A Beginner’s Guide to Soapnuts
Living a Positively Healthy life is about more than just what we eat, and to that end I’ve been trying to make other healthy changes in my life. One of those changes has been to start using fewer and fewer chemicals in the house. Sometimes it can be rather confusing on what sort of natural options are out there, because many of the cleaners are still coming in bottles and such… but at least when it comes to doing your laundry there’s one option that it’s very easy to see just how natural it is.
Soapnuts (sometimes called soap berries) are a great natural cleaning alternative, primarily for laundry, but they can be used for other cleaning as well. Soapnuts are the dried berry that grow on a family of shrubs and bushes that are similar to lychee trees, and contains natural saponins (yes, the same thing found on one of my favorite whole grains, quinoa!). Saponins are a natural surfactant… which basically just means they are great at cleaning things because of how they break the surface tension of liquids. Don’t ask me to explain how that all works, I just trust that it does!
The most common soapnuts you’re going to find are a brownish color, around three-quarters of an inch diameter on average, dried, and thus kind of wrinkly looking. They should also be hollow, having had the seeds removed. Selling soapnuts with the seeds still in them is a deceptive practice, it’s the dried flesh/shell of the berry that has the saponins, and while washing with the seeds in them shouldn’t do any harm, if you buy some like this you are paying for … well, it’s like how many conventional cleaners are watered down to make you think you’re getting more for your money, but it takes a larger amount to get the same effect than if you used a concentrated product.
So I had been reading various blogs and articles about soapnuts for over a year and been hesitant to order something like this online without having the chance to see them for myself first. Well, that changed last fall when I was at a local health expo and stopped by the Green Sisters booth. They had a bag of soapnuts at a great price, so I took the plunge and got some.
Soapnuts are very easy to use, you count out about 4-6 of the nuts (depending on the capacity of our washer), put them in the small muslin bag typically provided, pull the drawstring tight and throw in the wash with your clothes. That’s it. Now, on the downside, you should be pulling that bag out from the clothes before running them through the dryer because forgetting to do so can decrease the life of the nuts. But on the plus side, you can get 4-7 loads of wash from that small bag of soapnuts. Yup, that’s right, you reuse those same soapnuts a number of times before discarding them… and they compost, so you don’t need to just throw them in the trash.
Now, it’s time for a little bit of true confessions here. One of the simplest pleasures in life for me is putting on a fresh pair of socks. There’s just something about that simple act, whether it be first thing in the morning at I’m getting dressed… or changing in to a fresh pair after working out in the gym or having been hiking or whatever. If my feet are comfy, it just seems to automatically make everything else just a little bit better.
Now of course one of the first loads of laundry I did with my soapnuts was a big batch of my socks. While I have no scientific basis for this, I would swear when I put on a pair of socks that had been freshly washed with the soapnuts, they felt softer than they had been when using my usual detergent. Again, maybe it’s just me, but I kind of think that the fact that there were no chemicals involved had something to do with it.
While using soapnuts is really as easy as just tossing the bag in the wash with your clothes, there are some finer points I’ve since learned about, as well as some tricks of the trade so to speak, that I want to share so that if you decide to give them a try yourself you can get the most out of them.
- The berries are dried, and as such, the saponins need a bit of coaxing out. If you are washing in cold water, the best way to do this is to put the bag in a cup of hot water for a few minutes before tossing in the washer. I keep the bag in a small dish on my dryer, when I go to do laundry I cover the bag with hot water from the wash tub and let them soak as I’m sorting laundry and letting the washer fill up. Typically it takes 4-5 minutes for me to do so, then I just pour the whole thing in the washer and let it go.
- Saponins clean by breaking the surface tension of the water, making it easier to get in to the fibers of your clothes where the water droplets latch on to dirt and such. The agitation of the washing pulls those water droplets, along with the dirt they’ve trapped, off your clothes and it gets rinsed away. Over loading your washer will make it harder for the agitation process to work, meaning your clothes may not come as clean as they otherwise would have. On a clothes that are a bit dirtier than usual, you may even consider doing a smaller load than usual or adding a couple extra soapnuts.
- Soapnuts do not suds up like you may be used to. Don’t worry… they’re still able to do the job just fine.
- Like I mentioned, you will get 4-7 loads per set of soapnuts. Find a way to keep track how many times you’ve used each batch. I made a counter using some paracord and nuts/beads that hang on the shelf over my washer. I slide one down for each time I wash a load, when I hit 4 times I start testing (see the next item) my soapnuts to see if they’re still working.
- Talk about economical! You can easily get at least 150 loads of laundry out of one pound worth of soapnuts, Green Sisters sells them for about $18, which means you’ll be paying around 12 cents per load.
- To test your soapnuts, soak them in some hot water for a few minutes (which if you’re following my advice you’re doing anyways), then give the bag a squeeze. While I know I said they don’t suds up like what you are used to, they will produce some suds when you do this, if they don’t… or if they don’t give you much in the way of suds, it’s time to start fresh. If you accidentally run them through the dryer, you can use this method to test to see if they’ve still got some cleaning power left or not as well.
- I’ve been keeping my spent soapnuts in a container and when I get a few cup fulls I am going to try making some liquid soap from them. You do this by steeping them in boiling water to extract the saponins out of them, straining out the berries, and then using this liquid for various cleaning tasks from laundry to dishes to cleaning carpets and more. You can find lots of ideas online. You can also do this with fresh ones, using the ones left over from laundry means it will just take a lot more of them to get the same effect. But the way I look at it, why not get as much out them as I can before tossing/composting.
- If you feel the need to, you can still use bleach in the laundry without effecting the cleaning power of the soapnuts.
- Soapnuts are are completely chemical-free, non-toxic, hypoallergenic, eco-friendly, unscented and gentle – both on clothing and skin. This makes them great for folks who are various allergies and sensitivities. Pay attention to the unscented part. Most commercial cleaners add scents and try to tell you that’s a sign of being clean. A true sign of being clean is that there is no smell when it does it’s job. That’s what you get with soapnuts. If You are still getting smells… say from your workout clothes… you may have pushed your batch of soapnuts past their limit or washed to large a load for them to properly do their job.
This are the things I’ve learned from reading about and my experience using soapnuts the last few months. If you have any other questions about using soapnuts, leave them in the comments below… or, if you have been using them yourself, share your experience with others!