Back in the early days of zero waste when everyone was so hyper focus on aesthetics, I bought soap nuts. Did I actually use them? No. When I did use them, did I use them right? Double no. But, I did manage to figure out how they were meant to be used. And, how incredibly versatile these little guys are. Now, that’s not to say you MUST use soap nuts in order to be zero waste (nope, definitely not). In fact, it’s probably not the most sustainable choice for several reasons. More on that later. However, if you do have some soap nuts lying around (ahem, like me), or want to give them a try, here’s how to use soap nuts (correctly).
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How to Use Soap Nuts
What are soap nuts and do they work?
Okay so here’s the big question – what are soap nuts (aka soap berries) and do they work? Soap berries are actually the dried shells (or husks) from the soapberry nut, which come from the Sapindus mukorossi tree.
The shells of the soap nut contain a natural soap, called Saponin. When the nutshells absorb water, the saponin is released, which creates a soaping effect. Saponin is 100% natural and biodegradable, making it an excellent alternative to chemical detergents.
Soap nuts work at cleaning – and are most often used in place of laundry detergent. However, this is only one use for them.
And, it should be noted that while they will absolutely clean your clothes, it’s a much more gentle clean than what you may be used to (in comparison to Tide pods, lets say).
Because they’re so gentle, they’re actually get for people with sensitive skin, or laundering baby clothes.
The best part? They’re reusable – and lets not forget compostable at the end of their life.
Do soap nuts have a shelf life?
Okay, here’s the coolest thing about them – no. Soap berries do not have a shelf life. However, in humid conditions soap nuts absorb moisture and become sticky. But this won’t effect their cleaning capabilities.
How do you store soap nuts?
You’ll want to keep soap berries moisture-free, so putting them in an air-tight container is a good idea. An upcycled jar is perfect. I recommend storing them in a place separate from food, as they look like edible dried fruit. But they’re not edible, so store it where you would a detergent.
What is the best way to use soap nuts?
The best way to use soap nuts is by using them for cleaning, specifically in place of laundry detergent. However, soap nuts can also be used for beauty, like making DIY shampoo, hand wash, and shaving cream. But you can also use it to make household cleaning products like all-purpose cleaner, dishwasher powder, and dishwashing liquid.
Admittedly, I’ve never used soap berries for anything but laundry. If you’re interested in making some of these other beauty/cleaning DIYs, check out this post from Earth Bits.
For the sake of simplicity, I’ll only be talking about using soap nuts for laundry detergent in this post. That’s what soap nuts are most commonly used for.
How do I activate soap nuts?
First off, if you’re planning on using these zero waste soap berries, you have to activate them first. Soap nuts are activated by warm or hot water, so if you plan on washing your clothes on this setting, you should be fine.
However, if you plan on using cold water to wash your clothes, you’ll have to first soak your soap berries in boiling water for a few minutes. Then throw the water and bag of soap nuts into the wash.
You can also make a liquid soap nut concentrate that can be used as laundry detergent, shampoo, or even a dishwasher detergent. Here’s how to do that.
- 5 cups water
- 15 soap nuts
- Combine water and nuts in saucepan. Bring to boil.
- Reduce to simmer. Simmer 30-45 minutes so liquid can concentrate.
- Strain out soap nuts then store in glass jar.
If using this for laundry, you can use 2-3 tablespoons per load. You will use half of that for a HE washer.
How do you use soap nut shells?
To use soap nut shells themselves, you just have to place 4-6 soap nut shells in a small muslin bag (for a heavily soiled load, use 6-8 shells). Then, place your laundry and the small soap nut bag in the drum of your washing machine. Wash your clothes as you would per fabric instructions. Then, save the used shells – they can be reused a number of times before being composted. Once the shells become soft and grey, you’ll know it’s time to compost them. They’re typically good for 4-5 washes.
What are the disadvantages of soap nuts?
There are a few disadvantages to using these natural soap berries. Due to a lack of chemicals, your whites probably won’t come out as bright. Though, you can add some baking soda to help with this.
They’re also unscented, which isn’t necessarily a problem, as you can always add a few drops of essential oil to the muslin bag they’re contained in. This will help give your clothes a nice gentle scent.
The main problem I have with soap nuts is the carbon footprint of transporting soap berries around the world, and the impact their popularity has on production.
They’re the fruits of a small tree called the Sapindus Mukorossi tree, which is native to the Himalayas and the mountainous region between India and Nepal.
Due to the increased demand in Europe and North America, soap berries have become too expensive for many locals to afford.
With this in mind, you may want to consider a more local alternative – horse chestnuts. If you live in a temperate climate zone, chances are you already have horse chestnut trees in your parks! These are a free, natural laundry detergent that can be found lying around the streets in September and October.
Zero Waste Chef has a great horse chestnut laundry soap recipe worth checking out. This is a more local, ethical alternative to soap berries.
That said, occasionally using soap berries is a great idea. But my final thoughts on the matter is this – if you can find something that’s eco-friendly, locally made, or package-free near you that does the same job (like these laundry detergents) – I’d go for that first!
What do you think of these zero waste soap berries? Would you give them a try, or pass?
Here are some other zero waste laundry detergent options to consider.
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