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Home Ec: Soap Nuts and Other Alternative Detergents

Being like minded people here at Appalatch we often try to question the logic of common practices; one of those being how we wash our clothes and what we use to do so.  The majority of us are accustomed to the weekly practice of filling our washing machines with water and detergent, liquid or powder, and finding clean clothes when the buzzer sounds.  It’s so commonplace that for years I never gave a thought to what was in the detergent I used, be it natural or not, how it was packaged or what the repercussions were of my use of the product.

As our initial inter-office conversations about proper laundering have evolved, we have all become aware of the impractical nature of traditional laundry soaps.  These products are very heavy, are generally packaged in plastic, and in the case of liquid detergents, contain upwards of 80% water.  So with these purchases we are paying for water, creating more waste for landfills, and/or broadening the carbon footprint with shipping

There are many options available for laundering clothes that are safe for clothing and effective at cleaning; they just aren’t necessarily the best for allergy sufferers, your wallet, or the environment.  Cue our newfound love and complete adoption of Shecology Golden Soap Nuts and Laundry Pills.  Soap Nuts aren’t actually nuts they are empty seed pods harvested from the ‘Soapberry’ tree native to Northern India and Southern Nepal.  This plant is a natural surfactant because of its high saponin content.  This means that when the saponin is introduced to water, a foamy soap like substance is formed that naturally eliminates dirt and odors.  

Throwing a sack of wrinkled seedpods into the wash isn’t all that unusual for a bunch of pseudo hippies in Asheville, however I understand how it must look to the outside world.  You’re going to have to trust us on this though,we wouldn’t recommend them if they didn’t work.  In fact, soap nuts are organic, non-toxic, hypoallergenic, and antibacterial.  Plus, there are so many other ways the nuts can be used as a liquid all-purpose cleaner.  Mari Fox, our soap nut expert and the mastermind behind Shecology, has created a handy recipe for a concentrated liquid that can clean everything from floors to veggies.  Check it out here.

These soap nuts are also great because they are lightweight and packaged in paper unlike traditional liquid detergents that are primarily water, shipped in plastic containers.  The traditional style detergents require the use of more fossil fuels in travel and create waste.  Plus, soap nuts are reusable for around 4-6 loads and are much more cost effective in terms of uses per package.

If soap nuts still seem too strange, Shecology has created an elegant solution called a Laundry Pill.  The pills contain ground soap nuts plus a bit of citric acid (for a cleaning boost).  The pills can be dropped straight into the wash and work just as well as the nuts!

 **It can officially be said that everyone at Appalatch has thoroughly vetted the Soap Nuts with dirty challenges ranging from dank dog towels to soiled cloth diapers (contributed by the most adorable 2 year old we know).

If soap nuts aren’t your bag, consider making your own detergent using common ingredients from the grocery store.  Until switching to soap nuts, I used the following recipe for years, with great success.  I do plan to move away from the homemade stuff, as the Soap Nuts are cheaper, just as effective, and have a limited impact on the environment.


Homemade Laundry Powder

4 Cups Borax

4 Cups Washing Soda

2 Cups Baking Soda

~16 oz. of soap (usually 2 bars.  1 stain fighting bar like lye, and 1 natural soap of your choice. Ex. Dr. Bronner’s)

Essential Oil (if you would like to add a scent)

Chop the bars of soap into eighths and toss them into the food processor.  This will create tiny fragments of soap that can easily be mixed into the powders.  Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and add chopped soap.  Store in an airtight container.

Use 1-2 tablespoons per load.  Recipe yields ~80 washes.


Inhaling Borax and washing soda is not recommended so be cautious not to create huge clouds of it and/or cover your face/mouth with a bandana.  If your skin is easily irritated, avoid direct contact with the ingredients by wearing gloves.

The choice of bar soap is important.  If you are attempting to make an all-natural laundry soap be wary of the bars you choose.  The ingredients and fragrances can be tricky.

For some, Borax is a controversial ingredient.  The research I have conducted has led me to believe that Borax is safe and only harmful if consumed by humans in large quantities.  I recommend that you come to your own conclusions if there are concerns.

August 29, 2014 by Mariano deGuzman
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