The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

July 24, 2017

How to Make Liquid Soap Nuts Laundry Soap Plus Other Plastic-Free Laundry Ideas

The last time I wrote about doing laundry without plastic was June 17, 2009.  Obama was our new president, and Michael Jackson was still alive (he died a week later).  It’s time for an update.

Plastic-Free Soap Nuts Laundry Soap

Back in the day, we used powdered Ecover laundry detergent, in part because it came in a recyclable cardboard box and was the only brand I’d ever found that came with a cardboard scoop instead of a plastic one.  Those days are over.  Ecover switched to a plastic scoop (why does anyone need a new scoop with every box anyway?), and I no longer recommend it.

Eco Nuts soap nuts box

There are lots of recipes online for making your own laundry detergent with combinations of various ingredients, but the one that I’ve found to be the simplest to make and work the best in cold water is a liquid soap that requires only 2 ingredients:  soap nuts and water.  You can also add essential oil(s), but that’s totally optional.

The brand of soap nuts I choose is Eco Nuts (available at Life Without Plastic and Amazon) because they come in a cardboard box without any plastic inside.  Other brands do contain plastic.

What are soap nuts?

Soap nuts are not actually nuts.  They are the berry of a tree called Sapindus mukorossi (Chinese Soapberry) and contain saponin, a natural surfactant which foams just like soap. Although they have to be imported (Eco Nuts brand soap nuts are wild-harvested in Nepal), they are minimally-processed (sorted, de-seeded, and sun-dried) and contain only one ingredient: soap nuts.  Soap nuts are biodegradable and safe for septic tanks and front-load washers.  I’ve been told they are great for washing baby diapers.  And because Eco Nuts hand packs them in the United States, they are able to avoid the inner plastic liner that would otherwise be required by customs.

How to Use Soap Nuts

Eco Nuts come with a cotton pouch you can use to wash clothes in warm or hot water.  Just put the soap nuts in the pouch and toss the pouch in the washer with your clothes.  You can reuse those soap nuts up to ten times before they need to be composted.

But in our home, we mostly wash in cold water, which is not so good at activating the saponin.  So instead of using the dried berries, I make liquid soap nut laundry soap.  Honestly, it’s almost as easy as making tea!  (Eco Nuts sells their own version of liquid soap, but I’d rather avoid the expense and the aluminum and plastic packaging and make it myself.)

Step 1:  Boil 8 cups of water.

(Feel free to decrease or increase this recipe as needed for the amount and frequency of laundry loads in your home.)

Boiling water for soap nuts liquid soap

Step 2: Turn off the heat and add about 15 soap nuts.

soap nuts laundry soap

steeping soap nuts for liquid laundry soap

Step 3: Cover and let the soap nuts steep in the pot over night.

Steeping soap nuts

Step 4: In the morning, strain the soap nuts liquid into a bowl.

You’ll see the change in color and consistency of the liquid.

Soap nuts laundry liquid

Strain liquid soap nuts into a bowl

Step 4: Compost the used up soap nuts.

Used up soap nuts

Step 5: (Optional) Add essential oil(s) of your choice.

Only add a tiny amount!  I use peppermint because it reminds me of Dr. Bronner’s.  The essential oil doesn’t really add any scent to the clothes, but I like it because soap nuts smell kind of weird on their own.

Adding essential oil to soap nuts liquid

Step 6: Stir up the mixture well and pour into glass jars.

pouring soap nuts liquid into a glass jar

Step 7: Store your soap nuts liquid in the refrigerator.

Soap nuts are natural products like food, and the liquid can spoil or grow mold if not refrigerated.  Honestly, it’s not a big deal to grab your laundry soap from the refrigerator rather than the laundry room shelf.  You just have to get used to a new habit.

(This amount lasts about a month for us, at our rate of laundry doing.  If you think you would use it up slower, you can cut down the recipe and make less.)

It’s a good idea to label the jars so no one mistakes soap nuts liquid for yummy broth.  The two kind of look the same.

store liquid soap nuts in the refrigerator

Step 8:  Add 1/2 to 1 cup to each laundry load, depending on the size and dirtiness of the load.

