Reverse engineering "luxury bar soap" recipes

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kagey

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Lately, I've been doing a deep-dive into successful bar soap recipes - trying to understand why they're formulated the way they are.

Here's what I've found that's surprised me:
Many luxury soaps seem to only use 2 major ingredients to make their soaps: Palm Oil and Palm Kernel Oil.

This includes Hermes, Cremo, Fulton & Roark, Olivina, Caswell Massey woodgrain, Tom's of Maine, Smallflower and Ursa Major to name a few...

- exceptions -
Some try to hide this by stating "Sodium Cocoate and/or Sodium Palm Kernelate" -- but if we know that Palm Kernel Oil behaves nearly identical to Coconut Oil -- then what does it matter? They're basically using only two types of oils - a "creamy/conditioning oil" and a "cleansing oil."


so my question is --

What do these professional soapers know that we don't?

I don't see any recipes out there using only these two oils.
In fact, many soaping sites recommend that we don't use more than 40% Palm Oil and 15% Palm Kernel Oil.
So, if we're never supposed to use more than 55% of these oil... why are pros doing so?

It looks like many are adding glycerine (a humectant) and occassional other oils - Sometimes we'll find "shea butter" listed near the bottom of the ingredient list... but if we're to assume that the ingredients are listed in order of importance... then, it's probably not used in more than 5% (more likely as a superfatting oil).

so how can we make a good soap with just 2 main ingredients?
Duke Cannon uses a similar type of recipe - but uses Tallow instead of Palm and Coconut instead of Palm Kernel Oil.
 
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They are not trying to hide anything by stating Sodium Cocoate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Palmate etc. This is the way you would label what comes out of the soap pot versus what goes into the pot. Tallow would be Sodium Tallowate for example. Palm Oil really makes a very nice soap and I use it at 40-42% in my vegan soaps with Palm Kernal Oil and Coconut Oil split. I find Plam Kernal Oil seems a bit gentler than coconut oil, but the cost is more than CO which is why I chose to split my total percentage 50/50 PKO/CO.
 
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Someone else will need to jump in to confirm this, but I doubt the soaps you listed are cold process soaps. Most commercial soap is mass produced using a batch process to create soap noodles which are then mixed by machine with glycerin, fragrance and any other additives. If the soap is milled it goes through multiple stages of machine processing. Eventually, the mixture is machine pressed into a final bar shape. Check YT for videos showing the process.
 

dibbles

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In the case of Hermes, Fulton & Roark, Caswell Massey and Ursa Major, the brand is established and recognized as luxury products - and the prices reflect that. The others you listed seem to more reasonably priced. If a manufacturer chooses to describe their products as luxury - maybe that is along the lines of using the description of natural. What it means to the end user is the goal of the marketing.
 

kagey

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thanks for replies all -- but I'd like us to focus on the question at hand, please.

@dibbles - upscale, overpriced, underpriced... whatever. The point of my post wasn't to segment the market into luxury vs. non-luxury. --- it was to demonstrate how ESTABLISHED brands seem to only use TWO main ingredients in their soap. Something that none of the "homemade" brands do.
Don't you find that intriguing?

@Mobjack Bay - whether it's triple-milled or not -- I not really sure if it matters.
The "noodles" that are used in triple-milled soap are made with saponified oils. Saponified oils means that at one point, they were fatty acids mixed with lye water... whether it was made in hot process or cold process -- can't we can replicate the basic recipe ourselves?...

Recognizing that the play-doh machine that squeezes the noodles out, remixes them and squeezes them out again and again -- is not part of the process we can easily do in our garage... it seems that this happens to refine the soap. This doesn't negate that the soap is made with 2 types of saponified oils... or am I looking at this wrong?

@cmzaha - my point of the "hiding" is not that they're using Sodium Palmate vs Palm Oil vs saponified Palm Oil... it's that they use the "and/or" moniker. To mass-produce their soaps - you would think that they would know whether or not they're using Sodium Palm Kernelate OR Sodium Coconate OR both. No? I mean, it's not like they get up one morning and say "what if we tried more palm kernel oil and less coconut oil?" It's a formula. They know the amounts. It's not and/or -- it either is or it isn't... but again I digress. That's not the question of the post!

