Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
What is a Soap Nut?
Technically a berry, soap nuts are considered to be an environmentally conscious alternative to chemical detergents and soaps. The berries come from a prolific tree that grows well in degraded environments where little else can grow. They are safe for allergies, free from any additives, and can be used to clean just about anything.
Sound unbelievable? I thought so, too. I was completely skeptical that a few pieces of shell could get anything clean, much less my stinky running clothes that hadn't been washed in weeks. But I'm willing to try just about anything that promises to be a green solution, so I took a risk and ran a few loads of laundry with them.
How did the nuts work for me? After washing the stinky shirts and line drying them for a few hours, all traces of dirt and sweat smell were completely gone. My clothes smelled so good I could hardly believe the nuts had no added fragrance. Everything came out as well as when I use commercial detergents, and the nuts could be reused for many more loads.
Am I jumping on the soap nut bandwagon? Absolutely. Finding an environmental friendly, sustainably sourced cleaning product that is as fun and easy to use is rare, and soap nuts fit the bill.
Facts about Soap Nuts
The mukorossi tree berry is the most common soap nut sold in America. A native to China, this species has been thriving in India and Nepal for thousands of years. Mukorossi trees can live for over a century and produce prolific harvests of soap berries for over 80 years.
The trees grow well in poor soils and steep slopes. Currently, the global demand for soap berries is nowhere near the plentiful supply and an estimated half of Mukorossi berries in Nepal are rotting off the tree.
Environmental Benefits of Soap Nuts
They thrive in regions with few other agricultural opportunities, and some species of soap nut tree flourish in poor soil and help prevent erosion on steep slopes.
They eliminate the packaging needed for plastic detergent bottles and are concentrated enough that a small box can replace the need for many bottles of commercial detergent. The nuts are also usually are shipped in biodegradable cardboard boxes, not plastic.
Because they are 100 percent biodegradable and don’t contain the toxic chemicals found in conventional cleaning products, soap nuts are a perfect option for gray-water systems. Because our Appalachian homestead runs only on rainwater, we need to be conscious of what enters our water system.
How Do Soap Nuts Work?
Soap nuts contain a substance called saponin, which is a natural soap. When the berries are agitated in water they release this natural soap through surfactant, which is an agent that reduces the surface tension of a liquid. Both man made and natural detergents need a surfactant to break the surface tension of water so that it can permeate fabric. Surfactants and saponins work together by shaking loose dirt from clothing and then binding to the dirt particles until they can be washed away.
Uses for the Soap Nut
Soap nuts can be used for a variety of cleaning purposes.
Laundry. Using soap nuts for laundry couldn't be easier. Just put 4 to 5 nuts in a cloth bag and toss them in your washing machine. Run the machine as usual and remove the nuts with the clothing at the end of the rinse cycle. You won't need to use fabric softener or to take the nuts out early. Hot water will release more saponin, but the nuts will work with any water temperature. Your nuts will last for up to ten loads. After that they will get limp, papery thin, and begin to disintegrate. At this point they can be composted and replaced with new nuts.
Dishwashing. When using a dishwasher, put 2 to 5 berries in the silverware rack, add a bit of white vinegar and run as usual. For hand washing, you can make a detergent by soaking one cup soap nuts with four cups water overnight and then liquefying the mixture in your blender. Alternatively, you can bring the nuts and water to a boil, turn off the heat and let them sit for an hour. Next strain the mixture with a fine cloth. This liquid detergent will work as well as any dish soap, just without the bubbles.
Shampoo and Body Wash. Make a detergent as specified above and mix one ounce detergent with 12 ounces water. Add any scent you wish, and wash your hair or body as you would with a commercial product. This basic formula can be tweaked in many ways and is limited only by your creativity./p>
Where to Buy Soap Nuts
Soap nuts can be bought at a variety of health food stores or ordered in bulk online. My personal supplier is Eco Nuts because their nuts are organic and the quality is consistent between batches.
Have fun with this environmentally beneficial cleaning solution! Doing laundry with a bag of sustainable sourced soap nuts will soon become a chore you enjoy, or at least make you feel that you are doing the right thing for the planet.
Lydia Noyes is serving as an Americorps volunteer with her husband in West Virginia at the Big Laurel Learning Center. There, they live with their ever expanding collection of animals and are caretakers of a historic Appalachian homestead that resides on a 500-acre land trust. They also help to run a mountain-ridge retreat and ecology center. You can find her at her personal blog and Instagram. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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