About a month ago I joined a co-op to buy soap nuts in bulk. I was scared. What if I bought 3 kilos and hated them? They’re kind of an expensive experiment. But if I like them, they’re way cheaper than detergent.
What if I bought 3 kilos and loved them, and then wish I had bought more?
I agonized after placing my order about whether to modify it. The woman coordinating the co-op promised me that if she loved them and I loved them, that she would run another.
My big bags of sundsnuts (my new favorite made-up word) showed up last week, and amazingly enough, I happened to have laundry waiting to be washed! Call it fate, call it divine intervention, call it laziness in housework – whatever you call it, I was ready to experiment.
Inside each bag were 6 small bags for putting a few nuts in and tossing into the wash.
Fresh sudsnuts, straight out of the bag. They’re wrinkly and weird with a glossy coating on the inside. This is the saposin, which is what will clean and soften laundry.
Soap nuts have a little bit of a strange smell – kind of like apple cider vinegar and maybe a little bit of soil. I walked into the laundry room during my first soap nuts load of laundry, and was a little surprised to smell that smell coming from the washing machine as well. But after pulling the clothes out of the wash there was no smell on the fabric.
After 5 or 6 times through the wash there’s still some of the glossy coating, which means they’re good for another load! The shells are softening and beginning to break down. I make sure to fish the little bag out of the laundry when I’m done with the laundry, open it up and let everything air dry. Of course when I’m running load after load I just check to make sure there’s some saposin left and toss it straight into the next load.
I’ve washed towels, diapers, a load of my clothes and the true test of efficacy – a load of the Mountain Man’s clothes including his running socks. Everything came out smelling like nothing, which is how I like my laundry to smell. Making the leap to soap nuts can be especially hard for people who love the smell of their laundry soap – but I have long been using scent-free detergents. The Mountain Man doesn’t like his clothes to smell perfumey, and when I was pregnant perfumes really bothered me so we stopped using products with anything but the lightest scents. Since I had sensitive skin as a kid I was also committed to using scent-free detergents for the Pie’s laundry, and it’s easiest to just have one kind of soap.
After a few successful loads of laundry I decided to test out making a liquid soap. I threw about 12 nuts in 6 cups of water and boiled for 30 minutes, as instructed on the bag.
The instructions indicate that this process should result in about 4 cups of liquid soap, but I ended up with about 1.5 cups and soap nuts that didn’t look quite “spent”. I may try more water next time. The bag indicates that you should only make small portions at a time, because there are no preservatives and the solution could go bad.
Once the soap nuts are no longer shiny on the inside, you can just toss them in the compost. No waste, all natural, chemical-free, low cost… as long as they keep cleaning our laundry, I don’t know what could be better.
I was a little concerned about using soap nuts on diapers, since you’re not supposed to use plant-based detergents because they leave a residue which decreases the diaper’s absorbency. A few websites about soap nuts and the experience of other moms quelled that fear, assuring me that they are OK to use on diapers, that they can actually strip your diapers of other built-up detergent residues, and can leave the diapers fluffy and soft. If staining is an issue in your diapers or if they end up looking dingy, you can use some baking soda (since soap nuts don’t have any stain-fighting properties, this may be necessary in any load of whites) and if the ammonia smell isn’t completely washed out you can add some vinegar to the rinse cycle.
A reader, after seeing my post about trying soap nuts, asked if you have to remove them before the rinse cycle. I’d read that you just leave the nuts in the bag in the wash through all the cycles, but now I was uncertain. I read some more, and leaving them in seems to be fine. They don’t create suds and the saposin acts as a fabric softener in the rinse & spin cycles. The Mountain Man’s t-shirts do seem much softer than before, almost like I used fabric softener! I’m way too cheap for fabric softener.
I ran a load of dishes with that liquid, and it worked pretty well! The soap nuts just clean – the liquid is non-abrasive and doesn’t dissolve food, so you have to rinse the dishes fairly well before running the dishwasher.
And what about that jar of cloudy brown liquid on the kitchen counter? Well I thought nothing of it. The Mountain Man came home from work though, gave me a hug, and over my shoulder saw the jar. “Uh… WHAT is THAT?” he asked. Without giving me a moment to explain he said “Are you fertilizing your plants with pee? What is wrong with your pee? You need to dilute it before watering. Stop being such a hippie it’s gross. That pee looks bad I wouldn’t fertilize your plants with that. That belongs in the garage!” By the time he told me that jars of pee belong in the garage I had lost it with the giggle fits. The next morning as we sat down to share coffee together, he asked again, hesitantly, what was in the jar. I had been laughing too hard to tell him.
It can definitely be intimidating to try these out, but some online stores sell small samples so you can try them without a kilo of commitment. It’s another small step in living a little bit of a more natural, closed system kind of life. Sure these are imported from Nepal and have quite a carbon footprint of their own – but they are still less expensive, less wasteful and less environmentally damaging than a bottle of detergent.
And it’s worth the laugh to surprise your partner with a jar of it on the counter.