Improving Rural Health with Natural Alternatives to Commercialized Soap

  • Audrey Seligman School of Public Health, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN
  • Amanda Strong Howard University College of Medicine, Washington, DC


Proper handwashing is the easiest and most effective way to prevent the spread of disease. In some rural areas, including San Vito and Coto Brus, Costa Rica, many people cannot afford soap and therefore cannot wash their hands properly. To combat this, the local government—run clinic periodically distributes antibacterial soap and handwashing protocols to the communities; however, this practice is neither practical nor sustainable. This study aims to identify local flora that can be cultivated and used by the community as a substitute for commercialized soap. We identified four local plants — Phytolacca rivinoides, PF, Yucca elephantipes, and Clidemia hirta — which have been shown to contain saponins, the active chemical in soap. Subjects’ hands were swabbed prior to and after washing with each treatment. Bacteria were then cultivated and colony—forming units per milliliter (CFU/ml) were calculated. The results showed that treatments with Yucca elephantipes, and Clidemia hirta, tap water, and Protex© soap significantly decrease the CFU/ml on hands. However, none of the treatments decreased the CFU/ml significantly more than another. Future studies should be conducted to further investigate the potential use of these plants as sustainable substitutes for commercial soap products. Our findings support the importance of proper handwashing techniques with clean water, even when soap is not available.

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