what the inside of a soapberry looks like

What Are Soap Nuts and Do They Really Work?

[toc]Did you ever wonder why that bag of quinoa says you need to rinse it before cooking?

The reason is because of saponins. If you don’t rinse those off, you may experience upset stomach and other side effects from quinoa.

Some saponins are bad to eat, but good for cleaning!

Saponins are a class of naturally occurring compounds that get their name from the soapwort plant (Saponaria officinalis). It’s found naturally growing in the United States. From Florida to Alaska, and California to Maine, you can find or cultivate it in almost any climate.

The leaves were used by the early American settlers as a natural laundry detergent and bath soap. You can read more about this in the cookbook and guide to wild plants titled All Good Things Around Us.

Even though saponins were named after the soapwort plant, they are prevalent throughout the plant kingdom. A few marine animals even produce them, such as the sea cucumber. (1)

What are soap nuts?

Soapnuts are a generic name for the berries produced by the Sapindus genus of trees. This fruit contains a high amount of saponins, which is a soapy-like substance that has been used for millennia as a natural cleaning agent, most notably in India. As part of their Ayurvedic practices, soapberry medicinal uses include eczema, hair and scalp problems.

soapberry tree
These berries grow on big trees.

Whether someone calls them nuts or berries, they are both in reference to the same thing.

The nut moniker is because when dried, they have a hard shell.

The good news is that technically, they are not a nut. They are safe for people with tree nut allergies.

Ironically, making soap from soapberry is more popular with the Sapindus species versus the soapwort, which is what saponins were originally named after. These two are not the same thing, as both are very different and come from unrelated plant families.

The soapwart is a flowering shrub that barely reaches 2 feet in height. The soap nut or berry is a tree that can grow up to 80 feet tall.

Where do soap berries come from?

The soapberry tree consists of 12 species that can be found growing throughout the world in warm to tropical climates. Most of today’s berry crop comes from two species in particular; Sapindus mukorossi and Sapindus trifoliatus. India is the primary producer for both, though Pakistan, Nepal, and China also harbor them in the Himalayan foothills.

Most consider the S. mukorossi species from India to be best for cleaning. Natural laundry detergents, body washes, dish soaps, dog shampoos, and just about anything else you can think of make use of it. In addition there are other species, though not all of them are closely related.

The Chinese trees (S. delavayi, S. tomentosus) have lower saponin content and don’t work that good.

The African soapberry tree (Deinbollia oblongifolia) is also known as dune soapberry. You can find it growing in South Africa, Swaziland, and Mozambique.

S. drummondii growing map
Where you will find the western soapberry tree growing.

Soap nuts grown in the USA do exist, though they’re not ideal for washing. The western soapberry (S. drummondii) can be found in Texas, Arizona, Louisiana and even as far north as Kansas and Missouri. Also known as wing leaf, the Florida soapberry trees (S. marginatus, S. thurstonii) sometimes will creep into Georgia, though they’re mostly isolated to Florida’s sub-tropical climate.

Chinaberry vs. soapberry? These are two totally different things. The Chinaberry tree (Melia azedarach) is primarily used for timber and its tiny fruits are poisonous to humans, as they contain a neurotoxin. Don’t eat or clean with that Chinese plant. (2)

Can you eat them?

The type most often used for cleaning, which are those of the Sapindus genus, are not edible soapberries. Their saponins are not dangerously poisonous, but an upset stomach would almost certainly result from eating them. Even if you had an iron stomach, they taste more like soap and vinegar rather than the sweet flavor you expect from fruit.

fresh red foamberries
photo by Lazarus000 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wiki Commons
Outside that genus are other plants sometimes called soapberries that you really can eat and they taste good. One example is the Sheperdia canadensis, more commonly known as native soapberries, buffalo berries, and foamberries.

These little red balls were eaten by the Native Americans. In western Alaska and northern Canada they would make what’s called akutaq. This “Eskimo ice cream” consisted of whatever berries were in season, mixed with whipped fat.

