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?
- 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)
- 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.
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.