Washing Laundry With Soap Nuts Review – Do They Work?

2 out of 5 leaves

2 out of 5 leaves

Soap Nuts are the berries from trees in the Lychee family, which are native to tropical climates.  The soap nut berries contain saponin, a surfactant that can be used like a soap.  Historically, soap nuts have been used in folk remedies for many illnesses, and also as a washing agent.  Today, many natural living advocates suggest using soap nuts as a non-toxic alternative to modern laundry detergents.  But do soap nuts really clean your clothes?

The Good:

  • Better for you – soap nuts are all natural and non-toxic (standard detergents tend to have some yucky stuff in them)
  • Better for the earth – if you use only soap nuts in the wash, no additional chemicals are entering the waste stream
  • Reusable – soap nuts can be used for multiple loads before all the soap in them is used up
  • Good for delicates – the very mild detergent from soap nuts is safe for all your delicates (except dry clean only – I wouldn’t recommend)

The Bad

  • Hot water required – which has a negative cost and environmental impact
  • Works best on smaller loads of laundry – also not as energy efficient
  • Soap nuts are not good on stains – you must pre-treat everything (every.single.thing)
  • Whites get dingy with soap nuts – oxyclean (or something like it) is required if you want your whites to stay bright.

My Experience

Why I don't use soapnuts

Dried soap nuts, ready for the wash.

I am all about removing chemicals from my home. Did you know the laundry room can be a great place to eliminate toxins?  Last year, I traded fabric softener for vinegar and started using aluminum foil dryer balls.  I’m also testing out some wool dryer balls and am excited to share the results with you.  Recently, I tried swapping my regular liquid detergent for soap nuts.

Soap nuts are supposed to be really easy to use.  You place 5-6 in a small muslin bag, tie it off and toss it in the load instead of your regular detergent.  So that’s what I did.  I tried it out on a load of towels and washcloths and a few random pieces of clothing first, as I wasn’t 100% sure they would work.

The first load did not go well.  The soap nuts got the laundry cleaner, but I didn’t feel they were clean-clean. There was a bit of residue on them. And they smelled of soap nuts – not bad, but not really good either. Also I had soap nut STAINS on a white towel. Not quite what I expect of clean laundry!

But I’ve heard that lots of people are happy with soap nuts, so I did some homework.  And buried deep on a website about soap nuts was the info that you have to either 1) soak the nuts in hot water to make a soapy solution or 2) wash your load in hot water.  Cold water does not work with soap nuts.  

So that was my problem – I always, always wash in cold water.  Did you know that up to 90% of the energy used by the washing machine is for heating water? And washing in cold can reduce household carbon emissions by 1600 lbs per year.  It also reduces consumption of natural gas, and saves money if you have a gas fueled water heater! (source)

So for the next load I started by soaking the soap nuts in a cup of hot water.  I let them steep for about 5 min, as was commonly directed by other soap nut test bloggers.  I expected the water to be a bit soapy.  Not sudsy, but at least have a little slip to it.  The water was barely changed, and I did not get the soap nuts “tea” that others had spoken about.  Perhaps I needed boiling water?  (For the record, I am not interested in adding the step of boiling water and making tea to my laundry routine…)

So for the sake of science, I flipped the wash dial to HOT, tossed in the soap nuts, and filled up the washer with kids clothes.  I dried as usual with aluminum foil balls and no fabric softener.  I followed it by another load of kids clothes washed the usual way (we use Kirkland brand Ultra Clean Free & Clear liquid detergent, plus white vinegar in the rinse).  After drying and folding both, I compared the results.

The soap nuts did okay, but they were not great.  A load of kids and baby laundry is the ultimate challenge, and unfortunately the soap nuts were not quite up to the task.  The clothes seemed mostly clean, but there was a little scent of soap nuts.  I found a lot of stains that needed more attention: stains which I know would have come out with the regular detergent.  The whites were a bit dingy.  And the baby spit up rags still smelled sour in some places.  By the time I was done folding all the laundry, I had a small load set aside that needed re-washing.