I fill the washer part way and add the soap nuts liquid before putting in the clothes.

Adding soap nuts liquid to laundry

Don’t believe it will really suds up like soap?  I agitated the washer a bit to give you a demo.  Check this out.

foamy soap nuts liquid

That’s it for the laundry soap portion of our plastic-free laundry procedure.  But we’re not done yet!

Use White Vinegar in the Rinse Cycle

A few years ago, our washing machine developed a really funky odor.  (Don’t blame the soap nuts.  I think this was back when we were still using Ecover.)  After spending two weeks trying to take the washer apart, I discovered some pretty nasty built up soap sludge.  (You can read the entire saga with instructions for taking apart a Kenmore washer here.)  Ever since that ordeal, we have dutifully added 1/2 cup of white vinegar to the fabric softener compartment for each load.

Add white vinegar to the rinse cycle

White vinegar not only helps to rinse out any soap residue from the machine, it also helps to thoroughly rinse the clothes and make them soft. (No, clothes do not come out smelling like vinegar.)

DO NOT add the vinegar to the tub!  It will cancel out the soap!  You only want it to be released during the rinse cycle.

Add white vinegar to the rinse cycle

BTW, the washing machine in these pictures is not our old Kenmore that I heroically took apart and put back together.  That one lasted a few more years and then died completely.  (It was born in 1992.  Not bad!)  Last year, ironically during my year of buying nothing new, we replaced it with a brand new Speed Queen, which I absolutely adore and which should last at least as long as the previous machine.  If you’re interested in learning why I chose that one, and not one of the new High Efficiency electronic washers, leave a comment.  Maybe I’ll write a blog post about it.

Use Borax to Pretreat Stained Clothing

20 Mule Team boraxI keep a box of borax on hand to treat the occasional stain.  For lightly stained clothes, I soak for 30 minutes in a solution of 1/2 cup of borax to 1 gallon of warm water.  For more stubborn stains, I make a paste and rub into stains with an old toothbrush.  I’ve had great success cleaning coffee stains this way.  In fact, it’s supposed to be great for any acidic or protein-based stains.  Here’s how the 20 Mule Team company explains the science behind how Borax works.

I’ve seen some scary warnings on the web claiming that borax is toxic.  Crunchy Betty discusses those concerns in a recent post.  It’s an interesting read.  I feel pretty comfortable using Borax to fight stains on clothing, but I wouldn’t recommend eating it or inhaling it or shoving a bunch in your eye.  And of course, keep it away from pets and children.  The same should be said for washing soda as well.

Use Washing Soda & Boiling Water to Clean Rancid Oily Nasty Smelling Fabrics

A few months ago, I noticed that many of our cotton produce bags had developed a funky smell that would not go away no matter how many times I washed them.  It turned out the odor was from baked goods Michael had stored in them, and the oils from those foods had infused the bags and turned rancid.  I soaked them in baking soda.  I soaked them in vinegar.  Nothing would remove the stink.  I Googled and Googled to find a solution and finally pieced together different ideas into a procedure that worked!

(I wish I had taken pictures of this process while I was doing it, but sadly, I did not.)

What I did was to boil those cloth bags with washing soda in a big pot on the stove.  I boiled them for probably an hour.  That might have been too long, but I was serious.  When I was done, all of the oily nastiness was in the water and none of it was in the cloth bags.  They smelled new again!

You can purchase Washing Soda, or you can actually make it yourself from baking soda.  That’s what I did because I had baking soda on hand and did not have washing soda and it was night and I was impatient and didn’t want to wait until stores were open the next morning.  Note: washing soda and baking soda are not the same things.  But by adding heat to baking soda, you can create washing soda.  I followed Karen Lee’s instructions.

Here’s the chemistry:

Baking soda is Sodium Bicarbonate, which is NaHCO3.

Washing Soda is Sodium carbonate, which is Na2CO3.

When heat is added to baking soda, for every two molecules of baking soda, you get (H2O) (Water) + CO2 (Carbon dioxide) + Na2CO3 (Washing Soda).  The water and carbon dioxide evaporate, leaving behind only the washing soda.  (BTW, the released carbon dioxide is what makes baked goods rise.)

