I’d always thought my mother taught me everything I needed to know about how to keep my living space clean—and so my cleaning supplies have always consisted of your typical surfactants that come in either wipe or spray form. Standard. And then an editor asked me to check in on soap nuts, and my whole grasp of cleaning supplies turned upside down.
What the heck are soap nuts, you may be wondering? They’re actually exactly what they sound like they should be: Nuts that also help spiff things up. “Soap nuts are the husk of the fruit from the sapindus mukorossi tree that grows predominately in India,” says Marilee Nelson, co-founder of Branch Basics, a brand that makes non-toxic cleaning products. “They contain natural surfactants called saponins which lift and carry dirt away from surfaces.” AKA: They’re a versatile and natural, chemical-free alternative to your more conventional laundry detergents, household cleaners, and even skin and body-care products.
Soap nuts—as seemingly under-the-radar as they are—have actually been used in Ayurvedic medicine for ages. “For centuries, soap nuts have been highly prized for their medicinal properties,” says Nelson. “Ayurvedic medicine takes advantage of their mild antibacterial and antimicrobial function to treat skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, acne, dandruff, and hair loss. They’ve also been used for things like colds, nausea, and headaches, among many other purposes.”
“For centuries, soap nuts have been highly prized for their medicinal properties.” —Marilee Nelson
Devotees of the magical nuts prefer them to other cleansing agents because they’re completely chemical-free and don’t require preservatives or traditional surfactants in order to work. “They’re also great because they’re fragrance-free, so they work for people with sensitivities to fragrance, and don’t leave any odor in your clothes after washing. They’re also hypoallergenic and soothing to the skin.”
And, good news for those with nut allergies: They’re not actual nuts. “They’re not a true nut—they’re actually called soap berries, so those with nut allergies can partake,” says Nelson. To top off all of the good soap nuts news is the fact that they’re incredibly eco-friendly. “They’re the king of renewable resources: They’re easily grown, and soap nut trees can be harvested for 6 months out of the year for about 90 years,” she says. “They don’t leave any waste—used soap nuts can be thrown in the compost pile as they’re fully biodegradable.”
Unlike your cleansing spray or laundry detergent, soap nuts can be reused. “Each berry can be used up to 7 to 9 times for laundry before it’s spent, and you can buy them in bulk for roughly pennies,” says Nelson. In other words: Why didn’t everyone hop on the soap nuts bandwagon sooner?
Here’s how to use soap nuts
Clean your clothes: According to Nelson, soap nuts act as a natural fabric softener that leaves your clothes incredibly soft feeling. All ya need are the soap nuts themselves to throw into the laundry. “Place a handful of soap nuts in a reusable tea or cotton bag,” she says. “Place them in the washing machine with your clothes and wash!”
You can determine how many berries to use depending on the desired temperature and hardness of your water. “They are most effective in hot, soft water to remove stains, but not heavy stubborn stains—that may need an oxygen boost product,” says Nelson. “For soft, hot water use only 1 to 2 berries. For cold, hard water use 8 to 10 berries. The berries can be used roughly 4 to 9 times depending on differing conditions.” You’ll know if a soap nut’s done if you squeeze the shell and no sudsy liquid comes out.
Clean your house: Soap nuts can be used for everything from a cleaning concentrate to a glass cleaner to dishwashing detergent (phew!). For a cleaning concentrate, Nelson says to place soap nuts in 3 to 4 cups of water with at least 2 berries for every cup of water. Bring to a boil, let simmer for half an hour, and then cool and strain. Mash or pierce the berries before or during boiling to increase the release of the cleaning agent, saponins, then refrigerate in glass jar or freeze it in ice cubes.
For an all-purpose cleaner, Nelson says to add one to two ounces of concentrate to a 16-ounce spray bottle. “They’re very versatile—you can add white vinegar or essential oils if desired,” she says, adding to use it on everything from counters to floors and cabinets. For a glass cleaner, “add 2 tablespoons of concentrate and 2 tablespoons of white vinegar and distilled water to a 16-ounce spray bottle and use with a microfiber cloth,” says Nelson. In a dishwasher, you can literally use 2 to 5 berries in the silverware basket and run as usual, and add half a cup of white vinegar in a cup to the top rack as a natural rinse aid. And finally, as an abrasive cleaner, she says to blend the nuts into a powder, add some baking soda, and use as a scrubbing cleanser to sinks and bathtubs.
Clean your body and hair: “Follow the directions above for making a cleaning concentrate with the soap nuts, then use for your body and hair like a natural soap,” says Nelson, who advises to avoid the eye area as it can sting. For a body and face wash, she recommends adding a little concentrate to a wash cloth for a mild cleanser. “Soap nuts can also be used as a shaving cream by whisking the concentrate into a foam with an immersion blender,” she says, noting it can also help you clean your pet.
Repel pests: And yet another random use for the multi-hyphenate soap nuts? Keeping the bugs away (seriously). “Soap berries help repel mosquitos and insects,” says Nelson. “Apply the liquid concentrate to the body and let it dry. It’s safe for babies and kids, too.” If you want to keep garden pests away, Nelson says to sprinkle crushed or used soap nut shells around your garden. “It’ll also repel pests on your pet if you use the concentrate as a shampoo or spray their coat with the concentrate and let dry,” she says. Ahem, excuse me while I go stock up on soap nuts.
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