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Soapberries (Sapindus Mukorossi)
Soapberries for sensitive skin

Having any skin condition can be frustrating. Trying to find something that actually helps treat it without further damaging skin can be irritating.

Some products claim to be gentle, but as soon as they come into contact with our skin, they leave it feeling dry and irritated. Others even seem to further worsen skin conditions, and some may seem to calm it down, only to stop working further down the road.

We assume that we need something stronger to fight the condition, but that may just further damage the skin. Sometimes the solution is gentler than we imagine.

What Are Soapberries?

Soapberries (Sapindus Mukorossi) is the fruit of the soapnut tree, also referred to as Reetha in Hindi. When this berry comes into contact with water, it releases a naturally antibacterial surfactant (soaping agent) called saponin.

Soapberries are a mild, affordable, and fully natural substitute to the soaps we commonly use.

It’s been used in both Ayurvedic and Chinese herbal medicine for thousands of years to help alleviate skin problems such as psoriasis, eczema, and acne.

Here are some reasons why soapberries are so helpful at treating skin conditions:

Soapberries are hypoallergenic.

This means they won’t react with your skin and cause an allergic reaction. Some causes of skin irritation and eczema are allergens we come in contact with.

When your skin comes into contact with these allergens, an itchy skin rash develops.

Soapberries are moisturizing and won’t dry, or worsen problem areas.

Normal skin pH tends to range from 4.5 to 6.5, this means skin naturally tends to be more acidic. Some of the products we use, like some soaps, tend to alter our skin’s natural pH. This can result in acne, eczema, dry, or sensitive skin (even any combination of either).

Being the most natural cleaner, it contains a pH level of 5.5, the same as our skin. Soapberries contain vitamins A, E, K and D, which help optimize the skin’s immune system and help destroy free radicals that can cause premature aging.

Soapberries are antibacterial.

The saponin soapberries release are naturally antibacterial, antifungal, and antimicrobial. Some bacteria in the skin, like Propionibacterium acnes, can aggravate an immune response which causes acne.

The antibacterial properties in soapberries can help combat and prevent the spread of these bacteria in pores, resulting in less of an immune response.

Using soapberry liquid extract is beneficial for the skin. Because it’s so gentle, it doesn’t strip away your natural oils, leaving it soft and preserving it from further irritation.

How to Make Your Own Soapberry Liquid Extract

  1. Add a cup of water for every 2 soapberries in a pot over a stove
  2. Boil for 30 minutes on medium heat
  3. Strain the liquid into a container and let it cool
Soapberry liquid extract

The soapberry liquid extract can be used as a face wash and soap. As a face wash, it can be used twice a day. Just make sure to avoid getting it in your eyes, it may sting a little!

Everything More About Soap Berries

Possibly Organic Soapberries. Ripe and unripe berries bunched on a tree branch. Photo by Clint McKoy.

While working on my post-grad soap education the other day, I came upon the term “soap berries” in a list of search results. It turns out soapberries, also known as soap nuts (not kidding), are the fruit of several shrubs or small trees in the Sapindus genus.

Soapberries contain saponins, or soap-like compounds, and are most commonly used as a laundry or dishwashing detergent!

So why would you use berries instead of detergent?

In many ways, soapberries are the ultimate farm-to-table skincare product. As you might imagine, they come with many ecological benefits, but there are also a few downsides to using soapberries. Let’s first talk about the benefits of soapberries.

  1. They are inexpensive. You can buy a half-pound bag for around $12, and each handful of berries can be used for multiple washes.
  2. They have a small ecological footprint. Soapberries come in simple packaging and are compostable. If you live in a warmer climate, you could even grow or forage them yourself.
  3. They are great for sensitive skin. Soapberries are hypoallergenic, and (obviously) contain no added dyes, scents, preservatives, or other chemicals.

So what are the cons to this amazing little fruit?

  1. It takes hot water to dissolve the soap compounds within the berry. If you use soapberries in the laundry, you have to run your washing machine on the hot setting, which consumes a lot of energy. Some people get around this problem by boiling water and berries ahead of time to make a sort of liquid soap, or berry-soap-syrup.
  2. The berry detergent is not as powerful as many other commercial or even homemade products. One Internet reviewer claimed she had to religiously pretreat every little stain.

Now, let’s look at all the ways to use soapberries.

  1. Laundry detergent. As already mentioned, you can boil water and make your own liquid berry detergent. A few tablespoons per wash will do. Or you can put a handful of berries into a drawstring bag and throw the whole thing in with the laundry. You should be able to get about a dozen washes from one bag.
  2. Dishwashing detergent. As with the laundry, you put a small bag full of soap nuts in the silverware tray of the dishwasher (not in the regular soap spot on the door.)
  3. Personal cleanser. Although you could probably rub the berries directly on your body, making berry-soap-syrup is probably the best way to get the most washes out of the berries and the least mess on the bottom of your shower. As a side note, a google image search for “rub berries on your body” yields disappointingly safe for work results.
  4. Shampoo. Yep. Berry-soap-syrup also makes pretty good shampoo. People have had success mixing anything from vinegar to coconut oil with it. Other posts on the Internet go into detail about various berry shampoo mixes depending on what type of hair you have.

After discussing the pros and cons of the humble soapberry, now I’m going to answer a few of the most common questions people ask about it.

Where are soap berries from?

If you live in Florida or South Carolina, you can try foraging for the Florida Soapberry. You can find the Western Soapberry in the Southwestern United States, Sapindus oahuensis in Hawaii, Sapindus vitiensis in American Samoa and Fiji, and the Wingleaf Soapberry in much of the Americas.

International readers, forgive me, the list of soapberries worldwide is more than I want to type. Check Wikipedia.

That said, most soapberries that you would buy come from India. These Indian soapberries provide the most cleaning power, and they have actually been used for centuries in the ayurvedic tradition.

Are soapberries poisonous to humans?

I was about to say you wouldn’t normally think of drizzling laundry detergent on your salad, but we are living in the era of the Tide Pod challenge. But seriously, how worried should you be if you accidentally leave a handful of soapberries within munching distance of the nearest toddler? All sources say eating soapberries probably won’t kill you, but it probably will make you sick to your stomach. The same compound that gives soapberries their cleaning power also will lead to gastrointestinal distress if eaten. Interestingly, these saponins are also found on the surface of quinoa grains, but are mostly removed from quinoa via washing.

Are soapberries poisonous to dogs?

Ditto what I said about toddlers with respect to dogs. Surprisingly, there is very little written on whether or not soapberries are poisonous to dogs.

I haven’t found anything saying they are one of those freak foods like grapes or chocolate that are fine for humans but toxic to dogs.

Searching quinoa and dogs suggests that plants with saponins will make dogs sick the same way they will make humans sick. That is to say, they will make them/us sick to our stomachs.

How do you grow soapberries?

It is possible to grow your own soapberry tree, but it takes a little more than basic gardening skills. The first step is to rub the outside of the soapberry seed with sandpaper and then soak it for 24 hours in warm water.

The next step is to transfer it to a pot with soil, where it will take 1 – 3 months to germinate. That means for 1 – 3 months, you need to keep the soil moist, but not waterlogged.

It is best to plant in spring or summer, and the tree will take 10 years before it will produce any soapberries. At the time of writing, there is an actual Western Soapberry tree for sale on Etsy, but it’s unclear how old or big it is.

Soapberry trees need a warm climate and full sun, so depending on where you live, your DIY detergent options may be limited. On the plus side, once established, the soapberry tree is perennial and drought tolerant.

Where do you get soapberries?

If you don’t have a green thumb or find yourself geographically-challenged, I suppose you could actually buy them.

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