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How to Use Soap Nuts as a Natural Laundry Soap, Shampoo and Household Cleaner

What are Soap Nuts?

Soap nuts are actually berries, not nuts. So why the misnomer? Once harvested and dried, the soapberry forms a hard shell. This hard shell feels like and looks like…yep, a nut.

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=703281

Once the soap nuts have dried and hardened, they are deseeded. This is important because, though the outer shell will clean our clothes, the inner seeds will stain them. Nature’s way of keeping us on our toes! So, the berries will arrive cracked open, and that’s okay. In fact, that’s what you want!

Where do Soap nuts come from? 

David Eickhoff from Pearl City, Hawaii, USA - Sapindus saponaria var. saponaria Uploaded by Tim1357, CC BY 2.0

Soap nuts are the fruit of a tree in the Sapindaceae, or soapberry, family. Interestingly, this family also includes food trees such as the lychee fruit tree. But don’t eat soap nuts. This is a fruit that will give you one upset tummy and is considered toxic if ingested…toxic, yet…useful.

Where can you find one of these ‘toxic, yet useful’ trees? Today, they grow in many tropical and subtropical regions, such as Hawaii, Mexico, Latin America, South Carolina, Florida and parts of Asia, including the Himalayas. All locations have their native or specific species, and they have a similar appearance and properties. In total, there are over 1800 species and 12 of these species are known to contain as much as 37% saponin. (Don’t worry, lychee fruits are okay!)

Tell Me About Saponin

Saponin is what we want to use to clean our clothes, and it’s a substance used for thousands of years for a variety of things. The saponin is inside the shell of the berries, which are actually a type of drupe. Plums, cherries, peaches and olives are also drupes: fleshy fruits with what we call stones inside—stones being a single, hard seed that is large relative to the fruit itself.

David Eickhoff from Pearl City, Hawaii, USA - Sapindus saponaria var. saponaria Uploaded by Tim1357, CC BY 2.0

Forest and Kim Starr - starr-170913-0143-Sapindus_saponaria-fruit-CTAHR_Urban_Garden_Center_Pearl_City-Oahu, CC BY 2.0

So, more about saponin. When the soap nuts, or soap berries (which are not nuts and also not berries but drupes), are mixed with water, a soapy substance is released into the water. This is the saponin. Saponin is a surfactant (sur-fact-ant), and one end of a molecule breaks the water’s surface tension that is in the way of it getting to the dirt, oil and other stains. Once broken, the saponin molecules can lift out these same dirt, oils and other stains from our clothing by trapping them inside a ring of soap molecules called a micelle. Because they are trapped, they travel wherever the soap molecules go. So when the soap gets washed down the drain with the water, so do the oils, fats and grime. Tada!

Here's a simplified visual. I love visuals. 

How a Soap Molecule Works, copyright 2022 Laura Lowe, Ninth & PineHow Soap Molecules Work, copyright 2022 Laura Lowe, Ninth & Pine

Want to Know More?

Here’s a helpful, short video by Everyday Elements that uses animation to explain it in a bit more scientific detail: How Does Soap Work?

 
A Gentle Soap

Soap nuts are great at removing stains and grime from our laundry while also being a super gentle laundry soap for your clothing. It’s even more so for 

  • Baby items like bedding, clothing and even cloth diapers
  • People who have sensitive or reactive skin
  • People with skin conditions, like eczema or psoriasis
  • Clothing items that need a delicate detergent with low or no sudsing action
  • Septic and grey-water systems

 

Where are the Suds? 

We are so used to seeing lots of suds in our laundry soap, dishwashing soap, body soaps and shampoos that we tend to panic or doubt the cleaning ability of products when we don’t see much, or any, sudsy bubbles. Those thick, luscious suds we seem to really like generally come from synthetic foaming agents. They actually aren’t responsible for the cleaning process as much as the soap molecule itself and the chemical bonds it exhibits with water and fats, with positive and negative charges of the oxygen head and carbon tail, and with oxygen just being down right greedy! But it’s early here so we will stick to the simplified model in the visual! And the suds can require extra rinse water to get rid of when they are thick and puffy. So, why are we wasting water just to have “not necessary” but spectacular bubbles? Hmmm.

