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The Natural Way to Cleaning and Body Care

Sub­stan­tial pol­lu­tion has been caused by syn­thet­ic deter­gents to our ecosys­tem, main­ly our water bod­ies. They dam­age our health and the health of aquat­ic organ­isms and wildlife. We tend to think that this is a com­pli­cat­ed prob­lem; the solu­tion being that the gov­ern­ment should enforce strict laws for the indus­try about lim­it­ing the use of harm­ful chem­i­cals in their prod­ucts. The indus­try would, of course, be resis­tant to such laws since there would be loss of prof­it, if their clean­ing product’s effi­cien­cy reduces due to such reg­u­la­to­ry action. All these com­pli­cat­ed prob­lems we face can be solved by a sim­ple solu­tion: using nat­ur­al alter­na­tives for clean­ing, skin and hair care. We don’t need syn­thet­ic prod­ucts at all. It is just that we have just got­ten accus­tomed to using them and we can­not imag­ine liv­ing with­out them now. Nat­ur­al clean­ing and body care prod­ucts are not some­thing new; they have been used in the Indi­an tra­di­tion and in the tra­di­tion of ancient civ­i­liza­tions all over the world. The Indi­an sci­ence of health, Ayurve­da, pro­vides nat­ur­al for­mu­la­tions for skin and hair care. The ingre­di­ents are from Moth­er Nature and ensure the best health of skin and hair.

In this arti­cle, we will look at the many won­ders of the soap­nut. Soap­nut is called Pan­nankot­tai, Punalai, Pun­thi and Puvan­ti in Tamil; Reetha, Aritha, Rish­tak in Hin­di; and Kumb­ha bee­ja (round shaped seeds), Phe­ni­la (frothy fruits) in San­skrit.

A his­tor­i­cal and botan­i­cal intro­duc­tion Sapin­dus is genus of about 5 to 12 species of shrubs and small trees. They are native to warm tem­per­ate to trop­i­cal regions in both the East (Africa and Eura­sia) and the West (the Amer­i­c­as). The genus includes both decid­u­ous and ever­green trees.1 Mem­bers of the genus are com­mon­ly called soap­nut trees because the fruit pulp is used to make soap. The fruits of these trees, called soap­ber­ries or soap­nuts, have been used for wash­ing by ancient peo­ple in Asia as well as the Native Amer­i­cans. [1] The gener­ic name is derived from the Latin words sapo, mean­ing “soap”, and indi­cus, mean­ing “of India”.

The soap­nuts con­tain saponins, which are a nat­ur­al sur­fac­tant2. Saponins are chem­i­cal com­pounds which are found in par­tic­u­lar abun­dance in many plant species. [2] They derive their name from the soap­wort plant, the root of which was used his­tor­i­cal­ly as a soap.

Sapin­dus muko­rossi (native to north­ern India, Nepal and south­ern Chi­na) and Sapin­dus tri­fo­lia­tus (native to south­ern India) are the main sources for the fruits that have become famous as the soap­nut. [3] The soap­nut from Sapin­dus muko­rossi has the high­est saponin con­tent.

Sapin­dus muko­rossi grows wild through­out an immense region around the Himalayas, extend­ing from south­ern Chi­na, through Nepal and into north­ern India. It grows uncul­ti­vat­ed in deprived soil and helps fight ero­sion in the Himalayan foothills. It is a com­par­a­tive­ly resilient tree as it deters insects and dis­ease. It also pro­vides a source of income to the local pop­u­la­tion. [14]

Cul­ti­va­tion The soap­nut trees can grow to a height of 12–20 metres and have a trunk girth of 3–5 metres. They begin pro­duc­ing soap­nuts in 9–10 years. They pro­duce small white grouped flow­ers (dur­ing spring and the begin­ning of sum­mer) which become round yel­low berries that turn red­dish tan and crum­pled when ripe. The fruit appears in July-August (fall) and ripens by Novem­ber-Decem­ber (win­ter). The round nuts are 2 – 2.5 cm in diam­e­ter. The fruit is col­lect­ed in win­ter months for seed and for sale in the mar­ket.

Soap­nut trees bear fruit (soap­nut) for about 90 years. [3]

The saponins are present in the shell of the soap­nut. The seed is removed from the shell and the shells are dried in the sun. There is no pro­cess­ing involved, as the dried shells can direct­ly be used for wash­ing and clean­ing. The actu­al “nut” (the seed inside the shell) does not dis­charge saponin, so it has no clean­ing prop­er­ties. It is removed and used for plant­i­ng new trees.

Fig. 1 Sapin­dus muko­rossi (native to north­ern India, Nepal and south­ern Chi­na)

Fig. 2 Soap­nuts of Sapin­dus muko­rossi

Fig. 3 Sapin­dus tri­fo­lia­tus on the left (native to south­ern India)

Use of soap­nut in clean­ing

Soap­nuts have been used since ancient times all over the world as a laun­dry deter­gent, as soap for per­son­al hygiene, and as a cleanser with lots of oth­er uses.

