What is Soapwort?
As its common name suggests, soapwort is perhaps best known as a plant for making natural soaps and also for cleaning and brightening delicate fabrics. It does however have several other medicinal uses including the treatment of respiratory issues like coughs and bronchitis.
Soapwort which is known scientifically as Saponaria officinalis originated in Europe but has since spread to various other parts of the globe. It is a member of the caryophyllaceae family and other common names for the plant are Bouncing Bet, Sweet William, Fuller’s herb and Bruisewort.
Its main constituents are saponins and its roots and rhizomes are used medicinally and its leaves are used to produce natural soaps and shampoo.
Plant Description and History
Soapwort is a leafy perennial plant that grows up to two feet in height and produces pinkish white fragrant flowers which cluster loosely at the end of its stem. This hardy plant can thrive easily in waste areas, banks and roadsides.
Soapwort originated in northern parts of Europe before being introduced to the British Isles during the Middle Ages. The Dominican and Franciscan monks brought the plant to England as a gift from God in order to keep the people clean. The herb quickly spread and by the later part of the 16th century, it was widespread around the British Isles.
During that period it was mainly used to make soaps for cleaning laundry and crockery. It was also sometimes applied topically to disinfect wounds and prevent infection. It has also been applied topically to help treat a range of skin conditions including eczema, psoriasis and boils. Root extracts are still in use as a natural remedy for treating poison ivy.
It is believed that the Puritans brought the plant with them on their journey to their new home in North America. Having been introduced, it quickly established itself and is now seen growing wild all around the U.S and across southern parts of Canada.
Soapwort was traditionally used in North America as a sizing and cleaning agent during the early days of the textile industry. An early textile process called ‘fulling’ gave rise to one of its common names – ‘fuller’s herb’.
Interestingly, the herb was also used by the Dutch in Pennsylvania to produce the foamy head on their beer. Even today, there are brewers that use the plant’s saponins to produce and maintain the familiar foamy head.
What are the Uses of Soapwort?
Nearly the entire soapwort plant contains a number of therapeutic properties. It has expectorant, laxative, tonic, depurative, anti-inflammatory, mild diuretic and diaphoretic actions. A tincture or decocoction can be made with the plant but care should be taken when taking the herb internally because it can irritate a person’s digestive system.
For Coughs and Colds
Although soapwort has a number of potential therapeutic benefits, it is mainly taken internally for its expectorant properties as a natural remedy for coughing and bronchitis. The reason that it works for respiratory complaints is uncertain.
One possible explanation is that the plant’s action in irritating the gut and alimentary canal stimulates a coughing reaction. This helps induce a greater secretion of liquid mucus within the respiratory system.
Because of its expectorant properties, soapwort is often recommended by herbal practitioners as a treatment for coughs, bronchitis and asthma caused by allergies.
Rheumatism and Arthritis
As well as its more common use, soapwort can also be used to help treat joint pain stemming from arthritis, rheumatism and gout. It has anti-inflammatory actions as well as being a mild diuretic which can help flush uric acid from your system.
For the Skin
Decoctions made from the herb’s roots have been used traditionally to treat a range of skin conditions such as eczema, acne and psoriasis. The same decoction can be used for soothing allergic rashes and boils. As well as the roots, it is possible to make infusions from other parts of the plant to cleanse the skin and relieve irritations.
Native Americans used soapwort to treat rashes caused by poison ivy. A traditional gypsy remedy for bruising and black eyes is to make a poultice with the plant and apply it against the bruise.
Soapwort is an attractive plant for the garden and is very easy to grow. In fact many people find that it is an aggressive and invasive species and end up throwing them away. It seems a shame to waste the plants especially when you can make so much use of them as a natural soap.
Another consideration when growing soapwort is that it can do damage to wildlife especially if you plant it near ponds and other water features. The saponins contained in the plant are toxic to fish and other creatures that may inhabit your ponds like frogs. Ironically however, it is the saponin content of the plant that makes it so effective for human use.
Soapwort as a Natural Cleanser
Soapwort has mostly been used as a natural cleanser which can be used on the face, hair and even on your delicate laundry items. Soapwort is still used in this day and age by in the textile restoration industry to clean and brighten fragile fabric. In the Middle East, the plant is still cultivated to wash woolen items.
Making your own soapwort soap or shampoo at home is actually quite easy. It produces a dark yellow or light brown soap with a mild and pleasant aroma much like unscented soap with a hint of wood.
