Friday, 26 August 2011

Cleaning with Nature

Hello readers!  I hope you've been having another nice week.  This week I've been noticing that the days are getting shorter, and the other night at volleyball, I had to play in a hoodie!  What???  I have mixed feelings about the impending fall season, but I always welcome change.  The summer did feel very short though, and I only made it to the Island once.  Hopefully there will be one more gorgeous Saturday left so I can get over there and mellow out on the beach all day.

So.  After all we know about chemicals in our beauty products, we shouldn't be too surprised to learn that cleaning products are extremely toxic.  Here is a list of the common chemicals in a typical laundry detergent:

  • Phenols: Toxic, a suspected carcinogen and rapidly absorbed. Effects include swelling, pimples, and hives. Internal consumption can cause circulatory collapse, cold sweats, coma, and death.
  • Optical brighteners: Can cause skin allergy, toxic to fish and can cause bacterial mutations.
  • Phosphates: Environmental hazard causing excessive growth in aquatic plants which leads to the suffocation of fish and underwater life.
  • EDTA: Skin irritant leading to allergies, asthma, and skin rashes. Does not biodegrade readily and is an environment hazard.
  • Artificial fragrances: Toxic effects on fish and mammals, often causes allergies, skin and eye irritation. Do not easily biodegrade in the environment.
  • Ammonia: Can cause burns, cataracts and corneal damage. Long term repeated exposure can cause bronchitis and pneumonia. Also has a toxic effect on plants, animals and fish.
  • Sodium Sulfate: It is corrosive and a severe eye, skin, and respiratory irritant. Can cause asthma attacks.

Wow!  This is all very disturbing to me, as these chemicals can leave residue on our fabrics, and when we wear our clothes and sleep on our sheets, these chemicals can be absorbed into our skin.  Of concern to me are the phthalates (remember, from my last post that "fragrance" is a broad term which you can take to mean that phthalates are present?).  Indeed, laundry detergents commonly use phthalates to impart fragrance to laundry.  Most detergents contain these additives; there are few laundry detergents offered fragrance-free.

I have read that a CDC study in 2000 found that the phthalates in detergents, lubricating oils and solvents were more commonly found in human test subjects than the phthalates in PVC, food packaging, medical supplies, and children's toys.  Evidently the detergent borne phthalate is more easily transferred to the human body than these other more abundantly used forms of phthalate.  Even if the phthalates were present only in very small concentrations, it is very easy for them to transfer to our skin's surface, especially given how long we wear clothing.  This means that for a detergent user, this compound will be in contact with the skin on a long term basis.  Apparently once an oil soluble substance such as a phthalate makes contact with the skin it is readily absorbed into the skin layers and ultimately into the underlying living tissues. This is because cell membranes are themselves composed of fatty acids and naturally absorb fat soluble substances into their structure.  SCIENCE!!!

Now on to dryer sheets.  Dryer sheets coat all your clothes with a layer of toxic chemicals. When you wear those clothes, again, your body moisture causes those chemicals to come into contact with your skin and be absorbed directly into your bloodstream. It's an easy way to poison your system with cancer-causing chemicals.

Let's not forget those massive plastic jugs that end up in landfills.  There is not one piece of plastic made, since we started making plastic, that is not still on this planet.  We can recycle them, and think we should feel good about that, but let's not forget the first 'R" is Reduce.

The Solution: Soap Nuts

Well, perhaps it's not the only solution, as I'm sure there are cleaners that aren't as toxic, or even toxin-free.  But they will still create huge amounts of waste.

Soap nuts are actually fruits similar in appearance to lychees from the tree called Sapindus, which grows wild over parts of India and Nepal.  These 'nuts' are not edible.  The thing about the fruit of the Sapindus tree is that they are covered with saponin, a sticky substance which is a surfactant.  Surfactants work by breaking the surface tension of water so it can more easily penetrate into fabrics, effectively making water “wetter.”  Once wet, the agitation of your washing machine (or your hands) shakes the dirt loose from your clothes.  Then soap nuts’ saponin holds the dirt in suspension in the water (preventing it from re-depositing on your clothes) until you’ve rinsed it away.  There are surfactants in conventional detergent as well, only they are harmful chemicals instead.

Here's how they work: You put 3-5 soap nuts in a little satchel that comes with your package.  If doing a cold wash, soak the satchel with the nuts in 50 ml hot tap water for 2-4 minutes (to release the saponin).  Then put the 50 ml water and the satchel right into the washing machine drum.  If using a front loading machine, put the satchel in the drum, and the 50 ml of water into the detergent receptacle.  If doing a hot or warm wash, just throw the satchel right in the machine.  No need to use fabric softener, clothes come out soft with soap nuts (but don't put the soap nuts in the dryer).

