Fiona Lee doesn’t buy shampoo, face wash, laundry detergent, hand soap or household cleaners anymore. Instead, the American creates a natural soap using soapnuts (also called soapberries), the shells from the fruit of the tree Sapindus Mukorossi. The shells create a natural soap when activated in warm water, producing an elixir that is gentle enough to be used on the face and body and yet effective enough to double as a household cleaner.
For RMB 120, Lee received 5kg of soapnuts from the Beijing Organic Group – enough to last the rest of the year. But saving money isn’t what led Lee to use the sudsy shells. Normal laundry detergents have phosphates and other chemicals, which go straight down the drain, eventually ending up in waterways and oceans. Phosphates generate algae blooms that clog waterways and deprive the ocean of oxygen, creating “dead zones” where marine life cannot live.
“I couldn’t believe that by using my shampoo and detergent, I was killing fish,” says Lee.
Soapnut shells, found on trees in India, Indonesia, Nepal and other Southeast Asian countries, produce a natural surfactant – a type of chemical found in detergents – that is biodegradable. Don’t expect the shells to foam up like commercial soaps with artificial foaming agents, though. The shells produce a few suds the first time they’re used, but the reaction is generally suds-free. But no matter – the clothes laundered in soapnuts still come out clean.
The nutshells aren’t just good for the environment. The natural suds soften clothes and reduce static. People who suffer from allergies, dry skin or eczema may also benefit from washing their clothes in soapnuts – the anti-microbial saponin (the natural soap compound in the shells) is also hypoallergenic.
“My skin was itching like crazy before I started using them,” says Lee, who has been using the shells for the past six months.
For clothes washers that only use cold water, soak soapnuts in hot water for 20 minutes, then place them in a small laundry bag and toss into the washer with clothing. Afterwards, dry the shells; they can be reused up to six times.
“There is a distinct scent that’s very earthy, but once you hang up your clothes and let them dry, it disappears,” says Lee. Other soapnut enthusiasts also add baking soda and essential oils to their washing loads.
To create her soapnut shampoo, face wash, and hand soap, Lee boils about a dozen shells in a large pot of water for an hour, then lets them soak for a day. After removing the shells for future reuse, the resulting light brown liquid (with the shells removed for future use) then serves as Lee’s all-purpose household cleaner and her body cleanser for as long as two weeks. You can use as many (or as few) shells as you prefer.
Soapnuts can also be used to prepare a dishwashing liquid that is gentle on hands; Lee combines a natural liquid castile soap with the soapnut liquid. Other soapnut users also make pesticides from the shells – the saponin is non-toxic for plants but repels insects.
The one thing you can’t do with soapnuts? Eat them. The bitter soapnut is harmful if ingested.
Purchase soapnuts at the Beijing World Health Store or contact the Beijing Organic Consumer Organization to place an order.