Monday, January 28, 2013

Airing Out Some Dirty Laundry By Katie Machek

As promised, I’ve decided to compile a section dedicated solely to laundry. As much as I want to write about more philosophical, substantial matters, I’ve decided another practical blog post is in order. It has also been on my mind since I posted the “Top 5 Natural Cleaning Ingredients” spiel, so I thought I’d get it out to you all while it was still fresh in my memory. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it! Between the two-year-old, the dog, the husband who works out in the muddy snow, and our family’s insatiable desire to play outside (rain or shine), you could imagine that we do a lot of laundry in this house. Naturally, it’s something that we deal with on a daily basis.
When we adopted the sustainable lifestyle, we started looking at our piles of clothes a little differently. We realized that buying carton after carton of laundry detergent was really taking a toll on our wallets- and the environment. After all, how many laundry detergent cartons can you really reuse? We also started to question exactly what was in these store-bought laundry detergents that made them so special, anyway. Remember the “Dirty Secrets Test” commissioned by the Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE)? After reading this study, we were disappointed (albeit not surprised) to find out that we were paying for ingredients like 1,4-dioxane (a known carcinogen) in our supposedly “gentle” laundry detergent. Bummer!

Admittedly, what really got us on the crunchy granola laundry train was the birth of our son. Long before he was born, we decided we were going to use cloth diapers instead of the conventional disposables. This would reduce our environmental impact and save us hundreds (seriously, hundreds) of dollars. The caveat, aside from the fact that we would now have to deal hands-on with poop, was that these diapers would not absorb liquid as effectively if they were washed with detergents that contained fillers and oils. These fillers and oils would clog-up the fabric of the cloth, and liquid would wick out of the diapers and onto who ever was cradling our little one. “Now what?” we thought.

After some research (and some help from my older sister, who pioneered the whole cloth diaper movement for our family) we came across the amazing soap nuts that I’ve mentioned before. Just as a refresher, soap nuts are the fruit of a tropical plant. They contain saponins, which act as surfactants that will help wash away dirt and grime. As a laundry cleaner they are especially gentle and mild, making them perfect for newborn baby clothes and cloth diapers or for anyone with sensitivities to detergents. These amazing little nuts can be bought by the bag online or at your natural health food store. Most are sold in a nifty cloth bag, along with one or two small muslin bags. They are incredibly versatile and easy to use. As an application to laundry, there are a couple ways we use them in our home. First, you can just put a few nuts in one of those little muslin cloths they give you and toss them in the laundry. You can remove them before the rinse cycle if you wish, but we usually leave them in the entire laundry cycle and have not noticed a difference yet. I suppose that removing them before the rinse cycle would make them last a little longer. Do try to make sure you remove them from the laundry load before you switch over to the dryer. This will allow you to reuse one bag of soap nuts over and over- usually 3-5 times, depending on the size and soil level of the laundry load.

Another way we harness the cleaning power of these little nuts is by making a decoction of the nuts and using it as a liquid laundry detergent. This liquid can be used in top loader and front loader machines, although you may want to use a little less liquid in front loader washing machines. Check the manufacturer’s recommendations for how much liquid detergent to use per load. For time’s sake, I’m going to copy and paste the recipe I provided previously for this liquid soap nuts solution:

Multi-Purpose Soap Nuts Liquid

4 cups Water
8-10 Soap Nuts

Place water and soap nuts into a medium pot and cook over medium high heat, until the mixture reaches a rolling boil. Reduce heat and let simmer until the mixture has reduced by half. Let cool. Mash the soap nuts with a potato masher, and strain the liquid into a container. Store this solution in the refrigerator, as the liquid is perishable. The liquid can also be frozen into ice cube trays, if you want to make a few batches at a time. I also like this method of preserving the liquid because it eliminates the need to measure out the liquid- just pop in a couple of these cubes to your laundry and you’re good to go. You can see here that we are using a 2:1 soap nut to water ratio. Feel free to up the ante (i.e. 3:1 or 4:1) if you feel as though you’d like a more concentrated cleaning solution. 

