I went in for allergy testing because I’d been experiencing increasing amounts of sneezing and congestion. I live in Oregon’s Willamette Valley—the land of pollen—so I assumed I was developing the typical pollen-based misery that some of my friends suffer through every year. However, it turned out I wasn't allergic to anything natural, including pollens and my pets (good news!). I discovered, however, that my symptoms were being caused by a chemical sensitivity (bad news!), and the allergist immediately pointed to my skin care, hair care, and laundry detergent as likely culprits.
The over-the-counter, scent-free, “natural” products I was using, weren’t “natural” enough. With this newly gathered enlightenment in hand, I started looking at botanically based, DIY body care products, and found some great ways that I can be pickier about what I’m putting on my skin. I had a harder time, though, finding a laundry soap replacement that did a good job. Hence my excitement about organic soap nuts!
What Are Soap Nuts?
Soap nuts actually aren’t a nut, they’re a berry that is harvested from trees that grow in the Himalayas. They are in the Sapindaceae, or soapberry, family, and they are related to lychee. However, when they dry, they form a hard shell that resembles a nut, thus the name.
Happily for us humans, the berries contain saponin, a natural surfactant that is released when the shell absorbs water. So when you throw soap nut shells into a load of laundry, the surfactant nature of the saponin breaks the surface tension of the water and penetrates the fibers of the material, lifting dirt, oils, and stains from your clothing to be rinsed away.
Soap nuts are very gentle and an ideal laundry solution for:
- People with skin conditions or sensitive skin
- People with chemical sensitivity
- Baby clothes, diapers, and bedding
How to Use Soap Nuts for Laundry
Only use deseeded soap nut shells, because the seed itself can stain fabric.
- Secure 4 to 6 organic soap nut shells in a cotton muslin bag (this is sufficient for one load of laundry).
- Knot the drawstring tightly or baste the bag closed to keep the soap nuts inside.
- Start your wash cycle.
- Put your clothes and the muslin bag in the washer.
- Wash as normal. So easy!
The wash water will smell a bit like apple cider, which makes my chemically-sensitive nose happy, but if you want a burst of fragrance, add a few drops of organic essential oils to the bag.
A bag of soap nuts can be reused several times before it “wears out.” If the soap nuts are mushy and gray, it’s time to compost the bag and start fresh.
Where Are the Suds?
You’ll notice that the soap nuts don’t produce the foam and soapy bubbles that you see with commercial cleansers. This doesn’t detract from their cleaning power. Those suds you’re used to seeing in your washing machine are generally produced by artificial foaming agents that don’t actually contribute to the cleaning ability of the product.
Not only do soap nuts work well in your laundry, the lack of artificially added foaming agents means this natural detergent is also easier on your septic and grey-water systems than traditional detergents.
- Try washing a single article of clothing before you commit to a whole load of laundry with soap nuts. Testing first is always a good policy.
- When your clothes are done, throw them in the dryer with a lavender sachet. To make the sachet, just fill a cotton muslin bag with organic lavender flowers and tie it tightly or sew it closed.