Plant extracts - yes or no?

What are some convincing arguments against the use of plant extracts in cosmetic products? Please address this matter in detail. 

Comments

  • MarkBroussardMarkBroussard Member, Professional Chemist
    @ifamju:

    This is a very broad question and the only answer is:  It depends

    Inherent in the question is that all plant extracts are the same ... they're not.  Commercial preparations of plant extracts are generally comprised of approximately 8% plant extract and 92% solvent (water, glycerin, butlene glycol).  So, if you add 1% of a commercial plant extract to a formula, the actual amount of plant extract is quite small and you can deduce for yourself if you think this will have any effect.

    A better, albeit much more expensive approach is to use purified extracts of the biologically-active component of the plant extract.  For instance, there is a huge difference between adding an aqueous Greeen Tea Extract and a concentrate of the Green Tea active Polyphenols and Epigallocatechin Gallate.

      
    Chemist/Microbiologist formulating in the Organic & Naturals & Clean Beauty arena under ECOCert/Natural Products Assn/Whole Foods/National Organic Program/Clean At Sephora/Credo Clean guidelines focused skincare & haircare products. 

    See website for details www.desertinbloomcosmeticslab.com
  • PerryPerry Administrator, Professional Chemist
    My best arguments against using plant extracts.

    1. They have minimal to no impact on performance. The reality is that the amount of plant extract that is in the typical formula has no effect on the product performance. If you compared a product with and without a plant extract there would be no difference. As @MarkBroussard pointed out above there is very little plant material in an extract. When put in a finished formula the amount is cut by even more. We used to use 0.01% of a plant extract that was 1% active.

    2.  Their use is misleading & misinforms consumers.  A consequence of argument 1 is that using extracts in formulating tricks consumers into buying products they might not necessarily want. It also spreads misinformation that plants have some benefit that they aren't proven to have. This also helps propagates the natural fallacy which leads to increased chemophobia.

    3. They are filled with potential allergens.  Plant extracts are made up of numerous chemicals many of which we haven't even determined yet. Each type of molecule in a formula is a potential allergen. So, using plant extracts (that have no benefit at low levels) is simply increasing the potential of negative reactions in your formula. And if you use extracts at higher levels with the thought that using more might have more of an observable effect, you increase the chances of a negative reaction. 

    4.  They represent an extra microbial risk.  Naturally derived materials are more contaminated by wild microbes than synthetic materials. So, using extracts increasing microbial risk and also leads to the requirement of a higher load of preservatives in a formula. Since preservatives can have negative consumer reactions, you have now increased that problem too.

    5.  They are environmentally wasteful. We have a limited amount of land available for humanity. Using farm land to grow ingredients for using in cosmetic products rather than food seems morally dubious & unethical to me.  

    Thanks for making me think about this. I may bring up some of these questions in our upcoming IFSCC Natural Formulating debate. Be sure to sign up! 
  • PharmaPharma Member, Pharmacist
    I think the idea of using plants and extracts thereof quite charming... however, as @Perry mentioned, they are mostly added for claims only. If you add more of truly active ingredients, you'll quickly have a drug and no longer a cosmetic product.
    Regarding his point N°5: Some of the used materials are actually upcycled waste materials such as extracts from wood or fruit pulp or proteins and phytosterols/waxes from oil pressing and refining, respectively. On the down side, as soon as the consumer realises that, my point of 'charming' becomes a dream shattered.
    Therefore, I use extracts (and pure constituents thereof) for medicinal products but only (fairly) pure constituents such as magnolia extract (magnolol & honokiol) and chitosan or synthetic/fermentation versions thereof like paeonol, anisic and levulinic acid for cosmetics. The latter may have some pharmacological effects but mainly serve the formulation itself (preservative, antioxidant, gelling agent etc.).
    However, the main reason why I don't use cosmetic extracts is what @MarkBroussard said: They are mostly just solvents of not well defined composition with an unknown amount of an unknown plant extract of unknown chemical composition. You just buy a (usually haggard or long dead) pig in a poke and sell it for fairy dust and unicorn glitter.
  • MarkBroussardMarkBroussard Member, Professional Chemist
    For those of you who may not be familiar with the category of products marketed as Stem Cell extracts ... this gets to Perry's point about the shear amount of biomass required to product plant extracts.

    What is marketed as Stem Cells are actually plant extracts that are manufactured using the plant stem cells.  The marketing sleight on hand is that you have plant stems cells as an ingredient.  No, you have plant extracts as an ingredient that are manufacutured using plant stem cells.  Those plant stem cell derived plant extracts are not much different than plant extracts derived from biomass.  It is a much cleaner, and less wasteful, way to derive plant extracts than processing tons of biomass.
    Chemist/Microbiologist formulating in the Organic & Naturals & Clean Beauty arena under ECOCert/Natural Products Assn/Whole Foods/National Organic Program/Clean At Sephora/Credo Clean guidelines focused skincare & haircare products. 

    See website for details www.desertinbloomcosmeticslab.com
  • PharmaPharma Member, Pharmacist
    IMHO apple stem cell extract is like sterile factory grown apple juice. It requires quite a bit of resources (many of which are petroleum based -> I did work with cell cultures for years, it's expensive) to grow stem cells and I'd still like to see some number on how much goes into a stem cell culture/extract compared to how much it costs to produce a clean 'normal' apple juice which comes from an actual tree on a green meadow... Sure, most apples grow on pedigree trees in monocultures but the fist apple stem cell extract which got the boom kicked off has been invented in Switzerland from an heirloom standard tree apple variety (Uttwiler Spätlauber) which usually grows on mixed culture land or scattered throughout farmland and enriches nature, gives homes to hundreds of species, from insects over birds to mammals. Replacing that with a concrete, steel and glass factory... Who in his right mind could possibly do that and think it's better or more environmentally friendly, cleaner, and less wasteful than planting real apple trees (better yet, eat instead of cream apples, they're delicious)?
  • PhilGeisPhilGeis Member, Professional formulator
     
    In addition to above - can be extracts very inconsistent in composition from batch to batch and can include pesticides.
    Broader market expansion of supply is problematic - it's driven invasive species into naive regions.  UN Industrial Development Organization also complained that subsistence farmers converted to cash crops - essential oils, plant extracts - they and their families starved during market declines.  

