The zoo knows something you might not.
On our last family trip to the zoo, my attention was caught by the standard announcement at the stingray touch experience. They tell everyone to roll up sleeves (even short sleeves) and pull back long hair. Want to know why? Because there is detergent and shampoo residue in your clothes and hair that would make the stingrays sick. Most people probably heard that and thought nothing of it. Me? I was struck by the fact that the zoo worries about all that stuff making the stingrays sick and we walk around with it every day.
I’ve been on the lookout for a safe, natural, frugal laundry soap for a long time. I make so much from scratch, and I really didn’t want to crank out homemade laundry soap. I didn’t want to shell out lots of money for expensive natural laundry detergents either. I think I’ve finally found my winner!
What are Soap Nuts?
Soap nuts are actual fruits that grow on trees, rather like olives, then are dried. They are completely chemical-free, non-toxic, hypoallergenic, eco-friendly, unscented and gentle on clothing and skin. They contain a compound called saponin, which acts as a natural surfactant to clean your clothes (or anything else). A surfactant is simply a cleaner, something that lifts dirt off the surface of something else. Soap nuts can also be made into cleaners for other parts of the house, even the kitchen, but I’m so impressed with what they do in the washing machine (and was so direly in need of a natural laundry detergent) that I haven’t even tried them elsewhere yet.
To use soap nuts in the laundry, you simply put 5 of them in a little bag and toss them in the washing machine. They can be reused 3-7 times before their saponin runs out. For a cold water wash, they work best if you put them in a cup of hot water for a few minutes first to begin releasing the saponin. I thought this would be a pain, but it’s really not a problem. I just put them in an old detergent bottle cap while I loaded the machine or sorted the load, and then they were ready to go in. You also don’t need fabric softener or dryer sheets with soap nuts.
How I Put Laundry Soap Nuts to the Test
How can you tell when a laundry soap is doing its job? I think this is a tough product to review, because it seems like no matter how great your laundry detergent is, there’s always a stain or a grease spot that sneaks through here and there.
When I tested soap nuts, I tried to really pay attention to the job they were doing. I washed towels and sheets first, and I was pleased that they smelled so clean afterward. What does clean smell like? Nothing. My sheets smelled pleasantly like nothing. I would call it a fresh scent, but years of marketing has probably brainwashed you into thinking that “fresh” means “lemon” or “powder” scented (blech). In reality, a “fresh” smell is a lack of any negative odor, don’t you think? That’s what my first two loads smelled like.
I washed a warm load next and didn’t have any problems with it, but this is where laundry testing gets tough: how do I know the soap is working? Especially since soap nuts don’t have the sudsing action that we’ve all come to expect with commercial detergents, I didn’t have anything to trick me into thinking they were cleaning my clothing.
I decided to stretch the soap nuts a little and offer the challenge of a cold load. I took note of the food crusted on daughter’s bib, and I decided I had the clincher: my exercise clothes, fresh with sweat and rank with odor, in a cold load of laundry. I figured if the soap nuts could make them smell sweet, they definitely are doing something powerful in there! I tentatively lifted the wet exercise clothes to my nose, a little nervous that I was inviting noxious fumes up close and personal on purpose. I was amazed – they smelled fresh and clean. Soap nuts, score one, sweat, zero! Soap nuts work. They clean your laundry. Effectively. Even in cold water.
Score two for soapnuts: they also took smell out of a stinky towel that had been used to clean up a kefir spill. It smelled like puke. Now it doesn’t. Woo hoo, soap nuts!
Pros and Cons
My favorite part of using soap nuts? I can wash the whole family’s laundry together instead of separating out baby clothing to wash with the more expensive “natural” or “sensitive” laundry detergent. Soap nuts are ideal for sensitive skin (my kids have that) and leave no residue, so I don’t worry about them being exposed to X-something-or-other-chemical left in their clothing or on their sheets. And the stingrays are safe, too.
One major drawback is the tendency to push the soap nuts farther than they can go. Because there’s a range of loads (3-7) that you can use one batch of nuts for, I tend to try to use them as long as possible. Frugal, conservative momma. Sometimes I end up having to rewash a load, like the load of camping laundry that still smelled like smoke after being washed. I don’t like the waste of water there. To soap nuts’ credit, I may have pushed the size of that load a bit much for how stinky the clothing was, too, along with my nuts being on their last legs. (Soap nuts instructions say to use medium loads so that there is enough room to agitate the clothes with the saponin.)
UPDATE: Some tips on How to tell if laundry soap nuts still have cleaning power with photos.
Another Choice: Extreme 18X Green Cleaner
I also got to try NaturOli’s somewhat processed product, a liquid made from soapnuts. It’s basically soap nuts “tea” with some preservatives so it doesn’t go bad in a week (you can make your own from the soap nuts themselves, but it doesn’t keep). It’s a funny feeling putting just a teaspoon of liquid into my cavernous washing machine with a whole load of clothes and expecting anything good to happen. I’ve found that the Soap Nuts Liquid Laundry Detergent Concentrate works just the same and just as well as the actual soap nuts. If you might have a tendency to “push” the nuts like I did, you may want to try the liquid. Think of the plastic you save buying something that concentrated! My bottle was supposed to last for 6 loads, but I’m pretty sure it’s gone farther than that – the kind of added bonus I just love!
But How Much?
It drives me nuts that the natural cleaning products always seem to cost double the regular ones. I am tickled pink with joy that this one doesn’t! As long as you buy in bulk, you could get the 32 oz. – 320 loads for $28.95, or the NaturOli Soap Nuts 48 oz gets you 480 loads for around $45.95. (I’m thinking about splitting a bag with my mom.) Either one works out to under 10 cents per load (plus the possibility of more if you make your nuts stretch by using cold water!). I figure my price point for All Free and Clear is $3.00 for 32 loads after a coupon and sale match-up, or 9.3 cents per load. Soap nuts are almost exactly the same price per load, and I don’t have to watch for a sale or cut the coupon. Love it!
UPDATE: A reader asked a question about shelf life. Here is the answer from NaturOli:
Soap nuts basically have an endless shelf life if properly stored. If the user plans to have them around for several months, we recommend that they remove them from the muslin bag and store them in an air tight container. They should be stored in a cool, dry, dark location away from direct sunlight. Most laundry rooms are the perfect location!
Someday I’m going to try NaturOli’s Soap Nut Natural Shampoo Bar. I’m kind of in the market for a new chemical-free, natural shampoo. You don’t even want to know what I’ve been using for shampoo this summer!
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Disclosure: NaturOli provided me with samples of their products for this review, but my opinion is my own and not influenced by the company. I will get a small commission for sales made by clicking links on this site.