Yes I am a chemist and yes I know that everything contains chemicals but I am in the minority here OK?
So earlier this month I got involved in a conversation about Liquid Castile Soap and more specifically about the fact that the ingredient listing for said soap contained a list of ingredients and not just one thing – the other person in the conversation felt uncomfortable with this because they wanted to avoid chemicals and while I understood the nuanced detail behind what was being said, I couldn’t help but feel that this is a bad situation, a real bad situation to be in.
The chemicals in question (on the list) were the saponified oils, glycerin, water and citric acid – as you would expect in a pure castile soap. The ingredient list was rather like this:
Aqua, Glycerine, Potassium Olivate, Potassium Cocoate, Oleic Acid, Citric Acid.
Liquid castile soap is made from the same starting materials as bar soap – vegetable oils, water and an alkali, usually Sodium or Potassium Hydroxide. It was the Potassium Hydroxide that was used in this reaction as you can see from the potasium salts. The oils in this reaction are coconut and olive. The citric acid may be added in very small quantities to just neutralise any left over Potassium Hydroxide and/ or reduce the final pH just a tad although adding too much citric will lead to precipitation of the soap. The water is self-explanatory and the glycerine is released in the reaction that splits the oils (triglycerides) and turns them into soap.
Global Cosmetic labelling law isn’t a thing but most people these days do at least attempt to use INCI nomenclature to represent their ingredients list. In Australia this isn’t a strict requirement but this product would still have to be sold with all of those ingredients listed, you would literally just swap the word ‘aqua’ for water which isn’t too hard.
Saponification is a reaction that is as old as time really and is one that people have been utilising since fire and barbeques were invented. It seems a terrible shame to me that this simple and elegant reaction, a reaction that is the first step in a whole host of chemical synthesis has been deemed ‘too chemical’ or ‘too dangerous’ for some.
The quest for a life less chemical (more simple/ simpler) is a nobel one and one which I fully support BUT if it is driven by ignorance and propelled by a lack of willingness to understand then I’m out.
I would like to think that the conversation I took part in ended in the other person having a bit of a closer look into their concerns but as the old saying goes ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’.
Oh My God I LOVE this!
I shared a video on my Realize Beauty Facebook page last week about little microneedles made of a sugary substance – you can still see that one there. Basically these needles become soft when they penetrate the skin and can release their content deep into the dermis, by-passing the many layers designed to keep stuff out and increasing the efficacy of the treatment.
Apparently these mini injections feel a bit like a cat lick or how the bobbly bit of velcro feels on the skin – not too bad hey!
I can see a time when many of our cosmaceutical actives are delivered via these needles leaving our creams and lotions free to just be simple and nourishing to the outer layers – a job that is of vital importance if we are not to undo all of our good work on the inside!
Regardless to how the cosmetic chemist formulates there is a real difficulty in overcoming the many and varied layers of the skin. Something applied topically has to travel through a maize of different layers before it can get to work brightening the complexion, signalling for more collagen, elastin or moisturisation, repairing scars or smoothing the skin from within. Even ingredients such as retinol that can be metabolised and carried into the deeper tissues struggle to get more than 10% of the applied dose deep into the viable tissues – that’s quite a bit of waste really. I have even read today about Testosterone patches that only deliver 20% of their dose, after which they are discarded into the bin presumably! That’s 80% of testosterone NOT absorbed and that will almost certainly end up in our land-fill or waterways. Efficacy and efficient delivery is not just about getting better looking skin, it is also about the most effective use of materials, about sustainability and about protecting our environment from a deluge of un-used chemistry. Oh and let’s not forget the tiny nature of these products – less packaging, less transport costs, less waste all round, especially once the manufacturing process has been optimised.
Here is another clip from another company just raring to get stuck into your face.
This sort of technology excites me because of all of the above and because it may truly be part of the solution that is to offer people effective yet simple skin care solutions.
Now which company is going to let me come and play?
It has recently come to my attention that there is at least one brand selling a product that advertises on the front the active Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate but on the ingredients listing has Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate.
These are not the same chemical.
It took me a while to un-pick these two molecules as they have the same molecular weight and seem to have been registered under the same CAS number making it look like these could be two different names for the same molecule.
They are not the same chemical.
To make it easier for you to see what I see I’ve put the structure of the two chemicals side-by-side above. As you can see the Tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate has its four arms held out perfectly straight and long whereas the Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate has bent arms. This may not seem like much but this can mean a potentially significant difference in solubility or ability for the skin to utilise these chemicals.
If you were in the business of engineering chemicals (a truly fascinating business to be in) you would appreciate that getting those four arms to bend like that is a bit tricky given the heart of the structure. The fact that this is quite tricky to achieve is just one reason the Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate is so much more expensive to make. The other thing that makes it more expensive (or valuable) is its efficacy data – there is quite a bit. There is very little efficacy data for the Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate – it might well be a good molecule with excellent dermal functionality but there is next to no proof of that.
I wanted to let you know as things like this case of mis-labelling or mistaken identity can become endemic and make it hard for the lay-person to discern what they are getting. You’ve only got to have a few bloggers say something like ‘these are just two names for the same thing’ or whatever and BINGO, the science goes out of the window.
