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Consumer Products

What is a sustainable personal care ingredient?

The scope and emphasis of green was in debate at the Barcelona event

by Craig Bettenhausen
April 5, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 12


A woman in PPE transfers a thick liquid from a bottle to a beaker for mixing.
Credit: Evonik Industries
Participants at Evonik Industries' Formulation Lab event got a chance to make a cleansing gel with a new sophorolipid surfactant.

The conversation between the chemical industry and its cosmetics customers was back in lively form at in-Cosmetics Global 2023, held in Barcelona March 28-30. The roster of companies offering ingredients included chemical giants like BASF, small specialists such as the freeze-dried mollusk mucus firm Ukrainian Snail Holding, and everything in between.

A wide range of testing labs, formulators, and other service providers joined a handful of equipment makers to round out a trade show with more than 900 exhibitors and 11,000 attendees.

Sustainability was a major theme throughout the event, as it has been for several years. But differences in emphasis overshadowed the conversation this year.

Among personal care companies, biobased content, biodegradability, and low aquatic toxicity are the focus of environmental claims and concerns. The chemical industry, however, is concentrating more and more on net greenhouse gas emissions.

Laura Schlebes, who leads sustainability programs at the plant oil and derivative provider AAK, said in a public talk that the personal care industry may lack forethough when it comes to carbon dioxide. At the same time, the disruption brought by the shift toward low-carbon products presents an opportunity. “CO2 can be a stepping stone to holistic innovations in supply chains,” she said.

A perfume bottle full of little clear spheres.
Credit: Craig Bettenhausen/C&EN
Among visual effects, encapsulation was all the rage at in-Cosmetics Global 2023. One example was this cologne from the start-up Microcaps.

For chemical majors such as Dow, the tension is palpable. Isabel Almiro do Vale, the firm’s global marketing and strategy director for personal care, told C&EN that at the corporate level, carbon intensity is the number 1 lever for sustainability. But at the customer and consumer level in her markets, the concern is more broad-based.

As one way to balance those demands, Dow launched a handful of ingredients that reduce the need for environmentally troublesome ingredients. Three new fermented surfactants, for example, have lower embodied emissions than the petroleum-derived surfactants they can displace. A functionalized polysaccharide called Dexcare, meanwhile, reduces the amount of silicone needed in hair conditioners by improving their deposition behavior. Silicone is used in many skin and hair care products to impart a dry smoothness, but it is usually not biodegradable.

Using clever chemistry to lower loading levels for active and functional ingredients was part of the strategy for a number of exhibitors at the show. Sharon Personal Care showcased delivery systems that CEO Naama Eylon said can reduce the use of certain ingredients by making them penetrate precisely to the layer of skin where they have been shown to elicit a specific biological response or produce a functional benefit.

Sun protection ingredients, for example, should stay on the surface, she said. But the polyphenol quercetin needs to land right between the dermis and epidermis layers, where it can stabilize that junction to help skin look and feel tight.

In a similar vein, the US synthetic biology start-up Curie Co was at the show looking for new customers for its enzymatic preservative, which CEO Erika Milczek said can fight off spoilage microbes at 1% of the concentrations needed for synthetic antimicrobials. Milczek said her firm is one of several taking tools honed by the pharmaceutical industry and applying them to cosmetics and personal care.

Waterless products and other concentrated formats, which are trending in both home and personal care, offer a more straightforward sustainability pitch: Water is heavy, so why burn fossil fuels to ship it around the world? Solid shampoo made a showing again this year, joined by toothpaste tablets and ready-to-wet powdered cleansers in sample formulations by companies such as JRS, Stepan, and Jungbunzlauer.

This year’s meeting also brought news for biosurfactants, an emerging class of molecules that feature hydrophilic sugar heads attached to hydrophobic fatty acid tails. At a formulation workshop, Evonik Industries put its new sophorolipid offering in the hands of cosmetic chemists.

Dow and Solvay also launched sophorolipids at the show. Biosurfactants often have a lower carbon footprint than surfactants based on tropical oil crops or petrochemicals because they are made by fermentation, but they are hampered by high cost and limited availability.

Good news on that front came midway through the conference for Richard Lock, managing director at the biosurfactant maker Holiferm. The start-up has been commissioning the first commercial-scale production line at its facility near Liverpool, England. As Lock worked the exposition floor, the team back home loaded the first 400 kg truckload into a van for delivery to a customer, part of a 10-metric-ton order.

The European Commission recently found that more than half the eco-friendly claims made by personal care brands were false or misleading, according to Barbara Olioso, CEO of the Green Chemist, a cosmetic consulting group.

Olioso, who moderated 3 days of talks at the conference’s Sustainability Theater, said the industry has work ahead of it to quash such greenwashing and win back consumer trust. Nonetheless, she said, strong green credentials are more and more the price of entry for companies looking to enter this profitable market for chemicals and materials.



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