After working as a recycling sorter in New Zealand, Anna Lee returned to Malaysia and was presented with a problem her mother faced at home. She wasn’t sure of how to dispose of used cooking oil, unaware of such recyclers in the country.
Her mother suggested that Anna turn it into soaps, seeing that her daughter already knew how to make conventional body soaps.
Incidentally, the family was also running out of dishwashing detergents, which Anna decided to replenish with her experiment.
“Moreover, my dad was having serious hand eczema at the time and commercial dishwashing detergent irritated his hands even more, so much so that he could not do the dishes at all,” Anna expressed.
Determined to make something natural for him to use, her home business, Soapan Santun came to fruition.
When oil cleans oil
Soaps made from used cooking oil may be off-putting and could induce doubt in customers wondering how hygienic the repurposed cleaning agent can be.
To add, I’ve seen a business making candles out of used cooking oil requiring very heavy fragrances to mask its odour.
But Anna begged to differ. “Strangely enough, this has never been an issue for us,” she chimed. “We have sold more than 1,000 Multipurpose Soaps yet no one has ever complained about the smell because it smells nothing like used cooking oil in the first place!”
The used oil Anna collects is filtered through a fine-mesh strainer as part of Soapan Santun’s cleaning process. But she believes the oil’s stench mainly disappears through saponification.
If you recall science class, you’d know that saponification is where fatty acids (used cooking oils, in this case) break down when combined with lye. This process also kills the bacteria present in the oils and therefore curbs the hygiene concern in Soapan Santun’s products.
But explaining all this can sometimes be too complicated for customers to understand.
“So I love taking videos of myself cleaning everything using Multipurpose Soap because I think it helps put things into perspective so people can see beyond that,” Anna said.
Her efforts seem to be working, and so far no customers have questioned the hygiene of her soaps.
“Most customers who support us are fully aware of what the soaps are made of and want to use it for several reasons: hand eczema that can’t stand commercial detergents, zero plastic packagings, superb cleaning ability when it comes to plastic containers,” Anna told Vulcan Post.
Serious elbow grease
The oils donated to Soapan Santun generally come from Anna’s peers and a partner F&B business in Puchong. She’s also had three TikTok followers donate their used oils after one of Soapan Santun’s videos blew up on the platform.
As most Malaysians tend to use sunflower or canola oil for daily cooking, Anna must take note of what kinds of oils she’s working with. Certain oils like sunflower tend to go rancid quicker.
Anna stated that coconut oil is one of the star ingredients in her Multipurpose Soap, and is added to whatever used cooking oil she attains to make her products.
“A rule of thumb: coconut and palm oil make a good and hard bar [soap] with plenty of lather—that’s what we’re aiming for,” said the soapmaker.
Formerly mixed by hand, Anna shared that it limited the production of their shampoo bars. They recently invested in a stand mixer, which made the job considerably easier with less sore arms, but it most certainly did not come cheap.
Bubbling up numbers
Launching Soapan Santun with her partner, Louis, the duo bootstrapped RM1,000 as starting capital. But by the end of 2021, they’d spent a total of RM22,000.
“The spending was mainly on tools, plant oils, essential oils, and other miscellaneous items,” Anna explained.
Soapan Santun produces 20-30 soaps per day due to limited soap moulds, and up to 35 shampoo bars before they get tired or when their machine runs hot. Anna hopes to bring in more soap moulds so they can produce up to 50 soaps per day.
In a month on average, Soapan Santun sells 46 body soaps (RM18-RM23), 86 Multipurpose Soaps (RM3.70), and 74 shampoo bars (RM21-RM24).
Discounting the Multipurpose Soap, her prices are fairly standard when compared to other artisanal soap makers in the Klang Valley, based on my personal experience. And this is in line with Soapan Santun’s three-year goal: to make zero waste bathroom essentials more accessible and affordable to Malaysians.
However, unlike store-bought soaps which generally have stabilising ingredients to prolong their shelf life, Soapan Santun’s soaps are best used within 6 months to a year.
“The essential oils and plant oils in soaps do go bad and become rancid, much sooner when constantly exposed to moisture,” elaborated Anna.
Launched in April 2021, Soapan Santun broke even in September 2021, just six months into the business.
Soapan Santun currently supplies two zero-waste stockists, namely MINIMIZE and Papago Zero Waste, and hopes to partner with more.
Featured Image Credit: Anna Lee and Louis Koh, co-founders of Soapan Santun