The Trouble With Liquid Soap…

Just like most people my age around the globe, I’ve grown up using liquid soap, all throughout my childhood years, into my teens and early twenties. Shampoos, body shower gels were all part of our daily lives. They were fun to pick out on supermarket shelves, each with their own beautiful fragrances, attractive packaging and promises of better hair and skin.

But these days, in my household all of them have been entirely replaced with soap bars. Our own kids find bottled liquid soaps to be a novelty and a luxury treat, rather than a daily feature in everyday life. I am well aware that this is not the case for the average household in Malaysia.

There are a couple of reasons for this switch. The first is that we already make our own soap so I don’t see the need to buy it from supermarkets anymore. Secondly, the formulations of most liquid shampoos on the shelves involve quite a laundry list of synthetic ingredients, which I would like to avoid.

Well, why don’t you just make your own liquid soap then, you might ask? To which I’d say, we have, actually. Made lots and lots of batches, not only to figure out a good formulation for the skin, but also the most energy efficient way to go about making them.

Although we’ve come up with some really nice formulations, I would say that we’ve run into roadblocks to full-on production time and time again. While we acknowledge that liquid soaps are truly terrific cleansers when formulated well, there are three main reasons why we’ve held off on making our own, all this while.

1 – We don’t have the cash to invest in the right equipment for making it.

Can’t you make liquid soap the old fashioned, hot process in a crock pot method? Yes you certainly can. To make it economically viable, however, we’d have to invest in more cooking equipment, and the batch sizes are just too small to justify the cost of getting them. Sure, they could be put to other use as well, but our product range is just too limited for the time being, and we like to keep things simple.

There are also specialised liquid soapmaking equipment, which makes it SUPER easy to make liquid soap – you literally have to just add all the ingredients in, flip a switch, and wait for a few hours. All the stirring, temperature monitoring etc is automatically done for you, and the end product is consistent in quality every time. Again, it’s a hefty investment for a small company like ours, where we have to prioritise meeting regulatory requirements over everything else (or at least, that is my personal perception of how things are…!).

Then there is this next issue that bothers me:

2- Half the weight of liquid soap is purely WATER.

Here’s the traditional method of making liquid soap: we add a certain amount of potassium hydroxide to oil, in order to form a soap paste. After that, almost an equal amount of water is added to the paste in order to dilute it down into the liquid soap consistency that is familiar to customers, before bottling them.

And every time I make a batch of liquid soap this way, I keep wondering to myself – why would I want to ship water to our customers?? Especially since we are specialists at making solid soap bars, when we wait for 4 weeks for our soap bars to cure, in order to dry them out as much as possible, so we end up with harder soap bars that last longer in the shower.

I know, I know, water is of course an integral part of liquid soap, and it lends to its distinctive character of being easy to disperse on the skin and hair.

But really, between sending you a 100g bar of soap that takes up much less space (and weight), and lasts just as long as a 250ml bottle of liquid soap, I would rather do the former. It just makes much more sense in terms of efficiency on so many fronts – how we pack your parcels, handling by the courier companies, and even how you were to store your soap once it reaches you.

Which brings us to my last, and most troublesome point:

3 – Liquid soap = plastic packaging.

This, is the nail in the proverbial coffin for me. You might correctly suggest that there are other packaging options, like aluminium bottles or even glass or ceramic ones. Aluminium bottles are indeed made from recyclable aluminium, but the inner coating that comes into contact with the product, is usually some form of plastic, which is not recoverable nor recyclable.

As for ceramic or glass containers, they definitely can hold liquid soap very well – but transporting them is a delicate affair. And we all know just how “gently” most parcels are handled, especially on longer trips in the post. Not to mention the safety aspect of using these materials in the bathroom, where things get slippery, or knocked off the shelf…

In this respect, plastic is the perfect packaging material, for being able to withstand hard bumps and drops safely, and being so lightweight for efficient transportation. It’s just a pity that it doesn’t degrade safely into the soil, and contributes to so much pollution both on land and at sea.

