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Green Chemistry – Stop Yawning, we need this!

April 13, 2010

Start talking about Chemistry and your best friend in the world will yawn, eyes will glaze over and they will slowly move away muttering something about having to wash their hair……..  That is unless I am your best friend. I love chemistry and I want you to love it too (well, just a little bit).

Green chemistry is quite literally the future and green cosmetic chemistry is making its way out of the lab and into your products NOW.

So what are we talking about?  A few little steps towards sustainability, that’s what!

Before your product gets formulated (or mixed)  ingredients have to be sourced. These ingredients are often processed in some way to make them perform well in your mixture. We have to go right back to the start of the chain when thinking ‘Green Chemistry”. Let me explain!

  • Check your feed-stock. By feed-stock we mean the raw materials that you react to form a useable ingredient.  This could be something as simple and natural as a lavender bush or something more chemical-sounding such as a fatty acid.  Feedstock should ideally come from renewable resources (so no petroleum) and ‘grown’ in the absence of polluting chemicals (some  pesticides or growth promoters).
  • Engineering for ‘Green’ success. Quite often these feedstocks have to go through one or another process in order to turn them into something usable. For this ‘chemical engineering’ to be green, sustainable resources have to be used throughout the process. Any ingredients used to speed up or improve yields of reactions should be natural, non-polluting and either  fully recoverable or used up in the reaction.  Some examples of catalysts are high pressure, elevated temperature,  Metals and metallic salts, nitrogen gas or  ethanol.   It is important for the green chemist to ensure that their green processes do not end up using heaps more energy in order to avoid using a synthetic catalyst.  The big-picture should not be forgotten!
  • Formulating for success. Once we have our ‘green’ ingredients we need to put them into a ‘green’ product or formulation. You may notice that some cosmetic products being sold as ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ look and feel different to synthetic products. This can be due to the aesthetic limitations of truly ‘green’ chemicals or, more optimistically could be due to the fact that a truly ‘green’ product requires a ‘green’ approach to its use.  For example,  shampoo’s may not foam as much so as to reduce the amount of water needed to rinse it away, moistutisers may be more oily rather than presented as water based emulsions so as to give 100% activity!  Formulations for things like face-packs, toothpaste and shampoo may be dry rather than wet to reduce packaging burden and products may look off-white or cream rather than clear or sparkly white due to lack of colours and fillers.
  • Transportation. OK, so we sourced it, reacted it, formulated it and now it is time to get it to you.  Good green chemistry will result in products that are highly efficient and require a minimal amount of packaging. Hopefully they have also been manufactured close to the market so that the need for long-distance transportation is avoided.
  • In-Use experience.  A ‘green’ product should leave a minimal effect on the environment when used.  That means that washing it off the body should not pollute waterways, packaging should be biodegradable and the product should be effective so less product is required in the first place.

There is no one global definition of a “Green” cosmetic just as there is no Global Organic or Natural definition. However, one thing is for sure, there is only one way for the future of the cosmetics industry and that’s towards a sustainable one.  Unfortunately for those who do yawn at the thought of chemistry, a sustainable future will involve a few test tubes and white coats as going ‘green’ involves a lot more than just swapping petroleum to palm oil.

Love Green.

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