While working on my post-grad soap education the other day, I came upon the term “soap berries” in a list of search results. It turns out soap berries, also known as soap nuts (not kidding), are the fruit of several shrubs or small trees in the Sapindus genus. Soap berries contain saponins, or soap-like compounds, and are most commonly used as laundry or dishwashing detergent!
So why would you use berries instead of detergent?
In many ways, soap berries are the ultimate farm-to-table skin care product. As you might imagine, they come with many ecological benefits, but there are also a few downsides to using soap berries. Let’s first talk about the benefits of soap berries.
They are inexpensive. You can buy a half-pound bag for around $12, and each handful of berries can be used for multiple washes.
They have a small ecological footprint. Soap berries come in simple packaging and are compostable. If you live in a warmer climate, you could even grow or forage them yourself.
They are great for sensitive skin. Soap berries are hypoallergenic, and (obviously) contain no added dyes, scents, preservatives, or other chemicals.
So what are the cons to this amazing little fruit?
It takes hot water to dissolve the soap compounds within the berry. If you use soap berries in the laundry, you have to run your washing machine on the on the hot setting, which consumes a lot of energy. Some people get around this problem by boiling water and berries ahead of time to make a sort of liquid soap, or berry-soap-syrup.
The berry detergent is not as powerful as many other commercial or even homemade products. One Internet reviewer claimed she had to religiously pretreat every little stain.
Now, let’s look at all the ways to use soap berries.
Laundry detergent. As already mentioned, you can boil water and make your own liquid berry detergent. A few tablespoons per wash will do. Or you can put a handful of berries into a drawstring bag and throw the whole thing in with the laundry. You should be able to get about a dozen washes from one bag.
Dishwashing detergent. As with the laundry, you put a small bag full of soap nuts in the silverware tray of the dishwasher (not in the regular soap spot on the door.)
Personal cleanser. Although you could probably rub the berries directly on your body, making berry-soap-syrup is probably the best way to get the most washes out of the berries and the least mess on the bottom of your shower. As a side note, a google image search for “rub berries on your body” yields disappointingly safe for work results.
Shampoo. Yep. Berry-soap-syrup also makes pretty good shampoo. People have had success mixing anything from vinegar to coconut oil with it. Other posts on the Internet go into detail about various berry shampoo mixes depending on what type of hair you have.
After discussing the pros and cons of the humble soapberry, now I’m going to answer a few of the most common questions people ask about it.
Where are soap berries from?
If you live in Florida or South Carolina, you can try foraging for the Florida Soapberry. You can find the Western Soapberry in the Southwestern United states, Sapindus oahuensis in Hawaii, Sapindus vitiensis in American Samoa and Fiji, and the Wingleaf Soapberry in much of the Americas. International readers, forgive me, the list of soapberries worldwide is more than I want to type. Check Wikipedia.
That said, most soapberries that you would buy come from India. These Indian soapberries provide the most cleaning power, and they have actually been used for centuries in the ayurvedic tradition.
Are soapberries poisonous to humans?
I was about to say you wouldn’t normally think of drizzling laundry detergent on your salad, but we are living in the era of the Tide Pod challenge. But seriously, how worried should you be if you accidentally leave a handful of soapberries within munching distance of the nearest toddler? All sources say eating soapberries probably won’t kill you, but it probably will make you sick to your stomach. The same compound that gives soapberries their cleaning power also will lead to gastrointestinal distress if eaten. Interestingly, these saponins are also found on the surface of quinoa grains, but are mostly removed from quinoa via washing.
Are soapberries poisonous to dogs?
Ditto what I said about toddlers with respect to dogs. Surprisingly, there is very little written on whether or not soapberries are poisonous to dogs. I haven’t found anything saying they are one of those freak foods like grapes or chocolate that are fine for humans but toxic to dogs. Searching quinoa and dogs suggests that plants with saponins will make dogs sick the same way they will make humans sick. That is to say they will make them/us sick to our stomachs.
How do you grow soapberries?
It is possible to grow your own soapberry tree, but it takes a little more than basic gardening skills. The first step is to rub the outside of the soapberry seed with sandpaper and then soak it for 24 hours in warm water. The next step is to transfer it to a pot with soil, where it will take 1 - 3 months to germinate. That means for 1 - 3 months, you need to keep the soil moist, but not waterlogged. It is best to plant in spring or summer, and the tree will take 10 years before it will produce any soapberries. At the time of writing, there is an actual Western Soapberry tree for sale on etsy, but it’s unclear how old or big it is. Soapberry trees need a warm climate and full sun, so depending on where you live, your diy detergent options may be limited. On the plus side, once established, the soapberry tree is perennial and drought tolerant.
Where do you get soapberries?
If you don’t have a green thumb or find yourself geographically-challenged, I suppose you could actually buy them. They are available on Amazon and other places. Full disclosure: this is an affiliate link. If you click it, I know you decided to buy soapberries instead of Metaphor Soap! That, and I get a buck or two from the sale. Also, feel free to make “soap nuts” jokes until your little heart turns to lather and foams right out of your chest.