Creating Sustainable Beauty

The renewable ingredients in our favourite lipsticks and moisturisers aren’t always as environmentally benign as we might think; discover the low down on the chemicals to avoid, and the progress being made towards a more sustainable future for the beauty industry.


Renewable alternatives to ingredients in beauty products might be leading us astray. Most of the moisturisers, grease-busters and lathering agents contained in toiletries are derived from fossil sources. Now manufacturers have started to return to more traditional, plant-derived ingredients such as palm and coconut oil.

Unfortunately, while these materials are renewable, they can be far from environmentally benign, as biodiverse forests around the globe have been cleared and replaced by monocultures of oil palms. A scheme to certify palm oil as sustainable has been in operation since late 2008, but of the 40 million tonnes of palm oil produced annually, only around 1.7 million tonnes is so far covered, according to the industry-led Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

A team led by Ray Marriott, of the University of York, UK, is aiming for a more securely sustainable approach, in which the materials needed for cosmetics are made from agricultural waste. One project aims to use supercritical CO2 to extract paraffins for lipstick wax from waste wheat straw.

Another innovation is the use of enzymes at room temperature to build esters, chemical compounds used to make cosmetic ingredients such as emollients, which soften skin, and emulsifiers, which bind oily and watery components into a homogeneous mix. Esters have traditionally been made using corrosive catalysts such as sulphuric acid at high temperatures. The new production technology won the Eastman Chemical Company of Kingsport, Tennessee, a green chemistry award from the EPA in 2009, but the company is still waiting for takers from the cosmetics industry to license their process.


"The cosmetics business has been slow to embrace green chemistry: they have primarily been concerned with making products that consumers want, with less regard to where the ingredients come from"

Five Ingredients to avoid in beauty products:

  1. Parabens
    Found in cleaners, moisturisers, deodorants, make-up and shampoo, parabens are used to prevent the growth of bacteria and yeast in cosmetic products. These chemicals possess oestrogen-mimicking properties that are absorbed by the skin. It is thought that continued use can increase the risk of breast cancer.
  2. Phthalates
    Found in deodorants, perfumes, hairsprays and moisturisers, phthalates are a group of chemicals that increase the flexibility and softness of plastics, and aid the absorption of skincare products into the skin. The toxic qualities of this group of chemicals have been linked to breast cancer, early breast development in girls and reproductive birth defects in both sexes.
  3. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
    The second most concentrated ingredient found in shampoos and most “foaming” products,  SLS and SLES are widely known to create irritation to the skin, lungs and eyes. When combined with other chemicals, risks can be greater and can lead to kidney and respiratory damage.
  4. Toluene
    A solvent effective in dissolving paint and paint thinner, toluene can be found in nail polish, nail treatments, hair colour and bleaching products, and comes from petroleum or coal tar sources.
    On labels it can also  be listed as benzene, toluol, phenyl-methane and methylbenzene. Toluene can be harmful to the respiratory system, cause nausea and irritate the skin.
  5. Cosmetic Fragrance
    These synthetic fragrances are made from petroleum or coal and are used to replace the natural aromas. This cheaper form of scent can cause skin irritation. 

Marriott says that the cosmetics business has been slow to embrace green chemistry: they have primarily been concerned with making products that consumers want, with less regard to where the ingredients come from. One hopeful sign was the convening of representatives of the cosmetics industry in November 2009 in Frankfurt, Germany, for the first of a series of “sustainable cosmetics summits”, organised by London-based consultancy Organic Monitor.


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