We are all trying to save the pennies as well as take care of the environment, so being able to use organic products for your laundry makes a lot of sense. You can start by buying energy-saving appliances and then operate them on the shortest and coolest cycles, or maybe even avoid using the tumble dryer altogether, drying the laundry on a clothesline in the garden whenever possible. We can stop using fabric softener, opting for a cap full of white vinegar instead, which has exactly the same effect but is cheaper and better for your appliance and the environment. But the one thing we cannot do without is detergent. Well guess what, it doesn’t have to be full of environment-threatening chemicals or cost a lot of money. Enter the humble but brilliant soap nut shell.
Soap nuts (Sapindus Mukorossi) are grown on trees in India and Nepal, and they are harvested from a sustainable supply in October each year. The inner nut is used in the pharmaceutical industry, but it is the outer shells we are concerned about here. They contain nature’s own soap, saponin, and have been used for cleaning in their native countries for hundreds of years. They can be used in a variety of ways. As a natural detergent in the washing machine, they are allergy-free and perfect for babies and people with sensitive skin; they can be boiled in water and turned into a liquid soap and shampoo; they can be used to remove parasites from pets, and will also prevent re-infestation, and they can be placed in a bucket of warm water and used to clean windows, cars, jewelry, and many other things.
Soap nut shells are golden brown in color, and should be sticky to the touch, but they are simplicity itself to use. You simply place four to six of the shells into a little unbleached cotton or burlap drawstring bag, which is usually supplied with the shells when you buy them; if not, you can use an old sock. You place the filled bag into the drum of your washing machine, switch the machine on, and leave the saponin to do its job. The clothes you take out of the machine when it has finished are clean and, just as important, soft to the touch. The shells have their own softening action so you do not need to add softener. The water that has drained out of the machine will be friendly to the environment, because all it contains is the residue from the soap nut shells. Whether line-dried or tumble-dried, the clothes will be easier to iron, too, saving even more precious energy. After each wash, gently squeeze one of the shells with your fingernails and, if you see the white saponin oozing out, it means they still contain enough for another wash. Once all the saponin has been used up, the shells become a darker brown, but they still haven’t finished being useful; just throw them into the compost bin, where they will rot down, providing even more benefit to the environment.
The price you’ll pay for soap nut shells start at around 5 dollars for a 1 lb bag and used instead of store-bought detergent, will represent a huge saving to the household budget. This alone makes them worth buying, but the fact that they are organic and natural, makes them even more vital to the planet. A handful of stores carry them and you can buy them online, but as with other greener products and methods, they too are sure to become more widely available someday. They usually come packed tightly into a burlap bag, inside a large unbleached cotton drawstring bag or boxed. Included is a little bag that is used to hold them while they are in the washing machine, no additional (and wasteful!) packaging is needed.
All in all, for those who want great results from their laundry at a low cost, and who also want to lessen their impact on the planet, soap nut shells are the way forward.