They still make it, though most now use a modern recipe with dairy and sugar.

Health benefits

Even though the Indian soapberry (S. mukorossi) and other non-edible species aren’t used as food, they have been part of traditional medicine in many cultures, albeit their efficacy and safety remain unproven.

As part of India’s 3,000 year-old Ayurvedic medicine, the fruit and leaves have been used for excess salivation, epilepsy, migraine headaches, and psoriasis. Uses of soap nut seeds in a powdered form are purported remedies for arthritis, constipation, colds, and cavities. As a cleanser, soapberry leaves, seeds, and fruit extracts have been used for allegedly removing head lice, helping with acne, soothing eczema, and even for making precious metals like gold and silver shine brighter. (3)

Benefits of soap berries are also being studied in modern medicine, although the research is very preliminary so far.

In 2016, Chinese researchers discovered four new compounds in the S. mukorossi that when isolated and purified, demonstrated anti-cancer activity in lab research. Using cultured human lung cancer cells, the compounds inhibited cell growth by 69-83% when used in a concentration of 100 parts per million. (4)

Earlier research using other compounds in the plant have also demonstrated cytotoxic effects against not just lung, but also prostate and breast cancer cells that were cultured in the lab. (5)

In diabetic rats, daily consumption of the fruit extract was found to produce benefits for their blood sugar and the lowering lipid levels in their blood (antihyperlipidemic). (6)

Other research has found that soapberry extract of different forms may offer potential as a spermicide, contraceptive, anti-inflammatory, and for the treatment of protozoan infections. (7)

To be clear, all of the ancient remedies and modern research remains unproven. Soap nuts should NOT be used to treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

What you can use them for is as a natural cleaner…

Do they work?

As a laundry detergent, soap nuts really do work if you use the right species. The western soapberry tree has some cleaning ability, yet it is the popular species from India (S. mukorossi) which can be used as a replacement for your chemical-laden detergents.

Tide Free and Gentle detergentEven Tide Free & Gentle contains propylene glycol and other controversial chemicals you may not want on your skin, let alone your baby and children.

That’s all the more reason why this natural fruit has become the next big thing in laundry. Today you can even find soap berries at Costco (some locations) but where to buy them remains mostly online. Kroger, Walmart, Meijers, and similar stores aren’t selling them, at least not yet.

All of the manufacturers are mom ‘n pop brands. There’s the Montana-based Buckaroo soapberry suds. Naturally Green Soap Berries is in Wisconsin. NaturOli and Simply Soapberry laundry detergent are based in Arizona. The brand we chose to put to the test is in our own backyard of Southern California.

Mona Weiss and Scott Shields presented their Eco Nuts on season 4 of Shark Tank. They bootstrapped the business with $1,000 and had grown it to $100,000 in annual sales by the time they were on the show.

The only nibble they got was from Robert, at a valuation of $175,000 for a 50% equity stake. They passed and in spite of that, they still hit the million dollar mark in sales on their own. You can buy Eco Nuts on Amazon.

Coincidentally there was also a soap nuts Dragons Den episode, which is the UK and Canadian version of Shark Tank. They told poor Penny Morgan “your business proposition is nuts” and passed. That was over a decade ago. Another pitch from Green Living Products of Canada was a success, though it is Eco Nuts who has become the market leader in this natural products niche.

How about killing viruses?

Soap works in a very basic way. It’s made of molecules with two sides; one attaches to fat, the other to water. Viruses are surrounded by a fat and protein outer layer. When soap dissolves their fat, it destroys the protective layer and the virus.

Soap nuts have not specifically been tested against common viruses like influenza or the novel COVID-19 coronavirus. Therefore, you will want to stick with more tested ordinary soaps when your health is on the line.

That being said, saponins in soap nuts do dissolve fats. It’s just that they haven’t been measured in a lab to pit their efficacy versus something like a Dial antibacterial soap. For that reason, one cannot recommend them for antiviral purposes.