Mak­ing the soap­nut liq­uid * Add 50 grams (about a hand­ful) of soap­nut shells (with­out seeds) to 4 cups of water. Crush the shells to small­er pieces before adding. * Bring to boil and let it sim­mer for 20 min­utes. * The boil­ing process extracts the saponin from the nut shells and allows it to com­bine with the water. * The liq­uid can be used imme­di­ate­ly, or can be allowed to steep overnight. * Strain into an appro­pri­ate con­tain­er. * Com­post the used shells. * Exper­i­ment with longer boil times and water to shell ratios for stronger and weak­er con­cen­tra­tions.

This con­cen­trat­ed liq­uid can then be used for mul­ti­ple pur­pos­es, as fol­lows:

1) A nat­ur­al laun­dry deter­gent

Soap­nuts are mild yet high­ly effec­tive nat­ur­al deter­gent. The soap­nut liq­uid pre­pared can be used to wash clothes by hand.

Soap­nuts can be used in machine wash also. All that is need­ed is a small cloth satchel with 4–5 soap­nuts placed in the wash. Noth­ing else is required. Not only are soap­nuts, a nat­ur­al deter­gent, but also they act as a fab­ric soft­en­er. Each soap­nut can be reused for wash­ing upto 6 times, after which it los­es its sur­fac­tant prop­er­ty due to the decrease in saponin con­tent. The used soap­nuts can then be com­post­ed.

Absence of tox­ic chem­i­cals, irri­tants and aller­gens: Since soap­nuts don’t leave chem­i­cal residue, they are ide­al for peo­ple with sen­si­tive skin, and those with eczema3 and pso­ri­a­sis4. It is also ide­al for wash­ing babies’ cloth­ing. Since it is nat­ur­al, there are no tox­ic ingre­di­ents which irri­tate the skin and res­pi­ra­to­ry sys­tem (as is the case with syn­thet­ic deter­gents made from petro­chem­i­cals). Soap­nuts are hypoal­ler­genic; that is, they are rel­a­tive­ly unlike­ly to cause an aller­gic reac­tion.

Wash­ing del­i­cate cloth­ing: They are gen­tle in nature and hence can be used for del­i­cate cloth­ing like silk, cash­mere and wool. Its mild­ness keeps colours bright.

Dura­bil­i­ty of clothes: Owing to their mild nature, using soap­nuts for deter­gent helps main­tain the fab­ric struc­ture of cloth­ing for longer peri­ods.

Wash­ing cloth dia­pers and nap­kins: Soap nuts are a chem­i­cal-free option to wash cloth dia­pers. Soap­nut liq­uid can be used direct­ly to wash cloth dia­pers and nap­kins. Soap­nuts are great for wash­ing cloth dia­pers because unlike chem­i­cal deter­gents, they do not clog the fab­ric caus­ing the dia­per to loose its absorben­cy. They do not cause dia­per rash. In addi­tion, soap­nuts clean and remove deter­gent residue from dia­pers.

Water and ener­gy sav­ing: They save water because they rinse eas­i­er and so less water is required. If using the wash­ing machine, one can use a short­er rinse cycle thus save ener­gy. Its low foam is per­fect for high effi­cien­cy machines.

Recy­cling: Wash­ing water from soap­nuts can be reused in the gar­den for water­ing plants.

2) Dish­wash­ing Soap­nut liq­uid can be used for wash­ing dish­es, cut­lery, pans and glass­es. The lack of bub­bles while wash­ing with soap­nut liq­uid does NOT indi­cate the effec­tive­ness of wash­ing. Since soap­nuts don’t con­tain arti­fi­cial foam­ing agents, there will be few, if any, last­ing bub­bles.

3) Clean­ing and detox­i­fy­ing food Fruits and veg­eta­bles can be soaked for around 10–15 min­utes in soap­nut liq­uid and rinsed. This removes harm­ful chem­i­cals and residue. This soap­nut solu­tion can be reused for house­hold clean­ing.

4) Skin cleanser The soap­nut liq­uid can be used for bathing. Soap­nut is a nat­ur­al prod­uct with no tox­ins and is gen­tle on the skin. Hence it is par­tic­u­lar­ly an ide­al choice for peo­ple who have very sen­si­tive skin. Since it is odor­less, it is a great choice for peo­ple who pre­fer odor­less cleansers. In Ayurvedic med­i­cine, soap­nuts are used to cleanse the skin, remove tan, and treat eczema and pso­ri­a­sis. [4]

5) Sham­poo The soap­nut liq­uid can be used in place of reg­u­lar sham­poo. Soap­nuts were the rea­son for Indi­an women had long thick hair braid­ed down to their hip. It does not lath­er as much as reg­u­lar sham­poos, so one needs to avoid overuse and apply the appro­pri­ate quan­ti­ty. Again, that a sham­poo or soap should lath­er in order to prove its effec­tive­ness in clean­ing is an idea we have been con­di­tioned to believe, because we are accus­tomed to using prod­ucts which con­tain arti­fi­cial foam­ing agents5. This is NOT true at all. Nat­ur­al prepa­ra­tions which have been used in the ancient Indi­an tra­di­tion did not pro­duce much lath­er, and yet peo­ple had healthy and glow­ing skin, and healthy long hair.

