My initial foray into natural laundry products began when we were getting our cloth diapering goods before Indy was born. You can't use just any old laundry detergent on cloth diapers (many can cause irritation or leave buildup), and while researching detergents that work well for cloth diapers we stumbled upon soap nuts (by the way, this is not a sponsored post, Yoreganics is just my brand of choice because I think it's the most bang for your buck). Soap nuts, which are actually a dried berry from the soapberry tree of the Himalayn Mountains, have been used for washing for thousands of years, and they are truly amazing. I could go on and on about the benefits of soap nuts (antimicrobial, eco-friendly, cost-effective [at $40 for 340 loads that breaks down to about 12 cents a load!], gentle for sensitive skin), and the reasons to avoid conventional detergents and fabric softeners (toxic ingredients, a whole slew of negative health impacts, and a coating of nasty, waxy residue), but you can read more about all of that here. (P.s. don't assume that because you use a "free and clear" or "natural" product that you're safe from unfriendly chemicals - always check the ingredients). Anyways, after getting soap nuts for use with diapers, we started using them for all of our laundry, and haven't turned back since. In my experience, all you need in your laundry arsenal are three simple things: soap nuts, Yoreganics stain remover, and a sodium percarbonate/sodium carbonate product (this is powdered oxygen bleach, a combination of solid hydrogen peroxide and soda ash, which is natural, non-toxic, and non-polluting) such as Oxo Brite (Yoreganics makes one too, but its too pricey), but any powdered oxygen bleach works, just check the label to make sure it's additive free.
Soap nuts are simple to use. You put five nuts in one of the little muslin bags that comes with every bag of soap nuts, tie it closed, and throw it in the washer. It doesn't need to come out after the wash cycle, it stays in through the whole cycle (it will naturally soften your clothes, too), and can even be tossed in with the clothes into the dryer. Five nuts will last about 4-6 washes, which depends mainly on water temperature: more in cooler water, less in hot. They work best in warm and hot water (cold water doesn't release the saponin from the shells very well), and for that reason while I still separate for colours, I wash all clothes in warm water and sheets/towels in hot. If you insist on using cold water, you can take your pick from several different brands of premade soap nut tea, or make it yourself. When wet, soap nuts have a sort of sweet, vinegary smell, but when clothes are dry they will smell like nothing but clean fabric. You can tell your soap nuts are spent by how they look. When new, they will be hard, thick, and shiny inside the shells. . .
When spent, they will be smaller, thin, papery and grey. . .
Toss or compost 'em, and refill your muslin bag.
If you're a fabric softener or dryer sheet junkie, consider wool dryer balls instead. They reduce static electricity, help soften clothing and speed drying time, but they're reusable and free of the chemicals normally found in dryer sheets. You can also put a few drops of your favorite essential oil (like lavender) or some vanilla extract if you miss scented laundry.
For treating fresh stains, I love Yoreganics stain remover (which smells like citrus and is made from saponified organic coconut, olive and jojoba oils, organic aloe vera, and an organic blend of essential oils and rosemary extract), and for stubborn and old stains, I fill a sink with steaming hot water and a couple of scoops of Oxo Brite, soak for a couple of hours, and wash like normal.
That's it. Laundry simplified and detoxified.