Natural detergents and where to find them
I grew up visiting my grandmother in Allahabad where there was no such thing as a dry-cleaner but there were plenty of gorgeous handwoven silk saris and brocades that were kept clean. My grandmother would always wash them in something called “reetha”, but in Mumbai we had no reetha and I saw that my mom would send these things to a dry-cleaner. I knew my grandma managed just fine, with clothes much finer than mine, and without a dry-cleaner, but I forgot all about reetha powder for decades until in 2013 at the first Green People of India festival I came across the NGO Avani, who sell reetha powder as an all-natural laundry alternative.
What is Reetha powder?
Despite the name of ‘soap nut’ reetha (sometimes areetha) is actually a berry that is in fact indigenous to the South Asian subcontinent. Reetha powder is made from the shell of the berry, which is dried and crushed into a powder.
The shells contain saponin, a naturally-found compound that produces soap-like foam when shaken in water. Saponin is a surfactant (surface active agent), a compound that lower the surface tension between two liquids, between a gas and a liquid, or between a liquid and a solid. Simply put, the surfactant separates water from dirt, as one end of the compound attracts a water molecule while the other repels it. This enables the separation of dirt particles and water in the laundry process. Lab-created detergents essentially strive to do the same thing using surfactants derived from other compounds.
Advantages of using natural Reetha powder for laundry
There are a few advantages that reetha powder has over lab-created detergents. They are far less harsh on our systems both when we use them and and when we need them to biodegrade after usage. If you have a keen sense of being close to nature then reetha powder can be a very workable substitute for all kinds of cleaning.
- They are traditionally believed to have antibacterial and anti-fungal properties.
- In practice it has been observed that they far less harsh for users who suffer from eczema and sensitive skin but need to do laundry with their hands.
- Along with your clothes a reetha solution can be used to wash surfaces or dishes. (At the Avani village co-operative they use it to wash their utensils.)
- Many people also use reetha powder for pet grooming, as the saponin is all-natural and traditionally used for its insect and pest repellent properties.
- Reetha powder is also completely biodegradable, which eliminates many of the issues we discussed in my last article on Fairtrunk such as toxic phosphates in laundry water discharge.
Where to buy Reetha powder for laundry
In the last few years a few innovative eco-startups and social enterprises from different parts of India have started selling the powder as an all-natural alternative for household laundry, and have introduced the concept of using it in washing machines too.
Avani Kumaon is a rural social enterprise based out of the villages in the mountainous region of Uttarakhand. Their soap-nut powder is the one I have used the most and have worked with in retail, selling to many a happy customer. Each laundry kit costs Rs 130, contains 200g of organic soap-nut powder made from the powdered shells of berries, and 2 cotton pouches for washing machine usage.
Bengaluru-based The Daily Dump sells the nuts whole, for usage in their muslin pouches that go into the washing machine drum.
Chennai-based Krya offers 400-gm pack of unscented Krya soap-berry detergent powder made from organic soap-berries, which costs Rs 290 and is good for 40 standard 5 kg wash loads. “If you follow the instructions on the pack, our powder costs Rs 7 a wash versus Rs 12-13 for a regular chemical detergent,” says Srinivas Krishnaswamy, an Indian Institute of Management (Bangalore) alumnus and co-founder at Krya. Very astutely, Krya also runs a subscription service so that once you’re hooked you don’t need to keep logging in to purchase your new laundry product every month.
Preethi shows you how to wash using your Krya detergent.
More natural laundry alternatives
The above are all variations of using the traditional soap nut in the powder form. There are also a few experiments being done by other companies to make a ‘better alternative’ for laundry, who use ‘saponified oils’ as the basis for the detergent properties. Saponified oils are oils that are mixed with an alkaline material, which results in the oil taking on the properties of a surfactant.
Satara-based Rustic Arts have formulated a range of naturally-sourced laundry products that are also biodegradable, available in liquid, laundry bars, and powder forms. They add lime and neem or natural scent and disinfectant properties.
Bengaluru-based, Mitti Se (formerly known as Nirvaaha) make a laundry detergent powder from completely natural and biodegradable ingredients, by mixing sodium compounds with natural saponins or saponified oils.
While I prefer using the soap nut powder directly, as it is literally just the powdered shell of a dried berry and you can’t get more natural than that, these two are both hand-made, free from harmful chemicals and animal testing, and are alternatives for people who wish to lessen the chemical burden on themselves, and on soil and water.