Update: after reading this entry, Maggie’s Pure Land offered to let me do a soap nuts giveaway. I generally don’t do giveaways or reviews, but if you’d be interested in something like this, leave me a comment at the end of this post.
How nerdy is it that I got pretty excited when I learned about soap nuts? Soap nuts are actually berries that grow on certain types of small shrubs and trees in the Sapindus family. The berries abound in saponin, a natural surfactant suitable for cleaning hair, skin, and clothes. What this means is that you can grow your own detergent.
Or rather, you could if you had about nine years and some land. Since I was running low on my Seventh Generation and do laundry slightly more often than once every nine years, I figured it would be more prudent to order a sample. A few days later, a little muslin pouch rattling with soap nuts arrived. These things are pretty unprepossessing. They’re roundish and wrinkly, which instantly inspired me to do my best zombie impression (‘Brainssss…’), and smell faintly vinegary. I confess to a moment of skepticism.
But I’m cheap, and I already bought them, so I read the instructions and hoped for the best. Since I wash my clothes on cold, I soaked the soap nuts in their drawstring bag in hot water for a few minutes first, then tossed in the bag and the sudsy soaking water in with my load.
30 minutes later, my clothes were done and smelled damply clean. I line-dried them, so they ended up crisp and sunshiney. The soap nuts didn’t get out really old, stubborn stains, but they worked fine for everything else. I also dried the soap nuts out; apparently they can be used for at least 3 washes before they need to be composted.
Pluses: load for load, soap nuts are cheaper than conventional detergents and get the job done with fewer chemicals and less packaging and waste. They’re light, about as natural as you can get, and shouldn’t cause allergies associated with traditional detergents. The trees they grow on are drought and insect resistant and produce large yields.
Minuses: soap nuts are slightly fussier if you wash on cold and probably won’t work as well on really grungy clothing or old stains. Most soap nuts are grown in India and Asia, so they’re not exactly local and do come with a carbon footprint. (Worse than chemicals and plastics manufacturing? Probably not.)