Makes hair strong, healthy, soft and lus­trous: Reg­u­lar use of soap­nut sham­poo makes hair strong, healthy, soft and lus­trous. Soap­nuts con­tain good amounts of nutri­ents like Vit­a­min A, D, E and K, which keeps hair healthy and gives shine and lus­tre.

A nat­ur­al con­di­tion­er: Soap nuts also pro­vide mois­tur­i­sa­tion and nat­ur­al con­di­tion­ing to the hair and pre­vents hair fall.

Pre­vents dan­druff: Soap­nut sham­poo pre­vents dan­druff. The appli­ca­tion of pow­dered soap­nut on the scalp is use­ful in fight­ing off var­i­ous scalp prob­lems such as dan­druff, eczema, and pso­ri­a­sis. This treat­ment is used in Ayurve­da.

Elim­i­nates head lice: Soap­nuts have insec­ti­ci­dal prop­er­ties and hence are effec­tive in get­ting rid of lice from scalp. They have been tra­di­tion­al­ly used for this pur­pose. [4]

Pre­vents hair fall: Soap­nuts are used in Ayurve­da to pre­vent hair loss. [3]

Note: Ensure that the liq­uid does not enter the eyes as it will cause a burn­ing sen­sa­tion.

6) Shav­ing cream The recipe for prepar­ing shav­ing cream from soap­nuts is as fol­lows: Pit and remove the shells of a few soap­nuts and grind the flesh in a mix­ie. After mak­ing a paste of the flesh, add 1 tbsp of olive oil and 3 tsps of soap­nut liq­uid. Use this paste as a shav­ing cream imme­di­ate­ly after prepar­ing. [4]

7) Insect and pest repel­lant Since soap­nuts have insect repel­lent prop­er­ties, the crushed or used shells can be used around the gar­den to repel insects and pests. Soap­nut liq­uid is also an effec­tive and nat­ur­al alter­na­tive to repel insects and pests off plants in the gar­den. Soap­nut liq­uid can be sprayed on plants around the inflict­ed areas to get rid of the annoy­ing pests.

8) Pet sham­poo The soap­nut liq­uid can be used to wash pets and spray­ing their coat can repel pests. Again, the nat­ur­al insect and pest repelling prop­er­ties of saponin con­tained in soap­nuts helps in elim­i­nat­ing flies, ticks and oth­er insects.

9) All-pur­pose clean­er They can be used as an all-pur­pose clean­er, glass clean­er and for steam clean­ing car­pets. [3] Soap­nut liq­uid can also be used as a floor clean­er, which makes the house clean and free of path­o­gen­ic bac­te­ria. It can also be used to clean the bath­room and win­dow panes of a house. The liq­uid can be used for clean­ing sinks, toi­lets, bath­tubs, porce­lain, tile, grout (flu­id form of con­crete used for fill­ing gaps, such as seams between tiles), etc.

10) Car wash Soap­nuts can be used for car wash. The recipe is as fol­lows: Take about 12 soap­nuts and allow them to soak in 4 litres of hot water for 30 min­utes [3] The liq­uid can be used to wash the car, wheels and even the dash­board, steer­ing wheel and win­dows. The wash water can then be reused for irri­gat­ing trees or plants.

11) Clean­ing jew­ellery Soap­nuts are com­mon­ly used in Indi­an house­holds for clean­ing jew­ellery. Jew­ellery is soaked in soap­nut liq­uid and rubbed with a cloth to give it a shine.

12) Removal of met­als from con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed soil

Mod­ern research has shown that soap­nuts can be used in the removal of met­als from con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed soil.

Soap­nuts have been found to be use­ful in the removal of nick­el (Ni), chromi­um (Cr) and man­ganese (Mn) from con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed soils and in the removal of cop­per (Cu), lead (Pb) and zinc (Zn) from con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed indus­tri­al soils. Soap­nut plant helps in removal of arsenic As (V) from iron (Fe) rich soil. [5]

Quil­la­ja is used in chromi­um recov­ery and Quil­la­ja bark is used in cad­mi­um (Cd) and zinc (Zn) heavy met­al removal. [5] Quil­la­ja saponar­ia is also called the soap bark tree.

