Soaps & Detergents: Manufacturing

Soap and detergent manufacturing consists of a broad range of processing and packaging operations. The size and complexity of these operations vary from small plants employing a few people to those with several hundred workers. Products range from large-volume types like laundry detergents that are used on a regular basis to lower-volume specialties for less frequent cleaning needs.

Cleaning products come in three principal forms: bars, powders and liquids. Some liquid products are so viscous that they are gels. The first step in manufacturing all three forms is the selection of raw materials. Raw materials are chosen according to many criteria, including their human and environmental safety, cost, compatibility with other ingredients, and the form and performance characteristics of the finished product. While actual production processes may vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, there are steps which are common to all products of a similar form.

Traditional bar soaps are made from fats and oils or their fatty acids which are reacted with inorganic water-soluble bases. The main sources of fats are beef and mutton tallow, while palm, coconut and palm kernel oils are the principal oils used in soap making. The raw materials may be pretreated to remove impurities and to achieve the color, odor and performance features desired in the finished bar. The chemical processes for making soap, i.e., saponification of fats and oils and neutralization of fatty acids, are described in the Chemistry section.