If you can believe it, you can use that same satchel for 2-4 loads of laundry!  Once they're thin and worn, just put them in the green bin.

You can also make your own liquid detergent.  Place 12-15 soap nuts in 6 cups boiling water.  Keep at a rolling boil for 30 minutes.  Mash the soap nuts in a bit, to release the saponin.  The liquid will boil down to about 4 cups.  Strain the liquid over cheesecloth, and store in a glass container in the fridge  (no reason to allow plastic chemical crap to leach into your detergent).  Use 3 tbsp for a load of laundry as you would normal detergent.

You can use that liquid detergent as a household cleaner as well.  Put the liquid in a spray bottle, or just dab your cloth with it.  You can use it to wash your dishes as well.  It truely is nature's cleaner!

I bought my soap nuts from Earth's Berries a company located in Collingwood, Ontario.  It comes in 3 sizes: 250 g for $10.00 (75-100 loads), 500 g for $18.00 (150-200 loads), and 1 kg for $30.00 (300-400 loads).  Shipping is an additional $9.00, but they offer free shipping for orders over $60.00.  I decided ahead of time that I knew these things were going to be amazing, and ordered 2 x 1 kg bags -- and technically saved myself $18.00 over time.  If you're not ready for that many soap nuts at once, you may want to go in on ordering with a friend.  How incredibly economical is this: A 1 kg bag does a whole year of laundry, for $30.00!!!

My review is in: they are amazing!  They get everything clean, and the clothes come out smelling fresh.  You will notice they don't come out smelling perfumey, which might seem weird at first, since we're all so used to commercial detergents.  But now we all know that those fragrances are rarely natural, nor are they good for you.  We're better off without them.  If you really need the scent, you can add a few drops of essential oil such as lavender onto the satchel.

I had a great experience ordering from Earth's Berries.  In addition, I emailed them the other day with a question, and heard back at the crack of dawn the next day.  Fantastic customer service!  Here is how you can order from Earths' Berries.

You might be wondering about sustainability, carbon footprint, and who actually harvests these fruits.  From the Earth's Berries FAQ:

"What about the carbon footprint it takes to get Earth’s Berries Soap Nuts to Canada?
I choose to bring over the Earth’s Berries in Shipments of no less than 3000kg per shipment, below is the calculation between using plastic and the shipment and the CO2 difference
  • Each 3000kg shipment from India   = approximately  2 tons of CO2 to the carbon footprint
  • 3000kg of soap nuts replace= 27000 plastic 32 load laundry bottles
  • The production of 1 plastic 32 load bottle = 1kg of C02 carbon footprint
  • Therefore that is equal to 27,000kg of CO2 carbon footprint
  • 27 000 kilogram = 27 ton [metric] co2 carbon footprint
What is the sustainablility of the tree?
The seed of the Earth’s Berries are left in India, therefore providing lots of time for them to take hold and grow a new tree. It takes nine years for the tree to bear fruit that is usable as an Earth’s Berry. Most of the trees are centuries old.
How do you purchase the Earth’s Berries?
They are picked and packed for me in India. I feel so strongly about how well the workers are cared for and the income that both jobs provide to the community that I have chosen to have the packaging done there as well.
Are they organic?
Yes they most definitely are organic; however they do not, as yet, have the organic classification on them. My choice to hand pick my supplier, one whose mission is fair practices and fair wages to his employees, was more important to me at this time. He has a small operation and in time will have the organic classification.

How do they get here?

They arrive here by ship; I do my best to order in large quantities so that I can keep the carbon footprint as low as possible.
Where are they packaged?
There is much debate as to whether they should be packed in India or packed when they arrive. I have my bags packed in India because I know that I am then continuing the employment of a small village and because of the fair practices of my supplier it is important to me to support his company, and the people. The internal bag is sealed and protects against moisture in the bag."
I'd really love for you to just try these out, because I know you'll love them.  You will save tons of money, cut down on huge amounts of waste, and save your body from all the harsh chemicals listed earlier.  It's just one more way we can live cleaner.  I sort of see soap nuts as one up for the little guy - a way we can sustainably rely on nature to replace an entire industry that puts toxins on our skin and in our bodies, and waste in our landfills.  After all, since when does dirty equal clean?

Have a great weekend!  My parents will be visiting me - maybe they'll be curious to try out the soap nuts, and take care of some laundry for me! =)


  1. Another bonus to using soap nuts as a laundry detergent: no need for the rinse cycle.

    Halving your water consumption while doing laundry is great for the environment, as well as your water usage bill.

  2. That's something I totally forgot to mention! Thanks! Alas, my parents did not do any laundry while they were here, but I did send them home with a little satchel of soap nuts, so hopefully they like them as much as I do.