Com­post­ing and reuse as liq­uid soap for hand­wash When the saponin has been exaust­ed fom the soap­nuts, they will look dark and feel sog­gy. They can be put into the com­post heap. Or, they can be made into liq­uid soap for hand wash, by blend­ing the used shells with some water in the mix­ie. The liq­uid soap can then be stored in a dis­penser near the wash basin. [6]

Stor­ing soap­nuts Soap­nuts absorb mois­ture very eas­i­ly and become dark and sticky if left exposed to air. Ide­al­ly soap­nuts should be stored in an air­tight con­tain­er. How­ev­er, sticky soap nuts do not mean that they have gone bad; they will still wash effec­tive­ly, as it is the saponin con­tent that deter­mines wash­ing effi­cien­cy. Soap­nut pow­der, how­ev­er, will become lumpy very eas­i­ly if not stored in air­tight con­di­tions. The lumpy form makes the pow­der dif­fi­cult to use even though it still retains all its orig­i­nal wash­ing prop­er­ties. [6]

Use of soap­nut in Ayurve­da

Soap­nuts have long his­to­ry of med­i­c­i­nal use in India, Chi­na and Japan. They have been used in var­i­ous Indi­an folk med­i­cines and Ayurve­da. In Japan, its shell is called enmei-hi or “life pro­long­ing shell”. Sim­i­lar­ly in Chi­na it is wu-huan-zi or “no ill­ness fruit”. In San­skrit it is also called Rak­sha bee­ja and Arish­ta­ka, mean­ing “that which thwarts away evil ele­ments and pro­tects”. Soap­nuts are used in the treat­ment of sev­er­al dis­eases in Ayurve­da. The fruit, shells, shell pow­der, seed, roots and bark of the soap­nut tree are used as med­i­cine.

Guna (qual­i­ties) : Laghu (light to digest), Teek­sh­na (strong, pierc­ing) Rasa (taste or nature in the pre-diges­tion stage, i e, while chew­ing) : Tik­ta (bit­ter) and Katu (pun­gent) Vipa­ka (nature dur­ing diges­tion) : Katu (Under­goes pun­gent taste con­ver­sion dur­ing diges­tion) Veerya (nature post-diges­tion) : Ush­na (hot poten­cy) Effect on the Tri­dosha : Bal­ances all the three dosha – vata, pit­ta and kapha

Med­i­c­i­nal prop­er­ties of Soap­nut

Emet­ic, expec­to­rant and anti-helminth­ic prop­er­ties : Fruits are emet­ic8, expec­to­rant6 and anti­helminth­ic. Soap­nut has the prop­er­ty of lekhana, or “scrap­ing” prop­er­ty. It is use­ful in bal­anc­ing kapha, in res­pi­ra­to­ry dis­or­ders and in clear­ing chlolestrol/clot depo­si­tion in blood ves­sels. They have been tra­di­tion­al­ly used in the treat­ment of cold and cough.

Soap­nut roots and bark are expec­to­rant and demul­cent7. Roots are spe­cial­ly used for migraine and epilep­sy.

The anthelmintic9 prop­er­ties of soap­nuts help in expelling par­a­sitic worms from the body. The pow­dered soap­nut seeds are tra­di­tion­al­ly used for treat­ing con­sti­pa­tion, nau­sea.[7]

Anti-micro­bial and anti-inflam­ma­to­ry prop­er­ties : Because of its anti-inflam­ma­to­ry and anti-bac­te­r­i­al prop­er­ties, soap­nut shell pow­der is applied exter­nal­ly to treat boils, scor­pi­on bites and itch­ing lesions. [8] Lab stud­ies have found anti-bac­te­r­i­al prop­er­ties of soap­nut extract. Sim­i­lar­ly, anoth­er study found crude soap­nut extract exhibit­ing strong inhi­bi­tion to growth of var­i­ous dis­ease caus­ing fun­gus includ­ing Can­di­da. [7]

As men­tioned pre­vi­ous­ly, soap­nuts are used as a treat­ment for eczema and pso­ri­a­sis. [6] Soap­nut shell pow­der is wide­ly used as sham­poo. It kills lice and pre­vents dan­druff.

Because of its anti-inflam­ma­to­ry prop­er­ty, the pow­dered soap­nut seeds are tra­di­tion­al­ly used for treat­ing arthri­tis and den­tal caries (tooth decay or cav­i­ty). In order to get relief from joint pain, the poul­tice of soap­nut (a soft moist mass) is pre­pared and applied on the affect­ed areas. Leaves of soap­nut are boiled in water and same is used for bath; it helps in reliev­ing joint pain and treat­ing gout10 and rheuma­tism11. [7]

It is also used in the treat­ment of lum­ba­go (low­er back pain) and chloro­sis, which is anaemia caused by iron defi­cien­cy, espe­cial­ly in ado­les­cent girls, caus­ing a pale, faint­ly green­ish com­plex­ion. It is ben­e­fi­cial for sore eyes and oph­thalmia (inflam­ma­tion of the eye, espe­cial­ly con­junc­tivi­tis). [7]

Anti-tumor prop­er­ty : Research has shown that saponins have anti-tumor prop­er­ties. Around 11 class­es of saponins with prop­er­ties of sup­press­ing tumor cells have been iden­ti­fied. Most of these class­es of saponins are found in soap­nut. Fur­ther research has point­ed out the antiox­i­dant prop­er­ties of extract of Sapin­dus muko­rossi seeds which have poten­tial to pro­tect the body from can­cer caus­ing free rad­i­cals. [7]

Abor­ti­fa­cient prop­er­ty : Soap­nut also has the prop­er­ty called garb­ha­p­atana (abor­tifcient or abor­tion-caus­ing). Hence, oral usage is con­tra-indi­cat­ed dur­ing preg­nan­cy.

