Loofah is a climbing vine related to gourds and cucumbers, and sometimes called the “dishrag vine,” a reference to the sponge-like qualities of the dried fruit. Six species are in the Luffa genus, and they are widely cultivated for food and sponge uses. The loofah is the only plant source of sponge, and it has been used in bathhouses and kitchens for centuries. Traditionally cultivated in India and the Middle East, where the name originates, it is also grown in other warm, dry regions.
In appearance, a loofah looks like a cucumber. The trailing vines of the plant will take over any available surface, yielding drooping green fruit in the summer. These vines are often used to cover decaying fences or as privacy foliage, because they are dense and fast growing. Loofah prefers warm, dry climates, and is very sensitive to frost, generally not thriving outside of USDA Zone 10 unless gardeners sprout it indoors and keep a close eye on their young plants. They need to be watered regularly, but should not be allowed to become waterlogged.
Loofah is harvested for food in many parts of Asia. All species are edible, but they must be consumed before they mature, or they will be too woody and fibrous to eat. The fruit is cooked before eating, and is sometimes seen on menus as “Chinese okra.” When allowed to mature and dry on the vine, loofah can be harvested as a sponge. The woody exterior skin is peeled away, and the seeds shaken out for reseeding. The loofah sponge can be sold whole, or chopped into smaller and more manageable portions. It can also be compressed for shipping. The net of straw colored fibers will puff up again if the loofah is moistened.
Like other sponges, loofah will collect bacteria if it is kept moist and warm, an environment common to bathrooms. For this reason, many people incorporating a loofah into their beauty regimen prefer to use it as a dry exfoliating brush before bathing, or to grind it and use it in exfoliating scrubs. As a dry brush, it will gently remove the surface layer of dead skin, leaving the skin smooth and conditioned. Loofah can be used as a body sponge in the shower, but it should be allowed to dry out between uses. In the kitchen, it makes a great abrasive sponge for removing stubborn food particles from dishes and counter tops. Loofah is also gentle enough to use on delicate things like coated cookware, which cannot withstand normal abrasives.
What Are Loofahs Made Of?
A discussion of bath scrubbers generally includes two types: bath poufs and loofah. Although the word scrubber may bring to mind different sponge-like objects, fans might insist that the only type is a loofah, originating from the tropical Luffa aegyptiaca plant. Yet, many other consumers prefer poufs for their bath needs. Both scrubbing tools serve the same purpose, but their compositions are completely different.
The loofah plant, also known as the sponge gourd, produces large, green, cylindrical fruit similar to a cucumber. Once the gourds have fully matured, farmers harvest them and dry them out for up to six months. Then they remove the gourd's outer skin and take out the seeds. The remaining part is the loofah, which contains the seed pod's intricate network of woody, dried fibers. This is then cut into sections, packaged and sold.
Bath poufs are fluffy scrubbers made from synthetic material. Designed to optimize lathering and exfoliation, synthetic poufs consist of plastic mesh. Machines gather the mesh, loop it and then bind it together to form a hand-held ball. If the poufs come apart, the user sees yards of plastic netting unravel.
How To Use a Loofah
Before the mid-1950s, manufacturers used loofah for bath sponges as well as industrial applications. Loofah was included in products such as water filters, surgical tools and soundproofing before being replaced by synthetic materials. Today, loofah is mostly used for bath and body accessories or household scrubbers.
The exfoliation properties of loofah make it ideal for skin care. Before using one, you should check that it is not too harsh for your skin. Here's how to use it in the shower or bath:
- Dampen it under running water to soften the fibers.
- Apply a body wash or soap on the loofah and rub it together to produce a lather.
- Gently scrub it over rough areas to slough off dead skin cells and reveal healthy, new skin.
Besides providing exfoliation, a loofah can aid circulation and open the pores to eliminate oil and impurities in the skin.
Scrubbing and Cleaning
Growers and eco-friendly manufacturers promote loofah as a natural, multi-purpose scrubber. Not only is it stronger and coarser than synthetic poufs or sponges, but it is also affordable and environmentally friendly. It is a great alternative to steel wool, which is sometimes too abrasive. For cleaning, you can use a loofah on a variety of surfaces in kitchens and bathrooms:
- Pots and pans
- Dishes and glassware
- Refrigerator shelves
- Outdoor grills
- How Do You Clean a Loofah?
How To Clean a Loofah
To maintain a loofah, wash and dry it thoroughly after each use. Air-dry it in a sunny area if possible; UV rays in sunlight help to prevent mold and mildew growth. Do not store it in the shower because of the humidity. To sanitize one, place it in a mild bleach and water solution or boiling water. They can also be sterilized in a washing machine at a hot water setting or in the microwave on high heat for 10 to 20 seconds. Even with weekly sanitizing, a loofah should be replaced once a month or every two months for less frequent use.
Environmental Benefits of Using a Loofah
Because loofah is plant-based, it is sustainable and 100% biodegradable. Unlike synthetic sponges and poufs that end up in landfills or oceans, loofah is compostable, leaving zero waste. Discarded synthetic bath scrubbers distribute toxic plastic microfibers that pollute water sources and harm wildlife. Currently, researchers of natural fiber composites are examining loofah to possibly replace synthetic fibers. Loofah and other natural materials reduce waste and toxic chemicals.
Loofah is Edible
Indian, Chinese and Vietnamese dishes include this plant. Before the fruit matures into its sponge form, early-harvested loofah is added to soups, salads and other sauteed or stir-fried dishes. It tastes similar to zucchini and has tons of nutrients, including vitamins A, B5, B6 and C and manganese, copper and potassium.
Health Benefits of Loofah
According to WebMD, loofah helps to treat and prevent colds, nasal swelling and sinus issues. It is also used for pain relief and women's health issues, including regulating menstrual cycles and stimulating breast milk production. Because of its vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, adding loofah to diets can:
- Lower blood sugar
- Aid weight loss
- Detoxify the body
- Improve the immune system
Traditional medicine uses loofah to treat many other ailments. Patients take healing teas, tonics, and extracts, as well as fruit and seeds from the plant.