Natural suds: Soap nuts a green-cleaning alternative

By Barbara Bradley

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Here’s a handful of soap nuts gathered from the soapberry tree. Drop them in your washing machine to clean your clothes and make them soft, and later you can reuse the nuts.

If you think that sounds like a ruse, so do other folks.

People don’t think they’ll really clean, said Rhonda Zoller and Trenna Powell, who sell soap nuts at area farmers markets.

“They look at me and think it’s something they can eat,” said Powell. “It looks like a date.”

Actually, they aren’t nuts but dried fruit from the Sapindus mukorossi tree, also known as the Chinese soapberry. They contain saponin, which dissolves in water to form suds. Saponin can lift fats and oils and remove odors. Soap nuts have been used for centuries in other cultures.

Soap nuts appeal to the environmentally conscious because they are nontoxic, nonpolluting and hypoallergenic. People who use them say they cause less fading than most regular detergents and make fabric softener unnecessary.

Zoller and Powell, who import theirs from Nepal, say they use soap nuts to clean everything from jewelry and countertops to cars, windows and the family dog. “I use it any time I want a more gentle cleaner,” said Zoller, who is a part-time pediatric nurse.

Powell’s family, which includes a lot of deer hunters, use soap nuts to wash their camouflage clothes because they leave no scent for the deer to pick up.

Zoller and Powell, who call themselves The Laundry Ladies, offer trial-size muslin bags with five soap nuts for $3. The nuts are good for four to seven washes.

They also sell larger bags, soap-nut liquid concentrate and lavender dryer bags. All products are available at thelaundryladies.com

Shawn Swift, a teacher from Hernando, has been using soap nuts for a year and a half to do laundry for her husband and three children. Everyone in her family except herself suffers from allergies.

“Detergents have so many chemicals,” she said. “This was recommended to me, and I haven’t been unhappy in any way shape or form.”

Soap nuts clean the sweaty leotards of her two daughters, who are competitive gymnasts, without fading the colors, she said.

Soap nuts have been spreading in this country since at least as far back as 2009 when Mona Weiss and Scott Shields founded Eco Nuts, which they say is the largest soap-nut products company in the U.S., selling in 2,000 stores nationwide. T.J. Maxx and the chain’s Homegoods stores have recently picked them up, Weiss said.

In the fall, Eco Nuts, based in Los Angeles, was awarded a Parent Tested Parent Approved Seal of Approval. Recently, it received almost 65 percent of the popular vote for a Nexty award in the household and beauty products category at the Expo West 2012 Show for natural products.

Weiss said she suffered for years from eczema without knowing the cause. She received no relief from rashes and hives until she tried doing her laundry in soap nuts sent to her by Shields’ uncle.

“They just sat around for months,” Weiss said. “I wouldn’t touch them. They were bizarre.”

But Shields convinced her to give them a try. She said she has not had major skin problems since she dropped regular laundry detergent and began using only soap nuts.

Weiss said her soap nuts, sorted for best quality, can be reused for up to 10 loads. Also, since the nuts are gathered from the ground, the company sterilizes them before packaging.

A medium box for about $12 will do 100 loads of laundry. Or a large bottle for $18.99 will do 60 regular loads or 120 high-efficiency loads.

Zoller and Powell, both into the green movement, experienced ecological culture shock when they moved to Hernando about six years ago, Zoller from Oregon and Powell from Atlanta. At that time, Hernando didn’t even have recycling, they said. Once a month, Powell would load up her SUV with glass, plastic and other recyclables and cart them to a recycling center.

Powell, who makes lavender sachets as gifts, was searching online one day for something to pair with them when she discovered soap nuts. They tried them for three months at their homes and decided this was something people should know about.

The Laundry Ladies and Eco Nuts offer these tips for using soap nuts:

Soap nuts work more efficiently with agitation and room to work. So don’t overfill your machine. They work in any water temperature.

If clothes are very heavily soiled, pre-soak four to five soap nuts in a small cloth bag in hot water for a few minutes, and add the water with the bag to your laundry. Pre-treat stains with a stain remover.

Add bleach or a cup of lemon juice for whiter whites.

Store the nuts in a cool, dry place.

If you lose track of how many times you used them, you can put them in a glass of water. If they’re active, they will make suds.

– Barbara Bradley: 529-2370