I can hear what you are thinking- ”Okay, I can go along with making tea from mint I’ve grown or using the persimmons I find to make jam, but real soap does not come from nuts!”
I was very skeptical too. I held off trying these for several reasons (in large part because I’m annoyed by big shipping charges and I haven’t found a local source), but I finally ordered some a couple weeks ago. I thought you may be interested in my experience.
A Little Background
Soap nuts (or berries) come from the Sapindus plants which are large shrubs or small trees. They have been used for thousands of years by Asians and Native Americans to produce soap because they contain a natural surfactant called saponin. The plants are native to temperate and tropical regions.
To prepare them for use as a detergent alternative, the nuts/berries are sun-dried and de-seeded. They are available from several sources, including Lehman’s. The best price I found was for “pieces” from Naturoli by way of Amazon. Pieces only come in the 5 lb size, so if you want to try them out, you may want a trial size first.
Why I Wanted to Try Them
My primary interest was for laundry, though they can be used for other things. With as many people as there are in our family and all the hard dirty work and play we do, we create a lot of laundry. I need to do at least 3 loads a day to keep up (I don’t do laundry on Sunday). That’s a lot of detergent.
I’ve tried various laundry soaps over the years. I’ve always intended to begin mixing up my own from washing soda, Borax, etc. (which I hear good things about), but I just have never gotten around to it. I know that is an economical and effective way to produce a lot of detergent. Somehow, it has just been one of the things that I just haven’t made time for with all the many things that need my attention.
Most of our married life, I have bought some generic bucket of powdered stuff from a big box store. It was pretty cheap and then we had the bucket for various chores etc. when it was empty. In recent years, I’ve been thinking more about the effects on our ground water (by way of the septic tank) of all those phosphates in traditional detergents. At present, we have “city water,” but someday we may want to dig a well. In addition, our house is on the highest point of the rolling property and it may be possible that the run-off heads down to our ponds which the animals use for drinking. Seems better to just use something more eco-friendly.
Seeing that Lehman’s had them for sale gave me more confidence than I otherwise would have had since I know they are a reputable company and they sell a lot o things that line up well with preparedness.
The last main reason I was interested in giving soap nuts a try was because they sounded like they would be very economical.
My 5 lb “pieces” box came with 1 muslin bag in which to put the nuts during washing. (I read the Amazon online reviews and followed the advice there to order a couple additional bags, which were not expensive). The instructions said to use the equivalent of 5 nuts for average loads and that they could be re-used for 4-7 washings. Wow! This means that a 5 lb box should wash at least 800 loads of laundry!
I was eager to try them out and didn’t have to wait since there is always dirty laundry. I did 5 consecutive load with that same set of soap nuts. I used warm water since the reviews on Amazon said they performed better in warm. The clothes came out clean and fragrance-free.
I should mention that some of what I washed that first day was wet bedding from a child’s overnight accident. It can be hard to get that odor out (and sometimes it’s not evident until after drying), but when I took the sheets and such out of the dryer, they had no unpleasant scent. That was nice!
I managed to catch the laundry cycle between wash and rinse the first many times and fished out the bag of nuts, thinking that they really needed to be removed even though the instructions didn’t specify that. To me, it seemed they would be adding “detergent” back to the rinse water. I also didn’t want to “use up” the nuts prematurely. It was a bit difficult to locate that little bag in all the wet clothes, but I eventually found it every time.
In the last couple of loads, I missed the interval after the first spin before the rinse water fills and the nuts stayed in. I couldn’t feel any difference in the clothes and I’m thinking that the saponins are not released much in the cold rinse water. The instructions say that they should work fine in cold, but will perform better if soaked in hot water and then that all added to the wash.
After the fifth load, I dutifully removed the nuts from the bag. They were very soft, but they still had a couple bubbles clinging to them. Hmmm…. guess they could be used at least one more time.
Once they seemed “spent,” I put them in the compost and refilled the bag. I think I’m sold.
How These Are Different Than Your Regular Detergent
It’s worth mentioning that these are not ” heavy duty” cleaners. You will still need to pre-treat spots and if you are a stickler for super-bright whites, you will still have to use a oxygen booster or whatever you use now. Soapnuts are just a good alternative to other regular detergents.
Since these are a natural product, most people with sensitive skin seem to do well with them (from reviews I read) and they are reported to be excellent for cloth diapers, especially because they leave no residue that prevent absorption (like a fabric softener). I cannot comment on that use because I have not tried them for diapers yet, but as noted above, they worked well for removing ammonia smells from urine.
It is important not to overload the washer because good water flow is essential. I have always started the water, added my detergent, and let it mostly fill before adding clothes so I know the detergent is well dissolved and distributed. It also makes it less likely I will overstuff the washer.
These soap nuts do not contain the phosphates and other sudsy agents that you are used to. Do not expect to see a washer full of foamy bubbles. I didn’t even think the wash water felt very soapy after a few minutes agitation, so I was skeptical. They seem to work though, and I’m happy with them.
One of the best parts is the cost. If I’ve calculated correctly, using soap nuts in the place of regular detergent costs about $.06 per load (about 7 1/2 cents if I include the cost of shipping). A quick comparison with Tide shows that to be $.25 per load, if my math is right.
And here is another thing that appeals to me- a 5 lb bag doesn’t take up much space. I would have to buy more than 6 large heavy boxes of detergent to wash that many loads of laundry and be concerned it is stored somewhere it can’t get humid or damp. I could store a few 5 lb bags of these in the root cellar we hope to begin soon and be set for ages.
If that tell-tale “clean” scent from name brand detergents is important to you, than you probably will not be happy with soap nuts. I don’t smell anything on our laundry, but that is fine with me. I decided a long time ago that I could do without the perfume to save money. Or, you could use a fabric softener to add the scent in the dryer. A lot of people who use these nuts seem to use a bit of white vinegar in the final rinse (if they have hard water) or nothing at all and find the clothes fresh and fluffy after machine drying.
According to some research and the instructions card that came with my order, these nuts can be used to create cleaners for other purposes- most notably, to make hair and skin products for people with eczema and other sensitive skin issues. It has some pest-deterrent characteristics so it is good for using on clothes to ward off insects. One source said it came be used to remove lice. That could be handy in a less than perfect world!
If you’ve ever used soap nuts, what brand did you use and what have been your experiences? Please share them in the comment section.