Here’s another thing – empty packaging takes up waaaaay too much space in our tiny studio. I’d be happy to consider expanding into a larger space, but preferably not to accommodate excessive packaging that will most likely NOT be reused or recycled properly. It’s just how things are – our society is generally not in the mindset of actively taking responsibility of recycling or reducing waste. I’m not free from guilt on that front either – despite our own family’s efforts to reduce waste from our daily purchases as much as possible, sometimes we still do throw away plastic packaging into the bin, knowing full well where they will end up.

So at Kinder Soaps, our way of tackling this issue of packaging waste is to just do away with packaging altogether, as much as we possibly can. If we don’t put our products into plastic containers, then our customers won’t have to take on the responsibility of recycling them either.

So what’s the best alternative to liquid soaps?

This brings us back to the idea of compromise… what is the next best thing to liquid soap that accomplishes the main functions that we desire in a natural skin cleanser: a) to clean, b) nourish, and c) moisturise?

The answer is glaringly obvious – we feel that soap bars do the job just as well, and at a lower cost to the environment.

Other thoughts and possible solutions

Despite my firm stance on not wanting to produce liquid soaps (at least for the time being), I also actively consider other perspectives and points of view that are definitely valid in their own right. So here are a few things that were raised by people I’ve discussed my concerns with, and some thoughts I’ve added to them.

1- Selling ONLY in bulk to address packaging waste issue

This was one route that we were considering, if we were to introduce a liquid soap product. However, hygiene is a valid concern as well, especially since we do not use preservatives or antimicrobials in our products. How willing is the public to bring their own containers to be refilled, and how much responsibility are they willing to take to ensure that their containers are clean enough to prevent bacterial contamination? There is still much to be done in terms of consumer education.

2 – Is there a niche of people who absolutely MUST use liquid soap?

Could there be people whose skins are truly too sensitive to use soap bars? And does liquid soap make for superior shampoos, compared to solid shampoo bars? Perhaps these pain points can be addressed via other means, instead of the liquid soap route – e.g. through medication, dietary considerations, or even adapting usage habits to accommodate existing skincare items.

3 – There are already so many good liquid soaps in the market

This is one question that I have repeatedly asked myself in the past: Does the market need yet another liquid soap? Do I know that our product will be better than them in any way? Right this moment, my answer is “No”.

I personally know of other local Malaysian brands that are already making some really great liquid soaps, so I feel that there is no real need for us to come up with another formulation right now.

Going Forward

We are keeping our eyes and ears open for news within Malaysia and from abroad, for developments that would make us feel more comfortable with the idea of producing liquid soap for sale. Here are some of the issues that could nudge us in this direction:

  1. Local municipal councils establish compulsory recycling initiatives in residential and commercial areas
  2. Technological advances in truly biodegradable materials that can replace petroleum based plastics, e.g. mushroom plastics, that are available for mainstream use
  3. Advancements in the area of plastics degradation that is environmentally safe

(On a separate note – there is a super exciting story about a pilot project being run in the US by a company called Loop, where consumers are given the opportunity to buy big brand products, and then return their empty product packaging to be cleaned and reused by manufacturers, without any change to their current consumption habits. It is so heartening to know that huge companies are finally flexing their financial muscles and far-ranging influence to work on truly sustainable solutions to reducing single use plastic waste. Read about it here.)

Until then, we feel that the right thing to do is to just give liquid soaps a pass – no matter how much our customers say they want it (sorry!). Plastic pollution is an issue that we just cannot ignore, and we have chosen not to participate in this segment of the cosmetics market until concrete solutions and systems to keep plastic waste from contaminating our environment are set in motion.

We hope you’ll still be contented with our humble offering of soap bars in biodegradable beeswax wraps (or no wraps at all!) for the long run.

Michelle's signature
Founder and resident soap artisan

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