Sustainability and the Cosmetic Chemist

This was an excerpt from a talk I did on sustainability and the cosmetic industry.

Everywhere you look around the cosmetic industry you hear about sustainability. This trend will no doubt continue and change the way a cosmetic chemist approaches formulation. While every company and chemist will be effected differently, there are a few general concepts that will be applicable to your future formulation efforts.

Consumers and quality.

The first thing to know is that no matter what the consumers tell you, most will not sacrifice quality for natural and sustainable products. Above all, people want products that work. I spent many hours behind two-way mirrors listening to feedback about natural products. People say they want natural, safe and sustainable products but they buy things that work. As a formulator you need to focus on creating products that work. Of course, I’ve found that most consumers have a difficult time telling the difference between formulas so even if your sustainable products don’t work quite as well, that isn’t a crucial problem.

Consumers will not sacrifice quality for sustainability

More difficult job.

By adhering to sustainable principles you can make products that will work adequately enough for most people. In fact, most people will accept your product as long as it meets some minimum performance standard. But adhering to standards that prevent you from using non-sustainable ingredients (e.g. petroleum derived) you are handcuffing yourself and are doomed to make inferior performing products when compared to your equally competent, but unimpaired, competing cosmetic chemist. All things being equal, your formulas will be inferior to the best that can be made (at the moment).

Fortunately, the thing about science is that all of this can change with a new discovery. There may be some natural, renewable, sustainable, affordable ingredient out there that moisturizes better than petrolatum but it hasn’t been found yet. What is certain is that your job as a cosmetic formulator will be more difficult.

Benefits to the cosmetic chemist.

Of course, this isn’t all bad for cosmetic scientists. In fact, there is a lot that is good about the sustainability and natural movement when it comes to cosmetic chemists.

Job security. First, it bodes well for job security. You are undoubtedly going to have much more work to reformulate all your perfectly fine products to meet whatever sustainability guidelines your company is following. At a former company we expended a lot of effort to remove Lauramide DEA from all of our shampoo and body wash formulas. Half the lab was focused on just figuring out a solution to remove an ingredient that has never been shown to be harmful to anyone. Yet we did it just because there was enough bad press about DEAs that our company thought it made good business sense. And perhaps it did. It certainly meant a lot of work for the cosmetic chemists. But it also meant an interesting new challenge to solve. Unfortunately, it didn’t provide any real new benefit to the consumers.

Increased creativity. A more important benefit of the sustainability movement is that it will force you to be more creative with your formulations and could lead to innovative new solutions. There was recently a movement to get rid of sulfates from shampoos. There are currently enough people who believe sulfates are bad (say they are toxic, not sustainable, or just bad for your hair) that companies started to move towards new options. One recent innovation was the development of powdered shampoos. This technology is radically different than standard surfactant technology and was an interesting challenge to turn it into a product that people would buy. We’ll see how long these types of sulfate free, water free formulas last but at the moment they are carving out a significant niche.

In a future article, we’ll talk about strategies for addressing the sustainability trend in your formulation efforts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *