Imagine this: you’re a product developer at a rising & thriving personal care brand. By staying on top of market trends & sustainability demands, you recognize the bar soap's modern renaissance and see that so many of your customers are trying bar again (from another brand) for the first time. You understand the need to fill what has become a glaring hole in your brand portfolio. It’s time to write a product brief - what comes next?
You do your market research and identify your benchmarks. You already know the fragrance franchise you’ll target, and you have a pretty good idea of the ingredient story the brand needs to tell. It’s about now when you realize that about the only thing your benchmarks have in common formulaically is that they are solid bars. According to the ingredient list, each of them uses different saponified oils, one of them doesn’t appear to be a soap at all, and the claims each of them make are quite varied.
Where do you go from here? How do you decide which choices are right for your brand, and more importantly, how do you even begin to understand what those choices are? Fortunately, we at Twincraft are here to help guide you through this journey.
The Basics of Soap Base
Base selection is extremely impactful in a solid cleanser format, as it represents 95% - 99% of nearly all finished goods in the category. In this article we will attempt to demystify the base selection process, identify the critical decisions a brand must make, and the consequences of those decisions on performance, storytelling, and cost.
Soap vs. Soap-Free Base
The first decision a brand must make when designing a solid cleanser is whether the base will be soap-free (also known as syndet) or true soap. There are many elements to consider when making this decision, and it boils down, in the end, to the brand's natural standard, desired performance characteristics, intended application, and price point.
Soap-free formulas are often positioned as shampoo bars, 3-in-1 bars (shave, cleanser, and shampoo bars), or facial soaps, due to the pH of the base (around 5-6) and its perceived mildness. Soap-free bases are typically three to four times the price of a true soap base, so there are clear consequences on the retail price the finished good must fetch.
True soap, which implies a base made from saponified fats, is chosen when a brand prioritizes naturalness, luxurious and copious foam, great fragrance lift, better selection, and a lower cost. Because of the value, quality, and general opportunity that comes with soap base compared to soap-free bases, we focus our development and sales efforts on soap and only offer a small selection of soap-free bases. Therefore, from here, we'll focus our thoughts on choosing a soap base.
Soap Base Characteristics
When we design soap bases for use at our Winooski, Vermont factory, we consider a number of factors before the base is made available to our customers. Those factors are, in no particular order:
There are literally dozens of oils that can be saponified. Whether one should saponify an oil depends upon its fatty acid composition, the resulting hardness, foam quality, and extrudability of the base, the availability of the source oil, and its cost per kilo, amongst other considerations. Just because you can make soap from a particular oil does not mean you should. There are a few source oils that lend themselves well to saponification and yield beautiful soap products, and we’ve identified the best of the best for you. Palm oil is by far the most prevalent source oil found in our soap base portfolio (more on that below in “Claims”), but we have a number of alternatives to suit the needs of any brand.
Palm oil is relatively inexpensive, and it’s plentiful, but by itself it makes a just an average soap. Palm oil (from the flesh of the palm fruit) is nearly always blended with palm kernel oil (PKO, which comes from the
seed of the palm fruit) or coconut oil (CO) to enhance the foam characteristics in the finished base. PKO and/or CO have a different fatty acid composition than palm oil, which yield denser, creamier foams. They also make the resulting soap base softer and easier to process. Other combinations are also common, including olive oil, shea oil, rapeseed oil, and algae oil. The bases chosen for the blend should complement one another for storytelling purposes, but must also work together for performance. The most common ratio of one base to another is 80:20, but 85:15 is also typical. Most bases feature palm oil as the majority oil, with PKO or CO added as appropriate. PKO and CO cost more than palm, so many base makers are reluctant to add more than 15-20% in order to control cost. At Twincraft, it is not uncommon to see 75:25 blends that deliver premium foam experiences.
There is more than one way to make soap base. Traditional soap bases have long used a method known as Kettle Saponification. To oversimplify this process, picture a big kettle over an open heat source to which you add your fats in the appropriate blends and ratios. Now, to convert it to soap, you need to cause a chemical reaction. To do this, you add a caustic agent, something extremely alkaline, in this case, Sodium Hydroxide. Once added, the fats are converted to soaps, and the Sodium Hydroxide is completely consumed by the chemical reaction. One interesting beneficial yet unintended consequence is that during this reaction, vegetable glycerin is formed. In kettle saponification, all of the generated glycerin is retained in the base. The base is dried, made into pellets, and prepared for shipment.
But this is 2020, and more cost effective, modern soap making methods have emerged. Picture a drop of oil. Now imagine the composition of that drop under magnification. Palm oil, for example, is not composed of one thing, but rather consists of a complex structure of eight different fatty acids. Imagine if we could split that drop of oil into its eight pieces, some fatty acids would in greater composition than others, and we could then choose which ones we like more than the others. For example, we could choose to set aside the fatty acids that cause malodor or discoloration, and we could recombine and saponify the rest to yield the whitest, odor-neutral soap bases the world has ever seen. Well, you need not imagine this scenario, because it’s precisely how a good number of the bases in our portfolio are made. We call this Fatty Acid Neutralization (FAN). Kettle saponifed bases are more glycerin-rich than FAN bases, but FAN bases are whiter and provide a cleaner pallet for colors and fragrances to shine. Kettle bases tend to throw the fragrances better, but FAN bases usually make better foam and typically represent a more cost-effective solution. These are not universal truths, but they are generally accepted as such.
Product claims are an ever-increasing focus for consumers and brands, therefor they are for us, too. Sustainability has become an essential criteria for nearly all brands interested in selling soap bars. Knowing that your source oils were harvested in agriculturally responsible ways, that animals and indigenous peoples are not displaced by the plantations, and that workers on those plantations are treated well and paid a fair wage is of the utmost importance to us at Twincraft, so we design our bases accordingly.
There is a large amount of consumer concern around the sourcing and use of palm oil, and Twincraft can say that 100% of the palm oil that goes through our facilities qualifies for certified sustainable claims through the RSPO. We encourage brands to promote sustainable palm and to tackle the problem head on with us. But we recognize that some brands would prefer to avoid palm altogether, so we have beautiful options for those brands, too. Our bases are vegan, cruelty-free, gluten-free, and in several instances, palm-free.
The performance of a soap base is largely contingent on the oils used, their ratios, and the method of manufacturing, as these factors predetermine the outcome of the finished good. Knowing the claims a brand values helps to narrow the choices available for performance.
Then, what's left to consider? Foam. At Twincraft, we take foam seriously, and we build nearly all of our bases to check this box beyond the competition. George Orwell said that “all animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. This is true in Animal Farm, and it’s true in soap, too. We don’t stop innovation at the traditional boundaries of soapmaking. We continue to push those boundaries by developing bases like our Flash MB base, which uses both Sodium Hydroxide and Potassium Hydroxide (commonly used in liquid soaps) to render a base with all the best features of both bar and liquid soap combined. The resulting explosion of foam is like nothing you’ve seen before and redefines what a luxury soap bar can be. We will continue to pioneer new technologies and innovate in our space, as our goal is to always bring you the newest, latest and greatest ideas in each of these categories.
We know this is a tremendous amount of information, but it is intended to serve as a primer for any product developer who seeks to better understand how to develop a winning soap formula from the beginning. Your Twincraft Director of Sales or Soap Formulator can help you understand the attributes of the bases you’re presented, and can discuss with you the pros and cons of each base in our library. We look forward to the working with you on your next bar soap development.
Written by Wayne Labonte, Twincraft Skincare VP of Sales & Marketing