Soap nuts and other natural cleaning and personal care items can form a low suds to no suds wash. So don’t panic with bubbles. It’s the big, thick clumpy, lush bubbles you need to be suspicious of and investigate.

How to Use Soap Nuts for Your DIY, Natural Laundry Soap

Liquid or Solid? Well, both, but…

Use liquid, soap nuts as a spray to pre-treat laundry stains.You can also use the concentrated liquid as your laundry soap, but why bother when the solid nuts work the same and don’t require the extra work!

To make a stain pretreat, you simply simmer the soap nuts in water, collect the saponin rich water into a spray bottle, and use it to pretreat tough stains on your clothing.

Tangie Liquid Laundry Soap Made with Soap Nuts, Tangie @ Waste Free Products

How to Make a Concentrated Soap Nut Liquid Stain Treatment (and Liquid Laundry Soap)

  1. Bring 4 cups water to a boil in a large pan
  2. Reduce water to a simmer
  3. Add 1 cup soap nuts
  4. Simmer 20 minutes
  5. Remove from heat and cool
  6. Pour cooled liquid into a spray bottle.
  7. Pretreat stains with enough sprays to saturate area and let sit several minutes or longer before washing
  8. Alternatively, add 1 to 4 Tablespoons to laundry ( 1=small load, 2= medium, 3= large, 4= extra dirty large load or hard water) as a liquid laundry soap!

NOTE: Makes approximately 3 cups liquid soap. Store either at room temperature for 1 week or in refrigerator for 2-3 weeks or freeze as premeasured cubes in an ice tray and use within 2-3 months.

EXTRA NOTE: You can continue adding 4 more cups of water and resimmering to make more liquid soap until the soap nuts get mushy and gray.

EXTRA, EXTRA NOTE: Soap nuts work great on oils, fats and other grimey things with oils and fats in them. However, if you are dealing with a stain such as ink, that lacks oils and fats, you’ll want to use something else. 

When it comes to everyday laundry, use the soap nuts in a muslin bag:

  1. Place 4, 5 or 6 soap nuts in a small, drawstring muslin bag. Thin organic Cotton or bamboo is our preference.
  2. Most people will close the bag tightly and tie a knot in their drawstring that is difficult to untie. You want the berries to stay INSIDE the bag. 
  3. Add your clothes and bag of soap berries to the washer and wash as usual on warm or hot. 
  4. Easy Peasy!

NOTE: Reuse your bag until the berries become mushy and turn from brown to grey. Then compost the nuts and start over. You can also compost or reuse the bag as needed.

ANOTHER EXTRA NOTE: The number of times a bag of soap nuts can be reused varies with the wash time and size of the berries, but I can generally get four or five loads out of it before I need to replace.

WHAT’S WITH THESE NOTES!: The saponin doesn’t release well in cold water. One hint: put your soap berries on to simmer or in a prefilled washer with hot water to release the saponin, let it cool down and then wash your cold only loads. You can also keep a small batch of liquid soap nut natural laundry soap on hand for cold washes.

 

BUT I LOVE A SCENT!

  

Use a lavender sachet or use a wool dryer ball(s) with several drops of your favorite, organic essential oils.

Sachet

  1. Add dried organic lavender flowers to a muslin bag. We grow ours, but I’ll put a resource below too.
  2. Extend or strengthen the scent by adding lavender or lavendin essential oil drops as needed.
  3. Compost or add flowers to your carpet refresher and then vacuum up to squeeze out the last goodness before the compost bin!

    Wool Dryer Balls

    1. Add several drops of organic essential oil (EO) to a wool dryer ball(s).
    2. The more drops, the more intense the scent (don’t forget that EO drops are concentrated).
    3. Toss into the dryer with wet clothes. 
    4. Dry as usual. 

