At first I thought it was a joke. But there really is a soap-growing tree! In fact, other plants also produce natural detergent, but today’s focus is on the soapberry or soapnut tree from India, which produces nuts (actually berries) that contain saponins to make soap.
A few years ago I researched these trees and their berries. The most popular way to use them is as laundry detergent, although they can be used for other cleaners as well. Imagine completely natural detergent that leaves no chemical residues in clothing. Whether or not we are obviously allergic to chemicals producing suds, fragrance or preservatives, our health is impacted by what we wear. Chemical residues enter our bloodstream through the skin. What we wear can literally become a part of us.
For this reason and to save money, many have started formulating their own detergents. Many recipes are available online, but I am happy to say I don’t need to cook or mix up large batches of homemade detergents because I use these awesome little berries! Lehman’s sells small quantities of them, but I found Virgin Green Products has the best price, and they faithfully remove the seeds.
Here is how it works: you place five soapnuts into the provided little cotton bag with a drawstring, enough for five loads of laundry. Hot water releases the detergent, so most people simply throw the bag into the washer with the clothing until it’s finished. It does not need to be removed during the rinse cycle as it actually softens the clothing and eliminates the need for fabric softeners as well.
Soapnuts work well with HE washers because they don’t produce a lot of suds. Of course the warranty may be voided if they’re not approved by the manufacturer, as it is with other homemade detergents. I’m happy to be free of that problem with my old top-loading washer bought through Craig’s List for $65. It beats doing laundry by hand like we did the first six months after moving here.
For cold water wash use our method, as follows. We bring about a cup of water to a boil, remove from heat and place the little cotton bag of soapnuts into the hot water to steep for about eight minutes. While waiting we collect and sort laundry and fill the washer. We remove the bag from the hot water and place the soapnut “tea” into the washer. After washing and line-drying, our clothing is clean and soft, using no fabric softeners or harsh chemicals.
After five or six washes the soap nuts get really limp and should be removed from the little cloth bag and composted. Five fresh berries in the bag make you ready for five or six more washes. Store extra berries in an airtight container or bag so they won’t absorb moisture.
For two years soapnuts have been our laundry detergent and, yes, our clothes get clean. :) As with any laundry detergent we use spot cleaners on soiled clothing before washing. For heavily soiled loads or those needing disinfecting we add natural whiteners, disinfectants, or deodorizers (peroxide, vinegar, peppermint essential oil, and/or baking soda). The biggest problem is the high level of iron in our water. A few drops of Shaklee Basic H helps “soften” and “wet” the water. I want to experiment with baking soda to see if it does the same. The mineralized water makes our whites murky, and I’m looking for a solution. When our rainwater collection system is completed we can use rainwater for whites.
Of course I want a soapnut tree in my yard! Imagine picking soap off a tree and never buying cleaners or detergents again. Ha! Well, that poses a few challenges as it is a very tropical tree and takes five to ten years to produce berries. I have seeds and hope to plant some in an area protected from frost (our greenhouse?), but the long wait feels a bit discouraging. Meanwhile we purchased a huge box of soapberries to last many years before needing the tree. They have a long shelf life sealed in plastic.
The economical benefits are great as well. When we bought the large box of soapnuts from Virgin Green Products a few years ago we got 12 bags for much less per bag than buying a single bag. Today I was quoted $15.95/bag for 12 bags, rather than the normal $27.95 each, a 43% savings! Add $13-$30 for shipping, depending on where you live, and it’s up to $18/bag. One bag lasted us a year and a half which is about $12/year. Not bad. The description says a one kilo bag washes 330 loads, which is a low estimate in our experience. HE washers do even better. We have enough laundry detergent to last us 15 years as we’re only on our second bag! Maybe I’ll do a give-away to share my surplus.
If you must have lots of suds or fragrances (made by chemical additives) that modern detergents have, soapnuts are not for you. With soapnuts your clothes get clean and smell fresh, but you won’t see a lot of soapy suds and your clean clothes will not have a fragrance. But if you want to avoid unhealthy chemicals, save money, protect the environment, and live sustainably, you’ll want to give them a try!
Soapnuts can also be used for household cleaners and hand, hair or body washing. We successfully tried all those for six months. But hot weather turns it rancid after a week or two. Here in hot Florida that meant making new batches regulary. With a family of eight, refilling all soap and cleaning spray bottles every week felt big. In the fridge it keeps longer. But who wants cold soap or shampoo? For now we use it only for laundry, knowing there are other options if hard times come.
After writing this post I thought to myself that I should become an affiliate of Virgin Green Products, since I can honestly highly recommend their soapnuts and other green products. Sooooo, I applied just today (Wednesday the 20th) and I am now an official affiliate. Products purchased by going to their site through my links will earn me a commission! If you do so, I thank you in advance, and hope they do as well for you as they’ve done for me.
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