Greenwashing – A Cosmetic Chemists Guide

I saw that there was going to be a masterclass on greenwashing so I thought I would add my two cents about the different levels of greenwashing prevalent in the cosmetic industry.  If you’re a formulator, you’ll have to decide for yourself what type of “natural” formulating you are comfortable with.  Here are what I call the 5 levels of formulation greenwashing.

Level 1 – Naturally named

The first form of greenwashed formulating is where you create a standard product but give it a green, natural, granola crunching name.  The driving belief behind this type of formulating is that consumers do not look at ingredient lists and are more focused on the product name / design.  This is a slightly cynical form of natural formulating, however, it was regularly practiced in the mid to late 1990’s by cosmetic companies.  The reason?  It was effective.  On some level, it is still effective which is why you can still find contract manufacturers who will produce products using this formulation strategy.  It’s the least expensive way to formulate a natural cosmetic product.

Level 2 – A Pinch of Nature

This type of greenwashing is still prevalent representing a large segment of the natural cosmetic product market.  Essentially, you formulate a standard product then load it up with low levels of natural extracts, oils, and other green sounding ingredients.  The ingredients have no measurable impact on the performance of the product, but they do have important functions.  They allow the marketers to talk about the ingredients in the story and they compel people to buy the products.  The last time I got my hair cut, I was told by the stylist about her favorite product brand.  It was based on Aloe.  When I looked at the ingredient list, I saw standard ingredients like Cocamidopropyl Betaine and Sodium Cocyl Sarconsinate followed by Aloe.

Since this type of greenwashing is effective it is unlikely to go out of fashion in the cosmetic industry.  You can create inexpensive formulas that are highly functional and still appealing to people who are concerned with using natural or organic products.  Until there are required industry standards, this will not go away.

Level 3 – Natural Substitutions

This next level of greenwash formulating is a little closer to actual green or natural formulation.  Following these techniques the cosmetic formulator attempts to replace standard ingredients with ones that sound like natural ingredients.  So, rather than using Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, the formulator chooses Sodium Cocoyl Sulfate.  Afterall, Cocoyl = coconut = natural right?  The other thing that is done is to put the origin of the raw material source in the list of ingredients.  You’ll see ingredient lists that look something like this…

Water, Decyl, Lauryl Glucosides (Natural Coconut Oil, Corn, Starch, Sugar Soap Blend), Coco Betaine (Coconut Oil Moisturizer), Soy Protein, Coco Glucoside, Glyceryl Oleate (Natural Sunflower, Coconut Oil Soap Blend), Surcrose Laurate (Sugar Ester), Vegetable Glycerin, Betaine (Sugar Beet), Glucose Sugar, Fragrance, Orange Oil, Anise Oil, Lemon (Citrus Medica Limonium) Oil, Vanilla (Vanilla Planifolia) Extract, Clove Oil, Xanthan Gum (Natural Thickener), Glucose Oxidase, Lactoperoxidase

Of course, almost none of these ingredients occur in nature but the marketers figure if they put the ingredient origin consumers won’t mistake some unnatural sounding ingredient like Glyceryl Oleate for something that came from petroleum.

The challenge with this type of greenwashing formulation is that you restrict yourself to fewer ingredients.  This makes the formulas cost more to produce and reduces their functionality.  But huge natural cosmetic companies have been built using this greenwashed strategy.

Level 4 – Having some standards

The fourth level of greenwashing is the closest you can get to natural formulating without actually being natural formulation.  Cosmetic chemists who follow this strategy replace standard ingredients with raw materials designated on some organic standards list.  You can see this post about cosmetic organic standards for a list.  It’s much harder to produce these products because things like preservatives, standard surfactants, fragrance ingredients, and even some thickeners are not allowed to be used.

Valerie recently expressed the frustration that formulators face trying to create products up to the Whole Foods cosmetic standards.  I still consider this type of formulating greenwashing because while the formulators do follow some level of standards, the standards are arbitrarily chosen and the ingredients are frequently the result of some type of chemical reaction.  For the cosmetic formulator creating acceptably functional products following this path is probably the hardest type of formulating you’ll do.  The ingredients cost more and the products don’t work as well.  However, this area of formulation is getting the most attention from cosmetic manufacturers.  And if you want to know more about how to do this, you might find our natural cosmetic formulation report helpful.

Level 5 – Truly natural

Finally, we get to true green and natural formulating.  Formulators who follow this path create cosmetics using only ingredients found in nature.  They stick to naturally occurring oils, unadulterated plant extracts and other things that require minimal processing to use.  Of course, this type of formulating is severely limited since there are practically no naturally occurring surfactants.  The products do not feel nearly as good as standard cosmetic products and they have limited functionality.  They also can be dangerous due to a lack of preservatives.

There will be a small audience for these types of products however, the reality is that consumers might say they would compromise functionality for more natural cosmetics but they don’t purchase that way.  It’s unlikely that this type of formulating will ever become a significant part of the cosmetic industry.

Which one is best?

This leaves us with a question, which type of natural formulating is the best?  Well this depends on your goals, standards, and business ethics.

If your goal is to make money right now, Greenwashing level 2 is the way to go.  In the future, consumers may become a bit more savvy, governments might start new regulations and distribution outlets may increase their standards.  If this happens Greenwashing level 3 will take over as the most important type.  You’ll still be able to make comparably functional formulas and only increase cost a little.

If your goal is to be a green formulator and you’ve embraced the concept of natural formulation, then level 4 or level 5 is where you should be.  You won’t make as much money and the products won’t work as well but at least your integrity will be intact.



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