Soap­nut is used in the treat­ment of 1) Psy­chi­atric dis­or­ders 2) Tox­ic con­di­tions, poi­son­ing 3) Skin dis­eases 4) Itch­ing, pru­ri­tus12 5) Boils, blis­ters [8]

Use of soap­nut as sin­gle herb rem­e­dy Alhough oral Ayurvedic med­i­cines con­tain­ing soap­nut are very few, it is used as sin­gle herb rem­e­dy in many ill-health con­di­tions. It is used as an emet­ic agent in sev­er­al dis­eased con­di­tions in ani­mals. It is used abun­dant­ly as exter­nal and inter­nal med­i­c­i­nal sub­stance in vet­eri­nary prac­tice.

From his years of prac­tice, Dr M.S. Krish­na­murthy writes about a few sim­ple reme­dies pre­pared using soap­nut - 1) Soap­nut seed with jag­gery in gaseous dis­ten­tion of abdomen 2) Seed mar­row in abdom­i­nal pain and men­stru­al pain 3) Soap­nut water in food poi­son­ing 4) Soap­nut tree bark in wound wash­ing. The same decoc­tion is used for wash­ing gan­grene and get­ting rid of slough, which quick­ens heal­ing process. 5) Soap­nut leaf oil in eczema 6) Ghee and soap­nut in itch­ing skin dis­eases and her­pes13 [9]

How to grow your own soap­nut tree

* Weak­en the shell by using a nail file or sand paper to scar­i­fy. If the shell is too tough, it can be ham­mered gen­tly, being care­ful not to crush the seed with­in it.

* Soak the seed in warm/hot water for 24 hours. The soak­ing process is par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant as the water is what acti­vates ger­mi­na­tion.

* The best time of the year for plant­i­ng is from spring to ear­ly sum­mer. Take a pot and fill it with a mix­ture of clayey loam soil mixed and com­post. Plant the seeds to a depth of 2.5 cm. Choose a pot that is deep, since soap­nut trees send down ver­ti­cal tap roots. Place the pot away from direct sun­light, but where it can catch rain­fall. * Seeds can also be plant­ed direct­ly in pre­pared pits at 5m x 5m spac­ing

* Water the pots if the soil starts to dry, but do not water if the soil is moist, as it can pro­mote fun­gal growth.

* Wait and watch the seeds grow­ing. The ger­mi­na­tion process can take 1–3 months in sum­mer months.

* In time, the seed will swell to almost dou­ble its orig­i­nal size and forms a white pow­der coat­ing around the seed coat­ing. This is a good sign that the seedling is about to emerge.

* As soon as the seedling emerges, re-pot into a plant bag to pro­tect the very long tap root. Since soap­nut trees grow in trop­i­cal and sub­trop­i­cal cli­mates with good rain­fall, keep it in a sun­ny spot and water reg­u­lar­ly. After the seedling grows into a stur­dy plant, trans­plant it from the bag into the soil and take care of it. [10]

Eco­nom­ic and eco­log­i­cal advan­tages

* Soap­nuts are a renew­able resource, eas­i­ly grown in nature and native to the trop­i­cal and sub-trop­i­cal regions in coun­tries in both the East­ern hemi­sphere as well as the West­ern hemi­sphere. * No pro­cess­ing (except remov­ing the seed and dry­ing the shells in the sun), less pack­ag­ing and can be packed in biodegrad­able pack­ag­ing mate­ri­als. No chem­i­cals or fos­sil fuels are need­ed to pro­duce soap­nuts as there is no man­u­fac­tur­ing process involved. Hence, the cul­ti­va­tion and wide­spread use of soap­nuts con­tributes to cli­mate action sig­nif­i­cant­ly. * Even if pur­chased, they are eco­nom­i­cal. * The cul­ti­va­tion of soap­nuts will be a source of income to farm­ers who prac­tice tree-based agri­cul­ture. * They can sub­sti­tute mul­ti­ple clean­ers that are tox­ic to health and envi­ron­ment and also last longer. * Leads to self-suf­fi­cien­cy as we can grow a soap­nut tree our­selves. * The cul­ti­va­tion of soap­nuts has two-fold ben­e­fit since they are used both in clean­ing as well as in Ayurvedic med­i­cine.

Saponins in oth­er species

Species and native land (For the genus Sapin­dus) [6]

Sapin­dus delavayi — Chi­na, India.

Sapin­dus drum­mondii (West­ern Soap­ber­ry) — South­ern Unit­ed States, Mex­i­co

Sapin­dus emar­gina­tus — South­ern Asia.

