The leaves, roots, bark, seeds, and wood of the neem tree (Azadirachta indica) have a long history of use in medicine, personal care, and agriculture, especially in the tree's native lands of South Asia and India.
Alternate names for neem include Indian lilac, Arishtha, Margosa, Nim, Nimba, Nimbatiktam, and Praneem.
How are products from the neem tree used?
Various parts of the neem tree are used in a wide variety of medical and personal care products. These products are used externally to treat acne (neem leaf extract, 9) as well as scabies, scars, wounds, eczema, psoriasis, bad breath, gingivitis, and other dental problems and skin disorders. (4,10)
Neem tree products are also used internally to treat malaria (a parasitic disease) and digestive parasites, heart disease, and other health issues.
Even though it is tempting to tout a soap that contains neem seed oil (or pine tar, sulfur, etc.) as a cure for eczema, psoriasis, etc., please be cautious. In the USA, if you make drug or medical claims about your soap, it is no longer just soap and you must adhere to strict FDA rules for labeling your soap as a drug and must be able to verify your claims are medically valid.
I make neem oil soap, but I make no claims -- not even mild hints! -- about what benefits this soap might provide. I simply label the soap properly, include a full and correct ingredients list per FDA rules, and leave it up to the consumer to decide the rest.
How is neem seed oil used?
Although neem leaf extracts and other parts of the neem tree can be used to make soap (11) as well as other personal-care products, most people around the world only have access to neem seed oil. For that reason, the main focus in the crafting community is on the oil.
Neem seed oil offers antibacterial, antifungal, and antiparasitic benefits and is used in soap, shampoo, facial cleansers, toothpaste, and other personal care and oral care products. (1,5) Neem seed oil can be an effective control for head lice. (8) It has been tested as a mosquito repellent with marginal results (2,12) but may be effective as an insecticide for mosquito larvae (7) and bedbugs (6).
Neem seed oil is a bee-, animal-, and bird-friendly pesticide that is effective in the garden for chewing insects such as aphids and fungal diseases such as powdery mildew and black spot. Neem oil initially smothers insects on contact, but it also has a longer lasting effect of slowing insect feeding, growth, and reproduction. (1,3)
Is neem oil safe to use?
Neem seed oil can be slightly irritating to the eyes and skin.
Neem seed oil can be toxic and even lethal if enough is ingested, so wash your hands well after handling neem.
Do not use neem on cats because "...adverse reactions have been reported. Symptoms include feeling sluggish, excessive salivation, impaired movement, trembling, twitching, and convulsions...." (1) I would extend this warning to other small animals, infants, and young children.
I can say from experience that neem oil soap tastes horribly bitter, so use caution when washing your face. Accidentally getting a tiny bit of lather in the mouth will be a truly unpleasant experience. This is one soap I will not zap test for this reason.
How to use neem seed oil in soap?
Based on conversations with soap makers who use neem, many use neem oil in their soap from 5% to 20% of the total weight of fats. In other words, you might include 50 to 200 grams of neem oil in every 1000 grams of total fat.
Neem seed oil is rich in palmitic, stearic, and oleic acids; its fatty acid profile is similar to lard. If you have a favorite lard-based soap recipe, substitute neem seed oil for part or all of the lard.
Neem oil has a distinctive woody-garlicky smell that many people do not like. To keep this odor to a minimum, some soap makers suggest using only 3% to 5% neem oil based on the total weight of fats.
I agree that soap with 10% or more neem oil has a pungent odor. The smell is something like a mixture of peanut butter, strong black tea, and garlic. I have found this initial odor mellows into a woody, black tea aroma by the time the soap is fully cured, much like the odor of pine tar soap.
I usually make 20% neem oil soap and add a lime-scented fragrance oil; the lime adds a pleasant bright note to the woody tea aroma of the neem. Patchouli or other spicy, woody fragrances might work well too.
The neem oil I use is a thick liquid at warm room temperatures but it becomes a gloppy paste when cool. If needed, I warm the container of neem in hot water, gently mixing occasionally, until the oil is reasonably liquid and pourable. I mix the melted neem with the other fats in my recipe and soap as usual.
In my experience, neem oil has caused the soap batter to rice slightly but it has not accelerated trace, so I stick with my usual soap making methods. Others report mild acceleration, however, so you might plan for some acceleration when making your first batch or two of neem soap -- start out by hand stirring rather than stick blending, for example.
More discussion about neem oil in soap
(1) Bond, C.; Buhl, K.; Stone, D. 2012. Neem Oil General Fact Sheet; National Pesticide Information Center, Oregon State University Extension Services. http://npic.orst.edu/factsheets/neemgen.html
(2) Sharma SK, Dua VK, Sharma VP. Field studies on the mosquito repellent action of neem oil. The Southeast Asian Journal of Tropical Medicine and Public Health. 1995. Mar;26(1):180-182.
(3) Heather Rhoades. Helping Your Plants With A Neem Oil Foliar Spray Pesticides. Version dated 9 June 2020. https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/plant-problems/pests/pesticides/neem-oil-uses.htm
(4) Author unknown. Can You Use Neem Oil for Skin Care? HealthLine. Version dated 15 May 2019. https://www.healthline.com/health/neem-oil-for-skin
(5) Author unknown. Neem. Drugs.com. Version dated 13 August 2020. https://www.drugs.com/npp/neem.html
(6) Author unknown. Pesticides to control bed bugs. US EPA. Version viewed on 4 October 2020. https://www.epa.gov/bedbugs/pesticides-control-bed-bugs
(7) Dua, V.K., Pandey, A.C., Raghavendra, K. et al. Larvicidal activity of neem oil (Azadirachta indica) formulation against mosquitoes. Malar J 8, 124 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2875-8-124
(8) Abdel-Ghaffar, F., Al-Quraishy, S., Al-Rasheid, K.A.S. et al. Efficacy of a single treatment of head lice with a neem seed extract: an in vivo and in vitro study on nits and motile stages. Parasitol Res 110, 277–280 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00436-011-2484-3
(9) Rajaiah Yogesh H, Gajjar T, Patel N, Kumawat R. Clinical study to assess efficacy and safety of Purifying Neem Face Wash in prevention and reduction of acne in healthy adults. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2022 Jul;21(7):2849-2858. doi: 10.1111/jocd.14486. Epub 2021 Sep 30. PMID: 34590784.
(10) Lakshmi T, Krishnan V, Rajendran R, Madhusudhanan N. Azadirachta indica: A herbal panacea in dentistry - An update. Pharmacogn Rev. 2015 Jan-Jun;9(17):41-4. doi: 10.4103/0973-7847.156337. PMID: 26009692; PMCID: PMC4441161.
(11) Musa, Mazni & Rahman, Norul & Said, Nur Rahimah & Halim, Nurul & Mohamed Sapari, Jamil. (2019). Azadirachta indica Extract (Neem) as Skin Solution Soap. 7. 159-163.
(12) M.F. Maia and S.J. Moore. Plant-based insect repellents: a review of their efficacy, development and testing. Malaria Journal 2011, 10(Suppl 1):S11. http://www.malariajournal.com/content/10/S1/S11
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