The saponins found in soapwort are the compounds responsible for its cleansing actions. If you are going to make your own soap with the plant, don’t expect big, sudsy bubbles that you would get from commercial soaps and shampoo. Despite its lack of bubbles, it is an excellent natural cleanser that does not irritate even the most sensitive skin
Making your own Soapwort Soap and Shampoo
Now that you have soapwort growing in your garden, the next thing to do is to harvest the plant. You can pretty much harvest the lot including the stems, tops and the roots. Don’t worry about using it all up, the plant is a fast grower and will quickly bloom again.
It is best to harvest your soapwort from late spring to summer when its flowers are in bloom. You can then dry your plants for use later in the year.
Soapwort soap and shampoo is a great, gentle alternative to stronger commercial products. It can clean your skin very effectively, leaving you feeling fresh and clean without stripping your hair and skin of its necessary oils. Even people with chronic skin problems like eczema and psoriasis can use this natural soap without concern of irritation.
Soapwort Soap Recipe
Assuming you have access to fresh or dried soapwort, making a body wash soap or a shampoo could not be a lot easier.
What you will need
- 3 tablespoons of fresh soapwort but you can use 1 tablespoon of the dried variety instead.
- A cup of water.
- Put your water in a pan and bring to the boil.
- Add your fresh or dried soapwort.
- Simmer for around 15 minutes.
- Remove from the heat and allow it to cool.
- Strain through a cheesecloth into a container like a jar then store.
It is as easy as that. Now all you have to do is use it.
Before applying it to your hair or body, shake your bottle well to stimulate the bubbles and wash as normal. You can add a few drops of essential oils like lavender, rosemary or peppermint to enhance the scent and skin benefits.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is soapwort root?
As its name would suggest, soapwort is a plant with a very soapy consistency. It belongs to the clove family and It is often regarded as an invasive species. However, soapwort does have some practical uses and is used to make a natural soap or cleanser. It is sometimes used for medicinal purposes.
What is soapwort extract used for?
The leaves and the root of the soapwort plant are most often used to make a natural soap rich in saponins. It can also be used to make a natural shampoo but care should be taken not to get any into your eyes. Soapwort also also been used historically to treat various illnesses but these days the internal use of the plant is not advised because of the potential of side effects. A decoction made from the plant’s roots can be used topically to treat dry skin and blemishes and also to treat common skin conditions like acne, eczema and psoriasis.
Where is soapwort grown?
Soapwort is a perennial herbaceous plant native to temperate regions of Europe, North America and Asia. It grows wild in forests but can also be seen thriving on river banks, road sides and waste areas. The plant reaches a height of around two feet and has small pink flowers with a fruity aroma.
Is Soapwort Safe?
When used to make soap, soapwort is a natural, gentle cleanser that is ideal for your skin. However, the internal use of soapwort is no longer recommended since it contains saponins that may prove toxic in large doses or if it is taken regularly for a long period of time. Reported side effects incclude nausea, vomiting, cramps and diarrhea. Do not take more than 1.5 grams of dried soapwort root daily.
Dosage and Administration
Soapwort was traditionally used internally to treat arthritis and rheumatism but has fallen out of favor because soapwort contains saponins that may prove toxic in large doses.
Having said that, it is possible to make a soapwort extract by soaking two teaspoons of finely cut, dried soapwort rhizomes in a glass of cold water overnight. Strain the mixture the following morning and it can be taken in very small doses throughout the day.
Alternatively you can add a teaspoon of the dried herb to a cup of boiling water. Allow it to cool and drink up.
Note: The internal use of soapwort should never exceed 1.5 grams a day and you should not use it for long periods of time.
Precautions and Side Effects
Soapwort should not be taken internally in doses larger than 1.5 grams a day and should not be used for long periods of time. The herb contains saponins that may be toxic especially to the kidneys. It can also cause severe irritation to the digestive system resulting in nausea, vomiting cramp and diarrhea. (1)
There is no evidence regarding its safety for pregnant women or lactating mothers so stay on the side of caution and avoid using soapwort internally if you are pregnant or nursing.
When used externally, be careful not to get any of the soapwort in your eyes or open wounds. It can also cause irritation to the skin in some people so it is best to perform a patch test before using it more fully. If you experience any sort of reaction, stop using the herb immediately.
Soapwort is a plant with several potential internal uses however the risk of side effects from using the plant internally are very real. We feel it is best that you only use soapwort to make a natural soap or cleanser as the risks of using the herb internally certainly outweigh the benefits.
Have you ever used soapwort to make soap or even taken the herb internally. Please let us know if you have any good soap recipes and if you have used it for any internal conditions. We would love to hear from you.