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Taming Nature in a Bottle

posted on Jan 29, 2010
Taming Nature in a Bottle
In an age of technology, it may seem confounding that one of the most challenging tasks for chemists is to keep a cosmetic formulation as natural as the plant the ingredients came from. But capturing the simple purity of nature in a modern formulation without resorting to any manmade chemicals, according to Cosmetic Chemist, is not an easy task. "The modern day consumer isn't partial to the crude formulations of yesteryear" he says, referring to the time where toners were plants steeped in alcohol and applied straight to the skin, and moisturizers were nothing more than greasy unguents infused with herbs and plants.

"Consumers expect high performance from their skincare. They have been exposed to and are therefore accustomed to the consistent and smooth texture of synthetic formulations", says our Chemist, "one that lathers perfectly, isn't greasy, smells beautiful, and glides on the skin". But he believes there is a growing desire for natural ingredients which he says poses a challenge as, natural emulsifiers, surfactants and preservatives, basically all the ingredients you need to make a nice homogenous cosmetic cream are often a lot more volatile to work with than their synthetic counterparts. "We can manipulate synthetics to behave how we want, and smell how we want, but nature's offerings are far harder to tame". Certain plants says our Chemist like soapwort for example will create a very mild and gentle lather, but from a tactile perspective, it is not nearly as impressive as the visual drama of a synthetic ingredient such as sodium lauryl sulfate, a surfactant that creates big and impressive bubbles. "However", he adds, "people with sensitive skin swear by the skin health benefits of soapwort", and sodium lauryl sulfate now carries health warnings on some products in the US.

In the past, synthetic ingredients have been the preferred choice of cosmetic brands over natural ingredients because of their reasonable price point. However stresses our Chemist, there are other benefits. "Synthetic preservatives for example are far easier to use, more predictable in what and how they preserve, and offer better broad spectrum protection, meaning they target a wider variety of bacteria and fungi".

Preservatives are an essential component in a cosmetic for a variety of reasons: They help preserve the goodness of the ingredients for longer; thwart the growth of bacteria and fungi in your product that if left unchecked would both reduce the efficacy of its ingredients, and pose a danger to the health of the user. "If you have broken skin, any bacteria or fungi growth can cause infection", says our Chemist.

"Natural preservatives require a lot of experimentation, they need to be put in at higher levels, and more often than not one or two varieties are needed to be used in combination to attain broad spectrum coverage, says our Chemist. "There are

many natural preservatives that have anti-microbial and anti-oxidant properties including essential oils, plant extracts and vitamins and there are a few new natural preservatives on the market such as naticide that works very well used in isolation". He adds, "They won't give you the shelf life of synthetic preservatives, although if employed properly they can preserve formulations for up to two years which is actually really more than you need". Many companies, says our Chemist, use natural ingredients in combination with synthetic preservative systems because they are easier to use with other ingredients and less expensive. This is usually when a company states that their products are 99% natural.

Some natural skincare proponents argue that when a product is saturated with synthetic preservatives it loses the intrinsic nutrition and vitality of the ingredients and that they are more likely to irritate the skin than natural preservatives. They believe that natural preservatives have the benefit of working synergistically with the other natural ingredients to keep them both fresh and their skin enhancing nutrients intact.Our Chemist says, "This can be true depending on what ingredients and preservatives are used, but usually synthetic preservatives are usually put in at around 0.5%- 1%, and that is not very high". Green goers are more concerned of the cumulative effects of using small amounts of a lot of synthetic chemicals in skincare, personal care, food that will overtime compromise one's wellbeing and the health of the environment.

More recently companies working with natural preservatives are opting for special packaging systems called airless pumps to reduce the amount of air and also bacteria entering into a product, allowing them to use less of a preservative.Our Chemist says, using this kind of packaging can help preserve more sensitive formulations, but a fairly rigorous preservative system is still required.

The debate over the safety of synthetic ingredients including preservatives also is helping raise the green flag. Parabens were widely used preservatives in skincare up until recently, since they have been linked to many health problems including cancer. There are many more synthetic ingredients under the microscope by various beauty police groups, such as the Environmental Working Group in the US. The wellbeing and green revolution happening globally reflects the demand for natural and environmentally friendly products, and skincare is no exception. The natural and organic beauty business is booming and chemists who can come up with solutions to making modern organic formulations are highly sought after. Consumers desire every part of a formulation to be natural.

