I love experimenting with natural home products. Often times they are less expensive than the conventional alternatives, and I’m always looking for ways to reduce the amount of harmful toxins in our home.
Laundry detergent is one of the first cleaning products for which I searched for an alternative. And for good reason.
While our skin serves as a barrier to foreign substances, at just 3mm thick, it is not able to repel everything that comes its way. Many chemicals, including harmful toxins, are able to penetrate the skin, be absorbed, and enter the blood stream. 
Why does this matter? Toxins in conventional laundry detergents have been linked to health concerns such as skin irritation, endocrine and reproductive disruptions, and even cancer. 
Let’s look at one of the most widely known laundry detergents, Tide Original Liquid Detergent, which scores an “F” in the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning. There are 36 different ingredients, 19 of which are individually rated “C”, “D”, or “F”, due to “development/endocrine/reproductive effects”, “general systemic/organ effects”, “nervous system effects”, etc. The product also has a high concern warning for Development and Reproductive Toxicity. 
Even more alarming is that when common cleaners, including laundry detergents, have been tested, they have been found to contain additional harmful toxins NOT listed in the ingredients, due to various regulatory loopholes. 
For these reasons, conventional laundry detergent is not a product I choose to use in our home. Given that we are in almost constant contact with our clothing and sheets, switching to a more natural laundry detergent is an easy step you can take to reduce your exposure to harmful toxins and their potential health side effects.
Our family has been using natural laundry detergent for years, and I’ve tried nearly everything on the market. There are many natural detergents that work well, while also limiting the number of harmful toxins in the product. Most recently I used Planet detergent, which receives an “A” from the EWG.
When my daughter started eating solid foods, we entered a new phase of stained clothing. My natural detergent wasn’t cutting it, but I wasn’t willing to compromise our health with a conventional option. I ordered a bag of soap nuts and am now declaring them the perfect laundry soap.
What are Soap Nuts
Soap nuts are shells of the berries of soapberry trees, which are native to Nepal and India. They contain saponin, a natural soap that is released as the shell absorbs water, and works as a surfactant.
What’s a surfactant? Surfactants are chemicals that both increase water’s ability to uniformly spread and seep into fibers and help break the bond between a stain (sweat, grease, oil, etc.) and the fibers on which the stain resides. After the bonds are broken, stain particles are released and both the particles and the surfactant are rinsed away with water.
The main ingredient in detergents are surfactants, and in conventional detergents they can be manufactured from ingredients that are known endocrine disruptors.  In the case of soap nuts, the surfactant is the natural saponin in the soapberry shell. Soapberry trees are natural insect repellant and therefore can be grown without the use of pesticides. The EWG lists soapberry extract as a level 1 ingredient, or low hazard. 
For more information about soap nuts (like, more than you could ever imagine), check out this site.
Benefits of Soap Nuts
Soap nuts clean clothes well.
First and formost, laundry products need to clean fabric. I’ve tried my share of natural solutions that don’t leave our laundered sundries feeling or looking clean. Despite their lack of or limited toxins, not cleaning well is a deal breaker. Soap nuts do a great job of cleaning our clothes, sheets, and towels. Everything smells fresh and feels clean after being laundered. Most new stains are gone after a washing, and I’ve even been able to remove a few older stains that eluded my natural detergent.
Soap nuts are the most convenient toxin-free laundry detergent.
Natural detergents are a great alternative to conventional detergent, but they are not necessarily without potentially harmful toxins. The Planet detergent that I had been using received an “A” overall from the EWG, but two of the individual product ingredients received a “C” grade. This is definitely a much better option than Tide (or similar products), and it’s a convenient option for a relatively safe detergent.
If you’re looking to go even more toxin-free, there are options. One is making your own detergent with safe, non-toxic ingredients. Click here for a recipe to make your own.
The downside to making your own natural detergent is time and effort. That’s why I love soap nuts. They are a 100% natural product, safe, AND come ready to use. Zero effort required.
Soap nuts are inexpensive.
There are some crazy claims out there about how many loads you’ll get with ‘x’ amount of soap nuts. While soap nuts are definitely a savings over both natural detergents and even conventional ones, I find the marketing claims to exaggerate the true savings.
I did my own calculation based on my use (see below), and found that my annual cost is about $31. I could reduce that cost by buying a larger bag, and I may do so in the future now that I know they work well. In comparison, the detergent required to wash an equivalent number of loads using Planet is about $70 per year. And, just for fun, Tide comes in at $45. (All prices based on Amazon listings.)
Soap nuts are a zero-waste product.
I love that soap nuts have no by-products. They are packaged in a muslin bag that can be reused once you are out of shells. And the shells themselves can be composted once they have run their course in your washing machine.
Where to Buy Soap Nuts
The easiest place to buy soap nuts is on Amazon, and I prefer NaturOli brand. There are cheaper options, but I’ve read quite a bit about fraudulent marketing and products around soap nuts. Spending a few extra dollars ensures I receive a quality product.
Aside from purchasing from a trusted brand, it’s important to understand what it is that you are buying. Purchase de-seeded soap nuts only, avoiding “whole” soap nuts. Whole includes the seeds, which don’t offer anything extra except weight. 1 lb of de-seeded soap nuts will have many more berry shells, which contain the saponin, than 1 lb of whole soap nuts.
How to Use Soap Nuts
To use soap nuts, simply place a handful in a small muslin bag and toss in the washing machine drum. I use six at a time, and I’ve seen anywhere from four to six recommended (about 1/2 ounce). If you purchase from NaturlOli you will receive a small muslin bag to use. If your soap nuts do not include a bag, you’ll want to purchase something similar to these bags, in addition to the berry shells.
Soap nuts can be reused in multiple loads of laundry. The recommendation is around five loads, which happens to be the average number of loads I do per week. I change out my soap nuts every Monday morning with my first load of the week. Simply toss the old soap nuts in your compost or trash, and add new ones to your muslin bag.
A note on front loading machines: I was initially disappointed in the efficacy of soap nuts. After researching, I learned the front loading machines have both less agitation (needed to activate the soap nuts) and less water flow (needed to wash away the grime) than top loading machines.
To active the soap nuts, I select the presoak option on my machine for each load, which helps saturate and activate. If you want to avoid using extra water and the extra time of a presoak, you can try this “tea” method for a front loader. And to make up for less water flow (which is an issue with ANY detergent in a front loader, not just soap nuts), I make sure not to over stuff the drum.
If you try soap nuts and are not impressed, I suggest switching up how you are using them before giving up. Try using more berry shells per load, reusing the shells for fewer loads, or adjusting the settings on your machine. Still not loving it? You can avoid the berry shells altogether by using NaturOli’s concentrated liquid detergent made from soap nuts.
As much as I love them (obviously!), soap nuts are not a miracle worker. For particularly messy baby meals, I soak clothes overnight in cold water and make sure to wash the next day.
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I'm a believer that we shouldn't have to compromise our health in the name of beauty. Or performance in the name of safety.