Go outside and pick some soap: That’s what people in India have said for years about the fruit of the Chinese soapberry tree. The berries’ skin contains saponin, a natural yet effective cleansing agent.
You can buy the dried fruit, gaining worldwide popularity as “soap nuts,” in batches of five or by the pound. Here’s how soap nuts work around the house:
LAUNDRY: Most soap-nut distributors provide a small cloth bag to hold berries in the washing machine. We used five nuts to wash five loads (fewer could be used in warm water), and our garments and towels emerged clean, odorless, and soft every time.
MULTI-PURPOSE CLEANER: Boil four soap nuts in 2 cups of water for 30 minutes, then let cool. Strain the liquid and use it to clean countertops and appliances; it can be kept at room temperature for up to three weeks. In a test on a shower, it eliminated soap scum.
SHAMPOO: Pour half a cup of the liquid into a food processor and add a few drops of your favorite oil (we used tea tree). Blend into a thick lather and use immediately; it works best when left on for about five minutes.
Soap nuts should be discarded when they begin to soften and fade in color, but they are compostable and can be left in gardens to repel pests. Online distributors such as NaturOli or Bubble and Bee sell certified organic nuts by weight. Roughly a quarter-pound can start at $7.95.