Soapberries : The eco-friendly cleaning solution

1. The detergent that grows on Trees

If you think that detergents are found only on supermarket shelves, then be prepared for a clean, green surprise. It grows on trees and has been cleaning clothes (and people) since the time of the Buddha! In fact, some sources also add the Buddha to its list of satisfied consumers.

Say hello to the Sapindus – a group of around 10 species of trees whose fruits can be used as foaming cleaners or surfactants to use a more technical term. The unique surfactant property of the Sapindus fruit makes it an all purpose cleaner – for skin, hair, laundry, dishes and pretty much anything else that requires cleaning.

The name Sapindus is derived from the Latin words Saponis, meaning soap andIndicus, meaning from India. The part of the Sapindus tree used as a surfactant is the fruit and it is commonly known as soapnut. Since it is a fruit We prefer to call it the soapberry which is more accurate.

2. The Soapberry Tree

India is home to several species of Sapindus. The two most well known of these are the South Indian Sapindus trifoliatus and the Himalayan Sapindus Mukorossi. In India, soapberries have a long recorded history of usage.  Ayurvedic texts prescribe it as a gentle cleansing agent in shampoos and body cleansers and also as a treatment in dermatitis, and eczema.
In China the soapberry pericarp is called wu-huan-zi or the non illness fruit. In Japan, the soapberry pericarp is called the enmei-hi or the life prolonging pericarp.

3. The Soapberry Fruit

Fresh soapberry fruits look like grapes or gooseberry fruits and grow in clusters on the trees.A well cared for soapberry tree can produce 250 kg of soapberry fruits every year, after attaining maturity which takes about ten years.

4. What makes the soapberry a soap?

The magic ingredient which gives the soapberry its halo is saponin, found in the fleshy outer part of the fruit.
The pericarp of the soapberries (the outer fleshy part of the fruit) contains saponins, which are the plants “immune system”. Saponins are a class of compounds, found in abundance in the plant world, and produce foaming solutions in water which can used for cleaning.

5. How can I use the soapberry in my home?

The soapberry is an excellent natural cleanser that can be used as a base ingredient to substitute most synthetic cleansers in your home.
You can use the soapberry shells , soapberry powder, or extract soapberry liquid by making a concentrated decoction with water and use this as a substitute for almost all your cleaning needs.

It can be used in the following ways:
1.    As a mild shampoo substitute ( but be sure to use a herb-based conditioner afterwards as soapberry is only a natural cleanser)
2.    As safe and effective detergent
3.    As a hypoallergenic baby fabric detergent
4.    As a food safe dish wash product
5.    As an excellent antibacterial / anti-fungal floor and surface cleanser

6. What are other uses of the Soapberry ?

Plants are wonderfully complex systems that are beyond complete human understanding. All along we have only talked about the surfactant property but the soapberry does so much more than just clean.
1. Pesticide removal action: fruits and vegetables

Soapberry powder works well on removing surface level pesticides in fruits and vegetables as well. Research done on tomatoes, aubergines, cabbage and grapes, which have a thin membrane and are prone to absorbing a large quantity of pesticides, indicates a 76% reduction in deadly pesticides like Monocrotophos, when these fruits and vegetables are soaked for 20 minutes in a mild solution of water and soapberry powder. Be careful to thoroughly rinse off all the soak-water off the soaked vegetables

2.    Pesticide removal action: on cotton

Cotton is one of the most sprayed crops in the world. In India, cotton crop is sprayed with a deadly cocktail of chemicals including Lindane, Heptachlor, and DDT.
A simple test measuring the surface level pesticides on cotton yarn before and after treatment with soapberry, showed nearly a 70% reduction in the surface levels of Lindane.

3. Anti-bacterial and anti-fungal action

Soapberries have strong anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties. They have been prescribed in small quantities in oral medications in traditional Chinese medicine.
Extracts of Sapindus mukorossi were shown to inhibit the bacterium Helicobacter pylori which causes GERD, peptic ulcers, cancers of the oesophagus and stomach
Preliminary studies on Sapindus mukorossi and Sapindus saponaria show active action against many disease causing fungi like Candida albicans, and bacteria likePseudomonas Aeruginosa and Staphylococcus Aureus. Of course all these internal uses can be done only under the direct supervision of a good Vaidya.

7.How do I start using the soapberry?

Fresh soapberry fruits need to be dried well to be used. Once dried, they become a rich dark brown colour, depending on the species and look like this:
Once dried, they need to be de-seeded before they are ready for use. Soapberries are extremely hygroscopic in nature, meaning that they absorb moisture from the atmosphere, so they need to be stored in a dry place.

1.Use whole soapberries
It  is  really easy to use soapberries for washing. If you’re using a washing machine, you may place 5– 6  shells in an old, clean sock or muslin bag firmly tied on top, so that the soapberries don’t escape. Toss this into the washing machine and let it work through both the wash and rinse cycles, but do remove before you use the dryer.
You can use the soapberries for upto 4 wash cycles, but remember to let them dry before the next wash.  You can use the soapberries until they turn grey in colour (indicating that there are no more saponins left). Best of all, as soapberries are completely natural and biodegradable, they can be composted.

