Saponins are compounds that come primarily from plants and are found in a variety of vegetables, beans, and herbs. Soybeans, chickpeas, alfalfa sprouts and navy beans are an especially good source of natural saponins. In plants, saponins protect plants against bacteria, fungi and parasites. They do this by forming a protective coating over the leaves and stems of plants. Some saponins also have natural surfactant properties and the ability to foam and make suds. For this reason, they have been used for thousands of years as natural detergents.
Saponins also have health benefits. They have natural antioxidant activity that helps to protect cells against damage from exposure to oxygen. Some research also shows they have anti-cancer benefits and may lower the risk of certain types of cancer. One study showed saponins stopped the growth of colon cancer cells. They seem to do this by damaging the cell membranes of cancer cells. Some saponins also protect against osteoporosis according to studies in rats.
In addition, saponins help to reduce cholesterol absorption from the intestines by forming a complex with cholesterol so that it can’t be absorbed as well. As a result, they may help to lower the risk of heart disease. In addition, saponins protect plants against foreign invaders like bacteria and parasites and may boost immunity against infection in humans. Saponins are also used medicinally to boost the effectiveness of immune-enhancing drugs used to fight cancer and to increase the effectiveness of vaccines.
Saponins are used commercially in the photography industry as photographic emulsions, and they’re an ingredient in some cosmetic and personal care products. Because saponins have both fat and water-soluble components, they can function as surfactants and emulsifiers in cosmetic and personal care products. Surfactants help to stabilize oil and water-soluble ingredients in a product to they don’t separate from one another and allow products to maintain a more stable foam. They’re frequently used in beer and root beer beverages to give them greater foaming power.
Saponins also have the ability to act as a detergent. The oil-soluble component of a saponin bonds with dirt and oils while the water-soluble component maintains contact with the water so the dirt and grease can be washed away. Saponins can be found in a variety of cosmetic and personal care products including detergents, shampoos, toothpaste, facial cleansers, facial scrubs, toners, astringents, facial moisturizers and anti-aging products, especially products that foam.
Are saponins safe? Saponins are natural plant compounds derived commercially from desert plants such as the yucca and the soapbark tree. They’re also naturally found in a variety of food sources including soybeans, chickpeas, beans and some vegetables. Though they’re naturally derived, saponins are poisonous to fish, some cold-blood animals and insects. In humans, saponins aren’t absorbed by the intestines and don’t enter the bloodstream. They exert their effects at the level of the intestines. In the intestines they have the benefit of promoting the growth of “good” bacteria that help to keep the intestines healthy and promote healthy immune function, similar to the probiotics in yogurt.
Saponins appear to be non-toxic and safe in the amounts found in cosmetic and personal care products. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database classifies them as a low-hazard cosmetic ingredient. Saponins can be found in a variety of cosmetic and skin care products including natural ones.
All in all, saponins derived from plant sources appear to have a variety of health benefits. They’re toxic to some insects and cold-blood animals but aren’t absorbed by the intestinal tract in humans. Instead, they exert their benefits at the intestinal level where they block the absorption of cholesterol and promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria. Because of their cholesterol-lowering properties, they may lower the risk of heart disease in humans. In addition, they appear to have anti-cancer properties. In the cosmetic world, they’re natural detergents and emulsifiers that help to stabilize products and help them foam better, which gives cosmetic products better performance.