What Is A Soap Nut?

 

As consumers become more eco-conscious, use of harmful products like laundry detergents is sure to change. And while it’s difficult to rid daily use of cleaners and harsh soaps completely, it is possible to diminish use. One way is to use alternatives that are environmentally friendly. In the case of laundry detergents, look no further than soap nuts.  


What Are Soap Nuts?

Soap nuts aren’t technically nuts. They’re fruit, taken from the soapberry tree (Sapindus mukorrosi). In appearance, they’re similar to the lychee nut, yet they’re not grown for consumption. Thanks to their high concentration of foaming “saponin,” soap nuts are used throughout the world as cleaning agents. 

Harvested in India and Nepal, soap nuts have been used for centuries in Southeast Asia and for decades in Europe. In the past decade, it has made its way to North America, where it has been recognized as a natural, potent cleaning alternative to the harsh chemicals common to detergents and household cleaners. 

What Is Saponin?

Saponin is the chemical compound that makes soap nuts “sud.” When met with an aqueous solution, the naturally-occurring saponin produces a foam-like substance -- the same kind of reaction detergents aim to create with their lab-created surfactants. This solution can be applied to most any purpose, but most commonly, it is used for laundry. Indeed, soap nuts and their dose of saponin have emerged a legitimate green alternative to commercial detergents. 

Soap Nuts as Detergent

You may be wondering “how” soap nuts are used to clean laundry. Are they processed into powder or liquid? Can they be used as is? Can they be used more than once? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding “Yes.” 

As research on soap nuts continues, new ways of using the fruit will surely surface. However, as of now, soap nuts are most often used in their dried-fruit form. The fruit is harvested, de-seeded, and then dried in the sun, leaving behind the hardened shells -- which can be soaked, crushed, and recycled. 

What You Get

Dried soap nuts come bundled with a muslin bag, which holds the nuts during the wash cycle. The bag is reusable and also replaceable with household items like any drawstring pouch or even, a sock. So long as the cleaning properties of soap nuts can be released into the water, any breathable “bag” will do.  
The demands of your laundry will determine the number of soap nuts you’ll need. Hard water will need more soap nuts and soft water will require less. A good rule-of-thumb is:  

  •  3-5 soap nuts per large load
  • 2-3 soap nuts for a small to medium load


It’s important to remember that soap nuts react to warm/hot water. Therefore, if you’re using soap nuts for a cold wash, you may want to soak them in a hot bowl for a few minutes first, before tossing the entire solution into the wash. 

Think of soap nuts as a recipe. Though a recipe may provide measurements, oftentimes you may change it to better fit your taste. The same can be said of soap nuts and the needs of your laundry. With experience of use, you’ll find the right soap-nuts combination to work with your wash loads. 

In addition to the dried-fruit form, soap nuts are also available in powder form and can be easily transformed into a liquid. For the latter, simply boil the soap nuts, strain the concentrated water, and administer in a spray bottle or foaming pump. 

Soap nuts can also be used as:  

  • All-purpose cleaner
  • Steam-cleaning spot treatment
  • Liquid hand soap
  • Body wash
  • Shampoo
  • Jewelry cleaner
  • Window cleaner
  • Vegetable wash
  • Pest repellant 

 


For its primary function as a laundry detergent, soap nuts works with most any fabric -- from delicates to wool to hardy fleece. It’s versatile, adaptable, and effective. 

Environmental Benefits for Soap Nuts The most exciting aspect of soap nuts is the fact that they actually work. When tested, the nuts have held up to the scrutiny. And, in a time when many of us are looking for ways to minimize our negative impact on the environment, soap nuts have arrived just in time.  

Being 100% natural, soap nuts are gentle to clothes and the skin. They’re also hypoallergenic and safe for the environment. Runoff to streams remains a major environmental problem, and the chemicals used in commercial detergents have impacted plants, animals, and entire ecosystems. 

Alternatively, soap nuts are natural and biodegradable. The water runoff from their wash cycles is safe and afterwards, the used nuts can be returned to the Earth as compost. 

