Soap nuts are a natural, sustainable alternative to using regular detergent. Explore how to use soap nuts and why you might want to give these eco-wonders a try.
What are soap nuts?
Soap nuts are dried berry shells from a tree of the lychee family, Sapindus Mukorossi, found in Nepal and India.
Despite the name, soap nuts are not actual nuts, but are berries (which is why you’ll sometimes see them referred to as ‘soap berries’).
Soap nuts contain saponin, which is a natural cleaning agent that can lift dirt and grime from fabrics, leaving little to no scent behind.
As they are wholly natural, without any artificial additives or processing, they are increasingly seen as an environmentally friendly cleaning option (you can even compost them after use) and are considered a good option for those with sensitive skin.
Soap nuts are also available as a liquid formula, but the nuts are often preferred as they can be reused.
While you can find saponin in other shells, such as chestnuts, soap nuts are full of the stuff. The trees themselves begin to bear fruit after nine years and can carry on producing soap berries for 90 years or more.
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How to use soap nuts
Follow our simple step-by-step method for how to use soap nuts to get the best results with your laundry.
If you have stains on your clothes, it’s a good idea to pre-treat them before washing as soap nuts on their own are unlikely to remove tougher marks.
Add 4-6 soap nuts to a muslin bag or a sock.
Soap nuts can be used with your regular wash cycle but are most effective on warmer washes (many users suggest a minimum of 40ºC).
Once the cycle is complete, remove the bag (make sure not to accidentally put them in the tumble dryer along with your clothes).
Allow the bag and the nuts to dry.
Pros and cons of soap nuts
Soap nut pros
They are extremely easy to use.
They are completely natural, free of chemicals and non-toxic.
They don’t irritate like some detergents, so they make a good choice for those with dry or sensitive skin (in Nepal and India soap nuts have traditionally been used to treat conditions such as eczema and psoriasis).
Their mild cleaning action makes them good for delicates and baby clothes.
You can reuse them for a number of washes (when the shells start to turn soft and grey it’s time to pop them into the compost).
They are thought to be anti-microbial, able to destroy bacteria that has collected on your clothes, bedding and towels.
Cons of soap nuts
They don’t work so well on a cool wash, so you’ll need to use warm-to-hot water (which means more energy use and potential for damaging clothes).
While they are effective at washing, the lack of chemicals means they won’t compete with manufactured detergents when it comes to bright whites (though you can add other natural cleaners such as baking soda to help out).
Similarly, they don’t contain any scent (though you can remedy that – see below).
Answers to your top soap nuts questions
Do soap nuts really work?
Yes! There’s nothing magical about them – saponin is a naturally occurring cleaner.
Can I scent my soap nuts?
If you like your clothes to have a subtle fragrance, then add a few drops of your favourite essential oils to the wash bag (or sock) before popping into the machine.
How can I keep my whites bright when using soap nuts?
There’s a simple solution to help give your whites a bit of razzle dazzle: along with the soap nuts, add 150ml of baking soda to your wash.
Can you use soap nuts in HE washers?
Yes, they work in all types of washing machines, including high-efficiency (HE) ones (those that use less water and are more efficient – they sport the ‘HE’ logo), as well as standard front and top loaders.
How many times can you use soap nuts?
Soap nuts are usually good for four or five washes. You can tell when their time is up as they turn grey and the shells will begin to break up. They biodegrade, so can be composted or put on your garden beds (they’re good for keeping slugs at bay).
Do soap nuts kill bacteria?
They have long been considered to be naturally anti-microbial and anti-fungal (though no extensive scientific studies have been done to corroborate this).
Can I use soap nuts on a cool wash?
Soap nuts work better in warmer water, though you can still use them in washes of 30ºC or below by using a simple hack – just place your soap nut shells in a hot water for a couple of minutes before adding to the washing machine. This will help loosen the saponins so they are released during the wash. (This is also a good trick if you have hard water.)
Are soap nuts expensive?
No, they are actually a very affordable way of doing laundry – around 5p a wash.
Where can I buy soap nuts?
They are readily available online, as well as in many health foods shops.
What else are soap nuts used for?
Make a liquid cleaner from soap nuts and you can use them to clean all over the house, as well as to wash dishes. They have also traditionally been used to make a hair shampoo.
Want to learn more about alternative cleaning methods? Check out four other sustainability initiatives changing the way we clean.