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The Incredible Soap Nut: A Sustainable Laundry Solution

Soap nuts? What are those? How are broken bits of shell supposed to get my clothes clean?”

All good questions you should be asking after your first exposure to this special nut. Technically a berry, soap nuts are lauded as one of the best environmentally conscious alternatives to chemical detergents and soaps. A highly prolific tree that can grow well in degraded environments, soap nut trees are considered by some to be a viable solution to global deforestation. And their cleaning potential? It’s considered almost limitless.

Sound a little hippy-dippy crazy? I thought so too. Actually I was completely skeptical. But I’m much more skeptical about turning down anything free, so when a sample package of Eco Nuts (a distributor of soap nuts) arrived in the mail I was willing to try them out. But first, I did some research.

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My Eco Nut Sample

Soap Nut Background Information

Though there are many species of soap nut tree, the mukorossi tree berry is the most common for the American market. They are native to China but have been thriving in India and Nepal for thousands of years. These trees grow well in poor soils and steep slopes. Other soap nut tree species such as trifoliatus and saponaria thrive in a range of climates from tropical to near desert. Mukorossi trees can live for a century and consistently produce prolific harvests of soap berries for over 80 years. Currently, the global demand for soap berries is nowhere near the plentiful supply and an estimated half of Mukorossi berries in Nepal are rotting off the tree.

Environmental Positives of the Soap Nut

  • They thrive in regions with few other agricultural opportunities, and some species of the soap nut tree flourish in poor soil and help prevent erosion on steep slopes.
  • They eliminate the packaging needed for plastic detergent bottles and are concentrated enough that roughly fifty nuts can prevent the use of three detergent bottles. The nuts are also usually are shipped in biodegradable cardboard boxes, not plastic.
  • They are a dream come true for grey-water systems because they are 100% biodegradable and don’t contain the toxic chemicals found in conventional cleaning products. In many cases, the water work as a compost tea and actually enhances the ground it is released in!
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That pipe is where our laundry water goes. It’s not a grey-water system it’s a straight shot into our lawn! And every toxic chemical from our detergents gets dumped out right here. Considering I traverse this patch of ground in my bare feet, it makes sense for us to be concerned about what’s going in our washer.

How Do Soap Nuts Work?

The pulp and skin from the soap nut contain a substance called saponin, which is a natural soap. When the berries are agitated in water they release this natural soap through surfactant (an agent that reduces the surface tension of a liquid). All detergents, manmade or natural, need a surfactant to break the surface tension of water so that it can permeate cloth. Surfactants and saponins work together by shaking loose dirt from clothing and then binding to the dirt particles until they can be washed away. (More information can be found here.)

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Soap nuts and the cloth bag they can be washed in.

Uses for the Soap Nut

The natural saponin in soap nuts make them useful for a variety of cleaning purposes.

– Laundry

Laundry is the most common use for soap nuts, mainly because it is dead easy. Simply put 4-5 nuts in a (usually included with your order) cloth bag and throw it in the washing machine. Let the machine run as usual and remove the nuts with the clothing at the end of the rinse cycle. No need to use fabric softener or to take them out early. Though the nuts will work with any temperature water, hot water releases more saponin.

Knowing when the soap nuts are used up: Your nuts will last for five-six loads. After that they will get limp, papery thin, and begin to disintegrate. At this point they can be composted and replaced with five new nuts.

– Dish-washing

For use in a dishwasher, put 2-5 berries in the utensil rack, add a splash of white vinegar and run as usual. For hand washing, make a detergent by soaking one cup soap nuts with four cups water overnight and then liquefy the mixture in your blender. Then strain the mixture with a cheese cloth. This liquid detergent will work as well as any dish soap, though please note that it won’t form bubbles like conventional products.

– Shampoo and Body Wash

Make a detergent as specified above and mix one ounce liquid soap nut with 12 ounces water. Add any scent you wish, and wash hair or body as usual. This basic formula can be tweaked in many ways, including adding a teaspoon of baking soda to strengthen it.

Do They Deliver?

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We should have performed a public service and burned these shirts.

As stated before, I was skeptical that a few small berries could get my dirt and sweat-stained clothing even remotely fresh, so I decided to give them the ultimate test. Back in March Ian and I ran a 25k trail race that went much better for one of us than the other. After the race, we came home and jubilantly (or not so much so) threw our soiled race shirts into the wash pile. And there they sat. Whenever I did a load of laundry I never had the motivation to take off the race tags from the shirts, so they were skipped for weeks. It didn’t take long for them to ferment in their own noxious odors to the point where they were a liability for the health and wellbeing of people in our house. If a handful of soap nuts managed to get these clean, I reasoned they could do anything.

So did the nuts deliver? PHENOMENALLY. After washing the stinky shirts in a load of laundry and line drying them for a few hours, all traces of dirt and sweat smell were completely gone. In fact, the shirts smelled so good I could hardly believe the nuts had no added fragrance. Every other piece of clothing came out equally well, and the nuts were still thick and firm. They had many loads left in them.

Am I jumping on the soap nut bandwagon? Absolutely. As soon as my free sample is used up I’ll be ordering a second box. Finding an environmental friendly, sustainably sourced cleaning product that is as fun and easy to use as throwing a bag of nuts into my washing machine simple can’t be passed up.

Plus, now that I know these nuts can deal with the very worst I throw at them, I can avoid doing laundry for weeks on end!

Visitors, you’ve been warned.

 

The Incredible Soap Nut

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11 thoughts on “The Incredible Soap Nut: A Sustainable Laundry Solution

  1. I’m always looking for laundry options that can get out obnoxious odors. Where can you order them from?

    Also I use vinegar as a fabric softener. It also helps with those nasty running odors.

    1. Great suggestion with vinegar! And you should absolutely try soap nuts. I’m using the brand EcoNuts and they can be bought right from the their website at http://econutssoap.com/. There are other wholesalers online that sell the nuts in larger quantities, but I’ve heard that quality can vary a lot from company to company. If you buy them from a different seller please let me know how your experience was!

  2. Lydia, you’re a gal after Lorene Parsley’s heart. Oh, how she would have enjoyed knowing you. Meemaw would have applauded you at every turn. Soap Nuts would have been right down her alley. May God continue to bless you and Ian as you live and work on the Ridge she loved so dearly.

  3. Do they work well with front loader machines? I wouldn’t know how to take the nuts out before the rinse cycle to actually rinse the soap off. How would the nuts be used?

  4. I never even heard of such a thing!! This is awesome! I make my own detergent right now with castille soap, although cheaper and more environmentally friendly than conventional products, it still takes inputs and has packaging waste.This is so cool!!

  5. After reading your article about soap nuts, I was interested, but wanted to look into something I could grow myself here in the northernmost part of the Appalachians. (We live in the Allegheny Mt. range, which is about a zone 3.) What I found is a pretty little (okay, not so little) herb called ‘Bouncing Bet’ aka Soapwort: saponaria officinialis. (http://www.anniesremedy.com/herb_detail360.php) The root works something like soap nuts, but the leaves actually suds when you agitate them! According to what I read, if you boil the leaves for about half an hour, you get something like a liquid soap . . . which begs the question: if you throw the leaves in pint jars in a hot water bath canner, can you preserve the ‘soap’ overwinter? Has anyone tried it?

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