Creating a clean, green environment in your home is a process that requires a multi-tiered approach. Stocking it with organic food and installing air and water purification devices are effective but it's also important to consider how you maintain your home. Ironically, common household cleaning sprays, solutions, and laundry detergent are among the biggest sources of toxins in the average home. The good news, however, is that there is a totally natural, eco-friendly replacement that can satisfy all your household cleaning solution needs — soap nuts.
What Are Soap Nuts?
Soap nuts, also known as soap berries, are fruit produced by a variety of large shrubs and small trees; the most common is the Sapindus mukorossi tree. When the fruit of the tree is ripe, the soap nuts are picked, de-seeded, and the shells are dried in the sun. The shell of the fruit contains a natural soap called saponin that can be used to create cleaning solutions that are completely and utterly chemical-free. Soap nuts are versatile and can replace many conventional detergents, soaps, and cleaners. Despite their name, soap nuts are actually a fruit and won’t trigger nut allergies.
|Soap Nut Quick Facts
|India, Indonesia, and Pakistan
|Natural, All-Purpose Cleaner
|Soap Berry, Chinese Soapberry, Washnuts
How Do Soap Nuts Work?
Soaking soap nuts in hot water unleashes their cleansing power by releasing a surfactant known as saponin. Surfactants make water wetter by reducing surface tension. Saponin creates a low-suds, soapy liquid that removes dirt and grime from clothing, dishes, floors, countertops, and even glass. Big-name laundry detergents also have surfactants, but they are harsh chemical versions. In contrast, soap nuts are gentle and hypoallergenic. This makes them ideal for young children, pets, and anyone who is sensitive to chemical additives.
How to Use Soap Nuts for Laundry
Soap nuts make a great, affordable laundry soap. One pound of organic soap nuts is inexpensive and should be enough to wash over 200 loads of laundry. The easiest way to use soap nuts for laundry is by placing 4 to 6 into a muslin drawstring bag. The bag is not absolutely necessary and many people simply throw the soap nuts in with their clothes at the beginning of the wash cycle. However, the bag will keep the soap nuts contained and prevent pieces that break off from staining your clothes.
When washing, make sure to set your washing cycle on the hottest water setting possible. Cold water will simply not release the surfactant from the soap nuts, which is essential to getting the clothes clean. Once the wash cycle is complete, remove the soap nuts and dry the clothes as you normally would. Each handful of soap nuts should be good for several washes.
When they start to turn soft and gray, then it is time for a new batch of soap nuts. You can use soap nuts in nearly any make or model of washing machine, including high-efficiency and top or front loaders. For best results, pre-wash or spot treat clothes that are highly soiled and end the wash cycle with a cold water rinse. Once your soap nuts’ suds have been exhausted, throw them in with your compost.
All-Purpose Soap Nut Cleaner
You can use soap nuts to make your own all-purpose cleaner that will help clean nearly any surface, counter, or floor in your home. To start, you will need 15 soap nuts and a quart of purified or distilled water. Combine the water and soap nuts into a saucepan, bring the water to a boil, cover, and let simmer for 1 to 2 hours.
Allow the mixture to completely cool and then strain out the soap nuts using a slotted spoon or strainer. What remains is a soap nut concentrate that can be used as a base for most home-made cleaning solutions or as cold water laundry detergent.
For an all-purpose home cleaner, combine the following ingredients in a BPA-free spray bottle.
- 1 cup soap nut concentrate
- 2 tablespoons organic, white vinegar
- 2 tablespoons distilled water
*Optional Ingredients: Add a few drops of your favorite essential oil for fragrance and an additional cleaning boost. Popular essential oils for cleaning include tea tree, lemon, lavender, and peppermint.
The Benefits of Soap Nuts
- Organically grown
- Non-toxic and free of harsh chemicals
- Gentle on delicate clothing
- Perfect for sensitive skin and allergies
- Can be used in natural shampoos and shaving creams
- Traditionally used to remedy lice
- Can clean tarnished metal
- Soap nut saponin can be useful in the remediation of metal contaminated soil
- Has been studied for effects on cancer
- Used in Ayurvedic medicine to promote normal skin complexion
- Naturally repels insects
Tips for Growing a Soapberry Tree
If you plan to grow your own soapberry tree, be prepared to wait. From seed to harvest you are looking at a span of 9 to 10 years. The time in between will be a labor of love, especially if you live in a cold, dry area. The tree only grows well in select climates and growing conditions. Soapberry trees are a tropical plant and grow best in warm climates with heavy rainfall. It is most commonly grown in India, China, and USDA Zones 7b to 10b. Before setting your heart on growing your own soap, consider buying the dehydrated fruit online or at a natural grocery store. If you simply can’t be dissuaded, read on.
Finding the seeds needed for planting will be difficult. Chances are slim that your local plant nursery or seed supply stores will even carry them. If they are available, the price will be high. Finding organic seeds available for purchase online is the most likely route to success. Another option is gathering the seeds up from soap nut packages you buy. Many people report finding the occasional seed left inside their soap nuts and these will work for planting. The seeds will be black, hard, and about the size of a blueberry.
Once you have your seeds, you need to prepare them for planting which means scoring and soaking them in water. The exterior is extremely hard and a file, knife, or hammer will be necessary to soften up and break down the outside of the seed. After that, place the seeds into a cup of water and let them soak for 24 hours to begin the germination process.
If planting outdoors, plant the seeds in late spring or early summer. At first, plant the seeds in a pot so you can move it indoors if the temperature outside gets too cold. When planting, place the seeds 2 to 3 inches down into fertile soil and water often. They will take between 1 to 3 months to germinate and will need healthy amounts of water and sun along the way. Once seedlings emerge, re-pot in a large container making sure to protect the long primary root. From there you may need to repot several more times before the tree is ready for its permanent home.
If you can keep up the care and watering of your tree for about 9 years, then you will be able to reap the reward. Watch for cream-colored bunches of flowers in May and June. The tree then produces the fruit, which are 1/2-inch-wide, translucent in color, and turn yellow when ripe. Harvest your soap nuts during the winter months. Once gathered, the leathery-skinned fruit can be dried in the sun on a canvas or screen and stored. Make sure to crack open the soap nuts and deseed them before storing and using. Store them in an airtight container, such as a sealed bag or a glass jar.
- Sharma A, Sati SC, Sati OP, Sati D, Maneesha Kothiyal SK. Chemical constituents and bioactivities of genus Sapindus. Int J Res Ayurveda Pharm. 2011;2:403-9.
- Mukhopadhyay S, Mukherjee S, Hashim MA, Sen gupta B. Remediation of Arsenic Contaminated Soil Using Phosphate and Colloidal Gas Aphron Suspensions Produced from Sapindus mukorossi. Bull Environ Contam Toxicol. 2016.
- Huang HC, Wu MD, Tsai WJ, et al. Triterpenoid saponins from the fruits and galls of Sapindus mukorossi. Phytochemistry. 2008;69(7):1609-16.
- Upadhyay, Aparna, & Singh, D.K.. (2012). Pharmacological effects of Sapindus mukorossi. Revista do Instituto de Medicina Tropical de São Paulo, 54(5), 273-280.
- Geyter ED, Geelen D, Smagghe G. First results on the insecticidal action of saponins. Commun Agric Appl Biol Sci. 2007;72:645-8.
†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.