As these are both Vitamin C derivatives they play in a world where 20% Vitamin C rules – at least in terms of marketing. This 20% number relates to Ascorbic Acid which is very cheap and quite unstable. It has been found in numerous studies to improve the appearance of the skin but that its increase in efficacy stops and then starts to go backwards at 20%. Basically if you use more than 20% you get no extra benefits and actually start getting side-effects – irritation being one of them. Other forms of vitamin C like those mentioned here act in different ways and take different pathways through the skin meaning the 20% number is far less relevant. In fact one study carried out by the manufacturers of the Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate found it to be taken up by the cells at 10 times the concentration of Ascorbic Acid. That, combined with its greater stability and oil solubility helps to explain why 20% is not at all needed.
The moral of this story is this, a background in chemistry helps you to pick a good and effective cosmetic product. For everyone else there is this blog piece 🙂
Happy buying, selling and making.
PS: After writing this I’ve found that even this Cosmetic Ingredient Review board have lumped these two chemicals in together when looking at their dermal penetration and have also stated that they are indeed two names for the same chemical. That is not correct and I will write to them and tell them. I wonder how that got passed their eyes. Makes things very difficult indeed…..
In the year 2000 this article was published in a magazine called “Experimental Dermatology”
According to Google the article has been cited some 667 times which is quite a bit, maybe us Cosmetic Chemists should take note?
On first glance the article seems to be saying that an ingredient has to be smaller than 500 Dalton (a molecular weight of 500 or less) in order for it to penetrate the skin and that molecules larger than that would be unable to penetrate. One might read that and then feel like running off to their ingredient supplier and demanding to know the molecular weight of all the ‘actives’ that they purchase. One might even feel like the fact that molecular weight isn’t make so much of in cosmetic science is the reason why many products don’t really work and aren’t Authentic. But to think or do that would be to miss the point of what a cosmetic is and can do.
The full article is only 5 pages including references so it isn’t such a big deal to do so. It basically looks into the fact that most topical allergens are molecularly small, less than 500 Daltons, and that molecules of that size or smaller can more easily fit through the gaps in between the corneocytes and thus into the deeper layers of the skin and through into the bloodstream.
Testosterone patches are a good example of an active that is less than 500 Daltons (testosterone is 288 Daltons) and that is able to penetrate the skin this way.
Here is some information I found online about a Testosterone patch called Androderm.
Each Androderm® 2.5 mg/day Transdermal Patch contains 12.2 milligrams of testosterone and delivers 2.5 milligrams of testosterone over 24 hours.
Looking at this we see that only around 20% of the available Testosterone is absorbed in the 24 hours.
It is available in packs of 60 patches.
Each Androderm® 5 mg/day Transdermal Patch contains 24.3 milligrams of testosterone and delivers approximately 5 milligrams of testosterone over 24 hours.
It is available in packs of 30 patches.
Other ingredients in the gel reservoir include:
- purified water,
- glycerol monooleate,
- methyl laurate,
- carbomer copolymer (type B), and sodium hydroxide.
The adhesive substance is laminate AR-7584.
So this is a gel type base with the Testosterone suspended or emulsified into it (I’m not entirely sure exactly where it sits as I haven’t thought about it for long enough but anyway…). The base would be designed to facilitate the release of the Testosterone through the skin. Often an excess of active on the outside of the cell helps to force some of it through the cell, this may be why only 20% of the available testosterone gets through. If you think of it as like a crowd situation where the momentum of the crowd behind you pushes you along, it’s the same scenario here.
Ideally these other ingredients are left behind on the surface and even more ideally they do not cause any detrimental effects but one can see from reading more about the side effects of these patches that there can be some topical irritation for some people, no doubt from the occlusion and the contact with an alcoholic gel which may well disrupt the skins protective membrane.
So is this Testosterone Patch similar to a cosmetic?
In short NO. Even though some of the ingredients are the same as what we might use in cosmetics the point of the product is where the differentiation starts. A transdermal patch is designed to deliver one active through the skin and into the bloodstream. A cosmetic product is (mostly) designed to protect the skin and beautify it from the outside in while still allowing the skin to function normally. For the most part cosmetics are not fully occlusive and this is because the skin acts as an organ of excretion so blocking it in any way can help trap toxins at the skin surface and then cause congestion, irritation and inflammation. Beyond that the very definition of a cosmetic tells us all we need to know about where actives should have to get to to work – the blood stream is not our target!
All of the actions we expect from our cosmetic products can and do take place on skin cells and do not require access to the blood stream to facilitate this action, indeed we should try to avoid that.
How does the 500 Dalton Rule Play Out In Cosmetic Science?
In short, in terms of cosmetic actives and cosmetic activity it doesn’t. The long answer involves some consideration of potential irritants, things that might penetrate into the bloodstream and the whole notion of ‘safe’ cosmetics and so for that reason a long answer is somewhat useful.
A word about Hyaluronic Acid.
Arguably the most common active to have its weight discussed openly in public is Hyaluronic Acid, not least because it is often bought in Low Molecular Weight or High Molecular Weight versions. Hyaluronic Acid is always heavier than 500 Daltons whether it is the low or high molecular weight version. In fact it is likely that Low Molecular Weight HA weighs up to 50,000 Dalton! However, to put that into perspective High Molecular Weight HA can weigh up to 1.5 Million Dalton. The question is ‘does that matter?” The answer is NO.