Sapin­dus mar­gina­tus (Flori­da Soap­ber­ry) — Flori­da to South Car­oli­na

Sapin­dus muko­rossi (Chi­nese Soap­ber­ry) — North­ern India, South­ern Chi­na, Nepal

Sapin­dus oahuen­sis (Hawaii Soap­ber­ry) — Hawaii (endem­ic)

Sapin­dus rarak — South­east Asia

Sapin­dus saponar­ia (Wingleaf Soap­ber­ry) — Flori­da Keys, Caribbean, Cen­tral Amer­i­ca

Sapin­dus tomen­to­sus — Chi­na

Sapin­dus tri­fo­lia­tus (South Indi­an Soap­nut, Three-leaf Soap­ber­ry) — South­ern India, Pak­istan

Besides the fam­i­ly of Sapin­dus (soap­nut), saponins are also found in the close­ly relat­ed fam­i­lies Acer­aceae (maples) and Hip­pocas­tanaceae (horse chest­nuts). It is also found heav­i­ly in Gynos­tem­ma pen­ta­phyl­lum (Genus : Gynos­tem­ma) and gin­seng or red gin­seng (Genus : Panax). Gynos­tem­ma pen­ta­phyl­lum, known as jiaogu­lan in Chi­nese is indige­nous to the south­ern reach­es of Chi­na, north­ern Viet­nam, south­ern Korea, and Japan. It is best known as an herbal med­i­cine reput­ed to have pow­er­ful antiox­i­dant and adap­to­genic14 effects pur­port­ed to increase longevi­ty. Phar­ma­co­log­i­cal research has indi­cat­ed a num­ber of ther­a­peu­tic qual­i­ties such as low­er­ing cho­les­terol and high blood pres­sure, and strength­en­ing immu­ni­ty. Saponins are found heav­i­ly in this species in the form of gypeno­sides.

Fig. 4 Gynos­tem­ma pen­ta­phyl­lum (Jiaogu­lan or “strand­ed blue plant”)

Gin­seng is a peren­ni­al plant with fleshy roots and belongs to the genus Panax. Gin­seng is found in North Amer­i­ca and in east­ern Asia (most­ly north­east Chi­na, Korea, Bhutan, east­ern Siberia), typ­i­cal­ly in cool­er cli­mates. Panax gin­seng has been used as a herbal rem­e­dy in east­ern Asia for thou­sands of years. In tra­di­tion­al Chi­nese med­i­cine, gin­seng is a high­ly val­ued herb and has been applied to a vari­ety of patho­log­i­cal con­di­tions and ill­ness­es such as hypo­dy­namia (exhibit­ing decrease in strength), anorex­ia, short­ness of breath, pal­pi­ta­tion, insom­nia, impo­tence, haem­or­rhage and dia­betes. [11] Gin­seng is char­ac­ter­ized by the pres­ence of gin­seno­sides, which are a form of saponins. Panax quin­que­folius is a peren­ni­al plant native to east­ern North Amer­i­ca, though it is also cul­ti­vat­ed in places such as Chi­na. It is com­mon­ly used in Chi­nese med­i­cine. The plan­t’s root and leaves were tra­di­tion­al­ly used for med­i­c­i­nal pur­pos­es by Native Amer­i­cans. Panax viet­na­men­sis, dis­cov­ered in Viet­nam, is the south­ern­most gin­seng known. In Viet­nam it is prized in herbal med­i­cine, and hence com­mer­cial­ly very valu­able. As a result of over-har­vest­ing in the wild, the species is now con­sid­ered threat­ened.

Fig. 5 Panax gin­seng (Asian gin­seng)

Fig. 6 Panax quin­que­folius (Amer­i­can gin­seng)

Fig. 7 Panax viet­na­men­sis (Viet­namese gin­seng)

The root of the soap­wort plant, Saponar­ia offic­i­nalis, was used his­tor­i­cal­ly as a soap. There are about 20 species of soap­wort alto­geth­er. The lath­ery liq­uid pro­duced by boil­ing roots or leaves in water has the abil­i­ty to dis­solve fats and grease. Its native range extends through­out Europe, and in Asia to west­ern Siberia. It is also found in North Amer­i­ca, though it is con­sid­ered as a pest species.

Fig. 8 Saponar­ia offic­i­nalis (soap­wort)

Yuc­ca is a genus of peren­ni­al shrubs and trees, native to the hot and dry (arid) parts of the Amer­i­c­as and the Caribbean. Roots of soap­tree yuc­ca, Yuc­ca ela­ta, are high in saponins and are used as a sham­poo in Native Amer­i­can rit­u­als.

Fig. 9 Yuc­ca ela­ta (soap­tree yuc­ca)

The species Quil­la­ja saponar­ia, the soap bark tree, is an ever­green tree that is native to warm tem­per­ate cen­tral Chile and South Amer­i­ca. The inner bark of Quil­la­ja saponar­ia can be reduced to pow­der and employed as a sub­sti­tute for soap, since it forms a lath­er with water, owing to the pres­ence of a glu­co­side saponin. Soap bark tree has a long his­to­ry of med­i­c­i­nal use with the Andean peo­ple who used it espe­cial­ly as a treat­ment for var­i­ous chest prob­lems. The saponin con­tent of the bark helps to stim­u­late the pro­duc­tion of a more flu­id mucus in the air­ways, thus facil­i­tat­ing the removal of phlegm through cough­ing. This is sim­i­lar to the prop­er­ty of soap­nuts called lekhana in Ayurve­da.

