The soapwort plant is most well-known for creating a foamy lather that has gentle cleansing properties. In fact, soapwort is one of the most concentrated sources of compounds called saponins in the world, which studies suggest fight bacteria, inflammation and have astringent properties. Some records show soapwort may have been used as a washing agent for over 12,000 years, dating back to the Stone Age! It’s believed that people living at this time used plants like soapwort that grew nearby streams to help wash their hands, hair and skin.
What is soapwort used for today? The plant’s flowers, leaves and roots serve various purposes — creating natural soaps (hence the name soapwort), making herbal treatments for the skin and providing foam or frothiness in certain recipes or beverages (most notably the Turkish treat called lokum).
What Is Soapwort?
Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) is a perennial plant in the Caryophyllaceae (carnation) plant family, which includes an estimated 86 genera and 2,200 species of plants, including baby’s breath, campions, common carnation and chickweeds. The genus name Saponaria is actually derived from the Latin word sapo, meaning “soap” and –aria, meaning “pertaining to.”
There are at least 20 different types of Saponaria plants grown worldwide, including the two most well-known: red soapwort and white soapwort. Red and white soapwort plants (especially the roots) are used in herbal medicine, although some simply grow soapwort plants for their ornamental flowers. Soapwort also goes by other names, including: bouncing-bet, crow soap, wild sweet William and soapweed.
The plant’s flowers have a strong, pleasant smell, while the plant’s roots give off sap that is used to create a natural soap or cleanser when combined with water. Uses for soapwort’s sap include washing delicate fabrics that can’t stand withstand commercial soaps or cleaners and creating a mild skin cleanser that is usually suitable for sensitive and/or irritated skin.
The root of the plant is said to actually be toxic (or poisonous) if ingested by mammals and fish, therefore the plant is usually not eaten but instead prepared in other ways.
1. Cleanses and Soothes Sensitive Skin
Soapwort contains compounds called saponins that can be combined with water to create a foaming, lathery skin wash that is generally non-irritating and non-drying, even when used on delicate skin.
Saponins are a class of bitter chemical compounds found in various plant species (herbs, seeds, grains and vegetables, for example) that research suggests may have benefits including killing harmful bacteria and parasites, supporting healthy cholesterol levels, fighting oxidative stress and inhibiting tumor growth. The roots of the plant have high levels of saponins compared to other plants, which is what allows soapwort wash to lather so well. Soapwort can be applied directly to the skin on an ongoing basis to treat chronic skin conditions. “Soapwort juice” is another way to describe soapwort wash, which can help treat skin conditions including: dryness, itchy skin rashes, acne, psoriasis, eczema and boils.
At least twelve different triterpenoid saponins have been isolated from the roots of Saponaria officinalis L., including vaccaroside, dianchinenoside and saponarioside C. Saponins are also found in other skin-saving herbs, such as calendula, although studies show that soapwort contains even higher amounts. One analysis indicated that the saponin content ranged from 43.6 to 57.6 milligrams/gram of calendula and 224.0 to 693.8 milligrams/gram of soapwort.
2. Fights Respiratory Infections
As a healing herb, soapwort has traditionally been used to treat swollen airways and respiratory conditions such as bronchitis, coughs and inflammation of the lungs that leads to trouble breathing. While there’s limited research showing how it works to support respiratory health, it’s believed that the plant contains chemicals that may thin mucus, making it easier to cough up and remove from the body.
3. Helps to Cleanse Hair
The leaf, roots and stem of the soapwort plant can be boiled to make a mild shampoo that removes grease/oil and residue from the hair. While it’s usually non-irritating, some people may experience dryness or redness on the scalp when using soapwort shampoo, so it’s best to first test your reaction to soapwort shampoo by only using a small amount every other day or so. Other ingredients that can be added to soapwort shampoo to cleanse and nourish hair include: tea tree oil, honey, frankincense oil, lemon oil, lavender oil and coconut oil.
4. Acts As a Natural Detergent (Including for Wool, Fleece and Lace)
Soapwort can be used to make a frothy liquid that helps to cleanse delicate fabrics, such as wool and fleece, without ruining them. It does this by retaining some of the natural lanolin found on wool. Some also use soapwort to waterproof wool and fleece, making them more resilient to damage caused by water exposure.
Another use is cleaning delicate antique tapestries and fabrics, such as those made with lace, that cannot withstand the effects of harsh soaps.
5. Used As an Emulsifying Agent in Recipes
Because it can make recipes frothy/foamy, soapwort is used in certain foods and beverages, including desserts and beers. One example is “Turkish delight,” also called lokum, which is a sweet treat made of starch, sugar, dried fruit, nuts and spices. Soapwort helps to emulsify the ingredients, including the oil found in the nuts, and gives the recipe a smooth, airy texture. Saponaria officinalis also serves as an emulsifier in the commercial preparation of tahini, halva and beers that are intended to be frothy with a good “head.”
Uses in Traditional Medicine
Saponaria plants, commonly called soapworts, are native to Europe and Asia but today are grown around the world. Throughout history, traditional uses of soapwort included using the plant’s roots and leaves to make detergent, to soften skin and to fight ailments such as poison ivy, other rashes and respiratory ailments.
Before commercial soaps were available, it’s believed that the Ancient Romans grew the plant in order to use its frothy liquid for cleaning the body and hair. In the Middle Ages, Franciscan and Dominican monks were said to have viewed it as a “divine gift that was meant to keep them clean.” Soapwort wash also has a long history of use in Siberia and Romania. In certain villages in Romania, soapwort lather is called săpunele and is used to cleanse dry skin.