If we look at this graph we see that Low Molecular Weight HA is around the same weight as Keratin and Elastin but is lighter than a common type of Collagen. That means that in the grand scheme of things Low Molecular Weight HA is actually about the same weight as the structural stuff we have in our dermis. But again this is somewhat irrelevant as the HA you put ONTO your skin does not end up in the dermis, not the Low or the Regular HA.
Hyaluronic Acid works as an osmotic delivery system that can push water-soluble actives deeper into the skin by forming a highly hydrated reservoir on the surface of the skin. The main difference between the low and regular weight HA is in how thick it can get when you hydrate it and how it feels on the skin. Both work well as osmotic pumps. This situation would be quite different if we were looking at injecting HA as a dermal filler.
So what’s the go with Molecular Weight and Cosmetic Science?
Where the world of 500 Daltons and under and Cosmetic Science cross is in the realm of potential allergens. While it is true that a cosmetic formula SHOULD be designed to keep ingredients away from the bloodstream there is always the potential that something applied topically can get in deeper and if or when it does it could cause issues ranging from an allergic reaction through to a toxicity.
The most common allergens in cosmetics are from the perfumes and preservatives we use and it is here that we will look next.
Perfumes and Essential Oils and the 500 Dalton Rule.
However we fragrance our products, be it with essential oils or synthetics, we are introducing a whole mixture of small aromatic components to the skin. These aromatics are volatile (they move), indeed if they weren’t volatile we wouldn’t be able to smell them. They have the potential to be quite irritating and further to that can act as penetration enhancers for other things especially if present at high enough levels.
Here are some of the aroma chemicals highlighted as being among the most likely to cause a skin reaction. No differentiation is made between those found naturally in Essential Oils and those from synthetic origin.
Citral MW 152.23 found in Lemon Myrtle, Lemongrass, Tea Tree, May Chang, Melissa, Verbena, Basil and a little in Lemon, Bergamot and Orange.
Benzyl Alcohol MW 108.14 found in Tolu Balsam, Benzoin and a little in violet Leaf and Jasmine Absolute.
Cinnamaldehyde MW 132.16 found in Cassia Leaf and Bark and Cinnamon Bark, a little (1%) In Cinnamon Leaf.
Eugenol MW 164.20 found in Clove Bud and Leaf, Cinnamon Leaf, Pimento Leaf and Berry, Basil.
Geraniol MW found in Bergamot, Thyme, Palmarosa, Rose, Citrnoella, Thyme.
Knowing that these ingredients above are allergens and given that they are all well under the 500 Daltons weight limit one could be tempted to draw the conclusion that it is because of their weight that they are a problem but again that would be unreasonable. Pretty much all of the aromatic compounds we use or come across in life are molecularly small but not all are as allergenic as the above.
To further put this into perspective while the above are some of the aroma chemicals most likely to cause an allergic reaction they are all classified as weak allergens and in most cosmetic products the concentration of these particular aroma chemicals would naturally fall well below the sensitivity threshold which is often 2-3% of the active. Essential oils and fragrances are often used at below 1% in most cosmetics.
An example of a much ‘safer’ in terms of dermal irritation aroma chemcial is Fenchone Molecular Weight 152.23.
Fenchone is found in Spanish Lavender at concentrations up to 50%, in Fennel and Cedarwood. According to Tisserand and Young’s “Essential Oil Safety” a study applying 4% to humans found it to be non irritating and non sensitizing.
So if the 500 Dalton mark isn’t the measure of allergenic potential what is?
I suppose the take-home message from this is that size isn’t everything. Some of the aroma chemicals that can cause skin sensitisation or allergic response may be prone to oxidation and in cases like Linalool this is exactly what happens. Linalool (MW 154.25) oxidises to form hydroperoxides which are much more irritating than the starting point chemical. These hydroperoxides can form when the cosmetic or perfume oxidises meaning that unless cosmetics containing Lavender oil contain antioxidants and are packaged appropriately they can become quite a bit more irritating over time.
A safe cosmetic is a stable cosmetic.
To summarise I’d see the 500 Dalton rule as being somewhat interesting and worth keeping in mind with regards to the potential for your cosmetic fragrance to irritate (avoiding a fragrance would avoid all of these ‘small’ chemicals) but that it is in no way the most important thing to consider, not least because all aromatics used in cosmetics are this small. Oxidative stability is far more important.
What about non-aromatic and non-active chemicals used in cosmetics?
Look at this:
Glycerin: 92.09 Dalton
Argirelene: 889 Dalton
Matrixyl: 578 Dalton
Ethanol: 46 Dalton
Water: 18 Dalton
Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride: 408 Dalton
Lactic Acid: 90 Dalton
L Ascorbic Acid: 176 Dalton
Retinol: 286 Dalton
Retinol Palmitate: 524 Dalton
Phenoxyethanol: 138.16 Dalton
Potassium Sorbate: 150.22 Dalton
From the list above you can see the average cosmetic product contains a range of small ingredients, many of which have a weight of less than 500 Dalton. Glycerin and water are good examples of very small molecules that are not known for their dermal penetration and are known for their skin compatibility and low irritancy – people don’t get allergic to water or glycerin but may feel uncomfortable if their skin is hyper-hydrated (especially internal skin membranes) or if their barrier has been eroded as with a carpet burn or similar.
