There is actually a dry, brown fruit that you can throw in your washing machine to clean your laundry.
“Soap nuts,” also called “soap berries,” are really not a nut at all, but a berry related to lychee. They sort of remind me of dried out dates in appearance and texture. When I first heard about them, I loved the whole idea immediately. Soap that grows on trees?! Yeah! Some soaps may be plant-based, but this soap is literally a plant.
Sapindus soap berry trees have been used for centuries by native peoples around the world as a natural cleanser. Most soap nuts you find for sale nowadays come from the Sapindus mukorossi tree native to the Himalayas and Northern India. But, varieties of this miraculous tree can be found all over southern Asia. They even have history in North America. Daniel Austin’s Florida Ethnobotany tells us that natives in the southern United States benefited from the fruits of the “Florida Soapberry.”
HOW DO YOU USE THEM?
You place 4-5 “berries” in a small cloth drawstring bag and toss it into the washing machine before running the wash cycle. Let it work its magic, then remove the bag before transferring the clothes to the dryer. Allow the bag of soapnuts to dry when not in use. It’s that simple! One little bag of berries can be used for up to 10 loads of laundry.
They usually have a slightly fruity scent when wet and fresh out of the laundry. If this disappears, chances are the berries need to be retired. The soap berry husks will be brittle and papery when all the soft natural soap in the skin has been used up. You can also run a check by moistening them under running water, squeezing them, and noting whether tiny soap bubbles appear.
If it’s time to replace them, simply throw the old ones away or (even better) compost them. Place fresh berries in the drawstring bag and you’re good to go again.
DO THEY WORK?
The outer berry shell contains a natural surfactant called saponin, which breaks the surface tension of the water enabling it to penetrate the fibers of your clothing in the wash. This works to lift the dirt and stains out the fabric so they may be rinsed away!
I have been using them for almost a year now and I’m well satisfied with their cleaning power. At the very least, I have not noticed a difference between conventional detergent and using soap nuts to clean my laundry. My laundry comes out looking and smelling clean–although you do have to get used to your clothes being completely fragrance free!
I also know they are a popular option with moms who cloth diaper their children since soap berries are so gentle on baby skin. I can’t think of a much better endorsement of cleaning power than the fact they are used to clean soiled baby diapers.
NATURAL FABRIC SOFTENER
The saponin in soapnuts acts as a natural fabric softener by loosening the fabric fibers so they can fluff up in the dryer and become soft. Compare other fabric softeners which usually work by leaving a wax or oil residue on your clothes and textiles. Because this waxy buildup acts as a barrier to moisture, it can affect the breathability of your clothing and the absorbency of your towels and dish clothes. It is also a problem for people washing cloth diapers because the waxy or oily coating can interfere with the liquid absorption that is so essential in diapers. Soap nuts bypass this problem altogether, work without leaving a residue on fabrics, and eradicate the need for additional fabric softeners.
GENTLE ON SENSITIVE SKIN
Soap nuts are famously gentle on sensitive skin, making them a very popular alternative for babies or for people with skin conditions, such as eczema, psoriasis, or allergies. The mild soap/surfactant is not as harsh as other detergents often used and there is less likelihood of having a bad reaction to one of the ingredients or fragrances included. Soapnuts are just one, simple, perfume-free ingredient that minimizes the chances of irritation.
GENTLE ON THE ENVIRONMENT
Firstly, they are a renewable resource since they can be grown and harvested as a crop. The soap nuts I buy are organic—pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide free. Apparently, the saponin “soap” in the nuts is repellent to insects so they leave them alone. In addition, these hardy trees can grow well in uncultivated soil, further lessening the need for additional sprays and additives which can both add cost and risk damaging the environment (depending on the products used). This makes soap nuts a great sustainable alternative to other laundry soaps.
They are also fine for grey water and septic systems since they lack some of the problematic ingredients added to many conventional laundry products. Most detergents have been manufactured with artificial foaming agents to give the impression that they cleanse more deeply with a thick lather—which is pure illusion. Foaming action does not equal cleansing action. What foam can equal, however, is clogging of the soil, preventing proper drainage and causing septic or grey water systems to fail. In addition, some laundry powders contain fillers which similarly clog the soil. By contrast, soapnuts’ mild plant soap poses no complication for waste water disposal.
Soap nuts are a non-toxic alternative that avoids using harsh chemicals in your home. To be clear, conventional detergents and soap nuts do BOTH contain chemical surfactants, however, soap nuts contain a much more gentle variety than the harsher chemicals used in most laundry detergents. Use soapnuts and avoid dumping these harmful ingredients into the local ecosystem every time you do laundry. And when you do dispose of them, soap nuts are completely biodegradable since they are literally a hunk of plant matter. It doesn’t get much more green than that.
Using humble soap berries can be cost effective as well as eco-friendly. I buy organic Eco Nuts brand soap nuts, and the cost per load works out to 9¢-11¢ per load. Other leading detergent brands, ranging from about $10-$15 a bottle, work out to between 29¢-46¢ per load. And that’s not counting the money you save from not having to buy fabric softeners anymore! I’m sold.
“What Are Soap Nuts?” Eco Nuts Organic Soap Nuts. Accessed Feb 7 2017. http://econutssoap.com/what-are-soap-nuts/
Austin, Daniel F. (2004). Florida Ethnobotany. CRC Press. pp. 601–603.