How To, Lifestyle

Switching from Soap Nuts to Conkers

Last year one of my goals was to try and make the switch to using Conkers – aka, horse chestnuts – instead of soap nuts for laundry detergent. Not everyone has heard of sopanuts, so I think I should explain what those are first. They look like redish-brown sticky nut shells, and the shells contain saponins, which are what wash your clothes and create the soapy froth you see when you clean your hands with a bar of soap. If you’re not familiar with soapnuts I might write a “guide to soapnuts” post, but for today I’m going to focus on Conkers.

Before I started writing this post I was thinking how long it’s been since I used a normal washing powder, and I think it’s been around four years. I’ve been using soapnuts for a long, long time, and I’m pretty confident that I know most of the pros and cons of using them. But now that I use conkers for washing instead I can quite confidently say that I prefer conkers by a country mile.

Let’s get straight to the point, here are the top five reasons I prefer Conkers – aka horse chestnuts – to soapnuts :

  1. They wash so much better. 

Don’t get me wrong, soap nuts do wash your clothes, but I haven’t found them to be as effective as conkers. Anything which requires more gentle handling (silk, cashmere etc) I’ll wash with the small batch of soapnut I have left. But if you have some truly dirty, sweaty, filth-covered clothes, conkers are much better.

2. I can get them locally. 

This is huge for me. Anything I can collect myself, especially if it’s a wasted resource, then I’ll happily use them.

3. Whites come out whiter. 

I guess this would also be a drawback for some people as the conkers do bleach very slightly, and if you’re a person who hates washed out black clothes, then maybe conkers aren’t for you. But as someone who uses cloth nappies for my little one, anything which helps keep them stain free is a plus to me.

4. The clothes smell better. 

With soap nuts you have to be very careful to let them dry out between washes. Since you can re-use the nuts a few time – about 3 to 4 times – you have to let them dry out or you will start to get this stale, almost moldy smell to your clothes. Conkers are only one use per batch (or per day) so I don’t have this problem.

Before I move onto the FAQ all about conkers, here is the video tutorial on how I use them:


  • How long can you keep them?

I’ve only used them for 3 months now, but I don’t plan to keep them longer than a year. By next autum it’ll be time to collect a new bundle of conkers.

  • Can you add a fragrance to them?

Yes, I normally add several drops of essential oils. First ten drops of tea tree oil to each new dried tray of conkers, before they go into my laundry tin for storage, and then four to five drops of my preferred scent with each jug of laundry. My favorite oils to add are; tea tree, lavender, pine or lemon.

  • How well do they work with stains?

Very well! So far I’ve tested them out on blood, grass and mud stains and it worked beautifully. The only time I’ve had trouble was with some dried blood stains, and I deliberately let the blood dry and sit overnight on the kitchen towel so that I could do a test and see how effective the conkers were. I found that when I let the towel sit in Conker juice for ten to fifteen minutes I could lightly rub the blood stains and they disappeared!  Then all I did was throw the towel into the next wash and the stains were gone by the time the wash was finished.

For tough stains, I would suggest leaving the clothes/items to soak in a small bowl of conker liquid before putting them in the wash. This isn’t always necessary, but I’m yet to have a stain stick around after a wash while using this method. If I can’t be bothered to do that I just rub a fabric soap or vanish bar over the stain before I put it in the washing basket. That way I don’t have to remember to leave it to soak later.

  • How well do they deal with odors?

Normal odors? Not a problem. The same goes for the cloth nappies I use for baby, they smell of nothing by the time the wash is finished with them. The only exception that is heavy, heavy perspiration. The kind you’d get if you’ve been doing an intense two-hour gym session. That smell is a little tricker to get out I’ve found, but even a vanish bar hasn’t managed to get those out. The only thing I’ve found does to trick is letting them sit in distilled vinegar to remover the sweat smell.

  • Is this a complete replacement of having to use clothes detergent?

For me, yes. I’m used to running a cleaning bar over stains before I pop them in the dirty washing basket and to having the occasional vinegar soak for gym clothes when needed. But if you’re the kind of person who wants to be able to grab a tablet from the draw, throw it into the wash, close the door and be done with it I don’t think you’ll find it to be a complete replacement.

  • How many do you need per load?

If you’ve ground your conkers up into crumbs like I did then you only need about a tablespoon, but if you’ve just smashed them into larger pieces then a small handful is needed (which you then need to leave to soak for at least 3 hours).

  • How many do you need to last for the year?

Last autumn I collected around two hundred of them, which I’m pretty sure will last me at least until June/july. Ideally next year I want to collect enough to fill up the laundry tin you saw in the video. So about one or two kilos in total, or about 400 conkers.

  • How often do you have to replace the conkers?

If I’m doing two washes in one day I’ll reuse the same conkers I used for the first batch. I often find that the second batch is always a lot more frothy and bubbly than the first, but I never reuse them otherwise. If it’s a different day then I use a new load of conkers and throw the old one into the compost bin.

  • What temperature can you wash with them?

My washing machine has different heat settings from 30°C to 95°C. So far I’ve found they work slightly better at a higher heat, but they seem to work well regardless.


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