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Soap nuts seem to be the newest (or oldest!) craze in the planet friendly world, which isn’t surprising considering they’re the only 100% organic 100% natural way to washing clothes without any chemicals or added well… anything. So what are they? What is all the fuss? And do they work?
The tree itself is actually called 'Sapindus Mukorossi' and whilst we called them soap nuts and they are referred to as soap nuts we have to remember that they don't actually contain any soap because, as we learnt when looking at castile soap here, for soap to be soap is has to contain lye.
The plant is a part of the lychee family and it boasts some pretty incredible environmental properties. The part of the tree that is the 'soap nut' are actually berries and they can be harvested from September to February which is an extremely long and sustainable supply.
It takes 9 years for the soap nut tree to begin yielding fruit after germination but once it starts producing, it can be harvested for a whopping 90 years, and with 6 months per year of harvest time, well that's a lot of soap nuts.
The other outstanding positive that gives this tree a big tick of approval is that the soap nut tree contributes to combating the greenhouse gas effect by converting carbon dioxide into oxygen so by planting and growing these trees not only do we eliminate chemicals from regular laundry detergent but the actual tree itself cleans out air.
Not only all of that but the shell of the soap nut is 100% biodegradable, meaning you can literally just chuck them in your compost when your done, helping to cut down on landfill with every load.
They sound magical right? I thought so too, so I kept digging. And the response from women all over the world seems to be completely in the middle, it would seem none of us can agree on the matter of soap nuts, we either love them or we hate them.
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I'll start off by saying that they're really simple to use, you just pop them in a small fabric bag, chuck them in with your load of washing, the berries contain saponin which is a surfactant that can be used like soap.
This is where the divide begins, while the idea that you just throw them in and they work their magic is true there is one little point that planet friendly women have pointed out and that is that they only work in hot water.
Most of us self-proclaimed eco-warriors have never washed a load of clothing in hot water in our life, or for at least a very long time. The amount of energy that is takes to heat up a load of washing seems pretty wasteful and pointless, but for without hot water soap nuts don't turn soapy.
Some have figured out that by adding the soap nuts to a cup of boiling water and then pouring the water into the wash eliminated the need to waste around .762 tonnes of energy a year on washing your clothes in warm water, however a few have expressed that this step was inconsistent and made switching to soap nuts from their current home made planet friendly laundry detergent not worth while.
While the warm water and make-your-soap-nuts-into-tea step may be a deterrent for some others have made another valid point, soap nuts are better for your skin. They're all natural and non-toxic, which makes them especially good for sensitive skin and those prone to allergies. Also, due to the very gentle, mild detergent they produce they're safe for your delicates. (Excluding dry-clean only items)
They're also reusable. Soap nuts, when used properly can be used for a few washes before they stop 'soaping' and even after that, as discussed earlier, they can be composted.
One major consideration to keep in mind when trying soap nuts for the first time is don't give yourself overly high expectations of results. Soap nuts will not be able to do manufactured washing detergents do (and in some cases this is a very good thing) but when it comes to having the brightest whites in the world, you can't expect a natural product to compete with bleach.
Soap nuts also don't contain any synthetic chemicals which means there are no fabric softening agents or whiteners. That's not to say you need to stick to chemicals in order to achieve the results, there are plenty of natural alternatives you can add to your wash with the soap nuts for example vinegar for tough stains, lemon juice, sodium percarbonate just to mention a few, the internet is full of natural alternatives that can work in conjunction with soap nuts but we do need to remember that whilst they are a cleaning agent, they only do what they say they do- clean.
Honestly soap nuts are a personal preference but there is no harm in trying them (for you or for the planet) and if they don't work for you, you can always still make a conscious planet strong alternative to harsh synthetic chemicals, you could even try this DIY laundry detergent recipe!
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