Embracing a chemical-free life with Natural Cleaners

Let’s do a small quiz before you start reading this blog, shall we? It’s very simple – just try to answer the following questions taking as much time as you need.

How many cleaning products do you use in your home? (including your personal care products)
Can you list at least 10 of them? Can you think of more?

Alright, hope you took a minute to pause and actually answer the questions above. A typical urban household today, as you would have realized if you had answered the questions, uses anywhere from 15 – 20 different cleaning and personal care products in their lifestyles. This could range from floor cleaners, dish wash, detergents, fabric softeners, naphthalene balls, bathroom cleaners, glass cleaners, shoe polish, wood polish…to face powders, body creams, moisturizers, nail polish, hair colors, deodorants…the list can literally go on and on. We have come to “depend” so much on these items that life can become unimaginable if you are forced to go without them for a few days.

But what we don’t realize is that many of these products contain synthetic chemical ingredients which are not as harmless as they claim (yes, even some of the so-called “organic or natural brands” you may know of). To understand this better, the next time you go shopping, make sure to spend a few more extra minutes to go through the ingredients list of EVERY product that you buy. I guarantee you will be surprised if not shocked – you may not even know why some of the ingredients are required!!

So these chemicals, apart from being non-essentials, can cause great harm as well including being hormone imbalancers, migraine triggers, carcinogens, skin allergens, endocrine disruptors (meaning fertility reducers/disease causers!) and so on and so forth.

Let’s back to one more quick quiz.

Imagine not having your favorite detergent to wash your clothes – can you still keep them clean and smelling fresh?
Suppose you run out of your bathroom cleaners and cant go out for a week – would you still spend as much time in the bathroom as you might otherwise?

Well, of course, you can 🙂 Just that you need to find out how our grandparents used to do it a few decades back – it’s as simple as that. And the best part of it? It was totally natural, chemical-free and eco-friendly – as good for us as it was for all the living beings around us. No side effects, no diseases and completely harmless. Sounds fantastic, right? Then why not try to adopt such a lifestyle yourself? Why not shift to chemical-free life and give yourself, your children, your family and all the other beings around a safe and natural environment to live in?

Let us take the first step today. Let’s look at the humble Soapnut that grows right in our backyard (not literally, unless you happen to live just outside a forest – which would be awesome actually!) and see how it can help us move to a natural and chemical-free lifestyle.

Soapnuts – your Natural Cleaner to the rescue

Soapnut, also called Reetha /Boondikottai /Kumkudukaya /Antuvalakay, can be one of your most useful and go-to natural ingredients in your household cleaning mission. Growing abundantly in the Himalayas (and Nepal) and South India, it is easy enough to source these days given the increase in interest around chemical-free living.

Soapnuts can really replace most, if not all, chemicals at your home, especially if used in combination with Bio Enzymes (we will see how to make that in another post). Let us now quickly see how you can use these magic super cleaners for your everyday household cleaning requirements along with few other questions you may have on this nut.

1. What exactly are Soapnuts?
They are the fruits of the Sapindus tree (Sap meaning Soap in Latin and Indus referring to their native India). There are multiple species/sub-species of this tree. In India itself, there are two different species/sub-species that produce two different looking fruits.

2. How are they useful in cleaning?
Soapnuts have a high amount of “surfactants” (the chemical compound good at removing dirt) in the form of naturally occurring saponins in their fruit pulp. If you are familiar with the structure of soaps, you will know that a soap compound has two ends – one tail end that repels water (and attracts dirt) and one head end that attracts water (making them water soluble). Soapnuts have these compounds naturally. So it is this property of them that makes them great for removing dirt. Plus, they are all natural to boot – meaning they decompose back into the soil quickly leaving minimal environmental impact unlike chemicals produced in laboratories such as detergents and shampoos.

3. How do Soapnuts look?

A freshly harvested Soapnut – Observe how they are clumped up

Two different types of Soapnuts found in India (after drying) – the one on right is the South Indian variety and the one on my left hand is the Himalayan variety

4. Is there a difference between the quality/effectiveness of these two varieties?
In my experience, absolutely not. The Himalayan ones look better and are bigger and are more appealing to our senses. The South Indian ones don’t look so neat but they pack quite a punch in their cleaning abilities. While the Himalayan ones are bit costly this side of the Vindhyas (considering they have to be transported so far from their origin), the South Indian ones are available at a bit lesser price here making them economically more feasible. Also, the South Indian ones are easier to soak and smash – the Himalayan ones take a bit longer to get soaked.

5. Why should I use Soapnuts and why not my detergents?
Not a good question, if you are still asking! Your detergents and most other cleaning products that you have at home are made of synthetic chemical compounds that have a high amount of toxins along with all the good things they promise you that gives them the cleaning power you need (and let’s not forget the wonderful oh-so-clean fragrance). These synthetic compounds, in addition to being harmful to you personally in terms of the ill-health and side effects they cause, are also damaging to the environment and the water bodies and the living beings present in the water bodies. Some of these toxins could be formaldehyde, diethanolamine, alkyl benzene sulfonates, ethylene oxide, Sodium hypochlorite, 1-4-dioxane, Benzoxazolyl, Phosphates and so on and so forth. Really, you don’t need to kill a lake full of fishes to get the dirt-free clothes or home you desire. When there is an all natural alternate way, which is also harmless to our fellow living things (not to mention to us as well), why not adopt that method? Soapnuts are the wonderful things God created to give you this option.

