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What Are Soap Nuts?

Updated on January 8, 2018
Athlyn Green profile image

Athlyn Green has tried to reduce the chemical footprint on her property and shares tips and insights about safe and natural alternatives.

Fruit of Sapindus Saponaria

Mature soap nuts.
Mature soap nuts. | Source

A Novel Way of Laundering Clothing Using Something Produced by Mother Nature

In recent years, I've been on a quest to go green in my home, so not only do I not come into contact with chemical residues left on surfaces but I also don't inhale potentially harmful fumes.

This didn't happen overnight. The transition has been a gradual one and I had to go through a bit of a learning curve. So many times, I came across some homemade formula that used items I didn't have in my home and that I would have to order because they weren't available locally, so I found I was back to square one. I knew I didn't want to have to order ingredients, each time I needed to make a new batch of Eco-friendly cleaner.

So I kept reading and in some cases, I came across easier formulas, but for other items I wished to replace, I simply made up my own mixtures when no easy formulas were available.

By doing so, thus far, I've replaced my bathroom and kitchen cleaners and made my own scrubbing paste, I've made my own dish-washing liquid, and switched to baking soda for hair-washing, and I'm now looking to replace any remaining cleaning products in my home.

In my quest for a laundry detergent that doesn't damage the environment, I came across soap nuts, also known as soap berries, and I've created this article to explain what they are, where they grow, what substances are in them that make them ideal for cleaning clothes, and how they can be used instead of chemical-laden laundry detergent.

A Berry Shell That Naturally Contains Soap

How kewl is that?

What Are Soap Nuts?

Soap nuts are considered a fruit and they grow on a handful of shrubs and small trees in the genus Sapindus in the Lychee family. This genus includes deciduous and evergreen species that synthesize their own natural saponins, (soap) which coat the shell of the fruit.

The fruits (drupes) these shrubs and trees produce are known as soap berries.

The fruits or berries start out green, then they later turn yellowish or bright orange in winter, which is when they are harvested. Farmers harvest after the fruit falls from the tree. The shell is removed from around the seed. (The seed does not contain or release saponin). The shells are then dried in the sun.The shells slowly turn a dark brown color and can even turn black, if not stored properly.

Common Varieties

Sapindus Mukorossi
Sapindus Trifoliatus
Sapindus Mukorossi

Sapindus Emarginatus

Drupes in Hyderabad, India
Drupes in Hyderabad, India | Source

Known As

  • Chinese soap berry
  • Ritha nut shells
  • soap berries
  • soapberry nut husks
  • soap husks
  • soap nuts
  • soap nut shells
  • washing nuts
  • wash shells

What Are Soap Nuts?

Soap Nuts Have Been Used for Centuries as a Cleaning Agent

Native Americans and Asians used them.


Where They Grow

As unbelievable as it may seem, soap nuts actually grow in the wild.

The shrubs and trees in the genus are native to temperate and tropical regions around the world.

  • China
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Himalayas
  • North America (currently, three species are recognized)
  • Pakistan

From Antiquity

A powdered form of soap nuts has been in use for centuries and ancient texts reference it. The powder from the ground shells is considered the oldest lathering agent, soap, and shampoo

It is a bit of a revelation to realize that people washed their clothes for centuries, long, long before supermarkets offered packaged laundry soaps. They used what they had on hand, relying on natural ingredients.

Why Do Soap Nuts Clean?

Soap nuts are not very large but the shells contain powerful natural soap, known as saponin which is a natural surfactant, not only lifting stains from fabric but leaving the dirt suspended in the wash water, which makes the nuts ideal for cleaning tasks.

They could be said to be a 100% natural form of laundry soap and are a safe, hypoallergenic, biodegradable alternative to laundry detergents that imperil ocean waters and harm the environment.

And they work in much the same fashion as the usual laundry soaps, minus the chemicals.


How to Use Soap Nuts for Cleaning Clothing

Thus far, we have learned that soap nuts do a good job of cleaning but how does one actually use them? To use soap nuts for laundry purposes, one usually places the nuts into a bag.

The neat thing about the nuts--and a different scenario from single-use laundry soap--is that the bag containing the soap nuts can be used to wash multiple loads of laundry. This, of course, translates into cost savings.

Most retailers selling soap nuts, also sell small bags for use in conjunction with the nuts. Soap nut kits contain both items.

Normally you place 5-6 soap nuts into a bag, which you then place in your washing machine. You retrieve the bag and use it for subsequent loads of laundry. How many uses you get per bag depends on the size of the load, water hardness or softness, degree of soiling and so on.

Good for...
those with allergies
sensitive skin
skin conditions
combating odors
hard or soft water

A Year's Worth of Cleaning for a Fraction of the Cost of Regular Laundry Detergents

5 loads per week
= 20 loads per month
x 12 months
= 240 loads in one year

Toss Out Your Fabric Softener

You don't have to use a fabric softener when you use soap nuts. Simply leave the little bag in your washing machine. The natural soap acts as a fabric softener and won't leave any greasy or harmful residues behind.

Did You Know?

Laundry detergent and fabric softener can be some of the most toxic items in your home, containing phosphates, whiteners, foaming agents.

Other Uses Around the Home

Personal Care
counter tops
insect repellant for plants
body wash
cleaning jewelry
washing pets
washing vehicles
washing windows

You can use homemade soap nuts liquid for other cleaning jobs around the house. Use liquid in the same fashion as other liquid cleaners.

Making a Liquid Cleaner From Soap Nuts

By now you may be wondering if soap nuts are just for laundry. No! A liquid can be made and used to clean around your home.

Fill a large pot with water and soak 1/2-1 cup soap nuts overnight. Run all through a blender, then strain. Because this is a natural product with no preservatives, it will not keep like regular cleaners, so store some of the liquid in bottle in the fridge and freeze some of it in ice cub trays for later cleaning tasks.

Have You Tried Soap Nuts?

See results

Small Changes, Big Impact

Cleaning up our home environment starts with baby steps. We can replace products we are used to using with safer alternatives. It does require adopting new habits but these habits over the long-term can serve to protect our health and the environment. Using soap nuts is a natural and easy way to clean clothing and one that North Americans are embracing in increasing numbers.

© 2012 Athlyn Green


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