Argirelene and Matrixyl are two synthetic peptides manufactured by the cosmetic industry to improve the look and function of the skin. Both are pushing the limits of ‘smallness’ but both have some degree of efficacy data behind them meaning they do something and you can see a result from using them.
Retinol absolutely is biologically active but it is way larger than glycerin or phenoxyethanol (a preservative). Retinyl Palmitate is metabolised THROUGH the skin so what you pop onto the surface isn’t what gets into the bloodstream, the skin breaks it down as it goes.
Talking of Retinol, the most biologically active version to be widely prescribed is Tretinoin which chemically is All-trans Retinoic Acid.
Retinyl Palmitate > Retinol > Retinal (Retinaldehyde) > Retanoic Acid
The skin can break down the Retinyl Palmitate to Retanoic Acid and allowing it to do so rather than just applying Retanoic Acid directly is a gentler but slower way to get results.
If we map the molecular weights of this conversion we get the following:
Retinyl Palmitate ( 524.86) > Retinol (286.45) > Retinal (284.44) > Retanoic Acid (300.44)
We see the size of the biologically active molecule go up and down, indeed the most biologically active form of the Vitamin A is slightly larger than the two middle steps. Even though these molecular weights are tiny it does focus the attention on what really matters in terms of efficacy and authentic cosmetics and that’s this:
- What is your target?
- Where is your target?
- What is the solubility of your active?
- What concentration is required for an effect?
With Retinyl Palmitate it is of no consequence that we start with a molecule that is larger than 500 Dalton as the skin does the breaking down.
I found it interesting to note that this study found between 5-8% of the topical dose of Tretanoin was traceable in the bloodstream – and that’s an active that the skin is designed to soak up and metabolise.
With Hyaluronic Acid it is of no consequence that we start with a hugely heavy and long molecule because it drives things into the cell from the outside.
With aroma chemicals the size is clearly not the only (or even most important) factor when trying to work out its allergy potential.
With Glycerin and Water we know that in spite of their tiny molecular size, these are two of the safest cosmetic ingredients around (in general).
So how should the Cosmetic Chemist relate to the 500 Dalton Rule?
Unintentional dermal penetration is clearly something for the cosmetic chemist to avoid. There is no doubt that size can be a contributing factor to dermal penetration but it is not the ONLY factor and often in something as complex as a cosmetic formula, formulated for topical action, it is of minor importance. For these reasons I would argue that the Cosmetic Chemist should focus more on understanding and having an appreciation for the four things above – target, location, solubility and concentration – and relegate ‘molecular size’ as of minor consequence. I believe that the quest for safe and authentic cosmetic products is best achieved if one focuses on creating sensible and stable products rather than on the avoidance or adoption of things with small molecular weights.
Size isn’t everything.
Cancer isn’t a new thing, even dinosaurs got it and that, I feel, is relevant.
As a chemist I am patently aware of the fact that I am seen by some as part of the ‘modern life’ problem. We live in a world full of chemicals and as a chemist I have to be a part of that. The pop culture theory goes that modern life is so toxic and it is that toxicity that is making us sick, giving us cancer. Personally I feel that our modern lifestyle possibly does contribute to many sickness, could make us sick. I also accept that some types of chemical exposure would add to that sickness but I am more inclined to think that much of our modern malaise stems from modern life being mentally stressful and that it often leads to us making poor lifestyle choices which then go on to cause disease. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if one day we can prove that modern life is so un-natural that it causes most dis-ease.
But we can’t blame modern life for cancer, well, at least not all of it.
I know this isn’t a cheery subject but I feel it is still important to know that as long as there have been animals, there has been cancer. That cancer is as natural as we are, a side-effect if you like, of being alive.
Let’s have a look.
I was listening to a program called ‘The Health Report’ on ABC radio national last night and was made aware of Lynch Syndrome, a syndrome where sufferers carry a genetic malfunction that affects their DNA repair system and can manifest in a whole cluster of cancers including those of the bowel and stomach. This triggered me to share the above data, data that I’d put together last year when the question of cancer-causing-cosmetics came up. As you can see from the above data, elephants are far less likely to develop cancer than humans and that has been attributed to the fact that they have double the DNA repairing ability of humans. This, along with what we are just finding out about Lynch Syndrome starts to make the world feel less like a cancer lottery – you never know who is going to get what – and leaves it feeling much more knowable – much of the risk is written into our genes. I appreciate that is cold comfort for mutated gene carriers of which I may well be one, I don’t know. But as we pour more and more money into this area and spend more time looking into how the genes affect our cancer risk we can can also take the next leap and work out how to repair those rogue genes. I think that is exciting.
On top of the genetic cancer risk there is also the viral risk. Many melanoma cancer cases have a genetic sub-component to them which again gives us a common thread to grab hold of when looking at ways to help treat or even cure this aggressive skin cancer. Again, I think this knowledge is power.
So where does this leave chemicals, cosmetics and the pursuit of beauty?
