soap nuts

We’re not nuts! You really can swap out this type of nut (it’s actually more closely related to a berry) for your usual laundry detergent.

Several varieties of plant berries, also known as soap nuts, soapberries or soap pods, release saponins, plant glucosides that form soapy lathers, when mixed with water. Like regular soap, these berries work as a natural surfactant, removing grime, oil and stains from clothes. Crazy cool, huh?

These soapy sensations aren’t really nuts at all. They’re actually closely related to the Lycii or Goji berry, and they form hard nut-like shells when dehydrated. Native to India and Nepal, the plant species that produces soap nuts includes Sapindus mukorossi, Sapindus trifoliatus and Sapindus saponaria. (In case you’re into proper names.)

How to use soap nuts

When used as an eco-friendly alternative to laundry detergent, soap nuts are not only easier on the environment than traditional laundry detergents, they’re also gentler on your health. Soap nuts don’t have any nasty chemicals like those found in laundry detergents in grocery store aisles. Plus, soap nuts are hypoallergenic, so those with nut allergies can still use them. In fact, they’ve been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine to treat dermatological issues like psoriasis, eczema and dandruff.

To use soap nuts in your next load of laundry, fill a muslin bag with four to six soap nuts. Then, toss the bag in the wash cycle. Don’t expect your soap nuts to make the water all sudsy like regular detergent. Convential laundry detergents use chemical foaming agents to create sudsing action. More suds doesn’t equal more clean! If you’re using cold water to wash your clothes, you’ll need to activate the saponin in the soap nuts first. Fill a cup with hot water and soak your bag of soap nuts for a few minutes. Then, toss it in the wash.

All of you frugal mamas and papas will love this one. You can use those same soap nuts for several loads of laundry! Once they start looking like gray mush, though, toss them in the compost bin and start with fresh ones. You can even use soap nuts with high-efficiency (HE) washing machines. Also remember that you should remove the bag before tossing your clothes in the dryer to prolong the life of your soap nuts. But, it’s okay if you forget.

Where to find soap nuts

Although there seems to be some laundry room debate about whether or not to use soap nuts with or without the seeds still in them, Mountain Rose Herbs suggests using soap nuts with the seeds for the best cleaning results. The company says that the soap nuts with the seeds still in them add an additional “beating” effect in the washer to get clothes even cleaner.

You can find soap nuts from Eco Nuts, Mountain Rose Herbs, Naturoli and other companies. Look for companies that supply USDA-certified organic soap nuts. The USDA-certified organic seal means that the soap nuts are harvested from wild trees without the use of chemicals, pesticides or fertilizers.

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image: Timo Kirkkala