What Do You Use?

This post is by no means a comprehensive list of all of the plastic-free laundry ideas out there.  These are just the things we use in our house.  What do you use to clean clothes?


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3 years ago

Have access to a veryl arge amount of soap berries glad I found this article. I will be making laundry soap now. I have been trying to find a wholesale buyer with no kuck

2 years ago
Reply to  Amber

I got some soap berries from the Bulk barn store- i’m in Canada. they are pretty reasonable there. ($ 3.33 per 100 grams….so whatever that works out to for a pound- 450 grams) thats more than enough to make about 4 litres of the soap- which is cheap! i’ve been buying Tide liquid laundry soap for years and been paying an arm and a leg! lol
In trying to change out lifestyle to incorporate eco friendly and chemical free…i came across soap berries and im glad i found it! i’m making some soap right now for the first time and im super thrilled!!

3 years ago

Interesting you bought a top loading machine. From my research, front loaders are more energy and water efficient.

Gruppie Girl
5 years ago

This is my absolute favorite laundry detergent recipe. The boiling water and soaking the soap nuts overnight really activates them and allows me to wash with cold water.

Thanks for sharing!

5 years ago

I buy the Dropps off Amazon. I’ve become a huge laundry pod fan since there’s no mess or fuss. The bleach pods from Clorox are really convenient. If it takes a cup of “soap nutz detergent” to clean one load of clothes, that’s a lot you have to cook up at one time.

Robin Ten Heggeler
3 years ago
Reply to  jill

My daughter muxes 1 cup of soap nut liquid in a gallon jug with 1 cup baking soda and fill with water. She used 1/2 cup of this liquid for each load of laundry. Her laundry is very clean and deorderized.

5 years ago

Please read this article on why home made laundry soaps are not effective cleansers. After years of washing my clothes in cold water and mild soap my clothes stank. Once I started using proper hot water and strong detergent the laundry water came out as black as you see in that article’s photos. But now my clothes are finally clean.

5 years ago
Reply to  Mariana

What are you using now?
Still possible to get powder laundry in cardboard box.

5 years ago
Reply to  Dommy

I’m using Lidl’s Formil Aktiv, because it was recommended by a consumers’ rights magazine for best quality/price value. But when it’s over I’m going back to my favorite, Ultra Pro Active – they’re both in powder form, sold in cardboard boxes. No plastic is important to me.

Robin Ten Heggeler
3 years ago
Reply to  Mariana

My daughter dilutes the soap nut liquid in a milk jug. 1 cup soap liquid, 1 cup baking soda and fill with wTer. Use 1.2 cup of this liquid for each load. Her laundry smells fresh… even husbands work clothes

5 years ago

Soapnuts have been used to wash laundry or to make body wash in India for generations. However, soapnuts have become more and more popular in Europe and the USA. The growing demand has led to the extensive export of soapnuts, which in turn has led to soapnuts becoming too expensive for many natives to afford. Instead, they use chemical detergents that contribute to the water pollution, which is already an issue of concern in India. To top it off, those nuts need to be shipped across the globe, leaving quite the carbon footprint.

5 years ago
Reply to  eline

Unless you live in India and see this first hand, you’re full of it.

5 years ago
Reply to  bix

I love how the booj capitalists don’t want to believe their enormously wasteful enviro habits have a negative impact in the exploited core.

4 years ago
Reply to  bix

What eline said is absolutely true. I am an Indian, and soap nuts have become extremely expensive for us. We have been using soapnuts traditionally for a lot of uses (Most commonly to wash hair), and the poorer people of India are no longer able to afford it.

5 years ago

I’ve found something interesting, at least for where I live. You can also use horse chestnuts that also contain saponin but you can find in Autumn almost everywhere in places where the trees are present.

It’s free and it’s local! I can’t wait to try it.

5 years ago
Reply to  Beth Terry

Yes, I will, it’s soon the time for them to fall here. I just re-read my comment, please forgive my bad English!

