The word Saponin comes from the latin Sapo which means soap and was first attributed to the soapwort plant.
Plants are little chemical factories in their own right, containing a vast array of chemicals that can be put to use as medicines, flavours, fragrances, food, anti-microbial agents and so much more. One sub group of plant chemicals are known as phytochemicals - non-nutritive chemicals that the plant uses for protective or disease preventing properties. Saponins fit into this broad group which also includes Carotenoids and Flavonoids (antioxidants) and Isoflavones (estrogen mimics).
Chemically saponins are complex water-soluble glucosides (sugars) bound to oil soluble sapogenins (steroid or triterpene based). This oil and water mix is what helps to make saponins naturally foamy and cleansing, properties that have made these part of our natural personal care toolbox for thousands of years.
Saponins are found in many vegetables and can contribute to their bitter taste - peas and soybeans are two such examples. Quinoa, now a staple 'superfood' has, in its natural state a hefty coating of saponins surrounding it which can make it produce copious foam when heated in water and is why this food is usually supplied pre-washed and treated to save us the bother of bubbly salad! For humans, eating saponin rich foods is not too much of a problem, indeed much research is being carried out into the potential for plant saponins to help manage cholesterol (Dr. Rene Malinow at the Oregon Regional Primate Centre is a leading scientist in this field). Saponins are also utilized in the food industry, in beverages such as beer for example, it is saponins that help to create a stable, dense foam! However, when certain animals gorge on saponin rich veggies things can take a turn for the worse.
Alfalfa is a saponin rich vegetable and its use as animal feed is limited by its saponin content.
Saponin poisoning takes many forms depending on the type of animal and the source of saponin. Common side effects are irritated mucous membranes, reduced feeding (due in part to the bitterness of the plant), listlessness, weight loss and bloating. However, as cosmetic product developers we don't have to pay too much attention to this unless we are worried about our pets eating our natural shampoo. We are much more interested in the bubbles with benefits!
Natural Saponins provide the cosmetic formulator with bubbles, anti-microbial properties and moisturising activity.
Saponins are dispersed throughout a plant including the leaves, stems, roots, bulbs, blossoms and fruit and while they are typically not as foamy as synthetic detergents they can do a great job in getting us and our clothes clean. The chemical structure of saponins and their oil and water binding capacity means that they can reduce the surface tension of water (make water wetter!) thus allowing for easier removal of grease and dirt. If we wanted to put them into a surfactant class we would treat them rather like we do our non-ionics such as Decyl Glucoside or Caprylyl/Capryl Glucoside, gentle, mild and biodegradable making them a reasonable contender for use in septic tank systems. Saponin based cleaners have also found success in cleansing and de-odorising animal facilities due to their gentle surfactant action paired with their ammonia-binding structure (ammonia is what gives Urea its harsh smell) - a feature made possible by the complex chemical structure of this class of surfactants and a property that is unique to this group of surfactants! But Saponins are not just useful for their natural cleansing power and these other benefits make them most welcome in the natural personal care formulator's basket!
The antifungal and antibacterial properties of saponins are welcome in pimple control products for obvious reasons but beyond that many of the saponin rich natural extracts also help to keep the skin moisturised due to their complex sugar structures ability to bind water. They share this feature with the well-known and much loved natural moisture sponge - Aloe Vera! The natural balance of anti-microbial and moisturising power helps to ensures that products containing these extracts can be formulated to be less irritating than those containing synthetically derived anti-microbial agents.That plus the simplicity of the natural extract make a compelling case for popping some into your next cleansing formula!
Saponin Rich Plants Include:
At New Directions we can offer you many of the above with our Soapwort and Zizyphus Extracts being our most recognisable. We have extracted these saponins into palm-free glycerine and have added no additional preservative for greater formulating freedom and extra moisturising power.
In addition to the above you can enhance your natural cleansing formula with Colloidal Oatmeal for extra moisturisation, soothing and barrier repair; Horse Chestnut powder extracted into water, alcohol or glycerine for additional soaping; Soya Protein for additional foaming and moisturisation and Ginseng Liquid Extract for added vitality, anti-inflammatory benefits plus of course a bit of a cleansing boost.
Saponins are a real gift from nature and we can't help but love what they bring to the table. They can quite literally replace four or five synthetic chemicals in one biodegradable, naturally-balanced grown solution.Now that's just amazing!
28 October 2014