It is absolutely true that some individual chemicals are carcinogens. It is also true to say that some manufacturing processes are polluting and damaging to the environment and this being a connected world, that pollution and damage will most likely come back to bite us. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that our cosmetic products are nasty, toxic polluters that are the most likely (or even in the top ten) daily habits that could increase our risk of getting cancer. I would hypothesise that in most cases, for most people, the cosmetics you use would be quite low down in the risk stakes, behind sun exposure, diet, genetic risk, sleep habits, stress levels, virus exposure, age, drug and smoking habits, weight, Job, happiness and plus daily exercise patterns. But we like to focus on our cosmetic choices because these are the low-hanging fruits, the easy things to change and that is significant.
Risk Free Beauty?
Given all of the above, my advice to cosmetic brands looking to make ‘safe’ cosmetics would be this -Put the risk into perspective and then aim to work on one aspect that could be improved. For example, you might be a brand or a consumer that has decided that the safest choice is a cosmetic made from ingredients that are all readily biodegradable and manufactured in environmentally responsible ways. You might decide that safety is best served as a Certified Organic product – be sure to point out why. alternatively, you might decide to use only simple plant-based ingredients or make your own products using the rationale that at least people/ you know what these ingredients are and can avoid what they might be allergic to – this philosophy is quite restrictive but could work for very basic products. Or you might decide to use any ingredients that are available to the cosmetic chemist and have all of your products tested by a toxicologist (EU safety assessment style) as evidence that your formulations are safe. You could always advice the toxicologist that you want them ultra-safe so assess the products as if they are being used on babies (from 0-3 yrs). If none of that suits or if you want an extra layer of information/ security you might pursue some real-life panel testing to see how a group of people respond to your products at least in the short-term. Whatever you pick whether customer or brand owner I think it is worth appreciating that cancer came before the chemical revolution and dinosaurs didn’t get their cancers from lipstick. It is also worth noting that in the grand scheme of things your cosmetics are probably never going to be the main risk factor in your life and that maybe, just maybe the most helpful thing of all you can do in this space is to donate some profits back into those uncovering the truth of what causes cancer and ultimately what can help cure the various different types.
Whatever way you pick to engage with the market for safer products my one wish and hope is that it is done respectfully and without hysteria. There is much work to do in this area, we can always produce cleaner, greener and more skin-similar products but nothing is more damaging and dis-ease causing than fear and so selling safe cosmetics using fear as a driver for decision-making makes absolutely no sense at all.
And on that note, does fear contribute to our cancer risk? Is there any evidence of that?
I found this interesting and it seems relatively logical to me:
Although stress can cause a number of physical health problems, the evidence that it can cause cancer is weak. Some studies have indicated a link between various psychological factors and an increased risk of developing cancer, but others have not.
Apparent links between psychological stress and cancer could arise in several ways. For example, people under stress may develop certain behaviors, such as smoking, overeating, or drinking alcohol, which increase a person’s risk for cancer. Or someone who has a relative with cancer may have a higher risk for cancer because of a shared inherited risk factor, not because of the stress induced by the family member’s diagnosis.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the majority of people who I meet who are keen to enter the cosmetic industry want to enter with their very own organic brand. Organics is seen as the epitome of purity, freshness and authenticity in a world of fake news, fake looks and fake promises and I can understand why but I’m not entirely convinced that organics are always the right answer, well not yet anyway.
An aside/ context…..
I like to think of myself as ‘green’ minded, eco-friendly, sympathetically sustainable in my lifestyle choices but the reality is I could do better. Some days I might score a B+ and occasionally there might be an A- in my green living efforts but most days I’d be tracking along as a C – average. I don’t particularly feel good about that either by the way. So what happens? Well, sometimes it’s just my sheer lack of planning, I don’t leave myself enough time to take the train; at other times it is just habit, I happen to like the silicone-light oil-free touch I get from my regular foundation and it’s less than $20 a pop which is welcome; and lastly it is just a lack of head space that leads me to constantly forget my keep cup and recyclable shopping bags. Whatever I feel about this I know one thing is for sure, most people are either as bad as me or a little bit to either side. I am the majority, I am (sadly) normal and in business that is worth thinking about.
I want to delve into the cosmetic example I gave above and really think about this from a cosmetic brand perspective. I also want to say right here and now that there is no doubt in my mind that careful and environmentally considerate farming practices are a great basis upon which to build our consumption habits and organic farming is one way of achieving that. Mostly though, I want to delve into the backstage world of what it means to make an organic cosmetic brand to help illustrate why I feel that it isn’t always the right way to go. Yet.
Building an Organic Brand in Australia.
Here in Australia there is no legal definition of what an organic cosmetic brand should be, there are only private standards and guidelines to comply to and be certified by. Australian Certified Organics and the Organic Food Chain are two local ones and we also have the possibility of jumping into standards such as COSMOS or Ecocert, particularly good for brands looking to export or looking for certification standards that were set up specifically for the cosmetic industry rather than for food and then expanded to cosmetics.
Legal definitions are not the be-all-and-end-all of life but the absence of a legal definition for an organic cosmetic does mean that each standard is essentially free to come up with their own rules and interpretation. Again this doesn’t necessarily mean that this is ‘bad’ but what it does mean for a brand owner is that you will potentially enter into a market which has an uneven playing field. Let me give you some examples.