Fig. 10 Quil­la­ja saponar­ia (soap bark tree)

The mem­ber of the genus Chloro­galum have the com­mon name soap­root or soap plant. The com­mon name comes from their use as soap. They are native to west­ern North Amer­i­ca, from Ore­gon to Baja Cal­i­for­nia, and are most­ly found in Cal­i­for­nia. Soap plants are peren­ni­al plants, with more or less elon­gat­ed bulbs, depend­ing on the species. The juices of the bulb con­tain saponins that form a lath­er when mixed with water, mak­ing the bulbs use­ful as a kind of soap. Cholo­galum pomerid­i­anum and Chloro­galum angus­ti­foli­um were two of the many species known for deter­gent prop­er­ties. It was par­tic­u­lar­ly used for wash­ing hair since Chloro­galum pomerid­i­anum was effec­tive against dan­druff. The bulbs also had var­i­ous med­i­c­i­nal uses, both exter­nal and inter­nal. Exam­ples of exter­nal uses include mak­ing a poul­tice to be used as an anti­sep­tic, or as a rub in cas­es of rheuma­tism. Exam­ples of inter­nal use include decoc­tions for a range of pur­pos­es, includ­ing as a diuret­ic, as a lax­a­tive and against stom­achache. [12*]

Fig. 11 Chloro­galum angus­ti­foli­um (nar­row leaf soap plant)

Fig. 12 Chloro­galum pomerid­i­anum (wavy-leafed soap plant or Cal­i­for­nia soap­root)

Aus­tralian abo­rig­ines tra­di­tion­al­ly used Alphi­to­nia excel­sa or Red Ash leaves for wash­ing because of their high saponin con­tent. The tree is endem­ic to Aus­tralia. When Red Ash leaves are rubbed in water, they pro­duce lath­er which can be used for wash­ing clothes. [13]

Fig. 13 Alphi­to­nia excel­sa (Red ash)

Fig. 14 Red ash tree

Most saponins, which read­i­ly dis­solve in water, are poi­so­nous to fish. The indige­nous peo­ple of ancient civ­i­liza­tions used saponin con­tain­ing plants to kill fish and aquat­ic organ­isms for their diet. Since pre­his­toric times, cul­tures through­out the world have used pis­ci­ci­dal (fish-killing) plants, most­ly those con­tain­ing saponins, for fish­ing. How­ev­er, it is impor­tant to note that the ancient cul­tures wor­shipped and lived in har­mo­ny with Moth­er Nature, and they nev­er took more than She could replace.

We clear­ly see that Moth­er Nature has pro­vid­ed us with all that we need for liv­ing, no mat­ter where we are in the world. In the face of all the com­plex chal­lenges we face today, it is time we return to Her. We need to draw from our ancient civ­i­liza­tion­al knowl­edge and redis­cov­er the way to live as inter­de­pen­dent mem­bers of one fam­i­ly on our beau­ti­ful plan­et.

Explana­to­ry notes 1 Decid­u­ous trees are those that shed all of their leaves for part of the year, usu­al­ly as an adap­ta­tion to a cold or dry/wet sea­son. The con­verse of decid­u­ous is ever­green. Ever­green trees do lose leaves, but each tree los­es its leaves grad­u­al­ly and not all at once. There­fore they appear to remain green all year round.

2 (Refer Part 1 of the arti­cle “Impact of Soaps and Deter­gents on our Ecosys­tem”) A sur­fac­tant reduces the sur­face ten­sion of water and detach­es dirt from clothes by emul­si­fy­ing it and is washed away with water.

3 Eczema or der­mati­tis is a group of dis­eases that results in inflam­ma­tion of the skin. The dis­eases are char­ac­ter­ized by itch­i­ness, red skin and a rash. Irri­tant con­tact der­mati­tis is caused by chem­i­cal irri­tants such as syn­thet­ic deter­gents and strong alka­lies like those found in drain clean­ers and soaps with lye residues.

4 Pso­ri­a­sis is a long-last­ing autoim­mune dis­ease (dis­eases aris­ing from an abnor­mal immune response to a nor­mal body part) char­ac­terised by patch­es of abnor­mal skin. The skin patch­es are typ­i­cal­ly red, itchy and scaly.

