Friday, January 25, 2013

Getting a Little Nutty with the Laundry Soap

I finally tried soap nuts. Ever heard of them? They’re gnarled nuts just a size larger than an acorn. They usually turn up at natural food stores and occasionally farmers market stands or craft booths run by hippies. Sometimes the nuts are sold loose and sometimes in little packages with directions.

Their natural oils purportedly work magic in the washing machine rendering clothing sparkling clean without any detergents. The package I bought from a woman at the Sweet Potato Festival who also sold beautiful alpaca wool caps and homemade hand and body soaps said to toss 2 or 3 in an average load. They can be used 5-7 times. There were no specifics as to how you know they are “used up”.

I’ve had my packet of soap nuts for a few months. They seemed like a great idea until I got them home and prepared to toss them in my washing machine. I paused to consider the power of vinegar. I use vinegar as a fabric softener. Not only does ¼ cup per load work beautifully to eliminate static cling and soften fabrics, but it also removes “teenager smell”. If you have teenagers then you’re familiar with this smell. It’s not quite as bad as BO, but it is also not necessarily a pleasant scent. I think it is a combination of hormones, the repeated wearing of favorite clothes, and the stench of junk food coming out of their pores. Deodorant cannot combat this and it permeates their clothing. At any rate, as I said vinegar removes this smell beautifully.

Sidebar: Vinegar, besides being a most powerful and effective cleaning agent, is a natural deodorizer, which I know seems odd given its own strong smell. Spray it in trash cans, diaper pails, and refrigerators to remove the smell. I just spray the bottom of trash cans and let the vinegar evaporate taking the stink with it. Or you can just leave it for 30 seconds before wiping it out.

Because vinegar is such a powerful acid I worried that it would strip the soap nuts of their natural oils and render them ineffective. So I’ve left the soap nuts sitting on the dryer for months now. When I encountered a soap nut vendor again, I asked about vinegar and soap nuts. She looked at me curiously and said she didn’t think vinegar would hurt the nuts. But she didn’t say it confidently enough to give me confidence. So the nuts have been sitting.

This past week I decided to throw caution to the wind and just go for it. (It’s a wild life I live.) I added 3 soap nuts to a load of darks, including a dirty glove (note picture) that has been sitting on my porch for several months because no one knows who it belongs to and without its match I can’t even give it to Goodwill. I also added vinegar to the fabric softener dispenser and ran the load like I normally would.

When I removed the clothes from the washer they appeared clean. The glove was especially clean. There were two problems though. First, after putting the clothes in the dryer, I couldn’t find one of the nuts. I pulled out all the wet clothes and shook them to no avail. I reached in to the washing machine and felt under the spinner. No nut. I didn’t want to run the dryer if one of the precious nuts was hiding in the clothes afraid the ‘natural cleaning oils’ might cook on to the clothes or lose it’s magic altogether, plus I only had six nuts to begin with. I stepped back to consider my options and heard a “crunch”. Found the nut. Sigh.

The second problem was actually more serious than the cracked nut. The clothes appeared clean, but they still smelled like teenagers. Not good. Apparently the power of soap nuts trumps the power of vinegar. Or perhaps the vinegar works best with my homemade detergent. I dried the load of clothes and the smell was diminished, but I could still tell it was there. I am confident my kids won’t notice it, living in the smell as they do. But still.

So my soap nut experience wasn’t the best. I’m not a believer, but I’ve met plenty of people who are and I can say that soap nuts do seem to clean the clothes, if not deodorize them. If you don’t have teenagers, they might be a nice natural way to wash your clothes. For now, though, I’m taking a pass on the nuts. If you’ve had a better experience, I’d love to hear about it!


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