This liquid laundry detergent worked perfectly for us for over a year, with no problems. That is, until we started introducing solid food to our son’s diet. It was at that point that we had, well, let’s just say a bit more substance to deal with. I noticed that his diapers were coming out of the wash dirty and smelly, and it didn’t seem to matter if we were meticulously rinsing them out before we put them in the wash. I had a feeling that the soap nuts weren’t really cutting it anymore, but I didn’t’ really have a solution besides the store bought diaper-friendly detergents that cost an arm and a leg. Granted these detergents are very safe to use and effective at cleaning, they are incredibly expensive- often costing over $10 for a 50oz carton. That may seem like a lot, but one of those cartons is enough for about 30 loads of laundry. Considering how much laundry we do, we would be using over a carton a month. After doing some research I noticed that many people have come up with a basic laundry detergent powder recipe that I have found cleans just as well as the store bought laundry detergents I’ve used in the past. And the best part about it is that it is safe and cost-effective. Look around online and you’ll find many variations of the same basic recipe. Here’s my favorite:

You will need: a cheese grater, baking soda, borax, a small bar of soap, a measuring cup, a food processor (optional) and a cookie sheet

Powder Laundry Detergent

2 Cups finely grated bar of soap
1 Cup Borax
1 Cup Baking Soda
1 Cup Washing Soda

Grated soap
Powdered soap
Chose any bar of soap you’d like, although I’ve noticed that most folks prefer a soap that is free of dyes and fillers. I use an all-natural coconut soap made locally, but I’ve seen others like fels-naptha, ivory, or Dr. Bronner’s. What ever soap you chose, grate it with a cheese grater and run it through a food processor until it is finely powdered (note that I use a natural coconut soap that doesn’t leave a residue or fragrance in our food processor). Then simply add all ingredients into a large container and shake well. Use 2 Tbsp per normal size load, 3 Tbsp if the laundry is especially soiled or you are doing a large load. If you want to make a bulk amount of this detergent, just follow the ratios of all the ingredients. I find that this is the best way to do it, since I don’t like to deal with cleaning my food processor very often.

The final product
You keen observers out there may be wondering where that box of washing soda is on the photo above. Well, you’ll be happy to know that you don’t necessarily need to go out and buy a box of washing soda, that is if you have enough baking soda at home. The reason being is that you can make your own washing soda at home by baking baking soda- and no, that’s not a typo! You may be wondering how this all works. Anyone remember balancing chemical equations from chemistry class? Let’s get nerdy! The chemical formula for baking soda- or sodium bicarbonate- is NaHCO3. The chemical formula for washing soda- or sodium carbonate- is Na2CO3.  A balanced chemical equation representing the conversion of baking soda to washing soda looks something like this:

2 NaHCO3 (s)    →   Na2CO3 (s) + H2O (g)+ CO2 (g)

As you can see, when heat is applied to the sodium bicarbonate, water and carbon dioxide are released. The solid that remains is sodium carbonate, or washing soda. Pretty neat, huh? It’s pretty easy to accomplish this, too. Simply measure out how much baking soda you will be using, pour it onto a cookie sheet, and bake at 400º for about 30 minutes. It’s a good idea to stir around the powder every so often while it bakes, especially if you are baking a lot at once. You will notice that the washing soda is a much finer powder than the baking soda. 

Homemade washing soda

There you have it, a laundry soap that is fun to make, safe to use, effective at cleaning even dirty diapers, and costs less that 10¢ per load (as opposed to over 30¢ per load for store-bought detergents). As for my container and scooper of choice, you ask? I’ve recruited a reused animal cracker container, and a scooper that came with my husband’s protein powder. So, it is between the soap nuts and our homemade laundry detergent that we have all our laundry cleaning needs covered. But wait, not so fast! What about stains? What about weird odors? I’ve got a couple more tricks up my sleeve…

Vinegar- for removing funky smells and grass stains, or to rinse out any remaining soap from your laundry after the wash cycle, add about ¼ cup vinegar to a rinse cycle. Your clothes will come out fresh and clean.

Hydrogen peroxide- to remove blood and ketchup stains, or those stubborn armpit stains, dab some hydrogen peroxide onto the stain before the wash cycle and let sit for 5-10 minutes. Remember to spot test any fabric you will be applying hydrogen peroxide to as it can bleach certain fabrics

Bar of soap- to spot-treat stains when they happen, I keep the leftover nubbin of bars of soap handy. Just dip the soap in water and rub onto the stain. Throw into your dirty laundry and while the clothing sits in the hamper the soap works away at the stain. When you wash your clothes the stain will be removed. 


This is the “Dirty Secrets Test” commissioned by the Women’s 
Voices for the Earth.

A helpful blog post regarding soap nuts, along with a modified version of the powder detergent above, using soap nuts.

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