The question I'm asking you experienced soapmakers is: why isn't anyone in our circles making a 2-oil soap with just Palm and Palm Kernel Oils?
Royalty doesn't. Ophelia doesn't. Ariane Arsenault doesn't. Missouri River doesn't. Dr. Squatch doesn't. Jenka... well, whatever. So WHY NOT?

As I've stated in my opening statement -- I'm trying to understand the "why." If you don't know, that's okay. I don't either. But there must a be a reason... no?
 

dibbles

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Many luxury soaps seem to only use 2 major ingredients to make their soaps: Palm Oil and Palm Kernel Oil.
Okay - I think the above reference to luxury soaps stuck out to me more than you intended. I don't know the reason why these companies are using only those two oils, except maybe cost or efficiency. I haven't tried making a soap with only two oils, other than a salt bar that was coconut/avocado or sunflower or olive oil (can't remember which off hand). So I'm not much help here.
 

Marsi

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The question I'm asking you experienced soapmakers is: why isn't anyone in our circles making a 2-oil soap with just Palm and Palm Kernel Oils?

The commercial manufacturing process adds some refinements (mostly textural) that a CP soaper must accomplish by their choice of oils and additives

Palm, Palm Kernal and Stearic acids are mass produced and very cheap (in bulk) for industrial soap manufacturers

To add other oils, when a good recipe can be made with 2 or 3 ingredients, just increases cost for no real benefit for an industrial style soap maker
 
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The commercial manufacturing process adds some refinements (mostly textural) that a CP soaper must accomplish by their choice of oils and additives

Palm, Palm Kernal and Stearic acids are mass produced and very cheap (in bulk) for industrial soap manufacturers

To add other oils, when a good recipe can be made with 2 or 3 ingredients, just increases cost for no real benefit for an industrial style soap maker

What are these refinements?

@kagey I've made soaps with just palm and pro; it had a bizarre texture to it, and it didn't have the same glide or soft lather of the soap I was trying to copy. I too, was surprised that it had only 2 ingredients.

I wonder if there are ingredients that are in the bar, but hidden by the strange label laws. For example, in lotions fragrances can be legally listed as preservative free if the manufacturer didn't add preservative, but bought fo's that included preservative in their formula.
 
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What are these refinements?

@kagey I've made soaps with just palm and pro; it had a bizarre texture to it, and it didn't have the same glide or soft lather of the soap I was trying to copy. I too, was surprised that it had only 2 ingredients.

I wonder if there are ingredients that are in the bar, but hidden by the strange label laws. For example, in lotions fragrances can be legally listed as preservative free if the manufacturer didn't add preservative, but bought fo's that included preservative in their formula.
Milling the soap changes the texture which is why you will often see soap listed as triple milled. So when you make the same formula if you don't mill the soap then the texture won't be the same.
 
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Exactly - thinking about the recipe and performance of a milled soap (proper actual milling, not rebatching which is too often referred to as milling........) in relation to what that recipe would be like in a cold or hot process soap just doesn't work. They are totally different things. Yes, they use salts of fatty acids as a base, but the milling process allows for a very crappy CP recipe to perform fairly well.

And I think dismissing the discussion about luxury is not only rather rudely worded considering that this is a discussion forum, but also obtusely missing a very good point - the soaps themselves might not actually be amazing soaps at all! They might be merely passable soaps with a great scent and a feeling of them being "amazing" because they cost so much.

So you have a poor cp recipe made "not terrible" by the milling process, with a good scent and marketing, and people willing to pay for it. Not to mention, these are also not a mainstay of the brands, but something extra which may or may not sell quickly and can sit for a while without anyone worrying about it
 

Marsi

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What are these refinements?
in the most basic sense, french milling gives the soap uniformity and density

excess air and water is removed
the soaps crystalline stucture is made more uniform (aligned, smaller and tightly packed)
additives and fragrances are added towards the end of the process (heat and reaction damage to delicate additives and fragrances is reduced)

the effect?
triple milled soap is heavy and smooth, hard and shiny
the soap feels slippery and lathers easily in use
the scent lasts for a long time

visually the texture is fine grained and (usually) consistently one colour

old triple milled soap cracks along the length
 
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“Sodium palmate” doesn't tell you much about the palm oil itself. It might come from any point of the very intricate palm oil processing. Scrap FFAs, sequestered off during refining, make these beautiful “stearin” candles, or very hard and brittle soap. Superolein is approaching avocado or RBO in its softness. The bandwidth of what “palm oil” can mean in industrial products, is much larger than hobbyists (and their lye calculators) can imagine. And ingredient lists don't have to reflect this, not in soap nor food.
 
