«99.9 per cent of shower gels labelled as 'soap' don’t contain soap»
Background information

«99.9 per cent of shower gels labelled as 'soap' don’t contain soap»

Translation: Katherine Martin

I use soap every day – or so I thought. When I met Soeder founders Hanna and Johan, they explained I was mistaken. We also talked about the lack of transparency around semi-finished products, the difference between «real» and «fake» soap, and their new brand.

Their natural soap has a cult following in Zurich. In fact, it’s hard to avoid it. You’ll find it in the toilets of hip cafés, in hotel rooms or eco-friendly shops. Even so, it’s still a niche product with a niche price tag to boot. To mark the company’s tenth anniversary, soap manufacturer Soeder is now venturing out of that niche and into the mass market. To kick things off, they’re launching a new, more affordable brand called «So Natürlich» («so natural» in English). Packs a punch, doesn’t it? The first product to be launched is a line of body soaps called True Body Soap, a name that implies the existence of a «fake» soap. But is that really the case? To find out, I arrange an interview with Soeder founders Johan Olzon Åkerström and Hanna Olzon Åkerström.

I meet the couple for a chat in the former SBB repair centre in Zurich Altstetten. The interior, still almost empty, is currently being refurbished. It’s set to become Soeder’s completed headquarters by May. The idea is to bring everything – from the marketing department to the lab to the factory – together under one roof. They’re even planning to open it up to curious visitors. Some products will continue to be manufactured in Schwerzenbach. The couple show me around the facility, their dog Kasper hot on our heels the whole time.

Soeder celebrated its tenth anniversary last year. Congrats!
Hanna and Johan (in unison): Thank you!

Your new brand «So Natürlich» will be a new chapter for you. Why did you decide to launch it now specifically?
Johan: Until now, we just didn’t have the opportunity. We started out in our 20-square-metre garage, where we’d mix our soaps together using really pricey ingredients.

Hanna: And although we’ve come a long way since then, our natural Soeder soaps are still a niche product. They’re just too expensive for the mass market. On top of that, societal awareness of environmental issues has changed massively. In these last ten years, we’ve gained the knowledge, resources, size and relevance to make direct contact with raw material farmers. We can also target a market where we can make a difference.

Make a difference in what sense?
Hanna: By democratising «real» soap and creating transparency. Teens and young adults increasingly want to use natural and eco-friendly products. Our own children are the same. But when it comes to shower gel, an everyday product, there are hardly any affordable alternatives out there. We want True Body Soap to fill that gap. It’s the first product we’ve brought to market under our new brand.

Johan Olzon and Hanna Olzon Åkerström, the couple behind the brand.
Johan Olzon and Hanna Olzon Åkerström, the couple behind the brand.
Source: «So Natürlich»

What makes a soap «real»?
Johan: The word «soap» isn’t a protected term, so manufacturers can use it whenever they want. Even if, chemically speaking, their product doesn’t contain any soap. Basically, it’s pretty much used as a synonym for «cleanser». 99.9 per cent of shower gels labelled as «soap» don’t contain soap.

Hanna: Soap was invented 5,000 years ago. To give you a quick explanation, if you mix fat and lye (or ash, as they used back then) you get a reaction producing heat, soap and glycerine. This principle – that soap is the product of a chemical reaction – is what underpins our production processes.

The glycerine thing is completely new to me.
Hanna: Glycerine is a high-quality raw material used in a variety of ways. It’s used in cosmetics for its moisturising properties.

Johan: You know those bars of soap you get in hotels? When they’re produced, the glycerine is often extracted and sold to create another lucrative value chain. We, on the other hand, keep the glycerine in our soaps. Another thing many people aren’t aware of is that soap production creates an energy surplus. When we’re making soap, we’re generating energy too. We then feed that back into the production of products that consume more energy than they create. Lotions would be an example of that.

How is conventional shower gel made?
Johan: The stuff you normally find on supermarket shelves is made from surfactants. These are produced in chemical plants, patented and then sold on, mixed and processed into shower gel. Which brings us to the subject of «semi-finished products».

Oh, you don’t seem to be a fan of those. What’s the problem with semi-finished products?
Johan: There’s a real lack of transparency in the cosmetics industry. A lot of manufacturers work with semi-finished products, This means that before raw materials are purchased and processed into the end product, they’re processed by a third-party manufacturer. This supply chain detour makes it particularly difficult for a consumer to understand what’s in the product they’re buying. Even the end manufacturers don’t always know for sure.

Unlike Soeder soap, True Body Soap doesn’t contain honey. As a result, it’s vegan.
Unlike Soeder soap, True Body Soap doesn’t contain honey. As a result, it’s vegan.
Source: «So Natürlich»

Semi-finished products are certainly cheaper, aren’t they?
Johan: That’s right. And since manufacturers of semi-finished products are very financially driven, they generally use palm oil. It’s only a third of the cost of the next best fatty acid: coconut oil. So you’ve no idea whether the fatty acid used in the semi-finished product was obtained from palm oil, whether it came from different places, whether the palm oil came from a monoculture or whether it was grown organically. All of this is difficult to monitor. So, for transparency reasons, we don’t use semi-finished products.

