How do saponins in soapberry work as a detergent?

Posted by Rikke Macijowski Nielsen on

What should a detergent actually be able to do? The obvious answer is that it just needs to wash our clothes and textiles clean. How hard can it be? 

The dirt we want to wash out of our textiles can consist of many things: dust particles, dead skin cells (and dust mites), perhaps stains of fat, protein and carbohydrate (including sweat, blood and urine), and occasionally stubborn and difficult stains in the form of dyes, pigments and binders from e.g. ink, coffee, juice, wine, paint, etc. 

Pure water in itself has a limited washing ability, and therefore detergents are added that contain surface-active substances - also called surfactants or detergents - which help to loosen particles and dirt from the fibers in the clothes and bind to them, so that they are rinsed out of the clothes with the waste water from the washing machine. 

In traditional detergents, synthetic surfactants/detergents are a key ingredient. But detergents are also available in natural form - e.g. in soapberry. 

How do saponins work as a detergent?

Soap berries (shells of berries from the tree Sapindus Mukorossi) have a very high content of saponins, which are a 100% natural detergent. Saponins in soapberry are made up of both water-soluble (hydrophilic) and fat-soluble (hydrophobic) molecules. When we wash with soapberry, the saponins are released, which during the wash bind to dust, dirt, oil, grease etc. in the fibers of the textile, and transport the dirt/particles in the clothes away - just like surfactants - and without the need for other additives. 

Traditional detergents in Denmark typically contain 10% detergents, 40% alkalis, 20% bleach and 0.5% enzymes, sodium sulfate and sometimes plastic as a filler, as well as small amounts of anti-foam, optical white, perfume, preservatives, color etc. By comparison, soapberry, on the other hand, is a 100% pure natural product without additives: 


How do saponins work as a detergent? statistical chart showing which detergents are in traditional detergents as opposed to soap berries that wash the clothes clean with natural saponins

The many synthetic and chemical substances included in traditional detergents are problematic for our environment and nature in several ways: 

  • The production of the many ingredients is in itself an environmental burden 
  • The detergent can have unwanted effects on the clothes we wash (bleaching, breakdown of fibres) 
  • Residues of detergents in clothes can be irritating to the skin and cause allergic reactions upon direct skin contact 
  • The many chemical substances in the detergents are discharged into our waste water, which we then use many resources to clean 
  • The packaging is typically made of plastic, which can neither break down naturally nor be recycled to a greater extent (although we are good at sorting waste) 

The advantage of using soap berries with a high saponin content over traditional detergents for washing is that they have a very low environmental impact both before, during and after use; they are gentle on textile fibres, and are so skin and environmentally friendly that they are also used in the production of shampoos, creams, soaps etc. Several studies have also shown that saponins have antimicrobial and antibacterial qualities and can be used as an ingredient in the treatment of skin diseases such as psoriasis and eczema. 

Soap berries with a high concentration of saponins are therefore both an environmentally and planet-friendly alternative to industrial detergents. 

stains on pink jersey seen from above in a row. The stains are shown from a test of care by nature stain remover on different stains - here pen, soil, tahini, mustard and ketchup. The stain remover removed all the stains and is good for removing stains on clothes when washing with soap berry


Test institutes (including the Consumer Council TÆNK ) carry out tests of detergents at regular intervals. These tests typically only measure the ability of detergents to remove the most stubborn stains from textiles, and not the ability to remove other dirt and clean. Therefore, both soapberry and the slightly more environmentally friendly traditional detergents often score low in such tests.

What such a test overlooks is that the majority of the clothes we wash on a daily basis do not have stubborn stains on them. Therefore, there is no reason for us to wash all our clothes in detergent, which can be more accurately classified as liquid stain remover due to the many additional chemicals. 

Difficult stains must always be pre-treated with sulfo or stain removers, and then the detergent can do the rest just fine. After all, there is no reason to stain remove an entire piece of clothing if there is not a stain.

We recommend our kick-ass natural stain remover , which only consists of soapberry extract and saponified coconut oil. 

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