Overall, soap nuts did not work for me, and I don’t intend to continue using them.  My regular detergent in cold water works great.  If I were to switch to soap nuts, I would need to do the following:

  • Always wash in hot water (cost more money, uses more natural gas)
  • Pre-treat even the littlest stains (takes more time, costs more money for stain treaters)
  • Add a scoop of OxiClean to keep the whites from getting dingy (costs more money)
  • Wash smaller loads than usual (cost more money, uses more energy, takes more time)

I would suggest that the steps above, which are all recommended by the leading seller of soap nuts, make this a not so green and frugal proposition.  And maybe a small load full of stain treaters and OxiClean isn’t being  cleaned by the power of soap nuts alone…  Just a thought.

Perhaps you are willing to take the above steps?  Or maybe you don’t have kids, and your laundry is not that dirty to begin with?  If so, soap nuts might be worth a try for you.  I tried out the NaturOli Soap Nuts, which you can purchase in a small trial size, or in ginormous bulk sizes for better savings.


Have you tried or do you use soap nuts?  Do you have any recommendations on how to improve this Green Idea?

 PS – Thanks so much to reader Sangeetha, who offered this GREAT perspective in the comments!

This is what happens when this let’s-back-to-nature culture takes things out of context. Soap nuts are native to my home country (at least, I have seen trees of soap nuts and I know that we get there is local). NO ONE uses soap nuts for washing regular clothes. And I come from a family where until we began washing our hair ourselves, soap nuts were used every week on our hair.

They are only used for washing hair and fine silks. For washing hair, people do one of 2 things. Crush the nuts (or not, which is what I do if I used them these days), boil in water, simmer, use the “tea” for hair. Don’t crush the nuts, soak overnight and use. This method has frankly never worked for me. You can’t just strain the nuts out because they should be continually squeezed out, or you’ll lose a lot of what they can give and yes, hair is always washed with hot water when soap nuts are used. The skin and pip are nasty little buggers to get into your eyes.

You didn’t use soap nuts right (not to be rude at all). But we just don’t know enough of something that came from another ancient culture to be good judges of what to use it for or how often or how much to use.


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44 Responses to Washing Laundry With Soap Nuts Review – Do They Work?

  1. Katherine says:

    Thanks so much for this information. I’ve been curious about soap nuts but a lot of our clothes we wash on cold. I’ve also been wondering about dryer alternatives, I’m gonna have to go back and read about the foil dryer balls. How interesting! Looking forward to reading what you think about the wool dryer balls.

  2. Vickie says:

    Thanks for your honesty! I love hearing the real truth about trying out supposed “green alternatives”. I would like to try some of these soap nuts also. I don’t have children (mine are all grown) and we will be using a solar hot water heater (free energy) for our hot water, so perhaps it would be a better deal for me. Of course, whites will probably still need some oxy or something, but I think it would be great to reduce the amount of detergent we put into our septic system. Thanks.

  3. Jeanine says:

    Thanks for the review, Victoria! I love reading your reviews! I use soap nuts from Green Virgin Products because they were cheaper than NaturOil and Green Virgin gives 20% discounts every other month or so and you get a 10% discount for every purchase for being a returning customer. They give you a magnet with the 10% discount on it so I won’t forget the code. With those soap nuts, I get soap “tea” each time. I typically run hot water through my coffee maker and let it sit for five minutes, sometimes less. I only steep it once when I have a new batch of nuts in the bag, not each time I have to wash clothes. I dump the water and the bag in the washer and then reuse those nuts five times. I don’t use hot water. I use warm or cold. The clothes turned out better than they did with our previous chemical detergent, rhymes with “brisk.” Our clothes used to smell of armpits and “linen fresh scent.” My mom often complained that her underwear smelled of armpits because of our (my sister and I) clothes. Now that smell is gone from all of our clothes and my mom is happy. I sniff our shirts in the pit (I still doubt from time to time) and I can’t smell “armpits” at all. As for spots and stains, my mom, sister, and I are grown so we rarely get stains. If we do, we immediately spot treat with soap and water wherever we happen to be, which I understand is completely unrealistic if you have children. Our old detergent did nothing for stains either, just made them look faded. I hope you like the wool dryer balls! I have six and I love them! I put three drops of essential oils in each and my clothes smell great! With both of these products, we haven’t spent money on anything for cleaning clothes since April. I’m still on the 250 gram small bag of soap nuts I purchased when I wanted to “green” my clothing routine in March.