Our Chemist says, "Botanicals have been used for thousands of years so we have a good understanding of their dangers and benefits, whereas many of the synthetic chemicals used in skincare we don't have the basic set of safety data on. There is no denying the basic synergy that humans have with plants, when we employ them in skincare, they are healing, nourishing and rejuvenating".

There are endless scientific studies to support the efficacy of plants in skincare. For example many studies show that the chamomile flowers when used in skincare is anti-inflammatory, making it a formidable ingredient for people with inflamed or sensitive skin. "Plants are great for the complexion", says our Chemist "and they also have further benefits than just cosmetic. Essential oils for example are touted to help balance the mind and body through their scent".

Loose labeling laws in the cosmetic world mean that companies have poetic license to call their products natural and organic, when they may only contain a tiny percent of a natural ingredient. Ingredients that say "naturally derived" can also mislead the consumer. Many natural ingredients have been manipulated to become more workable in a formulation, but that will render then no longer natural, although companies claim that they come from a natural source. Coconut oil for example is rich in beneficial fatty acids, but when it is processed into Coco Betaine, a popular surfactant, it no longer carries these natural skin enhancing properties. Our Chemist says, the only real way to know that your product is completely natural and free of synthetic ingredients is if it is certified by an organic regulating body such as the ACO or OFC. "How natural a consumer wants a product is completely individual. Some people are happy if a product is 90% natural, with 10% synthetic, others want it 100% organic without as much as a drop of impurity. At new direction's we can cater for all our client's needs and their personal thresholds for how natural a product should be. We have products that are predominantly natural and also products that are100% certified organic. But of course the more natural it is, the more expensive it is going to be".

For products that don't bear the certified organic stamp, it is a good idea to become your own scientist. The percentages of natural content and synthetic content do not have to be labeled on products unless the manufacturer wants to tell you (and unless they want to make claims that it is 'certified organic'). One fool proof way of identifying the nature of a product is to assess if the ingredients list your product looks more like a biology class than chemistry class if it looks more like the first, it's a good sign that it's fairly natural. Ingredients are also listed in order of content, so hopefully those botanical sounding ingredients predominate at the top of the list. In terms of scent, there is a big difference between fragrance oils and essential oils. If the label reads grapefruit fragrance oil, not Citrus Paradisi (the botanical name for grapefruit essential oil) or grapefruit essential oil, then it is synthetic.

Unless the cosmetic manufacturer has registered their product as a therapeutic product with the TGA, mandatory for certain products such as sunscreens and topical medications, the industry is pretty well self-regulated, so it is entirely up to the manufacturer what they want to tell you. They can call a product natural when it's not and they are not required to give their products a used by date. Our Chemist says, "Most companies will carry out efficacy and stability tests of their own accord, although they don't have to. We give our clients both used by dates and batch numbers, so they can use our products with confidence". However, more and more natural Australian products on the market sport opened jar logos, with a period of time demarcated alongside it. This is very popular in Europe and lets the consumer know how long the product will last once opened. Our Chemist believes that this will become mandatory in the future.

Our Chemist says there are ways to help keep your more natural creams fresher for longer. Firstly he says to keep your paws out of your creams. "Every time you put your fingers in your products you introduce bacteria. So if possible use a spatula or cotton wool bud. Keeping your products in the fridge will also help". However he says most products by reputable companies using natural preservatives should have a shelf life of at least one year and give you a minimum of six months once opened. He also recommends buying products as you need them, keeping them as fresh as possible. "If your product changes colour, smell or consistency it's a sign that the formulation has become unstable, then it's a good sign that it's probably time to bin it", says our Chemist.

Examples of natural preservatives

  • Grapefruit seed extract
  • Rosemary extract (anti-oxidant)
  • Vitamin E (anti-oxidant)
  • Essential oils
  • Naticide ( a new 'natural' preservative that is very effective in most formulations)
  • Benzyl alcohol
  • Ethanol
Synthetic preservatives
  • Parabens

  • Phenoxyethanol

  • Hydromethylglycinate (although often it is termed, 'naturally derived')

  • Synthetic preservatives accepted by organic governing bodies for organic and natural products.

  • Potassium sorbate (a food grade preservative

New Directions is the one stop shop for people desiring premium natural ingredients and products at a wholesale cost. They also offer state of the art manufacturing and packaging services for those looking to start their own brand.

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