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Soapnuts – do they really work?

by Cherie Pasion
Cherie Pasion
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on Feb 11 in Green Living 0 Comments

Last July I started using organic and fair trade soapnuts as our primary clothes washing detergent.  7 months on, I’ve had enough experience with them to write a proper review as to whether I believe soapnuts really work.

Photo source: New Internationalist Shop Online

What are soapnuts?

According to Wikipedia, soapnuts, or Sapindus mukorossi, are part of the Lychee family and the fruit pulp are used to make soap.  Soapnuts have been used for washing for thousands of years by native peoples in Asia as well as Native Americans, plus they have been used in folk remedies historically also.

Recently soapnuts have hit the shelves in green living shops in the Western world, as a natural alternative to clothes washing detergents.  I bought my Soapnuts from New Internationalist Shop Online who describe them as “an environmentally friendly, sustainably produced,  bio-degradable and compostable alternative to commercial laundry detergents”.

I probably would have added the words “cost effective” into that description as well. 

The soapnuts themselves aren’t really nuts, but more like shells or husks.  They are soft, shiny and slightly sticky (almost the consistency of dates) and smell mild and pleasant.

How to use soapnuts?

It’s extremely simple. You put 6-8 soapnut shells into a small calico bag (provided with the soapnuts), soak in hot water for a couple of minutes, and pop into the washing machine.  I usually add a few drops of Lemon or Lavender Oil onto the calico bag before adding to the washing machine to give the washed clothes a clean, fresh smell. 

Do they work?

I did some research prior to using soapnuts, to see whether they were worth trying.  I came across this blog entry by Playing Fair, where the author, Nadiah, provided a test comparison showing how Soapnuts fared against her usual washing detergent, EcoStore’s washing powder.   After reading her blog, I was sold, and I bought a packet of soapnuts.

After 7 months of regular use, I have mixed feelings about soapnuts.  The marketing material states that soapnuts are “especially good for colours”.  Yes, I do agree with that - they are good for coloured clothes.  However, my experience has been that soapnuts are not so effective with whites.  Our white t-shirts and underwear sadly took on a grey appearance after awhile, and we’ve resorted to soaking our whites in Earth Choice liquid detergent (another eco-friendly alternative to commercial detergents) before adding them to our soapnut wash.

I’m also not very impressed with how soapnuts handle marks on clothes and stains.  They seem to be really good at washing clothes that are just dirty from normal wear, but I've consistently noticed they aren't very effective with clothes that have had something slopped on them or stained. (For example, I just took out a load of washing now, and one of my husband's work shirts still has a lot of deodorant residue in the underarms, that needed additional scrubbing.)

My verdict

Love them for their sustainable and fair trade nature

I do love the concept of soapnuts – I love how they are natural, organic, fair trade and thus support all the values that I hold dear – such as uplifting the lives of the workers, being environmentally-friendly etc.  I also love the fact that we can use the small calico bag filled with soapnuts for weeks and weeks without having to replace them (they last around 6 washes), and once we're done with them, they go straight into my composter, making lovely soil that we can grow organic herbs and vegetables with.  I also love how they come in sustainable packaging that can be reused, and given how long they last, by using one bag for almost a year, we cut down on household waste.  So, from that perspective, I think they are fantastic.

They are cost effective

The soapnuts are also extremely cost-effective.  We’ve been using this bag now for 7 months and we’ve still got more than half a bag left.  At $17.50 a bag, that has worked out to be $0.43 a wash so far.  By the time we’ve finished the bag, that will have translated to approximately $0.15-$0.20 a wash.  Not bad. 

But... didn't wash my whites so well...

However, from a washability perspective, I think that once this packet runs out (probably another 9 months worth), we’ll go back to eco-friendly and sustainable laundry powder – at least for whites and stained clothes.  We are expecting our first child in September and I’m not sure that soapnuts will be able to wash reusable diapers very well – given our experience with stains and whites.

Don't give up yet, apparently more recipes worth a go

Although, doing my research for this blog entry, I have realised that there are other ways to prepare the soapnuts for washing - for example, boiling them first and making a liquid - which has seemed to have had better results than adding them straight to the wash like I have been.  I have also found recipes for general purpose cleaning detergents that might be good to try out also (will add another blog or update this one when I've had a go).

In any case, I’m glad to have found soapnuts and given them a go.  I was pleased to have had the opportunity to give Mother Earth a helping hand, as well as Asha Handicrafts Association in India, who followed fair trade principles in producing the soapnuts. 

I would encourage you to buy them and try them out yourself – and come back with any feedback on how you were able to have better luck with whites than we did - and if you have other uses for soapnuts.

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