Zero Waste chatter lately has all been a buzz about using conkers (horse chestnuts) to make Laundry liquid. The word on the street is that they’re a more sustainable alternative to soap nuts, which are flown to us from half-way around the world. Apparently conkers contain the same soap-like substance as soap nuts, saponin. So challenge set all I needed to do was find some conkers!
Finding conkers was not easy. Any horse-chestnut tree near a school had been thoroughly denuded and my fear of dogs prevents me walking in parks in Ireland. Then, when I was on route to visit an elderly neighbour in a nursing home, I came upon an unadulterated glut of them. Karma!
So here’s how I made my laundry liquid.
- Cut the conkers into quarters or smash into pieces with a hammer. I did six.
- Cover the pieces with water and leave to steep for at least 30minutes. I did it overnight for maximum effect.
- Strain the yellowish liquid and use as laundry liquid. The recipes I’ve seen suggest 1/3 – 1/2 cup per wash.
- Update 10th Nov 2019. I tried a new recipe that called to dry the smashed conkers out in the oven for 1.5 hours at 150 degrees. Then, once cooled, soak 40g of the dried conkers in 500ml boiling water for 30 mins, drain and set liquid aside in the fridge. Then resoak the conkers in 500ml of boiling water, this time overnight, drain and keep liquid in the fridge for up to a week. The first soaking is said to be suitable for heavily soiled loads, while the second is better for moderately soiled loads. I’ve read you can do a third soaking for lightly-soiled loads but I didn’t bother with this.
I’ve also seen people cut the conkers into quarters and just put them in a small cotton bag in with their laundry, like you would with soapnuts.
How did it fare?
Update: 10th Nov 2019. This year, over the space of a week, I washed 5 loads of clothes using
- the liquid from 60g fresh conkers steeped in 500ml of boiling water for 30mins.
- the liquid from resoaked fresh conkers steeped in 500ml of boiling water overnight.
- the liquid from 40g dried conkers steeped in 500ml of boiling water for 30mins.
- the liquid from resoaked dried conkers steeped in 500ml of boiling water overnight.
- Sodasan eco laundry powder.
The clothes I washed with the conker laundry liquid were quite clean when the came out of the washing machine, but one top had a stain on it that I know would have come out with my regular laundry powder. They also didn’t smell very clean, even after adding a few drops of essential oil to the liquid. I’m also conscious of the fact that in a trial of alternative laundry products it was found that water cleaned clothes as well as soap nuts, and that I thought soap nuts were doing a good job of cleaning my laundry until about 8 months in when clothes really started to stink.
I also tested the conker liquid to wash some greasy bakeware and on oiled hands. My thinking being that if it can shift grease on bakeware or hands it will surely shift it on clothes. The conker liquid was slightly more effective than boiling water alone on the bakeware but not nearly as effective as the Lilly’s Eco or Bio D dishwashing liquid*. It was the same for my hands, the conker liquid loosened the oil I had placed on it but not enough for it to wash off. It wasn’t until I used some of the olive oil soap I have that it started to lift.
Pros of Conker Cleaning Liquid
- It’s practically free, although remember if you’re collecting them to leave some for foraging animals.
- They’re grown locally so much more sustainable than soap nuts from across the globe.
- They don’t need to be manufactured, packaged and shipped and so have a lower carbon footprint than other products.
Cons of Conker Cleaning Liquid
- I’ve read that the yellow tinge to the liquid might stain white clothing and that you’re advised to peel the conkers first. I’m afraid I don’t have the time or interest to peel conkers so I won’t be trying this. The liquid from dried conkers is decidedly brown in colour and I’d be very concerned about it staining light-coloured clothes over time. Look at my Instagram Cleaning Highlights to see the colour of the various conker liquids.
- You have to soak the conkers at least 30mins before your launder so you have to plan in advance. It’s not a big deal but if the mental load of your life is huge this might just tip you over the edge.
- The other issue with conkers over soap nuts is storage. If I have to use 40g conkers for every two washes, that’s a lot of conkers to store unlike soap nuts, which you’re told that you can use repeatedly for 4-5 washes. As i mentioned above some people say you can get a third ‘tea’ out of the soaked conkers but that’s only supposed to be good for light loads and really my head is already spinning at the idea of tailoring my wash to two different strengths of conker tea.
I simply don’t believe that conker liquid washes as well as commercial laundry products. I think this is because conker liquid contains a soap-like substance and not a detergent like substance. Both soap and detergents trap dirt and suspend it in water so it can be washed away but soap isn’t as effective at suspending dirt, particularly in hard water areas. Soaps form a scum in hard water and this scum does not rinse away easily and can turn laundry a greyish hue over time. Detergents react less to minerals in water and so do not leave this residue. If you live in an area where the water is soft, you will have more success with soaps, but even then a gradual build-up of calcium and magnesium ions (also called ‘curd’) can be left in the fabric of your family’s laundry over time. You can read more about how soap and detergents work here.
PS – I can buy refills of biodegradable dishsoap.