What About Soap Nuts?

Dear Home-Ec 101,
Are soap nuts ok to use in my high efficiency washing machine? Since HE washers don’t agitate like standard top loading washers, I was curious if the soap nuts would be effective.
Signed,
Curious in Cupertino

soap nuts for washing clothes

Heather says:

I have never used soap nuts, so my answer is based on the manufacturer’s claim, my understanding of chemistry, anecdotal evidence, and a huge pet peeve.

To answer your question, yes soap nuts are fine to use in a high efficiency clothes washer. Soap nuts help clean your clothing by releasing saponin -a type of chemical- that helps reduce the surface tension of water. You know how we’ve talked about how washing machines clean clothing and how vinegar and borax in the laundry work by making your wash water able to more effectively allow dirt to come out of your clothing and into solution. Well, the saponins in the soap nuts do exactly the same thing, only they come from a renewable resource, the Chinese Soapberry tree.

How effective soap nuts will clean your clothing depends on several factors, the dirtiness of your clothing, the hardness of your water, the temperature of your wash water, the amount of saponin released by the soap nuts and the amount of wash water in which the clothes are washed. (Are you tired yet?)

High efficiency washers DO agitate clothing as much, if not more than standard washers, they just do it in LESS water. Agitation can happen in any direction, in a standard washer, the clothing is in water and chugs around the agitator, in most high efficiency washers the clothing is tumbled and lands in a pool of water. So don’t worry about that portion of your laundry equation, physical energy is used to clean the clothing in both cases.

If your water is hard, saponin may not be enough to clean your clothing.

Now on to my pet peeve.

While I was researching this question I kept coming across claims like: “[T]here’s nothing between you and your clothes but Mother Nature!”

To quote the professor of a friend of mine, “Most of nature is out to kill you.” I mean seriously, there’s a lot of nature I don’t want anywhere near my clothing: poison ivy, poison sumac, fire ants, wasps… you get my point, right?

laundry supplies guide

Click this picture for more tips!

Saponins ARE chemicals, salt is also a chemical, and so are the compounds in bee venom. Don’t buy into a product because you’re scared of the word chemicals, the word can be applied to so many things both harmful and benign.

If you want to use soap nuts because they may have a lower environmental impact than some other laundry detergents, that’s fantastic. Just don’t buy it on the basis of that stupid slogan*.

Send your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

*I think I woke up on the wrong side of the bed today, take me with a grain or silo of salt.



7 Comments

  1. carnellm on October 19, 2011 at 9:10 am

    Soap nuts? I would have thought those were people like my son – OCD folks who have to wash their hands continuously.

  2. mindywinn on October 19, 2011 at 5:22 am

    I don’t have a HE washer but greatly appreciate you calling companies out for that kind of stuff. Lots of things like that bug me. Like “fat free” half and half – it doesn’t exist.

  3. shirley51 on October 18, 2011 at 11:46 pm

    I use the Eco Nuts liquid concentrate and it works very well in hard water in my HE machine – and we have REALLY hard water. Regular soap nuts didn’t work, but this did! You only need a tiny bit! I was really skeptical, but now I’m sold!

  4. ramoffat on October 18, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    I’ve recently been using Extreme 18X Soap Nuts in my HE washer and love it! I bought it because it was a good deal, not necessarily because of all the claims around it. My clothes come out very clean (with 2 little boys), feel soft and smell fresh. I admit I was skeptical when I first tried it but have been very happy with the results.

  5. RosieWWW on October 18, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    There’s a brand in NZ that sells as having “No Nasty Chemicals” and it gets on my goat because it reinforces the chemicals=bad, always thing.

    • HeatherSolos on October 18, 2011 at 3:19 pm

      Yes, exactly that.

    • shirley51 on October 18, 2011 at 11:49 pm

      @RosieWWW Saponin is a chemical, it’s just naturally occurring. I think they were implying there’s no “bad” chemicals. Everything is a chemical. It bothers me too. Although I think there’s a staggering number of people who know little about soapnuts or the science behind them selling them out of their garages or whatever and just know that they work and not much else.

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