  4. I use soap nuts and love them. You do need to use warm water or make the “tea”. I used to make the tea and wash in cold (with large loads) and it worked fine. I did eventually get tired of fishing out that soap nut bag so I now make my own soap nut liquid and that works even better because I just toss in the liquid and wash (even on cold). Stains are an issue but with any natural detergent you will generally have to pre-treat. I’ve also not noticed any dingy whites.

    Soap nuts aren’t necessarily for everyone as they can be a bit time consuming (at least more than a measure and pour detergent) but I’ve found them to be great.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing! I have been eyeing the soapnuts at abesmarket! I will just keep to my cold cycle. Thanks!

  6. Sangeetha says:

    This is what happens when this let’s-back-to-nature culture takes things out of context. Soap nuts are native to my home country (at least, I have seen trees of soap nuts and I know that we get there is local). NO ONE uses soap nuts for washing regular clothes. And I come from a family where until we began washing our hair ourselves, soap nuts were used every week on our hair. The day after the wash, coconut oil was worked in and left in until the next wash day, which is often only about a week later.

    They are only used for washing hair and fine silks. For washing hair, people do one of 2 things. Crush the nuts (or not, which is what I do if I used them these days), boil in water, simmer, use the “tea” for hair. Don’t crush the nuts, soak overnight and use. This method has frankly never worked for me. You can’t just strain the nuts out because they should be continually squeezed out, or you’ll lose a lot of what they can give and yes, hair is always washed with hot water when soap nuts are used. The skin and pip are nasty little buggers to get into your eyes. I don’t know why, but if that happens, my mother would give us a piece or 2 of rock salt (the one that is 0.5 cm-ish crystalline), to suck on like hard candy.

    This is something similar to my saying that my esophagus burns (yes, really) when I drink kombucha. Yet, I suspect that it wasn’t really meant to be drunk by the bottle-ful. Which is what I did. An addiction, if you will. And now, I don’t drink it at all for fear of burning myself again. I didn’t drink kombucha right. You didn’t use soap nuts right (not to be rude at all). But we just don’t know enough of something that came from another ancient culture to be good judges of what to use it for or how often or how much to use.

    • Victoria says:

      Sangeetha, this is the BEST COMMENT EVER!! Thanks so much for sharing your perspective. Out of curiosity, what is your home country?

      • Sangeetha says:

        That’s very kind of you, Victoria.

        Traditionally, as far as I know, clothes were beaten on rocks on riverbanks to get them clean. Today? Not so much. Everyone uses the chemicals.

        As you cannot beat silks on rocks and expect them not to snag and rip, people used soap nut extract as described above, soaked them, and rubbed them gently. Perhaps why women wore only 1 or 2 sarees in which to cook. Right after cooking, they washed it by hand, beating against a rock, I am quite certain, and drying it. The saree could not be touched again before bathing in the morning. This is quite possibly not how everyone did it but this is true of my “caste”, one of the so-called “high” castes. But I am sure there was a variation on this theme everywhere.

        If particularly soiled, they must have been soaked in boiling hot water, maybe with some sort of ash rubbed on. I am not an expert but I am quite certain that they didn’t use soap nuts on all clothes. Not that you couldn’t but hot water is required to extract the juice out of most kinds of soap nuts. And I am 100% certain that there weren’t, still aren’t those many soap nuts to go around for all clothes! I have seen some sticky varieties that don’t need hot water and people do it that way, as I mentioned. But it never worked for me, as I also mentioned.

