Soap Nuts Natural Laundry Detergent – How to Use Soap Nuts Properly for Best Results

Washing Machines and Typical Laundry Detergents Being Used:
It’s time to unravel many mysteries about how to use soap nuts (aka: soapnuts, soap berries, wash nuts, etc.) in your particular washing machine. The first thing we must note is that no washing machine of any kind on the market at this time addresses the use of soap nuts in either their design or owner’s manuals. (At least that I could find.) Only Electrolux to my knowledge has a soap nuts washer on their drawing board. Soap nuts (saponin) based detergents are being developed to be used in similar fashion to the typical commercial detergents (supposedly natural or not). That is the path of least resistance in selling the average consumer.

For the traditional method of raw soap nuts in a wash bag, I suspect it will be many years before they are addressed in an owner’s manual. Let us not forget that there are relationships built between the hardware manufacturers and the detergent producers, which are quite similar to the relationships between computer and software companies. They need each other. Given that the fruits of the soap berry tree are not likely to be embraced by the makers of Tide, Gain, Clorox, Cheer and most of the products on store shelves anytime soon, the users of soap nuts are going to be left to information such as this for guidance.

Soap Nuts and Saponin – Simply a Better, Greener Approach:
Soap nuts are – by wide margin – a superior solution to many problematic issues facing our individual lives, homes and world, but they will likely remain relatively esoteric and somewhat obscure for some time to come. Why? There are two very simple – yet major – reasons:

1) The money. The revenues generated by Tide alone dwarf the sales revenues generated from all the raw soap berries in the world. We soap nuts users will remain a minority for some time. Thank goodness for the Internet. It is a grassroots movement that has led you to here – not major corporate advertising dollars. If it were not for the Internet, you would probably never have learned of the mile-long list of benefits of soap nuts and saponin, nor would you be reading this article.

(It’s interesting to note that the founding father of introducing soap nuts in the US was an elderly gentleman by the name of Edward Moulie. As reported in 1921 by the Scientific American, “These nuts are altogether extraordinary.” If there was an Internet in 1921, it is altogether possible that most of us would be using soap nuts today.)

2) Consumer resistance to change. We have been essentially taught how to think in regards to cleaning. Untold billions have been spent on generations of consumers in order to accomplish this. Thinking outside the box is very, very difficult for consumers. Most of us already are well aware that change is one of the most difficult things we can do. Couple that with changing something as basic and fundamental as how we do our laundry and house cleaning, change will be difficult in the extreme. To change, we have to do things differently than our mothers taught us, and their mothers taught them. What we must realize is who taught them? To make this crystal clear, our mothers were actually never taught at all – they were sold and then told what to do. Such is the true power of major marketing.

Knowledge is the Door. Thinking is the Key:

Use of soap nuts date back to antiquity, but modern manufacturers know little to nothing about them. Hence, don’t expect to find a machine with a soap nuts compartment for quite some time. So, where does that leave us? The answer is very simple: Use of our plain and simple common sense. All that is required is a basic, fundamental understanding of how both your washine machine and soap nuts work. Armed with that knowledge, you will find all the answers you will ever need.

During a recent trip to look at new washers and dryers, I must admit that they appear to be quite complex, but appearances are just that. The fundamentals are the same as that 20-year-old Maytag. There are simply more bells and whistles, and they do look a bit intimidating (cool designers). Sure there are some extra features and cycles available, and some of them can be very useful. Just keep in mind that we must simply think a little differently, and make adjustments as needed to accommodate proper use of soap nuts. Experimentation is always helpful. No matter how well anything is spelled out, we are all different and we do things a bit differently. Finding our own best way is a function of such experimentation.

The Different Ways to Use Soap Nuts:
Soap nuts are available in liquid and powder forms in addition to their raw form (right off the tree). The liquids and powders can be made at home or specific formulations can be purchased from a handful of developers. That certainly makes usage much more similar and therefore much simpler. However, note that the manufacturer of your machine has written instructions based upon typical “store bought” detergents and additives (be them chemical or natural or somewhere between) – but certainly not considering soap nuts. For example: the fabric softener compartment. It is simply not needed at all anymore. (That is going to make many companies very unhappy.) Some other compartment will prove to be useful. (More on that later.)

Soap Nut Liquids and Powders:
Let’s address these first, given that they are the most similar to what we are all accustomed to using. The variables here (aside from amounts to use) are primarily the concentration of the liquid, and/or the fineness and potency of the powder. If you are making your own liquid then the potency of saponin in the liquid will vary depending upon how you make it. You will simply have to experiment. Be certain to strain your own liquid extremely well, to avoid clogging anything (a coffee filter straining would be a good idea).

