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Hydrogenated oils – allowed in organics but not pure enough for some. Why?

July 14, 2017

What have jojoba beads, squalane and Biophillic H (Hydrogenated Lecithin, C12-16 Alcohols, Palmitic Acid) and Viscolid (Hydrogenated Rapeseed Oil) got in common?

One answer, the one I’m interested in is that they have all been hydrogenated in some shape or form.

Hydrogenation is a process where hydrogen gas is blown through an oil or oil mixture at high pressure using a metal catalyst (which is fully recovered after processing) to open up the oils double bonds and replace them with hydrogen ions.  This process is relatively straightforward and is valuable in as much as it turns an unsaturated oil into one that is saturated and that tends to increase its melting point giving you (among other things) an oil that is now a solid instead of a liquid due to its higher melting point. We call fully hydrogenated fats and oils ‘saturated’ as they are ‘full’ – each potential to form a bond with something different is being used.

Jojoba Oil MP  10C (liquid at room temp)

Hydrogenated Jojoba oil MP 67-70C (Solid at room temp)

Hydrogenating oils to make them harder and ‘thicker’ (more like butters really) is one simple ‘benefit’ of this process – you can thicken Avocado oil to a buttery texture or Olive or even Kiwi Seed Oil! Another is that we can use this process to turn Jojoba oil (a liquid wax) into a Jojoba bead – an ingredient that is prized as a natural alternative to plastic microbeads due to its ability to exfoliate, moisturise AND biodegrade. Plus it can be grown organically.  On top of that we can use the hydrogenation process to turn materials that are usually highly prone to oxidation (Squalene) to those that are more resistant to oxidation (Squalane) without doing too much to alter their functionality.  The last example as per the materials I’ve mentioned above is where hydrogenation is used on lecithin to act as a thickener/ emulsion stabiliser in this emulsifying blend.

Oils naturally come in saturated and unsaturated options thanks to mother nature. We have Palm and Coconut which are highly saturated vs Almond, Olive, Canola and Sunflower that contain relatively high percentages of unsaturated fats.  Nature also gives us a range of fatty chain lengths including the short and sweet Capric Acid found in coconut and (eugh) humans – HUMANS??? Who did this study!  Plus Goats and Cows which I’m sure Vegans will find just as disgusting. At the other end of the scale we have the oil that is really a wax, Jojoba and its 70-80% C20:1 chains.  So to sum up you can get saturated and unsaturated oils that have predominantly longer or shorter chain length fatty acids in their structure.  The thing that makes the most difference to whether they present naturally as liquids or solids is their degree of saturation with unsaturated fats tending to be more likely to look solid at room temperature.

That all sounds pretty simple to me and as a chemist I feel very comfortable with using hydrogenated oils in my cosmetic products in any shape or form.  But some of my customers express a distaste for this type of ingredient and I wanted to explore why.

Google strikes again.

The internet is a wonderful thing and everyone ‘googles’ everything these days, I even googled ‘am I normal’ (apparently that’s quite common according to this)  and ‘how long until I go on my next holiday’ one day when I was bored.   If you google phrases like ‘hydrogenated oils’ and ‘saturated fats’ it doesn’t take long before you end up in Heart Foundation territory and the ‘saturated fats are evil’ type of talk……

Adding hydrogen to oils is something that food manufacturers cottoned onto as a way of making them last longer.  That can be more economical in a frying situation, especially in fast food joints where everything is fried, even the staff.  Unsaturated fats become rancid or ‘used up’ fast and that adds extra costs onto a fry-heavy business but not only that, it also increases the resource burden.  If we ignore any health down-side we could argue that hydrogenating oils for frying makes for an environmentally friendly solution as the same oil can last for much longer thus cutting back on the need to keep replacing it.  However, there does look to be a down side health wise.

You may notice from the table above that naturally hydrogenated or saturated fats consist of mainly shorter chain fatty acids.  Coconut and palm have over 50% of their total weight in C10-C12 fats vs Tallow which is 66% C18 or Canola which is 96% C18.  I am not qualified to explain what that may or may not mean for our internal health but can see that we are not really comparing apples with apples here and it’s not necessarily because of the degree of saturation.

The other down-side to this practice is that these oils are often only partially hydrogenated, meaning that some double bonds still remain.  The presence of some double bonds in the partially hydrogenated fats enable them to remain liquid which, in turn means they can be used in the same way as their un-touched brothers and sisters only these oils will last longer (due to their being less double bonds).

When you partially hydrogenate an oil you leave the door open for trans isomers to develop and this is where the trouble starts.  This paper here does explain the benefits of partially hydrogenated oils in the food industry.  Luckily a good mouth feel is not a thing that cosmetics are really into…..

unsaturated issue

Trans isomers are where the carbons participating in the double bond have their hydrogens on the same side.