Eco Nuts Review

Eco Nuts organic laundry detergent

Admittedly the best brand of soap nuts is subjective, because it’s just unprocessed dried fruit. Assuming the ideal species from India is used, it won’t really matter who is selling it. The reasons we chose EcoNuts versus other brands/suppliers is because of the following:

  • They use USDA certified organic soapberry. That means non-GMO, too.
  • No added fragrances or dyes.
  • They ethically source from a wild harvest in Nepal, employing numerous women who are paid Fair Trade wages.
  • They minimize use of plastics in packaging for their products.
  • Being based in Manhattan Beach, CA means that Superfoodly’s HQ borders their town of Lawndale. Of course we have to support a local business!

How to use soap nuts for laundry

photo showing how many soapberry to use per load

They are not like powdered or liquid detergent. Here are the instructions:

  1. Put 4 to 5 of the nuts into the small canvas wash bag provided.
  2. Tie the bag shut.
  3. Place in bottom of washer and add dirty clothes, bedding, etc.
  4. Run wash as normal. Soap nuts work in cold water and HE washers.
  5. Remove bag prior to drying.

Since they can act as a fabric softener, it’s okay to leave them in during the rinse cycle. However if you want zero residue of any kind, then you may want to remove them when your washer gets to the rinse mode.

Not that it leaves any visible or detectable residue from our experience, but those with very sensitive skin might prefer nothing left behind.

berries in washer before clothes

We like to put them in first, before the clothes, so the force of the water can hit the bag. Don’t expect them to foam up though like your bottle of Tide. With no foaming agents added, your water won’t look like chemically concocted detergents.

For best results, don’t overfill your washer because the more agitation inside the machine, the better the soap will get released. Also they will work better in hot water, since more saponins will be released.

Here’s how they look after one wash…

used soapnuts after wash

When they go in, the shells are hard as rocks. When they come out, the shells are open. The soapberry detergent – saponins – were released into your wash. Here they are still wet and feel like a lathery bodywash. Soapberry oil content is trivial, so you don’t have to worry about it making things greasy.

These used shells are still good for more loads.

The way the saponins line the inner shell means they keep getting released until they are all gone. That can be up to 10 loads of wash, according to Eco Nuts.

You will know it’s time to replace the dried soapberry fruit shells when they are thin like paper and brittle.

Do Eco Nuts really work? We tested a load containing a dirty comforter along with a coffee and milk stained towel. When comparing the results of soap nuts vs. detergent, they were no different. No visible stains were left in the towel and everything smelled good after drying.

photo of soap nuts before and after

With a couple modifications, the directions even say you can use them with dirty diapers, tough stains, and hand washing.

They even tell you how to make a soapberry dish soap; soak the nut-filled bag in a cup of warm water for 10 minutes. That water then turns into a multi-purpose soap for dishes, body wash, hair, dog shampoo, or anything else you need to clean inside or outside your home. Alternately, it could be a homemade laundry detergent that’s liquid and ready to use!

Some users express concerns that soap nuts don’t work well enough for your toughest stains, like clothes from grassy yard work or greasy garage projects. It is true that they can’t compete with Tide, Cheer, and other artificially-formulated detergents.

But isn’t chemical-free clothing and bedding more important?

Side effects on your health from many of the chemicals in regular detergents are unknown. Plus, a lingering tough stain can always be fixed on the next load, using a directly applied natural enzyme pre-treatment.

For the real dirty stuff try what we often use. On Amazon we buy Seventh Generation’s Free and Clear unscented natural detergent.

Some people do use these nuts for virtually all of their wash. For typical loads of towels and workwear, you should be okay if your job is white collar.

Another option is an in-between detergent – an already liquefied version of these fruits.

Simply Soapberry makes one and Eco Nuts sells a liquid extract version on Amazon. Both are good alternatives to those wanting something easier to use and potentially more powerful.

Our recommendation is to try both the dried fruit shells and the liquid extract to see what form you like best. You can get Eco Nuts on Amazon for a good price with Prime delivery available.