If you are using powder poured directly in with your laundry, you want it to be as fine as you can possibly get it (dust like is preferred). You may not get an adequate release of saponin for a laundry load from a course grind and a short wash cycle. In this scenario it is best to use a fine powder, or put it in a wash bag or similar carrier for multiple loads, but be sure to pre-soak it first. This will allow the course ground soap nuts time to become well saturated. Approximately a half-ounce of very, very fine, quality soap nut powder (added directly in with your laundry) will obviously wash only one load. The powder will be flushed out during the rinse and then out the drain. A course grind in a tightly tied wash bag will be fine for multiple loads. If you are adding salts, water softeners or any other cleaning boosters, that’s totally fine (part of the fun during experimentation, too). Since ground soap nuts do not entirely dissolve as commercial detergents do, it is not recommended to use compartments at all. Depending on how your machine functions, the powder may not receive a sufficient water supply, plus it could cause clogging.

If you are using a highly concentrated soap nuts liquid, dilute it to the amount of solution your machine is designed to use (typically this is a couple ounces of liquid). Don’t rack your brain trying to be exact. Hence, if the soap nut concentrate suggests one teaspoon per load, simply mix the one teaspoon with water until you’ve reached the desired amount of solution you intend to use. If you are planning to do many loads feel free to make up enough solution in advance. High quality concentrates may be diluted without loss of shelf life.

Most soap nut liquids are much like any other detergent as far as the suggested amount per load, however there are concentrated soap nut extracts that are literally “off-the chart”. This is only common sense again: A soap nut formulator is by nature following a “greener path”. It is only logical for such companies to strive to minimize the carbon footprint of their formulas. That is the truly green thing to do.

(As an aside, I feel that such companies should be commended for walking their talk. That truly green path is certainly not the simple and easy one with the least resistance. Many obstacles are typically found. Innovation is the antithesis of “going with the flow.”)

No machine is designed to use such highly concentrated detergents, hence if you are using the detergent compartment(s), simply dilute it as described above. Very, very simple, right? With front loaders you will usually use the compartments. With top loaders you can just pour the concentrated extract directly into the water basin as it fills so prior dilution is not required.

Isn’t this easy? Plain old common sense again, right? There is no rocket science here. Good results are what we are striving for. It may take a couple loads to dial in the best results, but you will soon just “know” what to do. If you have a pre-wash and a main wash cycle, simply use as your owner’s manual suggests.

Traditional Soap Nut Usage:
Finally, let’s get to the age-old, traditional use of soap nuts. That is using raw soap nuts in a wash bag. It is extremely simple, but the most difficult method to wrap your brain around. With traditional usage, forget about your machine’s compartments entirely. Simply toss the bag right in with your laundry. Period. It doesn’t matter whether your machine is standard, HE, front-loading, top-loading or whatever. All we want to achieve is to get the wash bag to be washed right along with the rest of your laundry. Note: the traditional method of usage is the most economical method as long as it is used properly. (Much more on that in another article.)

Important Fundamentals:
Certain things are necessary to understand how to use soap nuts traditionally and to achieve best results. First some basic points:
1) The raw soap nuts must become saturated with water. The hard dried fruit will become somewhat soft when it is releasing saponin at the rate we desire.
2) Heat is simply a catalyst that can be used effectively to facilitate the release of saponin faster.
3) Water flow in and around the soap nuts, plus agitation are key to effective and ongoing release of saponin throughout the wash cycles.
4) Cold water will reduce the degree to which saponin is released.

Front-loaders are actually better as far as agitation goes because tumbling agitates the nuts better than the typical top-loading agitator. Warm and hot water produce better results, but steps can be taken to do cold-water washes equally as effectively. Again heat is simply a catalyst that helps soap nuts begin releasing saponin faster. As temperature decreases so does the rate at which saponin is released. This is why there is no need to remove during the commonly cold rinse cycle. Note that saponin is not like common detergents. A little in the rinse cycle does not have a negative effect. The most typical method for cold water washes with soap nuts used traditionally is simply to concoct a soap nut “tea”. That’s right, just like a cup of hot tea. If you are using a top-loader just pour the tea and bag right into the basin. If you are using a front-loader, toss the bag in with your laundry and pour the tea into the liquid detergent compartment(s). This should work just fine, and it only takes a couple extra minutes to make the tea.

Please see other articles for more information and details. There is more that we learn about soap nuts and saponin every single day. The list of benefits that the soapberry offers us and our environment gets longer all the time.

Founder of NaturOli, a respected formulator of natural skin care products, soaps, detergents, and cleansers, plus distributor of soap nuts. Corporate mission: Setting New and Higher Standards Today.

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