While perusing the Twin Cities Holistic Cosmetic show last week I noticed lots of different types of cosmetic raw materials targeted towards the “natural” cosmetic formulating market. And it occurred to me that not everyone means the same thing when they talk about the idea of natural formulating. In our Natural Cosmetic Formulating course we spend a good amount of the first module talking about what is considered “natural”. It comes down to this, there are really 3 levels of natural cosmetic formulating.
- Formulating to a standard
- Formulating from nature
Level 3 – Greenwashing Cosmetics
Of these three options, the one that is the most prevalent in the cosmetic industry is the formulation strategy of greenwashing. Greenwashing is the method in which you take a standard cosmetic formula, use standard ingredients, but dress up the final product in a green & natural outfit. You give it a natural name (maybe even the word ‘natural’), you make it look & smell natural, you add some natural extracts, you write about those prominently on your packaging and in advertising, and finally, you put it in a package that evokes the idea of naturalness.
This type of formulating has been going on for years and it continues to be successfully used in the market. From a manufacturers standpoint, the benefits of greenwashing are many. The formulas are less expensive, they work better, they are easier to make and consumers purchase them. A common greenwashing brand is Aveeno who’s tagline “Active Naturals” seems a bit disingenuous when you discover their products are loaded with standard skin care technologies. They advertise Soy, Seaweed and Shiitake, but we know that the Petrolatum, Mineral Oil and Dimethicone in their formulas are what really make them work.
Right now, Aveeno is over a $100 million a year brand which makes it the second largest brand in the “natural” cosmetic market. Burts Bees is the largest in case you were wondering.
Level 2 – Formulating to a standard
While there is nothing wrong with greenwashing, some consumers and groups find it unsettling. For this reason a number of organizations have put together their own standards of what they consider to be natural. This includes groups like the National Sanitation Foundation, the Natural Products Association, Ecocert, The Soil Association, NaTrue, Whole Foods, and more. I bet there are over 100 organizations around the world who have compiled some natural standards for creating cosmetic products.
The basic notion of this type of formulating is that the standard creating group goes through cosmetic ingredient data and decides which ingredients are natural and which ones aren’t. Essentially, they take the 15,000+ ingredients listed in the INCI dictionary that are available for cosmetic formulators and reduce it to a couple thousand ingredients. Think of it as taking a box of 64 crayons, reducing it to 20 then asking you to make the best picture you possibly can. Sure, you can still make a nice picture but will it be as nice as the one you could make with the box of 64 crayons?
Anyway, a number of brands follow this natural formulating strategy to varying levels of success. If you want to sell products in the Whole Foods chain of stores you have to follow their Whole Foods acceptable ingredient list (or banned list really). Burts Bees and Say Yes to Carrots have their own standards to follow.
Are these products really more “natural” than the greenwashed products? I don’t know. Nature really hasn’t created any suitable, natural surfactants and there isn’t a shampoo tree so on some level there is processing going on. However, a case could be made that these products are better for the environment and more sustainable than ones made from petroleum products. They are also less susceptible to claims of greenwashing which can have a negative impact on sales.
Level 1 – Cosmetics from Nature
In the time before synthetic chemistry people still managed to make cosmetic creams and lotions. In fact, an ancient Roman cosmetic tin was found to contain a 2000 year old cream. This product was made up of animal fat, starch, and tin oxide from a mineral called cassiterite. Anyway, type of formula would be considered a Level 1 natural formula. You take only ingredients that you can find in nature and turn them into cosmetics without any fancy processing or chemistry.
As you can imagine, this severely limits the number and types of cosmetics you could actually make. There really aren’t any natural cleansing surfactants so shampoos and body washes are out. It’s incredibly difficult to preserve your product without a synthetic preservative so most water based formulas are out. That leaves you with creams and lotions like the ancient Roman formula, beeswax based makeup products, and other technologies that were once used by society but were replaced by superior performing synthetic ingredients.
Still, this is a viable way to make certain types of cosmetic formulas. It’s just that you will have a very difficult time creating a successful product line using a level 1 natural formulation strategy. There aren’t any big brands on the market who have done it yet.
The best way to formulate naturally?
Which way is best? I don’t know. That’s really up to you and your company. Ultimately, if you want to have a successful cosmetic product line you are going to have to find a group of consumers who want to buy your products. If you can find enough people who like your story and your products, you could be successful with any of these formulation strategies. In some ways, greenwashing is the easiest but level 2 and level 1 formulation strategies will also appeal to a certain type of consumer. There will also be less competition there.
But remember, if no one is buying your product or they don’t like the way that it works after they’ve tried it, you probably don’t have a product worth making.