2. Making soapberry powder from dried soapberries
For even better results and greater convenience, soapberry powder can be made by grinding dried, de-seeded soapberries.  They can be ground in a coffee grinder, and should be ground into large sized particles when used as a detergent or a dish wash product. The finer soapberries are ground, the faster they absorb moistures, so grinding them into large sized particles helps you store them for longer.
Soapberry powder can be used as a substitute to detergents and dish wash applications. Keep in mind that they do not dissolve completely like synthetic surfactants, so when using them in a washing machine or a dish washer, put the powder into a sock or muslin bag, to keep the residue from sticking onto laundry or dishes.
The residue after use as a detergent or dish wash makes for great plant food so do remember to compost the residue  after use.

3. Extracting Soapberry liquid
You can also extract soapberry liquid for use as a detergent or a floor cleanser. Soapberry liquid needs to be refrigerated and does not keep for more than a month.
It is prepared by soaking soapberries overnight in cold water or soaking them in hot water for 15 minutes to an hour and squeezing out the saponins mechanically until the berries turn grey in colour.
Let the soapberry liquid cool slightly before filtering out the soapberry residue. The residue can be dried and re-used again to make more floor cleanser (the cleanser made with this residue will be more dilute, so reduce the water the second time around) or to do the laundry. The soapberry powder / residue can be re-used until the residue turns grey, indicating the absence of saponins.

8.Do I have to work very hard to use the soapberry?

The soapberry is making a strong comeback into popular use especially in countries like USA, Australia, Singapore, India and other places.  A lot of the work done on the soapberry in recent times has been directed to making it readily usable so that you do not have to go through the process of buying the fruit and making a powder or extract.
Our company, Krya Consumer Products has launched a range of washing machine ready soapberry detergent powders for the Indian market. Do search for options in your market in case you want a ready to use product and you will be rewarded with a unique experience in tasks like laundry which are getting done on autopilot mode now.

9. Why are we talking about the soapberry now?

We do many daily tasks like the laundry on autopilot now and understandably so. However several drastic concerns for the environment and human health are lurking behind many of these “autopilot” routines.
For example the synthetic detergent industry is red flagged for pollution by many governments. The red flags arise out of pollution concerns during manufacture and severe harm to water bodies and marine ecosystems by detergent residue post consumer use.
Apart from detergents many personal care products like shampoo, body wash, toothpaste use a synthetic surfactant as a foaming agent. Look for either sodium lauryl sulphate or sodium laureth sulphate (referred shortly as SLS) in the ingredient list the next time you are in the supermarket and you will be surprised by the number of times these two surfactants appear. There are many studies that point to these synthetic surfactants as carcinogens so much so that “SLS free “is an important new category of products.
Moving from autopilot to manual mode can throw up interesting natural alternatives to most of the products we use on ourselves and in the home. Every time you choose a natural alternative like the soapberry, you choose better health for your family and a cleaner planet.

0 thoughts on “Soapberries : The eco-friendly cleaning solution

  1. Very informative and useful article. Thanks for bringing everyones attention to it. just one thing, Soapberries are popularly known as Reetha(i think thats what you guys are talking about)…Brands like Nyle, Ayur still sell their shampoos using reetha as a highlighted ingridient. It’ll be helpful for your indian readers to recognize and identify if you’ll mention it in your article. I know people who used to washed their hair, clothes in Reetha. Nyways, great effort!!

    1. Hi Shradha
      Thanks for your comments ! Yes, we are talking about reetha here. Since we wrote this article originally for a South-East Asian magazine, we did not refer to the Indian names. In the rest of our blog we refer to the different Indian names of Soapberry extensively. We are glad you liked the article.

      1. Nice article. i phoned to you through my friend baskar running a organic shop in coimbatore. in tamilnadu the soap beerries called as “poondi kottai” or in local words soopukaai. my heartful wishes to ur newbusiness venture.
        P.satheesh,AE ,PWD

        1. Hi Satheesh,
          Right you are – the soapberry is also called boondi kottai or soappukkai in tamil.
          Thank you for the warm wishes and Bhaskar’s reference – he did call us and we will take the conversation further with him.

  2. In my childhood days we used to play with these and my grand mas used these berries for washing clothes and for cleaning Jewels.So nice….

    1. Thanks for dropping by Aparna! Yes soapberries have been part of our tradition for a long time – We read somewhere that the Buddha used soapberries to wash his clothes as well!

  3. Nice one.
    I am definitely going to try. BTW, is it Antuvaladakai in Kannada? Or sigekai?

    1. Gananath,
      Thank you for dropping by and deciding to try out the eco friendly option to cleaning – Soapberries are called “norekkai” in Kannada.

