Adventures With All-Natural Soap Nuts for Dishes, Clothes, Hair

Photo luce_beaulieu @ flickr.

We're addicted to suds. That was one of my conclusions over the last few months after trying to move to more natural forms of shampoo, body wash, dishwashing soap (non-machine) and especially, effective but gentle washing machine soap.

Looking for an all-in-one eco detergent
Previously I have been using four or five different cleaners - Ecover for the washing machine, Lush products for shampoo, and Dr. Bronner's for body wash, hand soap and general clean up. My goal was to get further away from lots of the stuff in mainstream shampoos especially sodium laureth sulfate (SLS), the 'sudser' that's in nearly every shampoo, and possibly dioxane or other problem chemicals in Ecover. Soap nuts rose on the list of things to try simply because SLS-free Dr. Bronner's failed miserably as shampoo - my hair was lank planks of hideousness after Dr. B's. What I loved about soap nuts is their simplicity - what has always kept me back is the price.Soap nuts or soap berries
Soap nuts are the nut or berry of the saponus bush - most of the nuts are picked and come from India. Maggie's was one of the first brands of soap nuts to break into the U.S. market, but I passed Maggie's up many time due to the price - $18.99 for a 10 ounce box. Ten ounces of soap nuts is supposed to cover at least 36 washes - but handing out that kind of cash just for the washing machine seemed steep, and could be as much as $.50 per wash.

Soap nuts not just for machines
But then at a harvest festival, I got the chance to try just 100 grams of soap nuts for about $3.00 (Maggie's has a similar trial offer for slightly more). What convinced me was the seller's complete conviction that soap nuts would solve not just my clothes-washing needs but also be a gentle shampoo and dish washing liquid.

Pretty good, not great, in the laundry
So I took the pretty, shiny and good-smelling soap nuts - they smell vaguely of pineapple - home and started cooking up some potions. And subsequently came up with tips on using soap nuts. The first tip is simply to soften soap nuts in a bowl of hot water before using them in cold-water clothes washing. They seem to give off their washing power - coming from saponin - more effectively that way. If you use soap nuts in a little cloth bag, just put the bag in a bowl of hot water for a few minutes, then toss the bag into the washer and pour the 'soapy' water in, too. But don't expect suds! There were barely any. Yet the clothes looked as good as with Ecover and smelled fresh though not perfumed. However, white washes are trickier with soap nuts. I think a quarter cup of vinegar or baking soda or both are necessary additions to white washing, and for heavy stains I even have a natural stain remover handy. I give the soap nuts a B+ for clothes washing.

Soap nuts as shampoo - squeaky, but not sudsy clean
About a dozen soap nuts boiled for 10 minutes makes a thin liquid that I intended to use for shampoo. It was a bit difficult to apply as it had none of the gel-like fluidity of shampoo. Plus it doesn't make any suds at all when applied to a wet head, so it feels a bit foolish to work it into the hair. I had the feeling I was going to end up with Dr. Bronner's hair - a.k.a. the lank planks - but my hair turned out clean and fairly manageable, though definitely not very shiny. A solid B.

Dishwashing with no suds is disconcerting
I have used the soap nuts liquid for wiping up spills and counter tops, and it works great. Three drops of lemon oil essence also gives the liquid a great smell. The half liter of soap nuts liquid I got from boiling the dozen nuts,s I divided into three small bottles. The last bottle was for dishwashing, and here soap nuts have been something of a disappointment. I put about an ounce into a dishpan of water, and there's no discernable sudsing effect at all. Even though the dishes do come out looking clean (no oily residue), without the suds it is a somewhat deflating experience - it just doesn't seem right. Here the soap nuts get a C+.

Soap nut economics are still eluding me, and I can't say that I'm convinced that I'll be able to plunk down the $20 to buy the next box of Maggie's. However, at this stage in the game I can say that I am pretty thrilled that I can use such a chemical and preservative-free product for multiple uses. And nearly best of all - I can chuck the soap nuts on the compost pile. But are they brown...or green? In addition, Maggie's is no longer the only soap nuts game in town, either, so if you are ready for soap nuts, an Internet search will reveal other options. Good luck, and be sure to comment on additional soap nut uses you've discovered.

Read more
Electrolux Design Lab 2007: And The Winner Is...
TreeHugger Picks: Eco-Laundry
Soap Nuts: A New Alternative to Wash Clothes
Cleannut: A Detergent Made With Soap Nuts

Tags: Biodegradable | Detergents | Laundry | Urban Life

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