Soap nuts are a natural, biodegradable and petroleum-free laundry soap alternative. They grow on trees in Nepal and India, but they're not nuts; they're actually a fruit. You might also see them sold as soapberries. The tree itself is from the genus Sapindus. (Think back to biology class.)
Soap nuts contain large amounts of saponins in their shells, which are a natural surfactant. Surfactants are compounds that lower the surface tension of a liquid, and so can be used as detergents or foaming agents. You can find soap nuts in many health food stores, organic grocers or online.
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How to use soap nuts:
Add four or five of them, in a small cloth bag, to a load of dirty laundry. You can reuse that pouch of soap nuts for a few loads.
My favourite solution for eco-friendly laundry soap is making my own liquid version from borax, washing soda and soap granules. Check out my recipe or watch the complete do-it-yourself video. It only takes about 20 minutes to make a batch that will last you about a month and costs only a dollar a litre. I prefer the liquid recipe to powdered versions because it works well in cold water, saving even more money on utility bills.
Another tip: add about half a cup of baking soda to boost your whites instead of chlorine bleach. Don't think you have the DIY gene in you? Shop for plant-based, biodegradable laundry soap without synthetic chemical fragrances and wash your laundry in cold water!