Organic Vs Made With Organics – ACO Rules.
While some cosmetic products can be made with 100% organically grown ingredients the practicalities of this are limited and as such all cosmetic products that contain 95% and above of Organic inputs can be classified as Certified Organic. Further, there is usually a second tier certification on offer for brands that contain between 70-94.9% of Organic Inputs – in fact this is the most common level for a cosmetic product to aim at.
So what’s the missing 5 – 30%?
This is usually made up of ingredients that meet strict manufacturing and processing requirements and are called ‘allowable inputs’ but that can’t be classified as organic as rather than being directly grown, they are constructed from grown materials. If you are familiar with cosmetic formulating these would typically be your preservatives, emulsifiers, solubilisers, surfactants, emulsion stabilisers, many of your ‘actives’, clays and iron oxide minerals. In short, this is the majority of the stuff that gives a product its functionality and longevity.
Are there any examples of what this 5-30% might look like on an INCI label?
Some ingredients that meet the definition of ‘allowable inputs’ but that might typically be classified by an industry outsider as ‘chemical’ are as follows:
Phenethyl Alcohol – a natural preservative that can be derived from rose and smells rose-like.
Decyl Glucoside – a sugar and palm derived surfactant that is used to cleanse the skin and can also be used as a solubiliser.
Polyglyceryl-3 Palmitate – an emulsifier/ solubiliser for water-in-oil products that is derived from mixed vegetable sources and helps turn oil into a milky consistency or hold honey into a balm.
Cetearyl Olivate – an emulsifier ingredient derived from Olive and Palm that holds a creamy product together.
AHA Fruit Acids -Vaccinium Myrtillus Fruit Extract, Saccharum Officinarum Extract, Citrus Aurantium Dulcis Fruit Extract, Citrus Limon Fruit Extract, Water, Acer Saccharum Sap Extract. This is a pre-blended fruit extract with efficacy data for skin brightening and conditioning if you use this from 5-15% in your formula. It is not certified organic but is completely natural.
There are many, many more.
So an organic product can still contain chemicals?
As a chemist I would have to say trot out the line that ‘of course, everything is chemical, even you’ but rather than just leave it there I’ll answer it as the average person on the street wants to have it answered. It is most likely that a range of certified organic products will contain ingredients in it that are entirely plant derived but that don’t exist in nature. What that means in practice is that plant-based chemicals be they oils (triglycerides), alcohols, fatty acids or something else are extracted from a plant in some way and then reacted with other chemicals of plant origin to form ingredients that have a useful cosmetic function – cleansing, moisturising, protecting, solubilising, thickening etc. The certification body gets to decide what level of ‘chemical’ processing is allowed in the transformation of these chemical ingredients and which technology is allowed in their ‘allowable input’ ingredient list. Generally speaking only the cleanest and simplest chemical transformation reactions are allowed and reactions are usually limited to those that can be achieved with purely natural starting points so no silicones or petroleum derivatives.
Any brand looking to make water-containing products must consider the micro-stability of their creation and that means they will either have to add a known preservative or use strategies to make the product self-preserving (sometimes possible). There are no certified organic preservatives so any that are used in an organic product will eat into that 5% of ‘allowable’ space. There are also very few (possibly only lecithin) certified organic emulsifiers so again, if you want to have oil and water combined safely you will need to use something that will a) look a bit chemical on your ingredient listing and b) eat into your 5% of non-organic space. The same dilemma applies to skin or hair cleansing products as there are very few bubbling/ cleaning/ surfactants that are certified organics and those that are not necessarily that effective (soapnuts, natural saponins).
So what if my organic product contains some ‘chemicals’ as long as they are ‘natural’.
So what indeed…..
One of the words that I hear quite a lot by people wanting to enter the cosmetic market as brand owners is ‘authenticity’. I don’t know what it is exactly about the world right now but people feel they have been or are being ripped off and there is a huge appetite for Authentic and when it comes to cosmetics that means ingredients you can pronounce or eat or (hopefully) both.
Where there is doubt there is fear.
If a prospective brand owner or their target customers have to ‘research’ the ingredient list in order to understand it fear creeps in. We have all seen or heard people lamenting the fact that students reference Wikipedia in their degree dissertations these days (and everyone in academia knows that Wikipedia is not a primary source), we might have fallen for the teachings of people like Belle Gibson, purchased her books and headed her every healing word only to find out she lied to us. Even those that missed out on Belle will appreciate how we all now laugh about the rubbish that comes up when you do our google ‘research’ but we still do it. Why? Because for many of us we have no idea what those snobby people laughing at our inability to discern the wheat from the chaff (good from bad) are on about. In short, we feel vulnerable.
There is no easy or quick way to fix this but there is a way to make it worse and that’s to be a brand owner that jumps onto the band wagon and does exactly the same as everyone else.
Science Literacy – A question of trust? Authenticity gap?
I wonder if this is where the desire for Authenticity comes in? If my newbie brand developers read these weird sounding chemical ingredients on their organic/ natural/ regular cosmetics and think ‘I don’t know what these things are, don’t know where to go to find out and I’m worried by that’? I think this is possible and I think this is understandable for a consumer but for a brand owner? I feel this knowledge gap has to be tackled head-on instead of avoided.
