Soapnuts have been around for a few years now as an alternative to laundry detergents. They do the job and are a relatively inexpensive and eco-friendly way to wash your laundry. If you buy them carefully and use them according to instructions, they do seem to live up to the claims.
By Wendy Priesnitz
Soapnuts are also called “Chinese soapberries,” which is actually more accurate. They are the fruit of shrubs in the Lychee family, which grow in warm temperate and tropical regions, mostly in India and Nepal. They contain saponins, which are a natural surfactant, and have been used for washing for thousands of years by native people. When you buy them, they are about the size of a date, wrinkled, and slightly sticky.
They are thought to have anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties. They also play a part in Ayurvedic medicine. Due to their lack of synthetic chemicals and the fact that they are hypoallergenic, they are recommended for those with allergies or sensitivities.
How to Use Soapnuts
For use as a laundry detergent, you place a few of the dried “nuts” (weighing a half ounce or so total) into a small muslin bag (usually available where soapnuts are sold), tie it closed, and place it directly into the drum of your washing machine (not the detergent drawer) along with your laundry.
This batch can be used for three or four loads of laundry. When they start to turn mushy and gray, they can be composted. They are suited to energy-efficient front loading washers because they produce minimal suds. And as they are naturally softening, they eliminate the need for chemical-based fabric softeners. (I wrote about the dangers of fabric softeners in Natural Life Magazine’s July/August 2006 issue.)
Soapnuts can be ground into a powder and a liquid cleaner is also available. Or you can make your own; most online retailers provide simple instructions. A little bit of experimentation will help you figure out the best method for your situation.
The liquid can be used as hand soap, shampoo, mosquito repellent, all-purpose household cleaner, glass and mirror cleaner, in the dishwasher, and to wash your car, pets, and the leaves of household plants. Read labels carefully because some commercial soapnut liquids contain synthetic chemicals or harmful synthetic preservatives.
Some people object to the vinegar-like smell of soapnuts, but it doesn’t seem to transfer to your laundry. Do not add essential oils to your laundry to change the smell, because they can stain.
Be sure to purchase your soapnuts from a reputable supplier. They must be de-seeded before using or else the black seeds can stain your laundry rather than cleaning it. Sometimes those with seeds are marketed as “whole” soapnuts and are typically less expensive. Shipping will cost more, though, because they’re heavier. It’s the pulp and skin that contain the saponins, which are the cleaning agent.
Traditionally, soapnuts have been harvested from trees grown in the wild on public lands in the Himalayas; these are the Saponius mukorossi variety and are the best quality. The trees grow on poor soil, and are drought-resistant and able to produce fruit for a century without chemical fertilizers. Since the fruits have a mild insecticidal quality and are grown in the wild, they are not generally sprayed with pesticides.
However, given the increasing popularity of soapnuts, they are now also being grown on plantations. Some of these plantations are created by clearcutting other trees, and there is the possibility of chemicals being used. If you don’t know the source of the soapnuts you’re buying, look for ones that are certified organic by USDA or EcoCert because the product is ripe for greenwashing.
Harvesting is done by hand. That, of course, can conceivably lead to exploitation of local labor. A brand that is certified Fair Trade or that carries the EcoCert seal should have been harvested by workers earning a fair wage.
Processing involves drying the shells. Sometimes this is done in the sun on flat roofs and other companies do it in a clean, indoor drying facility. It involves cracking them open, removing the large seed from each shell, and cleaning. Quality control is important because too many remaining seeds increases the weight unnecessarily and, as I mentioned, requires that you remove them before use.
Some distributors prefer to do their own packaging at point of sale. This ensures better quality control and avoids some of the individual overpackaging in plastic that can be required by customs regulations. Theoretically, packaging should be minimal. Some brands sell starter kits of a few soapnuts enclosed in the cloth bag in which they will be used. Larger quantities should preferably be packaged in cloth as well; good quality soapnuts do not need to be packaged in plastic or cellophane.
If you prefer a liquid soap, buy the soapnuts and make your own liquid. That way, you’ll avoid forever those nasty plastic laundry detergent containers.
Like many products, shipping is the Achilles heel of soapnuts’ carbon footprint. Since virtually all commercially available soapnuts are presently grown in the Himalayas, the fuel required for shipping to consumers in other countries greatly diminishes the product’s green credentials.
However, a branch species, Sapindus saponaria, sometimes known as Hawaiian or Florida soapberry, is grown in the United States. There is evidence that its fruit was used by indigenous people as soap. So it seems likely that the Saponius mukorossi variety could grow there too.
If you live in the right climate or have a greenhouse, and some seeds do show up in your purchased supply of soapnuts, try planting them. The seed coating will be very hard, so you should scarify the exterior by cutting into it in various places with a knife. This will weaken the hard coating enough to allow the plant embryo to escape. Then plant the seed in a pot deep enough to accommodate its tap root. Patience is required. It may take a number of months to sprout, and your tree won’t bear fruit for another nine or ten years.
Other than the transportation problem, we have only found one other potential concern about soapnuts. In large enough quantities, saponin is toxic to fish. In fact, it was used by indigenous people as a way to poison fish so they would float to the surface for easy gathering. That’s something that might have been discovered after soapnuts were used for washing in streams and lakes. Saponin normally breaks down in the digestive system and must enter the bloodstream to be toxic, but fish assimilate it directly into their bloodstream via their gills. It also breaks down quite readily in the environment, so it isn’t considered to be a significant threat, especially when it’s released into a municipal system where the sewage is treated. (And, of course, regular laundry detergents and household soaps aren’t exactly benign in terms of their environmental effects!)
Soapnuts are naturally occurring, sustainable, use reduced packaging, can be composted, and enable multiple uses from one product. For those reasons, their increasing popularity seems justified as a low-impact, green alternative to chemical detergents and expensive “green” laundry soaps.
Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Natural Life Magazine, where a version of this article was first published. She is also the author of Natural Life Magazine’s Green & Healthy Homes, along with twelve other books.