Since the dawn of dirty laundry, people in southern Asia have used fruits known as soapnuts to wash their clothes. Now the rest of the world is catching on to this green way of getting clean. Widely available in Europe, the fruits are called Waschnusse in Germany, noix de lavage in France, and noci de sapone in Italy. They’ve also spread into the U.S., Canada, Australia, and other countries with large markets for eco-friendly products.
Native to warm climates, soapnut trees produce clusters of cherry-like fruits. After the ripe fruits are harvested and pitted, the skin and pulp are dried in the sun. The resulting hollow, leathery globes make suds when added to water that’s churned by hand or machine.
The active ingredients in these fruits are saponins—essentially, nature’s detergents. Scientifically, they’re known as surfactants because they lower the surface tension of water. That counteracts water’s tendency to clump together in drops. Instead, the water spreads out and penetrates woven fibers to lift out and rinse away dirt. Saponins appear in many other plants—asparagus, chickpeas, horse chestnuts, olives, and soybeans, for instance—but at very low levels. The best soapnuts are rich in saponins, which can make up more than ten percent of the fruits’ content.
Unlike manufactured cleaners, soapnuts contain no mysterious ingredients and create no scum. They’re antifungal, antibacterial, hypoallergenic, and biodegradable. They’re gentle on clothes and can even be used on delicate fabrics like silk and cashmere. In India they’re often used as cleansers for skin and hair and are included in many traditional Ayurvedic preparations to cure such ills as eczema and psoriasis. They’re also believed to have gentle insecticidal properties that can help remove lice.
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