Although not a product category we immediately associate with the petrochemical industry, cosmetics are arguably where many of us have the closest, most regular contact with fossil chemicals over our lifetimes.
Since a typical cosmetic contains about 15–20 ingredients, using at least five cosmetic products a day means putting around 75–100 chemicals on your skin. The overwhelming majority are petroleum derivatives.
Although oil-based ingredients are found across all personal care segments, the fact that even decorative cosmetics rely on petro by-products is perhaps most surprising.
Decorative cosmetics cover any chemical formula that alters the colour and accents of facial features: foundations, lip colour, eyeliner, eyeshadow, and blush. It makes up the third largest cosmetics sub-market after skin and hair care.
The idea that non-essential consumer items marketed as carefree luxuries sustain the most environmentally destructive industries is particularly discomforting for consumers, driving increasing numbers to greener choices.
Oily skin? Blame Petrochemicals
Although millions of tonnes are produced every year, most of us are unfamiliar with the arcane petro-molecules that pad out cosmetics purses the world over.
Global production capacity for polyethylene glycol, a fossil-based moisturiser and emulsifier used to combine water and oil, is around 21 million tonnes. Between 10, 000 to 100, 000 tonnes of the preservative phenoxyethanol are imported or made in the EU each year.
Even though the safety profile of phenoxyethanol is still debated, it can be found inside almost every item found in an average cosmetics bag: eye shadow, mascara, eyeliner, foundation, concealer, and blush
Acrylates copolymer is another common petrochemical ingredient found in eyeshadows, mascara, eyebrow pencils and lipsticks. This is a film-forming agent that underlies smooth-as-silk application and that soft-touch skin feel after a freshly applied product.
Blotting Out Oil In Cosmetics
While the skin-enhancing and product-preserving properties of these chemicals are hard to beat, there is increasing reason for manufacturers to find alternatives.
Fashion has come under growing scrutiny for its sustainability practices only in the past half decade or so. A similar shift is likely to occur in cosmetics as consumers become alive to the environmental costs of their beauty spending.
In fact, an increasing demand for organic cosmetics and biocosmetics is one of the biggest shifts happening in the personal care landscape. The latter are cosmetics products made from plants, animals, microbes, enzymes, insects or crops.
As with any bio-based product, different biocosmetics come under different grades of sustainability. While by definition all biocomestics are made with renewable resources, some go a step further by accounting for the land-use and biodiversity impacts of the crops that go into them. 100% bio-based and organic cosmetics are made using ingredients grown free of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.
Innovating in Fundamental Green Chemicals
One way that the biocosmetics industry is growing is through the emergence of consumer-facing makeup brands that bring bio-based cosmetics essentials to market.
The leading name here is Youthforia, whose entire range of makeup is free from fossil-fuel derived ingredients. Izzy, a zero-waste makeup company, recently brought out a carbon neutral mascara.
Founded by millennials and pitched to Gen Z – that most eco-conscious of consumer segments – these companies put their green credentials front and centre of their vibrant social media marketing campaigns.
Yet while sustainability-focused brands are part of the equation, the most efficient way to phase out petrochemical cosmetics in substantial volumes will be to develop and scale green formulations for fundamental manufacturing ingredients.
The range of cosmetics on the market is innumerably diverse. Yet the number of basic building blocks for the products we put on our body is comparatively small. Skin-contact products tend to have universal requirements: a long shelf-life, a smooth consistency, bio-compatibility, and velvety textures absorbable by the skin. As a result, we see chemical ingredients recur across cosmetic product categories.
Take one common petrochemical makeup ingredient: butylene glycol or 1,3-BG. Its skin benefits are hard to beat, thickening products for easy application. It is commonly found in liquid eyeliner, concealer and foundation and sometimes lipstick and mascara.
Supplying more environmentally friendly products is a challenge for companies used to working with tried-and-tested formulations based on petrochemical additives and dyes. Yet finding high-performance and low-cost biobased for a few strategic ingredients would have immediate cascade effects through multiple adjacent industries. Ingredients that serve several high-value applications in related sectors would also naturally aid in scaling thanks to proven high-volume demand.
Companies are already innovating in green chemical versions of substances like butylene glycol, which holds diverse applications. As a humectant, solvent, and emollient, butylene glycol is not just useful in decorative cosmetics but also in skin care and hair care. Traditionally, 1,3-BG has been produced by oxidising ethylene, a petrochemical.
As well as being a product ingredient in itself, it can also function as a chemical tool in green manufacturing. This is because butylene glycol is a solvent, making it useful for drawing hard-to-extract chemicals from botanical sources.
Genomatica produces a new bio-based version of cosmetic-use butylene glycol called Brontide BG. The company conducted a life cycle assessment on the environmental impact of the petroleum-derived product, finding that the oil-based substance had 103% greater global warming potential and 85% greater energy demand compared to its biobased product.
Another company addressing carbon in the cosmetics value chain with bio-based base ingredients is Clariant. Earlier this year it unveiled Vita, a 100% bio-based polyethylene glycol that is chemically equivalent to the fossil version.
Polyethylene glycol is an emulsifier, an essential input in many cosmetics. A large production capacity in such a material could meaningfully chip away at the emissions associated with the supply chain.
Nonetheless, chemically equivalent bio-based versions of fossil products still leave open the problem of environmental contamination. Bio-based ingredients that are indistinguishable from their petrochemical versions will still take as long to break down (or not) when washed away. Biodegradable products should be the priority for companies that are moving into this space.
Removing petrochemical cosmetics requires going for the root: by offering key alternatives to fundamental ingredients that recur across segments. However, there is a sticking point here. Organic substances tend to attract microbes, feeding them with their protein content and jeopardising the safety profile of the product.
The microbe-enhancing properties of many organic chemicals means that bio-substitutes in the cosmetics sector are difficult to simply ‘drop in’. Once you use one bio-based replacement, there is a need to rethink whole formulas to prevent the product from degrading quickly or posing a health risk.
This difficulty is made clearest when it comes to preservatives. The biggest question for producers is how to create organic preservatives that ward off – rather than feed – microbial growth.
Currently, fossil-based phenoxyethanol is the preservative of choice for the cosmetics manufacturing industry and few biobased alternatives are available. The Sensicare range by Chemipol is one of the few natural-origin antimicrobial substitutes on the market.
Post-Covid Demand For Biocosmetics
Despite the challenges, the cosmetics industry is an attractive area for sustainable innovation. One indication of this is how resilient the decorative cosmetics sector has been to the pandemic slowdown despite their status as non-essential goods.
Although growth in the worldwide market plummeted from +5.5 to -8% in 2020, 2021 figures quickly bounced back to 2019 levels, seeing an 8.2 % growth rate as lockdown measures eased off.
The swift post-pandemic recovery has not heralded a return to pre-pandemic spending habits. According to a survey across 20 European countries by Kantar, there has been a surge in post-pandemic demand for natural beauty. The segment grew from 18% of total beauty sales in 2017 to almost a quarter in 2021.
North Asia is expected to be a hotspot for bio-based decorative cosmetics retailing. Right now, buyers in China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan make up 35.1% of the total cosmetics market.
Producers keen to these changes in post-pandemic market preferences are set to make a return over the longer term on the scaling and innovation investments they make today.