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One of the reasons I started making soap is because I love soap. So I’d save up and buy some or be gifted some. I have used some fairly expensive ones (though not Hermes or in that price range) and I’ve been most unimpressed. I have found that the ones I used stopped lathering half way through use ( with daily use); dried and cracked. I didn’t look at or know much about ingredients then. I can’t remember how my skin felt , but obviously not good enough for the money spent, because I have stopped buying these and am not even tempted by them any more.
 
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You could always go ahead and experiment by making a batch of soap with 80% PO (typical, off the shelf soap-making variety) and 20% PKO, or 70/30 to learn for yourself why cold process soap makers don’t gravitate to that recipe. If you go down that road, my best advice is to make a small batch, keep the temperature low, avoid FO and hand stir. Of the palmitic and stearic-rich hard fat bases commonly used to formulate cp recipes, PO is the least friendly - it will race you to trace. To extend my explanation a bit from what I wrote last night, the ornery nature of PO in cold process soap making apparently is not an issue in the industrial process.

If you want a two oil recipe, try 80% lard and 20% CO. Lard is an unusual fat, with soap maker friendly triglycerides. I don’t use that recipe because it begins to smell very lard-like to me after about 6 months. If you want a very hard palm soap, use 40% palm, formulate for a longevity in the low 30s and be prepared to work fast.
 
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That Hermes soap is $38 for 3.5 ounces!!!
Time to up our soap prices. We all know our soap is far superior & no comparison to commercial soap company's.
Though I didn't have an answer as to why big soap giants only use two processed fats, its interesting to say the least, had to chime in.
 
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it was to demonstrate how ESTABLISHED brands seem to only use TWO main ingredients in their soap. Something that none of the "homemade" brands do.
Don't you find that intriguing?
It's not that intriguing...it's done to increase margins. There's nothing special about these ingredients except they are CHEAP.
 

DeeAnna

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...Don't you find that intriguing?...

For me, no, I don't find it all that intriguing that commercial soap makers focus on tallow, palm, palm kernel, and coconut oil. Commercial companies selling "luxury" soap aren't in the business of making soap with expensive ingredients. They're in the business of making inexpensive soap from readily available commodity oils and selling it as a luxury soap for a goodly markup. There's no intrigue to be found in that.

....my point of the "hiding" is not that they're using Sodium Palmate vs Palm Oil vs saponified Palm Oil... it's that they use the "and/or" moniker. To mass-produce their soaps - you would think that they would know whether or not they're using Sodium Palm Kernelate OR Sodium Coconate OR both....

Commercial soap makers are highly aware of what they put into their soap. Their use of "and/or" language on the ingredients list gives them the option to use one or the other (or both) depending on the availability and cost of raw materials.

If coconut oil is the most economical choice at any given moment, they use that; if palm kernel wins the contest, they use it instead. This is a deliberate approach to making soap that gives them some flexibility to adjust their formulation as market conditions warrant.

We small-scale soap makers can and do use other fats because (1) we aren't limited to using fats only available in massive quantities. And (2) we're not making decisions about the fats we use based strongly on price.

One summer as a student engineer, I worked in the Proctor & Gamble factory that made Zest soap. They brought tallow in by the railroad tank car, melted it in the cars with steam, and pumped it into huge reaction vessels to convert into soap. The brand is no longer owned by P&G and no longer made in their factory in Kansas City, Kansas, but a current ingredients list on Amazon still looks pretty familiar --

Sodium Tallowate and/or Sodium Palmate, Sodium Cocoate and/or Sodium Palm Kernelate, Water, Glycerin, Coconut Acid*, Palm Acid*, Palm Kernel Acid*, Tallow Acid*, Fragrance, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Extract, Malva Sylvestris (Mallow) Extract, Tocopherol, Sodium Chloride, Titanium Dioxide, Pentasodium Pentetate, Tetrasodium Etidronate, Yellow 10, Green 3.​
 
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