Cis isomers are where the hydrogens are on opposite sides.

According to this very useful article trans isomers are not that common in nature even when fats are naturally partially hydrogenated such as is the case in Shea Butter so oils that contain a large concentration of trans-fats are, in fact, quite un-natural and yes, un-healthy when eaten but where does that leave the skin?

Foody types and healthy lifestyle advocates do not like the idea of putting things onto the skin that aren’t good for them and with that in mind it isn’t too much of a stretch to see why that has led to some to reject hydrogenation as a reasonable problem solver for their cosmetic formulations.  But I would strongly challenge the logic of that on so many levels, not least because in this specific case the risks of clogging ones arteries from using a face cream is surely far less than the risk of slipping over in the bathroom while using it!

But what if these trans fats could have a negative effect on the skin?

It turns out that trans isomers of fatty acids do behave differently when they get close to human dermal fibroblasts.  Now before we get all ‘I told you so’ it pays to think this thought a bit.

This study which is quoted in the above article is looking at fatty acids and not fats.  An oil is a mixture of triglycerides and when we hydrogenate the oil we are actually hydrogenating the triglyceride and this is most often done without first breaking the triglycerides into glycerin and fatty acids.  This might seem like a non-issue for the layperson but there is a huge difference between a free fatty acid and a triglyceride in terms of what it can do on the skin and where it can get.  Most, if not all triglycerides will fail to reach the dermal fibroblasts as to do that would require getting all the way through the epidermis and into the dermis – something that a big hunk of oil can’t really achieve.  While I can’t conclude that the scenario played out in the attached study will NEVER happen when a hydrogenated oil is applied to the skin in real life, I would comfortably sit with the notion that this is a very unlikely turn of events. 

But do cosmetic industry hydrogenated oil manufacturers think about the trans fat issue?

As luck would have it this week the Senior Vice President from Floratech, Kelley Dwyer was in town and I caught up with him and asked him just that.  Floratec is a leading manufacturer of hydrogenated Jojoba oil products and for them, trans fats are a thing they seek to avoid.  Apparently their process has been designed to avoid trans-fat creation, not least by insuring full hydrogenation of the oil.  In any case trans fats can be picked up by an analytical test lab so it is possible for a manufacturer like Floratec to be able to answer questions as to whether their products are trans-fat free!  I think that’s great, don’t you?

If we go back to the wider debate about the health risks involved in saturated fats for a moment I do think it is also worth pointing out the issues that surround the good fats, bad fats argument with regards to health. I’m not sure if you saw ‘That Sugar Film’ that came out a couple of years ago but that came out at a time when more and more people were questioning the ‘fat is bad, sugar is fine’ hypothesis that we’d been literally force-fed since the 1970’s. That mentality helped to prop up the fast food industry that we are now blaming for our fat guts but is it overly simplistic to think that fat in equals fat on? I absolutely think so.  Indeed, todays health food market has gone mad for coconut oil as a ‘healthy’ fat which indeed it may be but it’s still saturated so my point of it maybe not being the ‘saturated’ part that’s an issue looks quite likely.

I’d say to people who peddle the ‘if it isn’t healthy to eat I don’t want it in my product’ to ditch the sugar scrubs, the salt thickened shampoo and the alcoholic skin toner too, please.

So, to spell it out a bit clearer I’d bet my bottom dollar that if there are any problems in eating these artificially saturated vegetable fats it’s got more to do with the longer chain length and what that might do to the chain shape than the process of adding hydrogen.  I do agree that saturating vegetable oils and then eating them MAY/ COULD/ MIGHT cause issues though but I do not agree that these issues are relevant to cosmetics just as using a salt scrub that contains 70-90% salt is probably deadly if eaten but will cause no trouble at all to use as a topical scrub.

See, looking at that what we are generally doing when we hydrogenated a vegetable oil is turning the Oleic, Linoleic and Linolenic Acids into Stearic Acids and I don’t know a single customer of mine that has an issue with stearic acid (unless it is the issue of it being palm derived which is a different thing issue altogether).

I’ve come across lots of formulation problems that can be fixed or somewhat addressed by the addition of a hydrogenated vegetable oil in one or another format so my advice to brand owners, product purchasers and beauty warriors is to look past your prejudice with this one if you have it as really, this is a pretty nifty little ingredient on so many levels and with input levels of usually between 1-10% across a whole range of different formulations you’d surely have to eat a lot of product before you super-saturated yourself now wouldn’t you!


PS: Hydrogenated vegetable oil (non palm derivative) can be used to replace beeswax in balm formulations if used alongside vegetable waxes as it helps to build some flexibility that veggie waxes don’t always bring to a formula.

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