        Don’t want to waste hot water, waste fuel? Put some soap nuts in a vessel with water covering the soap nuts and then some (so that the vessel doesn’t burn), boil, simmer for about 10-15 minutes. If preparing in advance, you could even try soaking them in boiling water and leaving them covered (not on heat) overnight. Toss these nuts into your washing machine, water and all. The first method should work. Not sure of the second but that is more fuel-efficient.

      • Sangeetha says:

        I asked my mother about it. She said that beating against a rock was used for non-delicate fabrics. If soap nuts were used on these fabrics, juice was extracted in boiling hot water and the clothes were boiled in it.

    • Brettney says:

      Very informative! What do you use to wash clothes that are not silk? Also can you give more info on washing silks?

  7. Thanks for the review! I have been eyeing soap nuts for a while but haven’t taken the plunge. I have switched to a homemade detergent, that works pretty well.

  8. Sangeetha says:

    Excuse my muddled up grammar. I edited some sentences but not well at all! This is what happens when you don’t proofread!

  9. Robyn says:

    I love mine, I get them from econuts.com. I generally run hot water in the machine for a minute, slosh them around in the water, and then reduce the temp to warm or cold. I find the warmer water gets stuff cleaner. I think they’re great, our clothes smell fresh, never like the soap nuts (which almost smell like glue or something). I have not noticed any dingy whites either. I am only half way through a box that cost me $30, and will likely last me at least a year.

  10. Thanks for sharing at Tuesdays with a Twist! I’ve considered using soap nuts but we never use hot water. I’ll stick to my homemade detergent!

  11. Brettney says:

    In general I use more then the recommended amount of soap nuts since I primarily do large loads of laundry I end up sing 3-4 muslin bags containing 4-5 soap nuts (they can be used to wash cloths 3-4 times) and I always have the soak setting turned on in the washing machine.
    With the cold wash you can make a “laundry liquid” by putting the soap nuts in in a pot of water and boil them for a bit strain and it can be good for a few weeks.
    As far as soap nuts themselves staining things I haven’t run into that however from what I’ve heard if any portion of the seed is present it will stain. I agree that they do not remove stains so OxyClean is needed if stains are an issue.
    I would like to know more info on the environment impacts on the creation and disposal of generic laundry detergent. While with soap nuts I know can be toxic to fish if they are in direct contact to saponin.
    I’ve gotten a lot of information and purchased my soap nuts from http://www.buysoapnuts.com

  12. Penny Pincher says:

    Sorry to read you were unhappy with the soap nuts. I have been using them for years and am very happy. I wash in cold water only. I too find I have to pre-soak some things but that is OK as I have a soak bucket that I soak whites in followed by the darker garments. I don’t change the water in between as the idea is to loosen the dirt. I also rub my home made soap into the stains as well as collars and cuffs. Works magic. I am very pleased as I am not sending detrimental chemicals down the drain. Did you know that many household chemicals and personal care products contain compounds that cannot be filtered out by most sewerage treatment plants?

  13. Becca says:

    Interesting! I have never before heard of soap nuts. Thanks for sharing this informative post at the Healthy Tuesday hop!

  14. Thanks for sharing your review with us at TTF. Interesting information!


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  16. Sandra says:

    I have never hear of soap nuts.
    Thanks for sharing with us at the HomeAcre hop!
    I hope you join us again on Thursday :)

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  19. Rose Petal says:

    Hi! We are a family of eight (ages 7 and up) who have successfully used soap nuts for laundry for over two years, doing one or two large loads nearly every day. If properly used we have found them to make clean clothes as well as definitely save energy (we are off the grid). If you want to see how we do it I have a detailed post here: http://www.livereadynow.com/sustainable-soap-that-grows-on-trees/.

    Now I must qualify my comment by stating our family is very serious about learning to live sustainably, so an extra 10 minutes of preparing soap before each load seems small to us. It is not for everyone.

    The only negative point I agree with is about using soapnuts with whites. It does make them murky, perhaps more than I had thought. I was blaming our hard rusty water, but the soapnuts are probably also to blame. Use something else for whites or add a whitener.