    Olson+Olson Organic Wool Dryer Balls

    Some favorite organic essential oils for wool laundry dryer balls include: 

    1. Lavender EO
    2. Geranium EO
    3. Lavendin or Spike Lavender EO
    4. Grapefruit and Sweet Orange or Grapefruit and Mandarin EO
    5. Lemon EO
    6. Lemon, Clove and Lavender EO
    7. Eucalyptus and Peppermint EO (or replace the peppermint EO with lemon, rosemary, lavender or Cedarwood EO)


    How do I know when my Liquid Soap Nut Soap Needs to Be Poured Down the Drain

    FERMENTATION! If your soap smells sour, it has fermented. Pour it down the sink drain. 
    Your soap should have a light apple juice scent instead. Make liquid soap in small batches and refrigerate or freeze to extend its life. 

    Besides storing in the refrigerator, some people say adding 1/4 cup white, distilled vinegar to the 4 cups of water as it’s cooling down helps the liquid soap last longer. I use it up pretty quickly or else I freeze mine so I can’t verify that’ll work! But it sounds like a plausible idea. 

     


    Soap Nuts Make a Shampoo and Body Wash Too
    You betcha! This is an especially good choice for anyone with a sensitive scalp, allergy-prone skin, eczema or psoriasis. 

    1. Just use the same stove-top method as you do for liquid laundry soap, and you are ready to go as is.
    2. However, you can also add essential oils that are skin and scalp friendly like lavender, rosemary or a tiny bit of peppermint.
    3. You can increase the nutrition for your skin and hair by simmering the soap nuts with 1/4 cup flax seeds and add some orange peels for a citrus scent (filter well afterwards).
    4. And finally, if you enjoy a thicker shampoo with more foam, use an immersion blender to whip it into a thicker foam before you wash your hair. 
    5. Store in refrigerator, and use within 2-3 weeks or freeze excess and use within 2-3 months. 




    And I Can Use it As A Multi Purpose Household Cleaner Too! 

    Talk about bang for your buck. Use the liquid soap diluted in a mop bucket for your floors, full strength on that greasy stove, shower door and toilet bowl and anywhere in between as needed.

    And it Makes a Plant Insecticide? 

    Hmmm. A gentle soap and shampoo but a killer insecticide—tall about versatile!

    Saponin can interfere with the coatings on an insects exoskeleton, resulting in dehydration. If Ladybugs are not around to do the job for you and the aphids are having their own version of a Coachella crowd on your plants, soap nuts are a great go-to.

    1. Follow the same stove-top method as you do for natural liquid laundry soap, shampoo and body wash.
    2. Add 1 Tablespoon of soap water to 1 quart of water, mix and add to spray bottle. (4-5 Tablespoons per gallon)
    3. Spray your plant. Don’t forget to spray under the leaves and the stems too from top to bottom.
    4. The soap will dehydrate the aphids. Some people don’t rinse. Some people do after 20-30 minutes.
    5. Best advice: test on a small area of the plant to see how it reacts. When in doubt, rinse. The fear is it will dissolve the waxy coating on your plant leaves, but as it’s diluted, this is probably more specific to certain types of plants with thinner coatings. Just pre-test!
    6. Repeat every 2-3 days until egg/hatch/reproduce cycle is finally interrupted and aphids are no longer coming back.


      VERY, VERY LAST NOTE: Soap nuts are so versatile, but completely gentle on our clothes, hair and skin and such a great, natural household cleaner and insecticide. Their shelf life is—a ‘long time’ if stored in a dry, room-temperature environment. Try them! They are a pretty interesting ‘toxic but useful’ ‘not nut, not berry drupe!’ Oh. And they look pretty in a glass jar on your laundry room shelf!

      OUR PREFERRED MERCHANTS: 

      MOUNTAIN ROSE HERBS, Eugene, Oregon

      Soap Nuts

      Dried Lavender & Seeds to Grow Your Own
      Organic Essential Oils

       

      STRICTLY MEDICINAL SEEDS

         

         

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