Sapindus: a natural alternative to washing powder (and just as effective)

soapnuts sapindus saponins.jpg
Soap nuts, the dried fruit of the Sapindus plant, contains high concentrations of saponins and tannins.

Over the last year or so, I’ve become particularly conscious of the amount of unnecessary chemicals we put into our water systems, so I’ve been looking to make a few changes to my habits to see what I can improve on a microcosmic scale. In this instance, I wanted to find an answer to the kilos of washing powder that I use every year, and to see if there was a cost-effective alternative that didn’t require an increase in labour. I appear to have found the alternative: soap nuts.

Part of the lychee family, soap nuts are the berries of the sapindus tree. The etymology of this plant is a contraction of the plant’s origin and its soapy properties, coming from the Latin sapo, meaning ‘soap’, and indicus, denoting its Indian origin (though some similar plants can be found in North and Central America).

In his book Ethnopharmacology of Medicinal Plants: Asia and the Pacific (2007), Dr Christophe Wiat states that “the plant abounds with saponins and tannins, hence the antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, cosmetic, and expectorant properties”.  The berries feature in a number of folk remedies throughout Asia, from the treatment of skin complaints, to the washing of hair and fine silks – however, in this instance, I just wanted to get my washing clean.

I was skeptical about their efficacy at first, as they are extremely cheap in comparison to regular detergents (isn’t it strange how, even against our best intentions, we can be conditioned into such thinking?). A wash works out at approximately 3p (5 cents) per wash if you reuse the berries a couple of times. I had heard that some users added essential oils to their wash, so I was concerned that my clothes would come out smelling weird or something, but they didn’t. I have tested them on delicate washes with silks and wools, and have used them in regular washes with cottons, and they have not only cleaned everything perfectly, but everything came out smelling lovely as well. I am very impressed. I tied five of them in a small muslin bag, threw them into the drum with the rest of the wash, and that was it. They can be dried and reused several times.

My only reservation is that, living in the UK, they are hardly a native plant, and the transport counteracts some of the more environmental claims, even if I can just put everything on the compost heap after it’s spent. I am having a look into European alternatives, and will update on my findings. If anyone has any suggestions, please leave a comment!

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