Soapnuts for hair: The easiest way to wash hair with reetha

In July 2013 I decided to stop using shampoo, because I was fed up with applying chemicals on my hair and I wanted to wash it less often. I had been using natural shampoos for many years when I lived in the UK, but in India I only knew the brands Himalaya (whose shampoos don’t feel that natural) and Biotique, which isn’t available in Khajuraho. So I looked on the Internet for other options and I discovered the ‘poo-free’ or ‘no-poo‘ method. There were many websites (like this one) explaining how to use baking soda to wash your hair, so I gave it a go. It was great for a few months, but today I prefer to use soapnuts for hair.

Going no-poo with baking soda and lemon juice

Just like the websites explained, it was a bit difficult for the first weeks. My hair was pretty grubby a lot of the time, but I was determined to succeed and I only washed my hair once a week with baking soda and lemony water as conditioning. In between I just rinsed it with water and combed it well every day. It was getting better and better and after almost three months my hair looked pretty normal. I was happy because I did need to wash it less often and it was falling less too! But although it looked clean, three days after washing it with baking soda my hair ends always smelt funny. Yes, only the ends!

Soapnuts for hair: How I discovered reetha

So I went back to the Internet to see if there were any other no-poo methods that didn’t imply soda bicarbonate. I found some websites talking about powders such as reetha, amla and shikakai and it all seemed a bit complicated for me to use (I am very lazy when it comes to cosmetics!), but what was really interesting was that all these powders actually came from… India!!!

I asked Kishan and his mum if reetha was available in Khajuraho, because it was the one that seemed most common. The answer was yes. Kishan’s brother-in-law who was visiting even told me you could find it easily in his tiny village! I was happy but puzzled as to why I hadn’t known about these local plants in the six years I had been living in India! So Kishan bought some reetha for me, and when I opened the bag I couldn’t believe it was none other than… soapnuts! Oh my God! I had seen them in organic shops in Europe and I knew they were great for laundry, but soapnuts for hair?!

I was very excited to discover a great local product to wash my hair in rural India, but all these websites talked about using it in powder form and I just had whole nuts. One website instructed to soak some nuts in boiling water overnight and to wash my hair with the soapy water the following morning. My sister-in-law told me it wasn’t necessary to boil the water if the nuts were to soak overnight.

And so I have been using reetha or soapnuts for hair for over five years now, and it is really easy and amazing. Besides, reetha has many benefits. Mainly it strengthens the hair from its root and prevents hair fall and it doesn’t damage the hair’s natural oils so you need to wash it less often. It is good for the skin too and it has anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties.

Soapnut shells contain saponin, a natural detergent which is released as they absorb water.  It took me a few weeks to figure out how to use them properly, so I have decided to write my easy step-by-step guide on how to use soapnuts for hair. Please note that this is how it works for me, and it might work differently for you.

Soapnuts for hair: Preparation

Soapnuts for hair: open soapnut
Soapnuts for hair: open soapnut

It’s very simple, but don’t forget! If you wash your hair in the morning you need to put some soapnuts in a bowl or cup of water the evening before. Cold water is fine.

My hair is about shoulder length and I use 6 or 7 nuts. Five years ago it was longer and I used 9 or 10 nuts. Don’t forget to open the nuts before you soak them, as the saponin is secreted from inside. To open a nut you can use a knife (careful with your fingers!) or a nut cracker. Alternatively, if you think about it, a few hours after soaking the nuts are soft and easy to open by hand. A round black stone comes out from each nut, which you can throw away.

Do not add too much water, otherwise the saponine will be too diluted and the soapy water will not wash your hair well. When my hair was longer I used to pour about 2 cm of water in a medium-sized bowl, like on the picture below. Today I fill a small coffee cup, like this.

How to wash hair with reetha

In the morning, the soapy water in which the nuts have soaked overnight should be thick and dark yellow/brown in colour. If it is too limpid it won’t wash your hair well enough.

Wash hair with reetha: soapy water ready to use
Wash hair with reetha: soapy water ready to use

Remove the soapnuts from the water and keep them for your next hair wash, as they still contain saponine and they can be reused one more time! Throw away the black stones.

In the shower, pour the soapy water little by little onto your wet hair – tilt your head back so that the water won’t go into your eyes, as the saponine badly stings your eyes! Pour a little water, massage your head; pour a little more, massage, and so on. Your hair won’t get foamy but don’t worry, they will still be clean! Actually, the length of your hair gets foamy but the hair on your scalp doesn’t!

After you have poured all the water and massaged your scalp well, let reetha rest for a bit and then rinse your hair well.

That’s it!

Conditioning with lemon-water

Reetha actually has some conditioning properties, so I no longer condition my hair afterwards (I told you I was lazy!) You can still use lemon juice with water for extra softness and shine.

You will need the juice of a lemon in a small cup topped-up with water and a clean comb (I use a wooden comb which I clean with soda bicarbonate and a toothbrush).

Slowly pour all the lemony water onto your head and hair, tilting your head back so the lemon juice won’t sting your eyes. Comb your hair as you would do with an ordinary conditioner. The hair is easy to comb as the lemon juice makes it nice and soft. Rinse well.

Soapnuts for hair: Results

  • My hair is silky and soft.
  • It falls a lot less.
  • It has more volume.
  • It gets greasy a lot less quickly, and when it is greasy it doesn’t show as much as it used to.

My dirty hair after 6 days of just rinsing with water, before I wash it with reetha – it doesn’t look too bad when tied-up, even after a week!

My hair just after I have washed it with reetha.

Soapnuts for hair: Remarks

  • Reetha doesn’t wash out oil well, so it may not be an option if you like to put oil in your hair! (Is this why absolutely no Indian I know ever washes their hair with reetha?)
  • Be very careful not to put any reetha in your eyes, as it stings badly and it takes a long time to wash away!
  • You can use the same set of nuts for two hair washes!
  • You can use apple cider vinegar instead of the lemon juice for conditioning. It works in exactly the same way; instead of the lemon juice simply pour a tablespoon of vinegar (same amount as the lemon juice) in your cup and top it up with water. Pour it onto your hair and head, comb your hair, rinse well.
  • I wash hair with reetha about once a week. In between two washes I still rinse and massage my hair in plain water everyday as this keeps it clean for longer. (And in India it’s a great thing because there is so much dust that it gets grubby quite quickly!)

Soapnuts for hair: Why I love reetha

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  • It’s completely natural.
  • It’s cheap.
  • It comes without packaging (in my part of the world anyway!) which is great for the environment.
  • It’s really easy to use.
  • It’s healthy.

One comment

  1. Hey, that sounds like a good idea for India. I super rarely wash my hair with anything else than hot water these days and just occasionally use soap so when I do instead of buy shampoo.
    I’ve got rather greasy hair quickly so the daily rinsing seems necessary otherwise it feels and looks dirty.
    I don’t have much hair though so that makes it easier to rinse/clean;)
    I’ll keep an eye in the shops here in Edinburgh in case I see soap nuts and perhaps will give it a try; thanks for sharing;)


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