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.
Curious in Cupertino
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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
*I think I woke up on the wrong side of the bed today, take me with a grain or silo of salt.