berries could make an entire load of laundry clean and fresh. So I decided to apply the most stringent test I know: Mr B's Nose. 

If Mr B has a super-power, it is his nose. The man can catch a wiff of something out-of-place in a room or on a person at 20 paces. Admittedly, Mr B is yet to learn how to fully hone his superpower. He's great at detecting smells, but not so great at identifying them. Exhibit A: Mr B walks into the playroom, sniffs the air, and announces "Oh no, I think the cat did a poo in here!" I produce a vase of fresh flowers and ask, "Is this what you smell?" Mr B looks relieved. "Oh yes, that's it."

But I digress. Bearing in mind Mr B's super-nose, I decided to replace our regular laundry detergent with soap nuts, without telling him. When the clothes were dry I inspected them for dirty marks (there were none), and sniffed them (they smelled fresh to me). But the true test was yet to come: I put them away in the drawers, and waited. 

I used the soap nuts to wash our next load of laundry, and the one after that. I washed, and I waited. 

My husband is not famous for holding back, so I knew that if at any stage he caught even the faintest waft of something not-quite-right, he'd complain. He didn't. When, after a month had passed without comment, I confessed my switch to Mr B. The response was a quizzically raised brow, but that was the sum of it. 

Some tips, in case you want to try soap nuts too

I've been using these little guys for about three months now, and here's what I've found: 

  • They're great for general washes, and get out dirt just as well as our laundry detergents. For each load, I put about four or five soap nuts into a little bag (which was supplied when I bought the soap nuts) 
  • I use cold water, and replace the soap nuts every three or four washes. Apparently you'll need to replace them more often if you use warm or hot water
  • They won't remove stains (a non-toxic tip I've learned is to dampen a stain with cold water, then cover it in bicarbonate of soda. Gently rub the bicarb soda paste into the stain, then leave it to soak in overnight. The next morning, rinse away the bicarb and then add the garment to your usual wash)
  • Soap nuts don't have 'whiteners' in them, so if you're looking for that 'light, bright' clean, you'll need to do some extra work. Apparently you can get this with vinegar, citric acid and other non-toxic products, but I haven't tried any of these yet so can't guide you on how they work
  • There are all kinds of other ways to use soap nuts, if you want to start experimenting. On the website for the brand of organic soap nuts that I own, there are recipes to use them to create a multi-purpose cleaner, cleansing bath, jewellery cleaner, shampoo, parasite prevention on plants, pet cleaner, and a hand-washing solution for delicates

So, that's my soap-nut story. How about you. Have you ever tried them? What are your experiences? 

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