Nature does it best

4 min read
Published:
09 Dec 2017
Duration:
4 min read
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1678 words
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Featured
Nepal’s herbal soaps have created for themselves a steadily growing niche of consumers both here and abroad

For centuries, Nepalis have relied on natural herbs for different purposes, mainly owing to the herbs’ medicinal properties. That’s why many Nepalis still vouch by Ayurveda, even to this day. But while most earlier generations might have primarily used herb-based products just as medicine, today, Nepalis, and consumers around the world, are starting to consume herbal cosmetic products too.

Among these products, herbal soaps are perhaps among the most widely adopted consumables in Nepal—and that’s why the growing herbal-soap production sector here. Herbal-soap companies are finding buyers—both here and abroad—because their products are known for eschewing the kind of synthetic chemicals usually used in the manufacture of big-brand commercial soaps.

Sourcing the raw materials

But setting up a herbal-soap production unit here is anything but easy. For most manufacturers of herbal soaps, one of the main challenges has to do with the lack of raw materials. Herbs used for soaps range from the more easily available coconut oil and palm oil, and nettle extracts to the scarcer lilac and lavender.  Manufacturers here often have to go through the painstaking task of ensuring that all of the required materials are available and ready to use for soapmaking.

Some manufacturers—such as Nature’s Essence Pvt Ltd, Himalayan Aroma Products and Laavanya Luxury Ayurveda—source the majority of their raw materials locally. A large portion of the herbs used in their soaps—such as licorice and Indian gooseberry—are brought in from the high-altitude regions of Dolpa, Humla and Rasuwa, while herbs such as camomile and lemongrass are brought in from the Terai regions.But most herbal-soap manufacturers still need to look to suppliers abroad to source raw materials such as essential oils. That’s because despite the wide range of herbs found in the country, Nepal still lacks the means for extracting oils from many of these herbs. Essential oils are a crucial element in soap production. The essential oils for jasmine have to be specifically brought from Switzerland, while essential oils of sandalwood and lilac are brought in from India.

“With the amazing altitude variation—from 70 metres all the way to 8,800 metres—we have in our country, it’s no wonder that our forests offers more than 7,000 varieties of herbs to our industry,” says Sulav Regmi, Operations Director at Nature’s Essence Pvt Ltd. “However, we still don’t extract enough raw material to meet our soap-manufacturing needs.” 

How herbal soaps are made

Both synthetic and herbal soaps need to go through a manufacturing process called saponification. While the synthetic ones follow what’s known as the ‘hot process’, herbal soaps undergo what’s called the ‘cold process’. In the hot process, external heat is used to accelerate the soapmaking process, which results in faster production rates. 

The cold process makes use of exothermic heat reaction, which is created from the acid and base reaction of fatty acids (soap-making oils) and a sodium hydroxide solution. In this process, a mixture of ingredients such as olive oil, coconut oil, palm oil, and sunflower oil is created with other additional ingredients such as water and sodium hydroxide (also known as lye). The sodium hydroxide acts as the reagent that helps kickstart the chemical reaction to create the soap. The mixture is then heated so that all the ingredients melt and mix well together. Once the ingredients have blended, depending on the type of soap, oil extracts of lavender, aloe vera or milk are added to create the final mix. The final mixture is then poured into a mould, which is set aside for 24 hours to cool and solidify, after which it turns into a slab of unprocessed soap. The slab then goes through a long curing phase where it is cut into smaller cakes and stored in a room with a dehumidifier for almost 21 days; this helps release moisture from the soap. This is a crucial phase in the soapmaking process since the level of moisture in the soap can determine the soap’s firmness as well as its shelf life. It is only after the curing process is completed that the soap finally goes through the final touches of shaping and packaging.
In the Nepali herbal-soap industry, most manufacturers such as Nature’s Essence and Himalayan Aroma refrain from using machines. “We employ a more traditional form of production where our soaps are completely handmade and only the packaging is done with the aid of machines,” says Regmi. “This slow process ensures that the beneficial properties the herbs have are not lost during production.”

Marketability

According to the soap companies, 80 per cent of their products are absorbed by the local market. But interestingly, the majority of the buyers here are tourists (almost 90 per cent). Hence its during the peak tourist season that the companies see major sales. The reason for this disproportion in their consumer demographics, according to most companies, is that foreigners are more aware of the benefits of herbal products. 

Another reason is that herbal soaps are also far costlier than commercial soaps. This high sticker price is a result of the high cost of ingredients used to manufacture the soaps, as well as the labour-intensive manufacturing process involved. Furthermore, the fact that production can only be undertaken in small batches adds to a bar of soap’s selling price. 

But despite herbal soaps costing much more, the discerning buyer will opt for them because of the benefits that come with using them. Herbal soaps do not use harmful synthetic chemicals that could cause adverse reactions on sensitive skin. Instead most of their ingredients are derived from plants and are gentle on the skin. And ingredients like aloe vera, neem, and honey have therapeutic properties too. Neem, for example, helps reduce skin redness and inflammation.   

Laavanya Luxury Ayurveda, unlike other soap manufactures, have a clientele base made up of mostly Nepalis. The company has positioned itself as a premium brand that owes its success to very positive word-of-mouth referrals. The company also builds on this goodwill through the private events that it organises to launch new ranges of products.

But until more consumers learn to wean themselves away from big-brand soaps, herbal soaps—some bars of which can cost upwards of Rs 500—will mostly be a niche item. “That said, we believe the niche is growing because consumers are starting to understand the benefits of herbals soaps,” says Niha Pandey, Sales Development Manager at Laavanya.

Essential oils 

Essential oils are aromatic oils that are derived from plant sources. And depending on the type of oil, it can be derived from any part of a plant, be it roots, leaves, the bark or seeds. These oils—of herbs such as peppermint, eucalyptus and patchouli—are extracted mostly via distillation. In a typical distillation process, chunks of plant parts are steamed with water vapour, which first vapourises the volatile compounds; these compounds are then condensed back to liquid and collected in a receiving vessel: this liquid, the final product, is the essential oil.

Essential oils are well known for their aromatic properties. Therefore, these oils are most commonly used in aromatherapy. During an aromatherapy session, the aroma of the oils is dispersed into the air with the help of a diffuser (most commonly an aroma lamp). Inhaling these aromas is believed to aid in respiratory disinfection, decongestion and expectoration. Most essential oils can also be applied to the skin since they are known to have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects, and are therefore used in
massage therapy. However, it must be kept in mind that these oils are strictly made and sold for external use and need to be diluted with carrier oils, such as olive oil or sunflower oil, before being applied directly on skin, since using it directly may result in irritation and inflammation.

“In Nepal, we can produce chamomile oil, palmarosa oil, lemongrass oil and a few others,”  says Basudev Sapkota, Sales Manager at Nature’s Essence. “But for other oils, most domestic companies have to depend on foreign suppliers.” The majority of the oils come from India. “That should not be the case. Many plants that have essential oils do grow in Nepal,” says Sapkota. “But we need investors and the government to become involved in this sector, so that in the future we need not be as reliant on imports.”