Waste-free Laundry: Do Soap Nuts Actually Work?
Whether soap nuts actually clean your clothes is heavily debated within the zero waste community. Some swear by them, but others swear that they just do not do anything and that you’re better off washing your clothes with plain water.
We lay bare the pros and cons of soap nuts shared by those who have successfully used them for years and those who have tried using them without success. We also look into the science behind soap nuts and see what studies done on their effectiveness have to say.
Is there a difference between soap nuts and soap berries?
No, there is no difference between soap nuts and soap berries. Both names are used to describe the same thing – the dried shell of berries from a variety of plants in the Sapindus plant family that contain saponin, which possess soap-like qualities and produces a lather when mixed with water, that are used as a natural, eco-friendly alternative to laundry powder and household cleaner.
How do you use soap nuts? And, how are they meant to clean clothes?
A few soap nuts are put inside a small bag that is usually supplied with them, this bag is securely closed and then placed in the washing machine together with your clothes. When agitated in water, the soap berries release saponin, which is a natural cleaner that “works as a surfactant, breaking the surface tension of the water to penetrate the fibres of your clothing, lifting stains from the fabric, and leaving dirt suspended in the water that is rinsed away”, according to Eco Nuts.
They can be made into a liquid concentrate by boiling them. It’ll take about 20 minutes of boiling for their natural detergent to be released, turning the boiled water into liquid soap. This liquid soap can be used as a base for liquid laundry detergent and other cleansers.
FOR SOAP NUTS: Those who go nuts for soap nuts say
Many zero wasters have used soap nuts for years and say their clothes come out of the washing machine clean, as long as they aren’t too dirty.
They are not recommended for dirty nappies, grubby kids clothes and very smelly gym and work clothes, as these will need something stronger. Some soap nut users say rubbing very dirty patches with a bar of soap or a paste of bicarb and water before washing solves this problem.
Those who use them recommend pre-soaking stained clothing and bleaching whites using percarbonate to keep them white, else they will start going grey after a while.
Some say that soap nuts need to be activated before use by soaking them in a cup of hot water before adding them to your cold-water wash cycle. A high spin is recommended to ensure agitation. You may also need to use a hot water cycle.
They are an inexpensive option for washing clothes, as the same berries can be used for multiple loads, making them cost effective.
Some people also like the fact that their clothing doesn’t have a chemical smell when they come out of the washing machine, however others don’t like the smell clothes washed with soap nuts have, finding it a bit weird. If you’re not a fan of soap nuts’ natural smell, those who use them recommend adding a drop or two of an essential oil to liquid soap nut laundry detergent.
AGAINST SOAP NUTS: Those who say using soap nuts is nuts say
The Choice website recently tested soap nuts and found that they were no more effective than washing your clothing in plain water. The website’s review of soap nuts, which can be found here, scored them an overall score of 42%.
There is the argument though that soap nuts need to be activated in or used in hot water and they were only used in cold water for Choice’s test.
Clean Cloth Nappies Down Under, which uses Fluff Love University’s science-based laundry methods to test detergents, also does not recommend using soap nuts in its Detergent Index.
A study by Anke Kruschwitz, Aline Augsburg and Rainer Stamminger found that at 30°C, stain monitors showed some cleaning effect on all stains for all treatments where detergent is added, but no effect when soap nuts and wash balls were used. For this study, a 60°C program was also tested and the results were similar. The study concludes that “soap nuts and all kinds of wash balls do not show a significant difference in cleaning performance compared to the treatment in pure water”. The full study can be found here.
So, the consensus of science is that they don’t do anything and if clothes are getting cleaner when they are used, plain water and machine agitation are cleaning the clothes, not the soap nuts. What is missing is surfactants, which are found in in detergents and which “are formulated to trap soil and suspend it in the water, which allows it to rinse cleanly and carry the dirt away along with it”, according to Butter Believer, a blog on living a healthy, natural lifestyle (so, someone who is usually all for DIY and natural remedies).
There is also the argument that their increase in popularity in Western countries has upped their price in India, where they have been used to clean clothes for centuries, meaning they are no longer affordable for those who used to use them and their use is being replaced by cheaper chemical solutions, which are polluting the river water, as they wash their clothes in the river.
In addition, apparently, all soap nuts are imported. So, that is something else to take into consideration.
Whether you believe the science or the actual users of soap nuts is up to you! Or, test them out for yourself. They are not expensive and can be bought in bulk at certain stores, so you can buy a few to try out without committing to a huge bag.
There are other eco-friendly laundry powder options if you decide soap nuts aren’t for you. You can buy normal detergent in cardboard boxes without any plastic, so while, this isn’t waste free, it is a plastic-free option. You can also buy washing powder in bulk using your own container at certain bulk stores.
Another option is to make your own washing powder. You’ll find lots of recipes online. However, Butter Believer warns against making your own detergent, as you can’t create the type of surfactants needed for a detergent to work at home in your kitchen and washing machines are designed to work with detergents not soap, so they are generally not good for your machine or your clothes. Read more on this here.
In the end, go with whatever works for you! Each person’s laundry is different, some is just dirty and some is a disaster zone!
I got my information from zero wasters in Facebook groups like Zero Waste Victoria and the following links:
- Science: http://old.teknoscienze.com/articles/hpc-today-cleaning-effect-of-alternative-laundry-productsa-comparison-of-soap.aspx
- More science: https://www.landtechnik.uni-bonn.de/forschung/haushaltstechnik/publikationen/Tenside-S-Detergents-Journal-ht43
- Choice review: https://www.choice.com.au/home-and-living/laundry-and-cleaning/laundry-detergents/review-and-compare/laundry-balls
- Clean Cloth Nappies review: http://www.cleanclothnappies.com/detergent-index/
- Clean Cloth Nappies Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/cleanclothnappiesdownunder/
- How to use: https://dengarden.com/cleaning/How-to-Use-Soap-Berries-or-Soap-Nuts
- Why you shouldn’t DIY detergent: http://butterbeliever.com/homemade-laundry-detergent-soap-diy/