The healing power of soapwood

Soapwood is an evergreen shrub that is originally only found in Chile. Residents of the Andes Mountains have used this tree for medicinal purposes for at least centuries before the arrival of Europeans. The tree mainly grows at heights and can withstand temperatures of -12 degrees Celsius. It is a slow growing tree that can reach a height of about 18 meters. Nowadays, soapwood extracts are used in the food and pharmaceutical industries. Among other things, it is used to make a foam that helps with firefighting, it is one of the chemicals needed to develop a film roll and it is used as a product to make foam in the food industry. NB! This article is written from the personal view of the author and may contain information that is not scientifically substantiated and/or in line with the general view.

Botanical drawing soapwood] / Source: Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)


  • Grow your own soapwood
  • Traditional use
  • Naming
  • Active substances
  • Soapwood, no more expectorant
  • Soapwood as a hair wash
  • Safety
  • Visit a doctor or herbal therapist

Grow your own soapwood

Soapwood can possibly grow in Western Europe, but it is important to grow it in a greenhouse in winter as it cannot withstand temperatures that are too low. In the Netherlands and Belgium it gets colder than 12 degrees below zero for a few nights every year, and that is the lowest temperature at which soapwood can survive. Soapwood can also be affected by a late spring frost. If you want to grow it in a greenhouse, you will have to grow it in a pot and the plant is unlikely to grow larger than a large shrub. In the wild the plant can develop into a medium-sized tree.

Traditional use

In the Andes, the bark of the soapwood tree was mainly used for lung problems. It ensures that mucus is dissolved and coughing is made easier. It is used as a traditional hair wash. It was never used internally in South America, but nowadays the food industry can add it as an ingredient to food under the name E999.


In Latin, soapwood is called Quillaja Saponaria . named. In Dutch we know the names soap wood tree and panama wood. The bark of the tree is the actual soapwood. Soapwood is a basis for natural soap. Saponaria comes from the Latin name for soap: sapon and of course that is also the reason we use the word ‘soap’ in Dutch.

Active substances

The bark of soapwood is used for phytotherapeutic purposes. It contains the following active substance: quillajasaponins. These are complex triterpenoid saponins that break down into several substances such as aglycone and the oleanene quillaic acid. It also contains tannins, calcium oxalate and starch.

Soapwood, no more expectorant

Soapwood has an expectorant effect and can be used as an expectorant. That used to happen quite regularly; it was used for bronchitis and other respiratory problems. This application has now been abandoned because it has too many side effects. It has a too irritating effect on the gastrointestinal mucosa. That is why phytotherapists prefer Golden primrose, anise seed, senega, eucalyptus and hyssop.

Soapwood as a hair wash

Quillaja saponaria or soapwood tree / Source: Penarc, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA-3.0)

Soapwood produces a nice, stable foam. It lowers the surface tension of the water or the VanderWaals force. It can be used as a dish soap or hair wash. It can also be too irritating for the scalp and many herbalists only use it for:

  • Greasy hair.

Quilla bark can serve as an emulsifier; a substance that connects water- and fat-based substances. Therefore, it is used as part of toothpastes, gargles and some medicinal recipes.


The highly irritating saponins do not make this product ideal for internal use. It overstimulates the gastrointestinal mucosa so that you can get gastroenteritis. Stomach pain, diarrhea and dizziness are also possible side effects. It can even cause a slow pulse, liver damage and breathing disorders. The stuff can also irritate externally. When pulverizing the wood, contact with eyes and nose should be avoided. The powder can fly up high, which means there is a risk of getting it on the nasal mucosa.

Visit a doctor or herbal therapist

Much of the information about the medicinal plant mentioned in this article comes from the book Groot Handboek Medicinal Plants by Geert Verhelst. That is a handbook in phytotherapy. However, it is not suitable for self-healing. Anyone who suffers from something should consult a doctor or herbal therapist for a good diagnosis and choice of the best remedies, tailored to your personal situation. The knowledge and science mentioned here is of a purely informative nature.