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Soapberries: The eco-friendly cleaning solution

By Preethi Sukumaran and Srinivas Krishnaswamy

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 and Indicus, 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.

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.

The Soapberry

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.

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.

How can I use the soapberry in my home?

The soapberry is an excellent natural cleanser that can be used to substitute most synthetic cleansers in your home.

You can use the soapberry shells , soapberry powder, or extract soapberry liquid by making a concentrated tea 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

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

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 wonders 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 solution of water and soapberry powder.

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 like Pseudomonas Aeruginosa and Staphylococcus Aureus

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.

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 just launched a washing machine ready soapberry detergent powder 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.

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.

About the Guest Writers:

Preethi and Srinivas run Krya, an India based sustainable consumer products, e-commerce company.  Krya creates environment friendly plant-based alternatives to everyday consumer products. Krya is a vegan organisation as are its founders.

Their personal quest to become more sustainable led them on the path to starting Krya.  Preethi & Srinivas are most happy thinking about newer ways to make Krya more sustainable and world class.

To know more about soapberries or other natural alternatives you could use around your home, write to Preethi – preethi@krya.in

You may find Krya on Facebook

Preethi & Srinivas also write a blog on sustainable urban living here.

They have recently released a Sustainable Urban Living Guide which can be downloaded here

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Posted by on Jul 14 2011. Filed under Chemicals, Cleaning. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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