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On Formulating a Greener Shampoo

Next week I’m giving a talk on cosmetic sustainability at the Southwest SCC monthly meeting. It should be fun. This is a hot topic in the cosmetic industry and it is particularly of interest to formulators who are interested in creating “Natural” formulations.

In preparing the talk, I investigated natural and sustainable formulations and thought you might be interested in what it takes to create a natural shampoo formulation.

Natural Shampoos

Shampoos are made up of only a few types of ingredients including…
1. Diluent (usually water)
2. Surfactant (primary & secondary)
3. Thickener
4. Preservative
5. Fragrance
6. Colorant
7. Conditioning ingredient
8. Feature ingredient

For standard shampoos, “synthetic ingredients” are typically used for everything except the diluent and the feature ingredients. Finding natural alternatives for the rest of the cosmetic ingredients is the challenge of the natural formulator. Here are some options.

Natural Surfactants

There are not many options for truly natural surfactants. It turns out that nature just doesn’t make many that work great for cleaning. Certainly not for creating the foam that people expect from a shampoo. Your best options for a sustainable, acceptably natural surfactant are Alkylpolygulcosides. Decyl Polyglucoside is made from starch and a fatty alcohol and can work. You’ll need to add a secondary surfactant to improve it’s foaming.

Natural Thickeners

One problem with using a natural surfactant like APG is that it won’t thicken up readily when you add salt. Therefore, you have to add a thickening agent. A variety of natural gums can be used including Guar gum, Karaya gum, and xanthan gum. You have to experiment to get the right thickness without making the formula feel too slimy.

Natural preservatives

It’s tough to find something that will work well enough and still be considered “natural”. However, you can try any of the natural preservatives we’ve previously suggested. Phenoxyethanol and benzoic acid are commonly used.

Natural Fragrance

For fragrance you can pretty much use a number of the different essential oil available. It’s not difficult to make a decent smelling, all-natural fragrance. However, it is more expensive.

Natural Colorants

There are a number of options for natural colors. Annatto is used to make red and orange products. Chlorophyll can be used to make green colors. Other natural colorants would include berry extracts, red oak bark, henna and walnut. Unfortunately, natural colors are prone to oxidation and can degrade over time.

Natural Conditioning Agents

There are not many that are as effective as polymeric conditioners or silicones. You can try things like banana pulp derivatives, plant gums, chitin and chitosan. Also, natural oils and waxes may be suitable options.

Formulating natural products is much more difficult than standard formulating. The products will tend to be more expensive, be less aesthetically appealing, and will not work as well. It’s just really difficult to make the best performing products when you aren’t allowed to use all the ingredients available. However, with trial and error you can make suitably natural formulations that will appeal to consumers concerned with sustainability.

{ 10 comments… add one }

  • Christine 11/03/2011, 9:30 pm

    Hi Perry. Will there be a similar course onHow To Knock Off Natural Cosmetic Formulas? This is the field I would most be interested in.

    • Perry 11/04/2011, 7:05 am

      Hello Christine,

      Yes, there is a Naturals Cosmetic course coming soon.

  • Piernik 10/21/2011, 4:47 pm

    Nice summary, thanks!
    Recently I’ve come across something called Bamboo Bioferment and apparently it can be natural alternative for silicones (sounds kind of reasonable since bamboo is quite rich in silica). What do you think about it? Have you used it yet?

    As for “natural” foam booster. I think I’ve read somewhere that glycerine can do that. Is that true, or I just mixed something up?

  • Duncan 10/17/2011, 1:29 pm

    Yucca extract can do a bit of foaming (Desert King do a good one) but the colour is very dark when you use high concentration.
    but yes you’re right in that man made surfactants are the way to get decent foam with a hair friendly pH. Soap, has too high a pH and can cause felting

    • Eliza 10/18/2011, 8:29 am

      Thanks Duncan, I’ll look that up! Also found some research on soap nuts and soapwort, both botanicals with some foam properties.

      • Jill Jones 11/27/2011, 9:05 am

        Eliza, I used to grow soapwort in my herb garden, mostly just for the novelty of it. While it does have “soap” qualities, washing my hair with it would be a last resort.

  • Eliza 10/17/2011, 6:11 am

    Lovely information, Perry, thank you! Looking forward to the natural formulating course :) I found broccoli seed oil to work well in a small % as a conditioning agent together with virgin coconut oil.
    Any natural foam boosters you know of?
    And do you think it would help to add an antioxidant like Tocopherol to prevent natural coloring from fading?
    Thank you!

    • Perry 10/17/2011, 6:26 am

      Thanks Eliza. No, I don’t think adding Tocopherol will have much impact on natural color fading. However, it does depend on the system and it could possibly help. It’s just not likely.

      Natural foam boosters depends on what you consider “natural”. Most things that boost foam require some chemical processing. (e.g. disodium cocoamphodiacetate)

      • Eliza 10/18/2011, 8:27 am

        Thanks, Perry. Didn’t set my definition of ‘natural’ yet ;) I mostly look for ‘different’, ‘plant based’ or ‘biodegradable’ or ‘minimum or green chemical processing’ ingredients and weigh in price, compatibility, effectiveness, scientific data etc.
        I do have some DCAD and it stinks! Meaning its smell is really heard to cover up…

        • Jill Jones 11/27/2011, 9:08 am

          I have found “natural” colorants such as herbs, etc tend to fade rather quickly and some turn odd colors depending on the formulation they are in and the environment of a steamy bathroom doesn’t help. If I am making an “all natural” product I typically leave colorant out and put it in a colored bottle.

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