  4. Environmentally Intelligent design and Cradle to cradle can I work with you!!!??? 🙂

    1. 🙂 We would love it! Lets talk once we’ve scaled Krya up further, and do keep in touch 🙂

  5. I wonder if any of you remember using something called “arappodi” to wash vessels. I have been searching high and low for that now, but unable to find it. Seems like everyone has forgotten about it! My grandmother used to say that it was made from tamarind leaves / seeds. It used to clean even greasy vessels very well. Any idea on where to find it? Or any other natural dishwashing powder that doesn’t use soapberry powder, as I don’t have any way of grinding soapnuts?

    1. Priya:
      Arappu thool is probably what you are referring to – This is made from the dried oil cake of Pungamia or Mahua oil seeds. The Mahua oil is high in fat content and are generally used as cattle feed although they can be used for soap making as well. This is unfortunately no longer available in traditional grocers or Nattuu Marundu kadais as people have moved past this into chemical dish wash products.
      Soapbery powder is readily available in Nattu marundu kadais and the dabba Chetty shops in Kutchery road in Mylapore – you should not find it difficult to find at all. Otherwise you can substitute a higher quantity of Shikakai powder – that should work just as well, but will not give any lather.

  6. Any idea where it can be bought in Karnataka? I asked around in stores in the general market place with no luck. I tried asking for ‘norekkai’. :/
    I love your articles, Preethi! 🙂

    1. Hey Samantha: Thank you muchly 🙂
      My friends in Bangalore tell me that you should look for shops that are called “Granthige Angadi”, which sell ayurvedic ingredients and pooja / homa materials. In Bangalore, some of these shops are near KR Market, few in Gandhi bazaar opposite to Ice thunder builiding & a few in Malleswaram as well.
      Do let me know how this works for you.

      1. I will try that! Thank you 🙂

  7. hi preethi and sreenivas,
    i read about your new venture in the Bhoomi magazine. Congrats to you both. We live in jamshedpur and would be happy if u could tell us where to get your products from? if u visit kolkata next time you could drop by in jamshedpur and speak to the people here about this great product. all the best

    1. Thank you so much Anjali! Have written to you.

  8. Hi Preethi and Sreenivas, I read about you on economictimes today, and navigated to see your website immediately. I thought it was just another product branded ‘organic’, but what really got me interested was all the whitepapers and knowledge you have shared with us about how this product is made and what it is comprised of. Therefore, I would like to really try it out. Will order one. Something came to my mind – when my son was a baby we used to look for mild detergents and use ‘Sunlight laundry soap’ – a Unilever brand thinking its the mildest. How I wish this was around earlier? Its better late than never. So as an afterthought I think that people might love it if you release variants/products for babies out of these ingredients. Please do, you will save many from skin allergies. Also, I wish that your products should clearly be ahead of the pseudo artificial-natural products (quite confusing whether they are artificial or natural). I wish you all the best, and may God guide you in your endeavor. Vishnu

    1. Hi Vishnu !
      Thank you for the kind words and wishes ! In it’s current avatar, the Krya detergent is already the safest detergent for babies’ clothes. While it is a hard-working, all-purpose detergent, the fact that it is made from 100% organic, plant based ingredients appeals to parents of small babies. We have started a conversation on this benefit of the Krya detergent with new-parents community.
      As a principle we will not launch a variant, unless we find an ingredient or process improvement that significantly alters the core formulation, thereby fulfilling an unmet consumer need. In this way we help consumers, especially new parents stressed for time, make a quick and easy purchase decision.
      We look forward to hearing from you on your experience with the Krya detergent and sincerely hope that it fulfills the purpose with which you purchased it.

      1. Hi Preethi, Bear with me for the late reply. I have tested Krya detergent and people in my family were not aware that it could be used for purposes other than cleaning jewels. I tested it on an IFB Frontload and threw the small cotton bag with Krya detergent directly into the drum. The results are very good. I love the fresh neutral smell after clothes are dried. Cleaning is effective – my white cotton vests haven’t got a brown tint. That’s what critics expected out of the product before me trying this out. I have been cleaning Tupperware water bottles with Krya, as I feel more confident about not having to imbibe soap residue (when they are washed with washing bars/powders). I ordered more quantities for my relatives who liked the results. Will send more feedback as I use it more.

        1. Hi Vishnu,
          We are so thrilled to read this and are glad you and Krya have triumphed over the skeptics 🙂 Thank you for this detailed feedback. We are launching Krya’s dishwash in a month, so we should be able to offer you a solution for your Tupperware bottles then. Incidentally have you considered using stainless steel water bottles instead? Better for the environment, more long lasting and much better for your health as well.

  9. When my sister lived in coimbatoor she used to buy a green colored powder that smelled like a leaf and this she used for washing hair instead of shampoo. It is not available in Chennai as far as I know. It made the hair very silky. What is that green powder that had the consistency of a shampoo and where can I get it. Can you tell me all about it? I am talking about this in the 1960s.

  10. i need soapberries from where i could get?
    please tell i am from hyderabad

    1. Hi Suresh, Soapberry fruits should be easily available in your local market that sells natural and ayurvedic ingredients.

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