5 Sodi­um lau­ryl ether sul­fate (SLES), is an anion­ic deter­gent and sur­fac­tant found in many per­son­al care prod­ucts (soaps, sham­poos, tooth­paste etc.). SLES is an inex­pen­sive and very effec­tive foam­ing agent. Some labels list this ingre­di­ent as being derived “from coconuts”. How­ev­er pro­duc­ing sodi­um lauryl/lauryl ether sul­phate requires the addi­tion of petro­le­um-derived ingre­di­ents and the fin­ished prod­uct is far removed from its veg­etable ori­gins. These deter­gents can cause eye irri­ta­tion, scalp scurf sim­i­lar to dan­druff, skin rash­es and aller­gic reac­tions. [15]

6 An expec­to­rant is a med­i­cine which pro­motes the secre­tion of spu­tum (a mix­ture of sali­va and mucus coughed up from the res­pi­ra­to­ry tract) by the air pas­sages, used to treat coughs. It helps loosen mucus so one can cough it up. It does this by increas­ing the water con­tent of the mucus, and thus thin­ning it out.

7 Demul­cent is an agent that forms a sooth­ing film over a mucous mem­brane, reliev­ing minor pain and inflam­ma­tion of the mem­brane. For exam­ple, mucilage (a thick, gluey sub­stance pro­duced by near­ly all plants and some microor­gan­isms) and oils are demul­cents that can relieve irri­ta­tion of the bow­el lin­ing.

8 An emet­ic is a sub­stance that caus­es vom­it­ing.

9 An anti­helminth­ic expels par­a­sitic worms (helminths) and oth­er inter­nal par­a­sites from the body by either stun­ning or killing them and with­out caus­ing sig­nif­i­cant dam­age to the host.

10 Gout is a form of arthri­tis char­ac­terised by severe pain, red­ness and ten­der­ness in joints, caused by a buildup of uric acid crys­tals in the joints.

11 Rheuma­tism or rheumat­ic dis­or­der is an umbrel­la term for con­di­tions caus­ing chron­ic, often inter­mit­tent pain affect­ing the joints and/or con­nec­tive tis­sue

12 Pru­ri­tus is a severe itch­ing of the skin, as a symp­tom of var­i­ous ail­ments, includ­ing dry skin, skin dis­ease, preg­nan­cy and in rare cas­es, can­cer.

13 Her­pes is an infec­tion caused by the her­pes sim­plex virus (HSV). Her­pes appears most often on the gen­i­tals (gen­i­tal her­pes) or mouth (oral her­pes). The virus caus­es con­ta­gious sores around the mouth or on the gen­i­tals.

14 Adap­to­genic herbs, when they are admin­is­tered, result in a sta­bi­liza­tion of phys­i­o­log­i­cal process­es and pro­mo­tion of home­osta­sis, defined as the sta­ble con­di­tion of an organ­ism and of its inter­nal envi­ron­ment; or as the main­te­nance or reg­u­la­tion of the sta­ble con­di­tion, or its equi­lib­ri­um; or sim­ply as the bal­ance of bod­i­ly func­tions. It results in decreased cel­lu­lar sen­si­tiv­i­ty to stress.

Image cour­tesy Fig. 1 Fig. 2 Fig. 3 Fig. 4 CC BY-SA 3.0, Fig. 5 CC BY 3.0, Fig. 6 CC BY-SA 3.0, Fig. 7 Fig. 8 CC BY-SA 3.0, Fig. 9 CC BY-SA 3.0, Fig.10 CC BY 2.0, Fig. 11 CC BY 2.0, Fig. 12 CC BY 2.0, Fig. 13 CC BY 3.0,

Ref­er­ences [1] Austin, Daniel F. (2004). Flori­da Eth­nob­otany. CRC Press. pp. 601–603. ISBN 978–0‑8493–2332‑4

[2] Hostettmann, K.; A. Marston (1995). Saponins. Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press. p. 3ff. ISBN 0–521-32970–1. OCLC 29670810

[3] About Soap­nut – All about soap­nut, its ben­e­fits and appli­ca­tions. [Online]

[4] Ben­e­fits of soap nuts/ Reetha. [Online]

[5] Ram Chan­dra (2015). Advances in biodegra­da­tion and biore­me­di­a­tion of indus­tri­al waste. CRC Press, Tay­lor and Fran­cis group. pp. 134. ISBN 13: 978 – 1- 4987 ‑0055 ‑9


[7] Ben­e­fits of soap nuts/ Reetha [Online]

[8] Reetha — Soap­nut : Uses, Research, Side Effects [Online]

[9] Dr MS Krish­na­murthy. Soap­nut (Reetha) Reme­dies For Men­stru­al Pain, Eczema. [Online]

[10] Grow a Soap­nuts tree (Sapin­dus muko­rossi) [Online]

[11] Xiang YZ et al. (2008) A com­par­i­son of the ancient use of gin­seng in tra­di­tion­al Chi­nese med­i­cine with mod­ern phar­ma­co­log­i­cal exper­i­ments and clin­i­cal tri­als. [Online]

[12*] Com­piled from

[13] Toni. Grow your own laun­dry soap. [Online]

[14] About Soap­nut – All about soap­nut, its ben­e­fits and appli­ca­tions. [Online]

[15] Petro­chem­i­cal beau­ty? No thanks! [Online]

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