6. Okay, great! But how do I use Soapnuts???
That’s an easy one. There are so many different ways you can use Soapnuts depending on the amount of time and energy you have to spend on your cleaning mission. Here are a few ways to use Soapnuts:

Option 1: – Using Soapnuts as-is – The easiest and quickest way

  • Take about 10-12 whole Soapnuts (can be deseeded or with seeds; this measurement is for 6-8 kgs of clothes)
  • Put them in an old sock and tie the mouth of the socks tightly such that no Soapnuts can escape
  • Simple throw in this sock along with your wash load and run the machine on full soak cycle. Pls put it along with the clothes and not in the place provided for detergents. It’s not a problem if the sock stays till the drying cycle is complete.
  • Optionally, please add 100 ml of Bio Enzyme for disinfecting and softening the fabrics. Especially, when you have a lot of whites, Bio Enzyme is good to include.
  • After removing the clothes, remove the sock with the Soapnuts as well and keep it out to dry.
  • You can use it for one more time before opening up the sock and discarding the used Soapnuts. The Soapnut peels can be thrown into your compost bin while you can save the seeds for making seed bombs, seed jewelry or other activities or simply throw them into an empty plot. Alternatively, you can use the Soapnut peels to wash your vessels as well.
  • Please note that when using Soapnuts, you should not overload your machine. Also, when you have really dirty clothes, please pre-soak the Soapnut sock in hot/warm water for 15 minutes and then add the tea of Soapnut along with the Soapnut sock into the machine.

Option 2: – Soapnuts Liquid (works better than the whole pods at times so try both before you decide which one works for you)

  • Take about a 250-500 grams of Soapnuts. Soak it in 1 litre water for a few hours. You can also use Soapnut powder in the place of Soapnuts and follow the same procedure.
  • Heat up the water for 10-15 minutes till the water turns completely dark and the Soapnuts release all their surfactants. You may also simply pressure cook it for one whistle.
  • After the solution cools down, smash the Soapnuts in hand and ensure all the juices are extracted
  • Let it sit overnight
  • Next day morning, filter out all the solids. The resulting liquid is your All natural cleaning liquid which can be used as a floor cleaner, laundry liquid detergent, bathroom cleaner, tile cleaner, dish wash, etc, etc.
  • As we have boiled it, you will need to use it up within a week otherwise the solution may start smelling/fermenting.  Or  you can simply refrigerate it and use it as and when you need it. You may also prepare a large batch and freeze it. Alternatively, you can use Bio Enzyme and water to soak the Soapnuts instead of boiling them, keep it for a week, filter and use the liquid (it will have a really long shelf life as Bio Enzyme will act as a preservative so there would be no need to refrigerate).
  • For about 6 kgs of laundry, you will need 150-200 ml of Soapnut liquid. For one bucket of water to mop your house, you can use 50-100 ml of the liquid. Work with different quantities and see what works best for you.
  • The filtered out pulp can be used once or twice more to extract more Soapnut liquid. Once completely used up, they go to your compost bin.
Option 3: – Soapnut powder
  • Buy Soapnut powder. It’s not very easy to powder them yourself at home so pls don’t try.
  • Take about 2-3 spoons of Soapnut powder for about 6-8 kgs of laundry. Put the powder inside a thick cotton cloth/bag (NOT SOCKS) and tie the mouth tightly
  • Simple throw in this sock along with your wash load and run the machine on full soak cycle. Pls put it along with the clothes and not in the place provided for detergent. It’s not a problem if the sock stays till the drying cycle is complete.
  • Optionally, please add 100 ml of Bio Enzyme for disinfecting and softening the fabrics. Especially, when you have a lot of whites, Bio Enzyme is good to include.
  • After removing the clothes, remove the sock with the Soapnuts and discard the Soapnut powder into your compost bin.
  • Beware of the cloth bag coming apart and the powder spreading across all your clothes. It’s extremely difficult to clean up.
  • Also, the powder MAY dull your whites over time. If that happens, you can wash the Whites in hot water and Vinegar/Bio Enzyme.

Soapnuts also make a great hair wash along with Shikakai and other ingredients. You can explore many more recipes on the net to discover the various other uses of Soapnuts.

7. Okay, I am a convert! What else should I know about this wonder nut?
Cool, that’s awesome. I am happy! Here are a few things I can think of:

  1. Always try to buy that year’s harvest for more effectiveness
  2. Store them airtight and dry.
  3. If you find the Soapnuts you have bought are still too fresh and sticky, please ensure you sundry them well for 2 – 3 days. Otherwise, they will tend to catch fungus/green mold and the whole thing will get ruined quickly.
  4. If you are a power user of Soapnuts, you will end up with a lot of Soapnut seeds. You can put them in your compost bin – so save them for your children to make seed bombs or to play with. Or you can string them into a mala and use them to cleanse your aura (don’t ask me more details on that as am yet to find out more!)
  5. You can reuse the grey water from your floor wash/laundry/dish wash after using Soapnuts as it is all natural and will not harm your plants.
  6. Soapnuts also make great pest control. So instead of using synthetic soap in your pest control measures for your plants where you are required to emulsify neem oil, you can use Soapnuts and neem oil. Just a Soapnut water soak once a week will also help you keep out mosquitoes and other insects from your lawns and gardens.

Hope the above information helps you and you are able to make the switch to a chemical-free life as I have!

Author: Vaijayanthi

Vaijayanthi is a freelance business writer and full-time gardener. She coaches people on adopting a chemical-free lifestyle through her initiative called the Kaustubam for Sustainable Living Practices. She also conducts various physical workshops and training sessions on sustainable living and Gardening for children in Bengaluru through the Chinnara Kaithota.