Those of you who know me well know that I'm a bit of a cloth diaper nut. I was rather sad when #2 finally toilet-trained, as it meant packing away all that beautiful fluff for an indefinite period of time. In the few years since then the cloth diaper market has exploded and they've become much more accessible to the average consumer. Accompanying this trend, natural laundry washes, soaps and detergents have multiplied on store shelves -- increasing consumer options and leaving me feeling, at times, as though I went to university just to be able to read the ingredients labels on cleaning products.
One of the newer options for washing diapers and clothing are soap nuts. Soap nuts are the outer shell of a small fruit grown on the sapindus mukorrosi (Chinese Soapberry Tree). These shells are harvested and dried and have been used for washing throughout Southeast Asia for centuries. They are very rich in natural saponins and require no mechanical processing to be prepared for use.
What's so great about them? Because they require no special processing or manufacturing to be laundry-ready, the only fossil fuels consumed in getting them from the tree to your house are those used in transportation and, possibly, some packaging materials. Also, they are an entirely renewable resource and using them helps support a traditional industry in a fairly immediate manner.
Soap nuts are a 100% vegetable detergent and purported to leave no residue on clothing/diapers, making them a very good alternative to commercial laundry detergents that can leave behind harsh residues and cause textiles to breakdown more quickly. They are 100% biodegradable, scent-free, and can be composted once they've been used up.
A regular load of laundry on warm/hot requires 2-3 soap nuts. The nuts are tied in a cloth bag and tossed in with the laundry. These same nuts can be used 2-4 more times before they lose effectiveness and need to be replaced.
I think it's pretty awesome that they are a 1 ingredient laundry detergent. I can see why they have become so popular with the cloth diapering community -- there's no need to worry about product build-up ruining the absorbency of your diapers or shortening the lifespan of the fabrics. The stuff I washed with them seems as clean as the stuff I would wash with my normal laundry product. They're simple to use and don't take up a lot of storage space between loads. I really like that they have a small ecological footprint and that by using them I would be directly supportingthe people who harvest them. As a person who typically avoids scents, optical brighteners and fabric softeners in my laundry, I feel this is a pretty great product.
In my opinion, the biggest drawbacks are cost and availability. I like to have a whole-house laundry product. I don't like to fuss between using one wash on diapers and another on clothes, towels, etc. Four to five loads of laundry a week would go through soap nuts pretty quickly in our house. Information I've gleaned from several places online suggest that 1kg of soap nuts will wash approximately 175 loads of laundry. A kilo of soap nuts will cost between $25 - $35. To be fair, this is a good price for that amount of laundry, but I already use something that can wash more for less. ;)
It also seems that, outside of health food shops, soap nuts are not easily found on store shelves. If I ran out, I would either have to call around to find a health food store that sold them locally or watch the laundry pile up while waiting for my internet-purchased order to arrive.
In comparison, my liquid laundry wash costs me approx. $20 for 3.78L and one jug will wash around 450 loads of laundry, using the reduced amount I've determined to be right for my front-loading machine. It has only 5(!) ingredients, is 100% natural and biodegradable, scent-free, hypoallergenic, and is made in Canada. It is also easily found at Loblaws, as well as in other health food and specialty shops around Ottawa.
In conclusion, I don't see myself switching to soap nuts, but think they are a great product. They are also an incredibly cost-effective option for people looking for a few-ingredient detergent -- a must for folks with allergies, I would think. I give them 4.5/5 -- if they were easier to find in "brick & mortar" stores, I'd give them a 5/5.