It is fair to assume that a person who has never tried soapberries will be a bit skeptical. There must be a downside, right? What is wrong with soapberries? Like anything else, some people will find that soapberries aren’t their “cup of soap”, so to speak. The idea of washing clothes with seed pods is just not going to work for them, and that’s okay. If you are considering trying soapberries for the first time there are some legitimate questions that you might have. I don’t know if they are really “frequently asked” or not, but I think these are good questions that are worth answering.
How do Soapberries clean?
Soapberries have two natural surfactants that help release the dirt from your laundry. One is called saponin and the other is a very long scientific word that is shortened to ASOG. Some trees have more of one and some have more of the other. Lots of plants have saponins, but soapberries have one of the highest levels. Saponin and ASOGs are non-ionic surfactants which means they are gentle on your clothes and hands. They are neutral chemically, so they can be combined easily with other ingredients if you want.
Soapberries are not magic. They work great for most things. I have used them for going on four years and have at least tried them for just about everything I clean. They are not whiteners or bleach, so if you need to whiten something, you will need to add something to do that.
Soapberries or Soapnuts?
Most of the soapberries sold in the United States come from India and Nepal. They are a variety whose scientific name is Sapindus mukarossi and are generally called soapnuts. I read somewhere that they are called nuts because of their appearance, but they are not nuts.
The Central American variety of soapberries is Sapindus saponaria. The major sellers of Sapindus mukarossi will tell you that their variety is much superior to Sapindus saponaria. So, when we started to consider the idea of a business selling Central American soapberries we decided to find out just how superior the Asian varieties are. We had a chemical analysis done comparing the surfactant level of our berries as compared with samples of some of the most popular soapnut varieties. The results showed that the highest saponin levels of any of the samples tested came from a tree in rural Santa Barbara, Honduras, less than a mile from our house. The tests were repeated the following harvest season with the same results.
The biggest obvious difference between our berries and the more well-known Asian soapnuts is that ours are generally smaller. That means that you may need to use a 6-8 berries in the little cloth bag instead of 5. Since they are sold by weight, that doesn’t seem a very significant problem.
Soapnuts from Asia are great and we know that many soapnut companies are socially conscious in their business practices. If you already have a brand you like, that’s fine with us. But, if you are just considering giving them a try, we’d love you to try ours. We have a good product and are working to make it better and better.
What about soap allergies?
Soapberries are very popular with people who have allergy problems. It is not a medicine, but they have no chemicals that provoke allergies and don’t tend to leave a residue that might be a problem. I have never heard of anyone who has had a problem using soapberries. But, to be on the safe side, if a person is very allergic to a lot of things, then the same precautions used before trying any new product are a good idea. The stories I have heard indicate that it is a wonderful relief to find a product that works without causing problems.
Do they spoil?
Soapberries are a natural product, with no preservatives. They will keep for a long time as long as they are kept dry. I have some that are more than two years old that work just fine. It is important to keep them dry before using them and allow the pouch to dry out between wash days. If you let them sit in moisture, they will eventually get moldy.
If you make the liquid cleaner from the berries, it will get rancid after a few days. It will keep a bit longer in the frig. If you want to keep the liquid for any length of time, the best idea is to freeze it. You can do a load of laundry with an ice cube or two of soapberry liquid.
The soapberry powder is very susceptible to humidity, so it is important to keep it dry. If the powder hardens because of too much humidity it will still work, but you will need to break it up to use it.
How many do I use?
The biggest problem I have personally had with soapberries is deciding how many to use and how long to use them. The websites usually suggest 5 pods will do 5 loads. Since ours are smaller, you could start with 6-8, but the truth is that it depends on how hard your water is, if you use hot or cold water and how dirty your clothes are. Washing with soapberries is not an exact science. Used up berries will be soft and mushy. A little experimentation will help you know how many to use and when they no longer are releasing those wonderful little saponins and ASOGs that wash your clothes.
Can I use less water?
Actually, I don`t think I have ever heard anyone ask this question, but I think it is a good one. Soapberries in the little pouch need two things to work well, agitation and good water flow, so it is important to not overload the washer. You don`t need an exaggerated amount of water, but if the clothes are packed too closely together, the berries can’t do their job. If conserving water is important to you, then you might find it interesting that the low-sudsing quality of soapberries means they do not leave a residue and some people find they don’t need to use the rinse cycle.
What about the smell?
A soapberry can smell a little vinegary. Some seem to have a bit more odor than others. Some don’t seem to have any particular odor at all. Some people think that the powder smells like chocolate, but I wouldn’t go quite that far. The important thing is that they don’t leave any odor in your clothes. Your clothes will just smell clean. For some people that is a problem, because they like their clothes to have a bit of fragrance. Some companies sell little vials of essence you can add if you want, but a friend tried adding just a bit of fabric softener to the rinse cycle and that seemed to do the job. Traditionally, in some parts of Honduras, they added a little bit of lemon juice.
Are they good for anything besides laundry?
Actually, one of the most amazing things about soapberries is that they are good for so many types of cleaning. The list just goes on and on. In addition to laundry, in its liquid form, soapberries can be used for doing the dishes, cleaning counters or mopping flours, as a bathroom cleaner, a body soap, shampoo (people or pets) and jewelry cleaner, etc. etc. Different people like different applications. The powder can be used like a mild abrasive cleaner.
I keep losing the little pouch!
This seems to be the worst problem that people have with soapberries. They like how they work but it is frustrating to always be looking for that little bag. It will sometimes go through the dryer before it is found (which doesn’t hurt it). The best solution that I have found is just to have two little pouches. If you lose track of one, then just use the other. The first one will show up when you pull the clothes out of the dryer, if not before. I don’t have a dryer, so if I lose a little pouch, it shows up when I am hanging out the clothes. Sometimes it is hard to remember how many times you have used the berries. Since it isn’t an exact science, a bit of guess work is just fine. Remember that the shells will look a bit grey and mushy when they are ready for composting. My bottom line answer is that if the biggest problem that you face in the day is finding your soapberry pouch, you have an awful lot to be thankful for.