Soap nuts are a really environmentally friendly answer to laundry day blues.
Give them a try - I'm sure you'll be pleasantly surprised! Read on for how to use them.
They look like something that dropped from a tree - and that's pretty much what they are! Soap nuts (or soapnuts) are the nut casing (or "drupe") from the Sapindus Mukrossi tree which grows in tropical regions of Asia. They contain natural "saponins" (soapy substances) which are released into the washing water.
Soap nut trees are grown sustainably in India and Nepal. Trees live up to ninety years and help to stabilise soil, helping prevent erosion. They also mop up plenty of CO2, so using soapnuts is generally an eco-friendly way to do your washing. Many soapnut producers are part of Fair Trade networks, too.
There are other types of soapnut which are less commercially developed. Sapindus Mukrossi is the best for cleaning and washing but others types work too.
Soap nuts are used in other ways, too. They can be used in the remediation of contaminated soil and in recycling grey water. This makes them a highly useful tree for environmental protection.
You put 5 or 6 shells (drupes) into a draw-string bag and just place them in the drum of your washing machine. To get more value for money you can place the bag on a chopping board and hit the shells with a rolling pin. This will break up the shells a little, letting the hot water access the saponins better.
You don't need to take them out of the machine for the rinse cycle because the cold rinse water will not release the saponins from the soap nut shells. You will generally need to wash at 40 degrees Centigrade or above for good results.
After the wash just take them out of the washing machine and put them in a jar with a little water to keep them damp. They will be ready to use again whenever you want them. They will do several washes - typically three or four - and then they need to be added to your compost heap.
The amount of soap nuts you need and how long they last depends upon several things: the temperature of your wash, the hardness of your water and the nature and quantity of dirt to be shifted.
They are quite efficient, which makes them a light-weight purchase at the shops (in contrast to a big box of detergent). You can also order them in bulk and save even more money.
You can also use them for washing your hair, or practically any other use where you would otherwise use soap or detergent.
Soapnuts will keep for months if stored in a dry place.
They go a darker colour and the shell becomes softer.
Soap nuts are sustainable and completely free of chemicals. One of the best things about them is that they contain natural oils which soften the water too.
They are very inexpensive, compared to detergent. You can do a full wash for only a few cents, meaning you can save about 50% of the cost of using detergent or more.
Soap nuts are especially suitable for washing delicates such as silks and rayon and they also keep dark and intense colours perfect for a good long time. The fibres of the fabric are not damaged by the action of the soap, which helps clothes and other washables to wear well. This gives them another claim to environmental benefits (less production + less CO2 and less pollution). They can also save you some money because your clothes will last longer.
Unlike conventional detergent there is no bleach involved, so colours won't fade. If you want a bleaching effect, just pre-soak clothes and other laundry items in oxygen bleach solution before washing with soap nuts.
Soap nuts are great for people with allergies as they are hypo-allergenic and anyone with sensitive skin will find them very gentle because of their softening properties. They are even beneficial for people with skin problems; they are used in Ayurvedic medicine for the treatment of eczema and psoriasis.
They have only a very faint and pleasant smell so they are great for people who like to avoid all those strong-smelling detergent products. The smell is sometimes described as "fruity". I think it smells like wood or polished wood. You can also add your own scent by adding a few drops of essential oil to your rinse water if you like.
These organic NaturOli soap nuts from Amazon have received rave reviews from people who have used them.
It's quite easy to make a liquid soap from soap nuts using just water and a few fresh soap nut shells. Just put the shells in water (enough to easily cover them) and bring them to the boil. Then simmer them for about 5 minutes. Let the liquid cool and then strain it through a sieve or muslin and put it into a spray bottle ready for use. You can use this liquid to wash items by hand, for other household cleaning jobs, or even to replace screen wash in your car!
Remember, a little goes a long way. You won't see much by way of suds. The saponins present do not create a lot of lather but rather clean by softening and dissolving dirt. They really are just like a good quality soap in their action.
You can buy liquid soap nuts ready to use from Amazon.
Clearly you don't want to be rubbing a load of nuts into your scalp! But if you follow the instructions above for making a liquid cleaner, you can use the liquid for hair shampoo. You won't feel the softness as you apply the liquid and you won't notice much lather. But your hair should be clean, silky and smooth after you have dried it. It may volumise your hair some, too.
Soap nuts are mildly insecticidal, so a soapnut shampoo is a good choice for helping to prevent head lice. You can also use the liquid for pet shampoo.
Here's a great book on green cleaning methods - one I wish I had written! In Easy Green Living Renee Loux shares all the ideas you need to clean and freshen your home without resorting to toxic chemicals, or poisoning your kids!
There are a few small downsides. Some people do not rate them as highly as eco-friendly detergent or washballs. They may not remove ground-in dirt or stains.
A little bag is usually supplied with them when you buy packs in the west. It could possibly break open in the wash which might not be too great for the machine. I've used them a few times but I've not had this happen so far. The bags are quite sturdy. If you don't have a bag you can use a pop sock or the foot of a pair of tights to contain them.
For people in the west they have a long journey to make which is not so energy-friendly. If you live close to their origins, this is not a problem, obviously. They are usually shipped by sea, which is better than air-freight. They are very light-weight so they are not costly to transport.
You can make use of soapwort, a plant which grows in temperate climates to make a solution for washing but I do not believe it is as effective as the real deal!