5 years ago

Great idea! I am trying this today- thank you

Marisa Blake
5 years ago

The washing machines in my apartment building don’t have a compartment for fabric softener so I’ve just been skiping it and using only natural store-bought detergent. But if I use soap nuts will it work better if I use vinegar in the rinse cycle?

5 years ago

Oh, I make dry laundry detergent with washing soda, 20 mule team borax and Zote laundry soap. Grate the soap, then blend with 3 cups each of soda and borax. (I run through a food chopper.) White vinegar for softener. I’ve been doing this for several years. Curiously, haven’t had eczema since.

5 years ago

I bought a Speed Queen a couple of years ago. Love it! The appliance tech who had kept my Kenmore going far past a normal life strongly suggested the Speed Queen. I went to the local appliance store and said I want to buy my last washer; he said, then buy a Speed Queen (I’m 60+). I know why I bought mine; I’m curious as to why you did so.

mtn girl
5 years ago
Reply to  Vicki

Please tell us why you went with a top loader. We’ve been thinking of switching to a front loader to use less water…

mtn girl
5 years ago
Reply to  Beth Terry

oh good to know… I live in a super dry climate with a huge laundry room so I guess I’ll go with a front loader then, since it uses less water. Thanks for responding

3 years ago
Reply to  Beth Terry

I have a front loader and our laundry area sounds like yours – in a narrow hallway, etc, etc. My stacking washer/dryer are in a closet. I bought them to save room for storage in the rest of the closet. The bi-fold doors on the closet do not allow me to leave the washer door wide open but I can leave it ajar enough to have air circulate. I’ve never had a problem with any mold or odor and I’ve had this washer for about 6 years. This is my 4th front loader and I’d never go back to a top loader. Also, my son and family had a top loader without an agitator and it was the noisiest thing I ever heard – I’d avoid those.

5 years ago

If you aren’t up to making a batch of liquid, you can just make a tea with the wash bag for cold water loads. I microwave some water in an old mug and let the wash bag steep for a few minutes. I toss the liquid and the bag into the washer and add the clothes. I’ve found that I can get 5 loads out of a wash bag containing 5 soap nuts if I make tea each time.

5 years ago

Is there any reason you use Chinese soapberry instead of the Western soapberry that is native to the US? I’ve heard mixed reports about people washing with soapberry and now I wonder if it is because they used them in cold water. Thank you for the informative post.

5 years ago
Reply to  Marti

Soapnuts need to be soaked in a container of hot water for at least five minutes to activate them and then dumped into the cold water of the machine.

5 years ago

I would love to hear about your decision to get a top loader. I hate my High Efficiency front loading washer which stinks and warns you against vinegar because the plastic seal will crack.

3 years ago
Reply to  Tawnia

I’ve been using vinegar as a rinse agent for 5 years and my front loader is just fine. I only use 1/2 C. vinegar (it’s hot a huge machine) and mixed with the rinse water it just doesn’t seem to affect the seals one bit.

5 years ago

I’ve previously wondered why you have a top loader. I’d definitely be curious to hear why you’ve opted for another

Carrie Kwinter
5 years ago

Yes! Please tell us about your washer decision.

Melissa McLaren
5 years ago

I’m interested in knowing what factors you condisered in buying your new washing machine. We will need to replace ours soon.

5 years ago

I use washing soda mixed in hot water for all my laundry washing. A concentrated mix for oily fabrics like pillow slips, a milder one for the rest.i don’t need fabric softener, & for stains I use a Sard bar or felsNaptha. Lectric soda in Australia has good recipes for all cleaning needs, using washing soda, baking soda, vinegar etc. save the planet one wash at a time, and save a lot of money

5 years ago

I can’t believe it’s been 8 years! We unfortunately use plastic jugs but I bought some soap nuts to try and I didn’t even know they don’t work in cold water! Thanks for the heads up!

(also I really want the story behind your new washing machine)

Danielle Epifani
5 years ago

Just made this yesterday! Decided to use it as an all purpose household and laundry cleaner: dish soap, counters, stove, floor, laundry, etc. So far so good. Though I made 1 cup with 5 nuts as I purchased just a small sample for $4. Definitely will try the large 1lb bag as it would be a much better value. The consistency is thin, but it’s bubbling up!