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  22. Mary Howe says:

    I have been using soap nuts for two years now. Before soap nuts every time I washed clothes I broke out all over where my clothes touched me. With soap nuts I have no breaking out at all. I really don’t smell the soap nuts smell on my clothes, and I have never had stains from the soap nuts , I don’t know how you could, since its in a bag and doesn’t have direct contact with clothes. I love soap nuts.

    • Rose Petal says:

      I’ve heard if the seeds are left in the soapnuts they can cause stains. The best companies make sure all seeds are removed. In over two years of use I’ve never had stains caused by soapnuts either. And we also have no soapnuts smell in our clothes.

    • Victoria says:

      Hi Mary! I think the staining happened when the bag of soap nuts got all twisted up in a white hand towel in the wash. During the spin cycle, the bag of soap nuts got super squeezed in the towel and oozed out some pure soap nuts liquid through the bag and onto the towel. It was the final spin so it never got rinsed away.

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  24. Arum says:

    Just want to let you know that for centuries, people in Indonesia has been using soap nuts (or lerak in Indonesian language) for washing batik (traditional fabric) to maintain quality of its color and fabric. You can search the information by typing “lerak and batik”.

  25. Nicole says:

    Check out this blog, specifically the Herbal Laundry Formulas: Part 1
    and The Herbal Laundry Formulas: Part 2
    it may help with the issues you have been having. Natural Laundry care in my experience requires more steps than commercial detergents but it seems to me that should be normal. We have become so accustomed to convenience items we forget how much “work” housework is supposed to be. Enjoy, here is the link to the site:

  26. Lauren says:

    The soap nuts dont cause whites to be dingy – it happens over time because there’s no fake optical brighteners or bleaches to keep your clothes really super white. The minerals in water – especially if your water is hard will turn your whites dingy over time. I add a scoop of oxygen bleach to each load and it keeps things looking nice.

    Also if you have hard water that may be why they didnt work out for you. Hard water makes soap not work as well and there isn’t anything extra in soap nuts to make them counteract water hardness. You need to add washing soda to your machine if you are going to wash with soap nuts and you have hard water.

  27. Yesh says:

    Soapnuts are used it India extensively for hair. But now people use it for laundry too …But your method is wrong

  28. Matthew W says:

    We have been using the soapnutlady.com laundry pods for over a year now and have great results. Pre treating is necessary for stains on kids clothes but we would do that with other detergents.
    She also has dishwasher pods that work great.

  29. Lily says:

    We have been using soap nuts for the past 3 years successfully – with children. My husband got converted when he noticed that our clothes (mostly cotton) and towels became softer. Thus soaps nuts are used for the whole family. That said, the nuts works best when soaked in warm water first – but we found once ‘ softened ‘, there was no need to soak again for a subsequent load (immediately after). We have never had a problem with them staining clothing – even when they fall out of the bag. Will admit the nuts don’t work as well for stains but I tend to pretreat everything anyway. A few months ago, we discovered a few of our cloth diapers were repelling liquid (only the synthetic micro fleece ones) and very stinky. After MUCH online research, we discovered the hard water at our new house was preventing the soap from cleaning properly in our HE washer (a likely problem with any natural based detergent, I think). Without a pricey water softener, we opted for a cheap solution – Borax. A quick wash with the nuts and Borax and the diapers were working again. BTW, do not use vinegar on microfleece (AKA stay dry) diapers, it makes them stink! Once I stopped using the vinegar, no more smell!

  30. Mir says:

    I’ve only started to use the soap nuts a week ago, so only two weekends of laundry. So far, so good. Clothes look surprisingly clean and smell good. I did use a bit of ‘added help’ for the white, as I always have. I tossed the 5 nuts in the little bag, and into the load. I was wondering if any of you use a front loader machine. I do. The cycle is slow – laundry usually take a nearly an hour, or more on high setting. Maybe this is why the nuts worked so well? I was wondering if Victoria in the original blog used a front loader or a top loader?

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