While I don’t expect every brand owner to spend 3 years at Uni doing a Chemistry degree before selling their first lipstick I do think that it is essential they challenge their perceptions before joining in the noise. While there are good and bad courses out there, these days there are plenty of good resources available to the newbie brand owner and these include online learning, face-to-face short courses, insider blogs and resources like the cosmetic help desk that I help to run at New Directions. At the very least a new brand owner should understand whether glycerin is oil or water-soluble, what a polyglyeryl ester is and why the best preservative for their product isn’t necessarily the one that sounds like a fruit salad on the label.
OK so that’s the ‘chemical’ side, what about performance of Organics?
When I started out on my journey of Cosmetic Science organic certified cosmetics were not a thing. We had the Body Shop and Lush (I was in the UK at the time) and they were seen as pretty revolutionary even though these days neither of those brands would be seen to be leading the ‘Certified Organic’ charge.
Things have come a long way in terms of performance of organic brands but there are still limits and one of them is the practical limit that the requirement for meeting the 70 or 95% input benchmark sets.
The numbers game.
As a cosmetic formulator I like to focus on how a product feels and performs rather than on what percentage of the ingredient will get me certified. With organics my focus is obsessively on the numbers.
Take making an organically certified shampoo – 70% organic input – as an example.
I’ve only got 30% of space in which to make my shampoo do shampoo-type stuff like cleanse the hair and make it comb-able.
Surfactants are the ingredients that clean stuff and usually a decent shampoo requires an activity level of 10-15% to work well and perform as the average person expects.
Great! So that still leaves us 15-20%, what am I worried about?
The problem with surfactants is that most of them are not sold as 100% active. When you buy your amino-acid derived glutamates or your coco betaine or glucosides they can range from 50% active to 25% active. That means to get 10% of activity I’m typically having to add somewhere in the region of 30-50% surfactant as supplied and none of that is certified organic. So before I even get in the lab I’m reducing the efficacy of my formula so the numbers fit. The best surfactants for hair are the anionic ones such as the glutamates, succinates and sulfates but these are also among those sold in the 25-30% active mark. The most active surfactants are the glucosides sold typically as 50% active but these are hideous on the hair leaving it a tangled messy mess. See my issue? My preferred blend of an anionic primary surfactant, an amphoteric secondary then a non-ionic glucoside tertiary surfactant can only reach an activity of 9% (input 28.7%) before I blow my budget and that’s with no regard to how well this blend actually performs.
But things are getting better, we are making progress but we aren’t there yet.
The shampoo example above is just one example that can be repeated across a whole range of products and circumstances. This doesn’t mean that the organic brand owner can’t create a good brand but more that the organic brand creative chemist has to make compromises in order to fit the formula into the system. This may or may not be to the products detriment.
As the years go on problems like the lack of 100% active allowed-in-organics surfactants get solved, products get better and everyone wonders why everyone else isn’t doing what they are doing and this is a good thing. Understanding this and pushing suppliers for real solutions to real problems is good, tying suppliers up in requests for ‘chemical free’ ingredients or to make preservatives with nice INCI names is ultimately not as productive in the end as we trade functionality and problem-solving for sheer vanity.
And finally what about the price? How much does it cost to go organic?
It’s fair to say that there is the cost of something in dollars and cents and there is the real cost in terms of environmental impact, resource valuing and value-add. Both definitions are applicable in the organic product development life cycle. I am one of those people who feels we should value our primary resources very highly and that should be reflected in the price we pay throughout the supply chain. As such whatever we do buy has to fill the role it is intended to and fill it well – add value to the formula. Sometimes I personally do not see the value in spending 10 times more on a cosmetic preservative that is natural but that you have to use 4 times more of and then back up with one or two other chemicals in order for it to work. Further, I don’t see the value in adding something that is certified organic just to get the numbers up – add it if it adds value and if it doesn’t, leave it out. At the end of the day I see a lot of potential for certified organic formulations to cost more in dollars and even in environmental impact but deliver nothing more than their natural, non-certified cousins. The bottom line for me in this regard is that I do not see Certified Organic as a guarantee that the product has made the best use of natural resources and is representing the best value for money.
So what does being certified organic mean and is it the best (or only) pathway to an Authentic cosmetic for newbies or existing brand owners?
Looking at what is available and what can be created today I see ‘Certified Organic’ as simply meaning that the product contains a certifiable amount of organic ingredients – 70% or more. The certification alone says nothing of the value the product delivers or even whether it represents a better environmental choice. The individual brand owner needs to determine that with evidence and in a way that would satisfy a legal challenge if mounted.
So, achieving an organic certification is not the only and maybe not even the most important way to deliver authentic cosmetic products to the market and I think that is worth mulling over.
While it makes sense at least on one level to provide the market with 95-100% certified organic input facial oil blends, fresh hydrosols or lip balms, it makes less sense at the moment to spend years trying to achieve that level of certification for a multi-purpose anti-ageing cream, a salon-quality shampoo / conditioner combo or a liquid foundation. This is where the 70-95% organic input come in and for many, the cognitive journey to get to being comfortable with a 70% made-with-organic product that ultimately gets its efficacy and safety from ‘chemicals’ albeit naturally derived ones, is going to be the same as for a 100% natural but not ‘certified organic’ product and this, for me is where the real possibilities currently sit.