In India, soapwort is used as a natural galactagogue, or a food/herbal treatment that helps to increase breastmilk production. Other traditional uses around the world for the soapwort species include treating syphilis, venereal diseases, gout, liver disorders, rheumatism, skin diseases, constipation and bronchial congestion. However, scientific research is lacking to show the plant is necessarily effective for managing these conditions.
Where to Find and How to Use
Wondering where to buy soapwort? Look for its roots or leaves in certain gardening stores, stores that carry herbal medicines or purchase some online. You can also easily grow your own in your garden through the spring and summer months, then save extra dried leaves and roots for later use. Soapwort extract and tinctures (liquid products made of soapwort dissolved in alcohol) are also available online.
At home you can use both the leaves and roots to make your own cleaning products. To use the roots, first chop them into small pieces and then simmer them in water for about 20 minutes. Once cooled, blend the roots and liquid, which should create a foamy mixture. Let the mixture sit for several hours or overnight before straining the liquid and keeping it as cleanser. Use the cleaner to remove all sorts of debris from your skin, hair or fabrics. Save extra roots for later use by drying them indoors, flipping them every day or so.
If you have access to the leaves instead of roots, follow the homemade soap recipe found below.
How to Grow
Where does soapwort grow? It grows from midsummer to fall in cool or temperate climates. It can be found growing across much of North America, in the United States, Europe, Siberia and Asia. Places where the plants tend to grow most include sloping banks of streams, sand bars along streams, areas along roadsides and railroads, weedy meadows and waste areas. The plant will typically grow between one to three feet high, which is why some gardeners choose to use it as a ground cover to provide other plants with shade.
Soapwort flowers grow in clusters and are pale pink to white. They give off a fragrant smell and also attracts butterflies, moths and birds. What does soapwort smell like? Some people describe the smell of the flowers as sweet and resembling the scent of clover and bouquets.
- Use empty beds, woodland edges or rock gardens to grow soapwort seeds. The best place to grow soapwort is somewhere with access to full sun to light shade. The plant is considered easy to grow and tolerates many different soil types, including soil that is gravely, sandy or dry.
- Plant seeds or young plants at least a foot apart so they have space to spread.
- Don’t plant them in your garden after the last frost in spring, otherwise start growing soapwort seeds indoors.
- You can expect seeds to germinate in about three weeks.
- Frequently water soapwort plants, especially during mid summer or in dry conditions.
Some describe Soponaria plants as being “invasive,” similar to weeds. Why is soapwort invasive? Because the plant often grows in large quantities even without being tended to. Soapwort colonies can be found growing around abandoned home sites or fields and roadsides, which can sometimes be problematic considering they are poisonous for mammals and fish to ingest due to the plant’s high saponin content.
To make homemade soap:
You can make homemade liquid soapwort soap by using about twelve leafy stems/one cup of crushed leaves and boiling them in water for about 15–30 minutes (longer for whole leafy stems). After the stems boil, allow them to cool and then strain the liquid out, which will have soapy properties. Use the soap within about one week, since it doesn’t last very long.
Supplements and Dosage
If you rather not make your own soapwort products from scratch, look for high-quality soapwort extract or tinctures online. Soapwort liquid extract is made by concentrating the herb’s dry material in alcohol. Ideally look for a product that is certified organic and make sure it contains the correct species name for soapwort (Saponaria officinalis). A high-quality extract might also contain vegetable glycerin to help with cleansing and texture but should not contain GMOs, artificial colors, heavy metals, preservatives or pesticides.
To use soapwort extract:
- Start with about 0.5 to 1 grams of soapwort extract daily (usually equivalent to about 20-30 drops of soapwort extract), or the dosage that’s directed by your practitioner. You can gradually work your way up to about 2-4 grams daily (or possibly more, such as several grams taken 1-3 times per day), assuming you tolerate soapwort extract well.
- You can combine liquid soapwort extract with a glass of water, tea or juice.
- If using a soapwort tincture, it’s best to place it directly into your mouth (don’t be surprised if it has a bitter, unpleasant taste).
Risks and Side Effects
Begin using soapwort on your skin and hair with caution, since some people will experience skin irritation, although it’s usually mild and soothing when used topically.
There’s some controversy regarding whether soapwort root should not be eaten or ingested, since the plant contains certain saponins that can be toxic to mammals. Some people may experience gastrointestinal issues from consuming it, including nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Always stop use if you experience any of these symptoms. You’re most likely to react negatively to soapwort’s saponins if you ingest large amounts of these bitter phytocompounds, but in small amounts they are generally harmless and found in a number of commonly eaten foods like quinoa and legumes.
On a positive note, recent studies have found evidence that purified saponins derived from S. officinalis L. can improve cytotoxicity and therapeutic efficacy of certain drugs, including Rituximab-immunotoxins that are used to fight certain types of lymphoma.
Soapwort should also be avoided by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and anyone with a known stomach or intestinal disorders (such as ulcers or inflammatory bowel disease) due to potential side effects.
- Soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) is a perennial plant in the Caryophyllaceae family that is used to create a natural soap/cleanser. The genus name Saponaria is derived from the Latin word sapo, meaning “soap” and –aria, meaning “pertaining to.”
- It’s one of the richest sources of compounds called saponins, which can fight bacteria and inflammation. Soapwort uses and benefits include: treating respiratory conditions, cleansing the hair as well as delicate fabrics and acting as an emulsifier in recipes.
- It’s available in several forms. The leaves/roots/stems can be boiled to make soapwort cleansers, while extract or tinctures are available online.
- Some say that it is invasive because it grows like a weed, taking over large spaces around abandoned fields, homes and streams. It can be poisonous for people, animals and fish to ingest in high amounts due to its high saponin content. Use it on your skin with caution to begin with, and be careful about consuming it orally.