Commercial Detergents: Harming the Environment 

Though they clean our clothes, what is the hidden cost of using commercial detergents? As we grow more eco-conscious as a society, such questions need to be asked and answered. In the case of laundry detergent and its impact on the environment, the answer is an alarming one.

Clean Our Clothes, Pollute the Environment

When a wash cycle ends, where does the “dirty” water go? Seemingly, it disappears. But more accurately, it gets transported -- to a septic tank or a drain field. During this process, water-runoff reaches freshwater streams, polluting them. Most of the chemicals used in detergents do not degrade quickly, lasting for years after use. 
 

Detergent Ingredients. When reading the ingredients of laundry detergent, be aware that “buffering agent,” “stabilizer” and “fragrance” are all generic terms. They may sound vague and innocuous, but they hide the real chemicals behind them like alkyl benzene sulfonates and alkyl phenoxy polyethoxy ethanols. 

Among the more common chemicals used in commercial detergents, consider:  


Linear alkyl sodium sulfonates (LAS): The most common surfactants used in detergents, these agents release carcinogenic toxins into the environment during production. 
Optical brighteners: We want our clothes to be white, but not at the expense of marine life. The synthetic chemicals that produce the visual enhancement are toxic to fish. 
Phosphate additives: When released into the environment, these chemicals promote the growth of algal blooms, choking off the air supply for fish and plants. 
Artificial fragrances: Ironically, fresh-smelling fragrances are made from petroleum, which does not degrade. Once in the environment, it’s there to stay, polluting ecosystems for fish and mammals. 


It’s indeed alarming to think of the impact one load of laundry can have. Imagine then a week’s worth of laundry? …A month. …A year. 

A bulk bottle of laundry detergent can promise 200 loads of washes. It sounds like a bargain, but imagine the pollution resulting from just one bottle -- 200 wash cycles of “dirty” water, flushed out into the environment. 

 
Ever-Present: Surfactants

Most all laundry detergents list anionic and nonionic surfactants as primary ingredients. What are they? 

Detergent surfactants are wetting agents that help clean clothes by repelling against one another, creating a kind of tug or war that ultimately loosens dirt and suspends it in water. During the rinse cycle, this loosened dirt and residue surfactants are washed out -- into the environment. 

Unfortunately, some surfactants are known to be toxic to animals and marine life. Yet they continue to be deposited into ecosystems, with only Time being offered as a resolution. In time, most commercial wetting agents will degrade. However, how long of time? And what of the life that comes in contact with the pollutants before then? 

What’s more, laundry is never-ending. Once the wetting agents from one load degrade, another load arrives. There truly is no end and thus, no respite for the environment and its inhabitants. 

More Like Greenwashing In an attempt to “go green,” manufacturers have offered some solutions to reducing waste. Concentrated detergents for example are intended to cut down on the use of plastic. Yet, the composition of detergents remains the main concern and solutions, such as concentrated liquid, seem more of a greenwash than an actual solution. 

Harsh chemicals released into the environment during production and after every wash cycle, are still the major problem. What are manufacturers doing about this? In an ever-growing greenconscious world, minimizing the amount of plastic used is not enough. 


Biological detergents

These detergents, more common in the United Kingdom, use enzymes to break down dirt, literally “eating it away.” Enzymes work best at lukewar

m temperatures, thus making it less of a burden on energy (heating). Yet, enzymes are

 similar to phosphates, in that once released into the environment, they continue their growth… and destruction. 

Is there any alternative to such harmful commercial products?  There is: Soap nuts. 

A Natural Solution

Soap Nuts from the Soapberry Grown in India and Nepal, soap nuts are natural cleaning agents that have been used for centuries to clean clothes. In the past decade, it’s made its way to North America and greenconscious folks are discovering it every day. 


The shells of the soap nut contain a naturally-occurring surfactant called saponin, which works in a similar way to the industrial versions. The main difference however, is that saponin is biodegradable, 100% natural, and safe for the environment. 

Soap nuts, from the Soapberry tree (Sapindus mukorrosi), provide a legitimate, green alternative to the harmful commercial detergents found in stores. For anyone wanting to make an environmental difference, a switch to natural soap nuts is a positive, powerful first step.