Authentic Choices that deliver results.
There is no doubt in my mind that organic farming has a big role to play in a sustainable and caring future. When it comes to cosmetics and cosmetic brand creation there is indeed a market for certified organic and we now have the technology to deliver reasonable to very good products using this philosophy but to do so requires the input of naturally derived ‘chemicals’ that look a bit confusing on the ingredient label. This puts the organic 70% product in the same boat as a natural-but-not-certified product but for the formulator or brand owner the benefit is more freedom from calculating inputs and percentages, more emphasis on how much ingredient is needed for a result and more room to adjust supply chain costs. For that reason and because the natural but not organic certified brand can still contain a high percentage of organics I feel that Organic Certification is a valid way to go but is not the only option for those looking to produce or purchase an environmentally ‘cleaner’ product. Indeed people looking to talk to that niche should really work on comparing the fore’s and against’s of certified vs other.
For me, the quest for authenticity is more about first understanding and then delivering on that knowledge than on outsourcing that thinking to one or another third-party certification. Part of the reason why there is no legal definition for organic cosmetics here in Australia is because of the difficulty in agreeing to what the 5-30% ‘allowable inputs’ should be made up of, when does a chemical become a chemical? What reactions are and aren’t allowed? Does biodegradability or toxicity come into it? Oh, on that note, just because an ingredient is allowed or often used in organics does not mean it is the mildest choice either and neither does it mean the ingredient readily and completely biodegrades – as I said all it tells you is how the ingredients feedstock has been farmed.
The bottom line in all of this is chemical literacy and comfort level. I believe it is the brand owners responsibility to educate their target market about the brands ingredient philosophy and to do that they first need to educate themselves using credible sources and by challenging their own thinking. Finally I believe that if we all step-up and explain the ingredients we use, why we use them and what they bring to our formulations we will actually be contributing to what we all want anyway and that’s a progressive, more creative, safer and more truly sustainable cosmetic industry that we can all be proud of.
So, to finish I do want to remind everyone that I am not bagging out Certified Organic but that I am saying that just jumping through those partially made-up hoops without fully understanding why is potentially costly to your sanity and your brand. You can change the world and create an authentic brand but there is more than one way to do that today and long may that choice and variety continue.
PS: Sorry for the ultra-long essay but there was a lot to get through.
OK so I talk about this from time to time and while I don’t want to sound like a raging Mrs Angry Pants I sometimes just have to let off steam and this last couple of months have left me in that head space so here goes.
The world of cosmetic science has opened up A LOT in the last 19 years and I do believe that this has been a great thing as formulations have evolved faster, becoming more natural, versatile and creative in less than half the time we used to work to. But (and there is always a but) there is one part of the opening up of the industry that makes me want to bang my head against the wall and that’s the steep slide in understanding of and respect for the scientific process.
You used to have to spend years (and I mean years) in a company before you would know what the shampoo, moisturiser, shaving foam and lipstick formula your company made looked like. The first year or two of your working life would be mostly spent testing things for stability, wiping down benches, sitting in on supplier meetings and testing pH. Now this is all replaced by Google, free recipes and an abundance of online forums swapping notes and lab stories. The bad thing about this is that there is no process, no 10,000 hours of practicing one thing and no overbearing laboratory Over Lord to come and slap you over the metaphorical wrist with a spatula for being tardy, jumping to conclusions, failing to try other options or question the information that you were just given by that overly enthusiastic 20-year-old sales rep. It really is the blind leading the blind most of the times.
As much as I do want to stay positive and embrace this brave new world I do want to share my biggest note of caution and that’s this – DO NOT RUSH, DO NOT TRY TO OVER-SIMPLIFY, DO NOT BELIEVE WITHOUT TESTING.
I’ve met far too many well-meaning people over the last couple of months who feel like they should be able to create anything they want, find any answer to any problem (or have it told to them) in an instant and create products that are somehow magically better than what already exists BEFORE they have even stepped foot in a lab (even their kitchen labs) and that, I think is dangerous. These people can become easily frustrated, disillusioned and even angry when they finally stumble across people like me who burst that ‘it’s so simple’ bubble by telling it like it is and bringing up a whole lot more things to think about (if they want to actually make a great, cost-effective, safe and authentic product as opposed to something quick and natural sounding off google).
The best bit of advice I can give to anyone who is starting off or is even in the cosmetic industry is to not lose sight of what we are doing (or at least trying to do) here. We are Applied Scientists first and foremost and that means we need to conduct experiments and not just cook up a cake-mix style recipe and say ‘that will do’. Science takes time and the investment of both our energy and some physical resources – we can’t know if something is good without making it and testing it. Results may be theoretically achievable from the reading you’ve done but there’s nothing like testing it for real to really know how that product turns out.
Let’s enjoy this amazing burst of enthusiasm, creativity and passion that’s come from open sourcing, internet sharing, chat rooming and online networking but let’s not lose sight of the fact that it takes 10,000 hours to master a thing and cosmetic science is not just one ‘thing’……
Don’t try to over-simplify
Don’t believe without testing.