    One should also ask - why plant extracts?  For this, encourage you sign up for the debate Perry has scheduled on the subject.
  • I can only echo a few key points above:

    I think @MarkBroussard 's point about actual extracts vs "pre-packaged" commercial preparations of extracts is an important one -- maybe not a reason to not use plant extracts, per se, but definitely something important to keep in mind for formulators.  You have to read the semi-fine print.

    And @Perry's important point about environmental waste:  consider estimates that it takes 4 to 5 dozen roses to produce a single drop of rose oil.

    Also, as has been discussed a couple times on this forum, because many extracts are highly pigmented (e.g., pomegranate) and alter the color of the final product, formulators very often are forced to use only a small percentage of each active.  Again, this is not a reason to avoid using plant extracts, but something to keep in mind in terms of how seriously to take the bragging rights of consumer product packaging that mentions certain natural actives.

    Regardless, I'm still an all-natural baby.  o:)
  • RedCoastRedCoast Member
    edited March 2021
    Another point to add: the usefulness of plant extracts, even when they're in the "right" concentration, also depends on the formulation. It may require penetration enhancers like oleic acid or specific emulsions, like W/O or microemulsions, to show any good effect. The chances for a plant extract to have any observable effect are nil, which means it's a wasted ingredient.

    Regarding @Perry 's points #3 and #4:

    Don't underestimate those points. The push for "natural" products also simultaneously demonized "synthetic" preservatives like parabens and formaldehyde-releasers, which are the most effective preservatives for extract-containing products. So, manufacturers created "natural" substitutes, which aren't as effective and tend to have higher rates of irritant and allergic contact dermatitis, even in people who don't have sensitive skin. In the scientific community, the consensus is that we're underestimating rates of irritant and allergic contact dermatitis from plant extracts and "natural" preservatives, especially in the United States.
  • What about THIS.
  • PerryPerry Administrator, Professional Chemist
    @amitvedakar - One study, on a minimal number of volunteers, with subjective ratings, not comparing it to the gold standard treatment, hydroquinone?  What is it about that study that you found compelling?
  • PhilGeisPhilGeis Member, Professional formulator
    What about THIS.
    This is an advertisement - these folks have a patent on the stuff.  Here's the technical report: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32089252/.  It's in an obscure journal (cite score ~1) likely because it's a pretty weak study and a "me too" report.  Many plant extracts have been reported to lighten skin.  To your apparent point - yes, extracts can have some cosmetic activity.

    This report:
    The stuff probably has an effect - but no idea if its more than technical as in vivo efficacy described is not compelling and ingredient safety is more than irritation.  There's no analysis of litchi "standardized" material.

    In testing - there is no positive control that calibrates efficacy in either study.  Forearm study had skin darkening on its own (more so that litchi lightening) and the base (no litchi) showed efficacy. Why was skin darkening and would an effect been observed without the darkening?   What would a commerical product have achieved?  
    The facial study was uncontrolled and no idea how grading was accomplished - was skin darkening here too?  Why no control base formula (that itself previously showed efficacy, and  why no calibration to a relevant commercial product?
  • PhilGeis said:
    What about THIS.
    This is an advertisement - these folks have a patent on the stuff.  Here's the technical report: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32089252/.  It's in an obscure journal (cite score ~1) likely because it's a pretty weak study and a "me too" report.  Many plant extracts have been reported to lighten skin.  To your apparent point - yes, extracts can have some cosmetic activity.

    This report:
    The stuff probably has an effect - but no idea if its more than technical as in vivo efficacy described is not compelling and ingredient safety is more than irritation.  There's no analysis of litchi "standardized" material.

    In testing - there is no positive control that calibrates efficacy in either study.  Forearm study had skin darkening on its own (more so that litchi lightening) and the base (no litchi) showed efficacy. Why was skin darkening and would an effect been observed without the darkening?   What would a commerical product have achieved?  
    The facial study was uncontrolled and no idea how grading was accomplished - was skin darkening here too?  Why no control base formula (that itself previously showed efficacy, and  why no calibration to a relevant commercial product?
    You will always find weak study like this from Thailand since hydroquinone is prohibited so they are on the mission to find new potential skin whitening ingredient and stuff.

    There are some promising plant extracts with better studies from government funded labs but the patents cost a ton of gold coins. 

  • amitvedakaramitvedakar Member
    edited March 2021
    Well  Thank You.
    If we put study a side.
    Is not there any effect (more/less) of active contain of extract.
    As extract is now available in the form of active (Saponin, Tannin, Flavonoid, Anthocyanin) contain in%.
    Cannot we say we have lack of research?
    Thank you.

  • PerryPerry Administrator, Professional Chemist
    @amitvedakar - if there is an effect of an active contained in the extract, then it would make more sense to just isolate the active and use that. Using the whole extract just results in a diluted, less effective version of the ingredient. 

    Often this is how drugs are discovered. They find a plant extract that does something. They isolate what makes it work and then turn that into a drug. The rest of the stuff in the extract is gotten rid of.

  • Perry said:
    @amitvedakar - if there is an effect of an active contained in the extract, then it would make more sense to just isolate the active and use that. Using the whole extract just results in a diluted, less effective version of the ingredient. 
    Got It. Thank you.
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