Using Soapnuts to Wash Clothes – the verdict

soapnuts

When we started on our low-waste journey we tried washing our clothes with soapnuts for about a year. I love the idea of cleaning with something that was 100% natural, that was compostable at the end-of-life. But as is often the case with eco-switches our enthusiasm faded over time. Read on to find out why we fell out of love with soapnuts.

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What are Soapnuts?

Soap nuts are well-known globally by various names such as soapnuts, soapberries, washing nuts, soap nut shells, wash shells, soapberry nut husks and several others. Soap nuts are basically the dried out shells (or husks) from the soapberry (or soap berry nut – see photo above). Typically, after the fruit has fallen to the ground, the seed is removed from the shell (or husk), and the shells are dried up in the sun. It’s a chemical called saponin that produces a soaping effect in these shells or husks.  Soap nuts have been used from ancient times all over the world as a laundry detergent, soap for personal hygiene, and a cleanser with a lot of other uses. (Source: Soapnut.in)

How to Use Soapnuts

The instructions on how to use Soapnuts differs from supplier to supplier. I used the brand Star Soapnuts, which unfortunately comes in a non-recyclable plastic bag. They recommend using approx. 3-6 shells in each wash and say that the number of shells required depends on your wash load and whether you are using hot or cold water. Generally we used 5 shells for a full load, washed at 40 degrees and line dried outside 

What to do with Spent Soapnut Shells

Star Soapnuts say that you can use the same shells up to 5 times, but we found that we got about 4 washes out of each set of shells before it stopped working. 

On a leaflet that comes with the Star Soapnuts are instructions on how to make a cleaning product with the spent shells. I tried this twice and was able to make a slightly soapy solution but I didn’t find it any good at cutting through grease, which is what I wanted it for.

Being 100% natural soapnuts can easily be composted in your own garden compost heap or send for composting in your organic waste bin.

Do Soapnuts Clean Well?

How well do soapnuts remove stains?

Interestingly research comparing alternative washing products in 2012 reported that soapnuts cleaned about as well as water alone.  Equally interesting is the fact that the research found the same to be true of laundry balls, washing pellets, and laundry magnets. The same research found although conventional compact detergent was significantly better at cleaning on all tested soil types, water on it’s own had a substantial cleaning effect.

Personally I didn’t have an issue with stains when using soapnuts, but I tend to pre-treat and/or soak any stained clothes before washing so maybe that was the reason.

Do soapnuts leave clothes smelling fresh?

We found line-dried clothes washed with soapnuts were fresh enough. but not if dried indoors overnight. Don’t get me wrong we’re not a family that’s keen on the strong scent you get with standard washing powder, what we do like is the neutral smell of cleanliness.

We found that on the occasions where we had to dry our clothes overnight on the washing lines in our garage the clothes developed a musty smell and sweat odour was perceptible.  To overcome this issue I tried adding essential oils to add to the wash. This helped slightly, but it didn’t resolve the issue fully.

Would I recommend Soapnuts?

If you’re really keen to use a 100% natural product I’d recommend using soapnuts for use in warm/windy and dry weather and having a back-up of a eco washing powder / liquid on other days or for items that have a strong smell of body odour from them.

By the way I’ve heard that soapnuts don’t work well in hard water areas . We live in a soft water area so I can’t personally verify this.

What to use instead of Soapnuts?

I have heard that chestnuts contain the saponin too and can also be used as a natural detergent. I’ve tested these and you can find out what I thought of conker laundry liquid here.

You can also find lots of tips and tricks on How to Make your Laundry More Sustainable in this article

Also check out my other articles on How to Clean Sustainably with Less Toxins

E

Published by Elaine Butler

I am a circular design consultant helping manfacturers prepare for the circular economy

9 thoughts on “Using Soapnuts to Wash Clothes – the verdict

  1. Hey, thank you for your article, I’m looking into using soapnuts at the moment. In case you weren’t aware, it’s possible to use the leaves of scented geranium plants to make a decoction to use in the final rinse. I can’t remember which geranium is most commonly used but it smells like lemons! It’s a really lovely plant.

  2. I’ve used soapnuts for 5 years now. I have a farm and large gardens, so the clothes being washed from myself, husband, and three kids are well soiled! I’ve also used the soapnuts to wash the cloth nappies that I’ve used for the kids when they were younger. I’ve found that the soapnuts do an excellent job. I recently ran out and have been using laundry pellets for a few months and find that the soapnuts did a far superior job of washing. I would use about 4 nuts per load and fill them into an old sock tied at the top. Each new load, I would add 3-4 more nuts until the sock was full. If we had a load of less-soiled clothes, I could get away with the odd load without adding in new nuts. I also use 30 or 40 degree washes and line dry in a polytunnel in wet Ireland! I would encourage others to try soapnuts for sure!

    1. Great to hear that the soapnuts have worked for you. Interesting that you add a few nuts to every wash. The ones I bought said you should get a few washes out of them before having to use new ones. I wonder if the polytunnel is the secret. Don’t think my dark unventilated garage on wet days cuts the mustard, that said my Sonnet laundry powder seems to cope okay with it.

  3. Hi! Thanks so much for this article..
    Do you know offhand if Sonnet is of a similar make up to Ecover? I’ve read Ecover can damage cloth nappies so I need to be careful of that.
    Also, it sounds like Sonnet is doing a great job on smelly clothes so could potentially be a good choice for nappies too..
    How did you find the Sonnet powder vs liquid?

    1. Hi. Thanks for the comment. Did you read my post on sustainable laundry. It gives a good run down on the brands readily available in Ireland including Sonnet? I prefer Sonnet powder to liquid but my husband is the reverse so we swap them around! They both clean equally well, i just like the fact that I need less space to store the powder over the liquid.

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