What’s all the buzz about soap nuts? I’ve had a few people either recommend or ask me if I know anything about soap nuts for the laundry. Until recently I was washing cloth nappies on a regular basis and, for that reason chose not to explore soap nuts (after having many washing issues with the nappies previously – which you can read about here, soap nuts are not recommended). Now, conveniently for me, I am currently staying with my mother-in-law, who just so happened to have the inclination to try soap nuts too and had purchased some recently, so I am now able to witness the results!
What Are Soap Nuts?
Soap nuts, also known as soap berries, come from the Sapindus tree, a small shrub related to the lychee found in the Himalayas. The husk of the fruit is dried and can then be used a soaping agent.
How Do They Work?
Simply place 4-6 of the nuts in a cloth bag (often provided when you purchase a bag of the soap nuts) and then pop that into the washing machine with your load of washing. The nuts can then be used for, give or take, around 4 loads of washing. When they’re done, place them in the compost.
The husk of the nut contains saponins – a natural soaping agent that works as a surfactant which removes dirt from clothing when in contact with water. Soap nuts can also be boiled into a liquid concentrate and used as a general-purpose cleaner, shampoo, hand soap etc.
What Does the Internet Say?
There is much debate on the web whether soap nuts actually work well or not at cleaning clothes.
Soap nut lovers tend to like the following things about them:
- They’re 100% natural, which means replacing man-made environmentally unfriendly chemical detergents with a 100% plant derived alternative.
- According to a post by 1 Million Women, once the soap nut tree starts producing fruit, it can be harvested for an impressive 90 years, and can be harvested for 6 months per year – that’s a shitload of soap nuts! A very productive plant indeed.
- They’re biodegradable (compostable), and therefore if you can get them in bulk, they can be considered a 100% zero waste product.
- They’re simple to use (much like normal detergent if you ask me).
- They’re fragrance free – this is a big pro! The overpowering smell of Fuchsia Passion or Lavender Meadow burns my nostrils and is a great way to bring on a headache.
- Being chem-free, they’re great for sensitive skin and delicate clothes.
Then there are those that aren’t so keen:
- Some claim that soap nuts need to be used in hot water, otherwise they don’t get soapy. According to Energy Star, heating water consumes about 90% of the energy it takes to operate a clothes washer – this seems counteractive in trying to use a more eco-friendly laundry detergent, no?
- In 2016 Choice tested soap nuts against washing with cold water alone in both a front and top loader. The results are as follows:
- Water only in a top loader – 47%
- Soap nuts in a top loader – 46%
- Water only in a front loader – 43%
- Soap nuts in a front loader – 42%
So, according to this test, you’re better off washing in plain old water!
- Soap nuts pose a high risk of becoming a noxious weed in Australia and therefore cannot be harvested here. This means that all soap nuts have to travel from afar to reach your laundry.
- On entering Australia, the nuts need to be treated with either heat, fumigation or gamma irradiation to meet quarantine restrictions, making them slightly less eco-friendly.
- Some say overtime, washing with soap nuts causes white clothing to become grey and manky and that they are very ineffective at removing even the slightest stain. Thus, having to pre-treat anything that is heavily soiled, been worn by a child or worn doing grotty jobs (everything we are washing at the moment ticks one of those categories: child – tick, farm clothes – tick, ability to spill at least one food item on myself per day – tick).
- I did read an interesting comment on another blog from a woman who comes from the same region as soap nuts and she states ” NO ONE uses soap nuts for washing regular clothes… They are only used for washing hair and fine silks.” Whether this is true or not, I don’t know, but perhaps soap nuts get such a bad rap because they’ve been taken out of context?
What Did We Think of Them?
So far, we have used one batch of five soap nuts four times. The clothes seem to come out clean, although they are being washed at 30 – 40 degrees celsius, not in cold water and only on items that aren’t heavily soiled, food stained or pooped in/on. And we obviously haven’t been using them long enough to notice whites turning grey.
The cotton bag these particular nuts were purchased in are lined with plastic and cannot be purchased bulk, therefore, are worse in the waste department than purchasing a large box of regular detergent.
Personally, the best part for me is the zero fragrance, however, I was achieving this in my own laundry by using low chemical, fragrance free powder in a carboard box (no plastic).
Given the dishevelled state of our clothing going into the wash beforehand, my use of cold water washing at home (i.e. in my own laundry) and the abundance of negative reviews, I’m happy to give soap nuts a miss and continue using powdered detergent.