Hanna: We always try to be a few steps ahead of the market. Fortunately, the regulations are changing in the right direction – even if progress is slow. For instance, there’s the EU greenwashing directive regulating the criteria a company needs to meet in order to make certain environmental claims about its products. Until now, it’s been difficult for transparent manufacturers like us to compete against big brands that use powerful, misleading language to market their products.

The INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) on the back of your soap is surprisingly short. The longest one only has 12 ingredients. That being said, a long list of ingredients doesn’t make a product «bad» per se. Why is having a short INCI so important to you?
Johan: You’re right. But most consumers can’t make head nor tail of INCIs that contain over thirty ingredients, as they often do. Even apps like Codecheck are only helpful to a limited extent. We aim to keep INCI lists short and easy to understand in order to create transparency. It also makes it easier for us to monitor our suppliers.

Hanna: And it’s not like we’re saying, «alright, X number of ingredients can go in and that’s it». It’s more that we realise during the formulation process that a specific amount is all we need to achieve the right quality.

The True Body Soap’s design means you can hang it up in your shower.
The True Body Soap’s design means you can hang it up in your shower.
Source: «So Natürlich»

While we’re on the subject of ingredients, just how natural is «So Natürlich»?
Hanna: 100 per cent of our raw materials are of natural origin. We deliberately use the term «naturally derived», because it’s only the origin of the materials that’s natural. The part that comes after (sponification) is a chemical process. Reaching this 100 per cent figure is essential for us. If a product is labelled, say, 95 per cent naturally derived, that sounds like a lot at first. However, that level can result simply from having a high water content. So, it’s not particularly meaningful.

Where do you get your raw materials from?
Johan: Our oils come from Spain, Italy, Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka. There are also a few plantations in North Africa, all of which are organic. Unfortunately, a cosmetic product’s raw materials don’t have to come from an organic farm for it to be certified as natural.

Hanna: That’s why, for a long time, we chose not to get certified. The bar we set for ourselves was always higher than the one set by these expensive labels. We’ve got a natural cosmetics certification now, though. We’ve also drawn up guidelines for the things we purchase. Price obviously factors into the equation too, but freight routes, the water supply on plantations etc. are just as important to us.

Kasper treats himself to a nap during the interview.
Kasper treats himself to a nap during the interview.
Source: Natalie Hemengül

Did you encounter any unexpected obstacles as you were developing the product?
Johan: Yeah, a lot of them, actually. It was difficult to achieve the stability and viscosity our True Body Soap now has. Real soap is much thinner than conventional shower gels. If you want to thicken them, the composition of the fatty acid has to be just right.

Let’s move on from the content to the packaging. Soeder soaps are known for their brown glass dispensers. The True Body Soap, however, comes in a plastic container.
Johan: Glass is a great material, as long as you use it at least ten times. But it’s not suitable for carrying around in a gym bag. What’s more, if you reuse packaging less often, plastic performs better in terms of CO₂. Glass would cost us more energy, creating a larger carbon footprint.

But don’t you have a refill system?
Hanna: We offer refills in store, but that’s not accessible to everyone. If you buy your product on Galaxus, for example, you might not have a refill option just around the corner. It was really important to us to keep the packaging as environmentally friendly as possible. Even if the customer’s reordering the product, not refilling it.

How do you make sure of that?
Hanna: Our packaging is made from 100% recycled plastic waste from Europe. This is currently the exception on the market. Plastic bottles from Germany are recycled in Italy with the help of a company called Eurowaste, then processed into body soap containers here in Switzerland.

Johan: Recycled plastic often comes from the Far East.

Hanna: Our bottle is also made of a mono-material, so it’s not a composite. This is the only way it can be recycled and given a third life. You can simply hand the container over to us or take it to your local supermarket.

The body soap is available in four fragrances.
The body soap is available in four fragrances.
Source: «So Natürlich»

Which of the four scents is your favourite: eucalyptus, lavender, citrus or unscented?
Hanna: At the moment, I’d say it’s our neutral fragrance, Zero. I like the natural smell of soap – it’s clean and a little salty.

Johan: For me, it depends what mood I’m in. That was also the basic concept behind our range of fragrances: the right soap for every mood. Eucalyptus is a refreshing choice in summer, while lavender has a soothing effect on me in winter.

The Body Soap is just the beginning for «So Natürlich». What other care products can we expect further down the road?
Johan: We’ll be bringing out a shampoo in the not too distant future. So, we’re sticking to shower products for now.

Note: as you can see from the pictures, the «So Natürlich» body soap comes with a reusable hook so that it can be hung up in the shower. Unfortunately, we’re currently unable to offer these. Should this change, I’ll keep you posted.

Header image: So natural

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As a massive Disney fan, I see the world through rose-tinted glasses. I worship series from the 90s and consider mermaids a religion. When I’m not dancing in glitter rain, I’m either hanging out at pyjama parties or sitting at my make-up table. P.S. I love you, bacon, garlic and onions. 


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