Delicious Living Blog

The secret ingredient for better, safer beauty products

New European research shows promise for organic agricultural waste as a long-term, sustainable solution to synthetic surfactants used in cleaning and personal care products.

Despite often wondering why people refer to foodstuffs or technology as “sexy,” I’ll deem the all-star natural beauty ingredients that have emerged in recent years just that—plant stem cells (argan gaining popularity in addition to apple), hyaluronic acid, collagen (potentially from the tobacco plant!), peptides, plant enzymes and many more are fresh, exciting and have no-doubt been conversation starters (OK, at least in my circles). But there’s a lot more to talk about as we look at the future of natural personal care.   

Enter the not-so "sexy:" surfactants and preservatives

It’s not surprising that conventional cosmetic manufacturers tout many of the same natural ingredients. But what else are these companies using to get desired results?

The personal care ingredients that may be most relevant right now get little acknowledgement, yet are critical to successful nontoxic formulations (greenwashing, begone!): surfactants and preservatives. Here’s where the natural products industry really needs to be the influencer; and with new European research on plant-based, biodegrable surfactants, this could be a strong year for green chemistry—an area where, historically, very few universities and corporations have put their dollars. (Johnson & Johnson cited no suitable alternatives as a reason for keeping 1,4-dioxane-releasing surfactants in baby products until reformulating in the year TWO THOUSAND AND ELEVEN… right.)

But first, a bit about why high-quality natural surfactants and preservatives matter to manufacturers and consumers:

  • Without them, products either use synthetics or feel “off” to people who use them—a pitiful lather or a gloppy lotion that goes bad before its time.
  • Without them, companies will struggle to live up to natural claims or get trustworthy certifications like the personal care-specific organic NSF/ANSI 305 “made with organic ingredients.”
  • Without them, synthetic manufacturing ingredients and processes will continue to harm the environment and potentially our health.

The problem with surfactants 

Approximately 18 million tons of them, most of which are synthetic and derived from petroleum, are produced each year, according to Environmental Chemistry Letters. They make their way into our homes in harsh cleaning products and onto our bodies in personal care—in fact, many shampoo and shower gels are comprised of nearly 40 percent surfactants. Some of these ingredients pose potential health risks and most take their toll on the environment at some point. But hey, they’re cheap!

So what natural alternatives are available? Coconut has been a steadfast solution and continues gaining popularity, manufacturers told me at Natural Products Expo West. (On the preservative front, vitamin E and citrus are go-tos, while companies such as Weleda also are using sustainable packaging innovations to further improve shelf life. I’m expecting to see more developments here.)

Still, we need more options to keep supply costs down and increase availability.

The rise of biosurfactants 

Here’s the potential game changer: Innovative new European research could make plant-based, biodegradable surfactants far more cost-effective for natural companies in quantities that may even be suitable for mass market.

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Insitute for Interfacial Enginerring and Biotechnology (IGB) are looking at how to increase yields of sustainable, biodegradable surfactants from plant stalks, fruit and vegetable skins, and husks and pods—waste from certified organic producers.

Though it’s still young, the research is presenting various biosurfactants that could have a range of applications, from skin care to cleaning products, even for the food and pharmaceutical industries.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ll still eagerly watch as the hottest ingredients hit the natural beauty category. But, as far as I'm concerned, this is a pretty good conversation starter. 

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