Issue 1



A Green Chemist’s Perspective

Most of us are aware of the environmental challenge we face and we want to do our bit by being more environmentally friendly and sustainable. According to Mintel 80% of adults in the UK think that everyone has a personal responsibility to protect the environment, whereas in Germany 67% of adults bought an eco-friendly beauty products in the year to January 2022. While this is impressive and encouraging, there is also scepticism, confusion with the belief that only big beauty brands can make a real difference (source Mintel). This is understandable considering the top 5 ethical and environmental claims associated to BPC launches in 21-22 are:

  • Cruelty free (27.7%)
  • Environmentally friendly packaging (27.6%)
  • Sustainable habitat resources (20.4%)
  • Recycled/recyclable packaging (18.6%)
  • Charity (5.4%)


Animal testing on finished products was banned in Europe nearly 20 years ago, yet the European market is full of products with this unnecessary claim. Australia followed Europe with the animal testing ban in 2020 (1), Canada will join in 2023 (2), whereas the US and Asia seem not too keen on the ban. Therefore the cruelty free claim makes sense only in certain regions but It is very interesting to see that it is being at the top of ethical claims on beauty products globally, with a distracting effect on consumers from other important environmental claims. In fact, even if working towards a global ban on animal testing is very important, focusing mainly on this objective does not help the industry achieving a better environmental profile.


The other major claims consumers get exposed to are packaging related, like recycled, recyclable, compostable, plastic free etc. Unfortunately quite often there are small details that can make quite a difference to the recyclability and compostability of a pack. Even plastic free packaging can sometimes hide other coating materials that can interfere with its recyclability, whereas bio-based plastic like for example polyethylene made from sugar cane can still produce micro-plastic like its fossil fuel counterpart.


So why are packaging claims so popular and are they enough to meet consumers expectations for the beauty industry to take responsibility and action? Packaging related claims tap into the desire of reducing plastic waste and pollution ending up in the oceans and the environment in general, so they are important but I believe once again they are not enough to really tackle the sustainability challenge we all face. You can have products in the most green packaging available yet still causing environmental damage. Focusing only on the tip of the iceberg is not smart as time goes by, as consumers become more aware of what lies underneath the “iceberg” that is the environmental impact related to beauty products. Here are just some examples of this:

  • water pollution calling for biodegradable beauty products with low aquatic toxicity and bioaccumulation
  • loss of biodiversity calling for sourcing crops used to make cosmetic ingredients responsibly or even using alternative renewable sources that do not impact biodiversity as much
  • limiting global warming with GHGs (green house gases) emissions reduction calling for efficient manufacturing and transport or even smart use of finished products


These environmental challenges call for change about how we develop and manufacture cosmetic ingredients and products, so relying on what worked previously is not really going to work and more, because using low cost but polluting ingredients will cost the industry anyway in a way or another sooner or later. Luckily for us the mindset to drive change and innovation that can provide solutions to the challenges hiding below the tip of the iceberg is here and it is called green chemistry (3).


The green chemistry concept was developed by John Warner and Paul Anastas back in the 90’s in reaction to the old way of doing chemistry based on a linear mindset producing chemicals at low cost, even if they produced hazardous byproducts, used “heavy” processes or accumulated in the environment. I call green chemistry a mindset as it drives innovation with a circular mindset taking into account various aspects of chemical production, from beginning of life until the end of life of chemicals. Its guideline is based on 12 principles which can be simplified in:

  • waste reduction
  • using renewable materials as much as possible
  • developing energy efficient and less hazardous processes not only for the environment but also for the operators involved
  • designing efficient chemical processes where the majority of the reagents end up in the desired finished products
  • designing safe substances that perform well and that once used do not harm the environment (biodegradable and with low aquatic toxicity)


Because most of beauty products end up in waste water treatment plants and some even in the sea or oceans, using green chemistry ingredients can really help reduce the release of impactful ingredients into the environment.


Recent water science studies (4) show 1,4 dioxane as an emerging water contaminant. This chemical is not usually listed on the ingredients list being a residue of the chemical process to manufacture ethoxylated products such as SLES and PEGs. However even if present at very low concentration in cosmetics, once it ends up in waste water treatment plants it can not be captured and eliminated, meaning it accumulates in drinking water. As a result of this New York state, a densely populated area, is introducing a concentration limit on 1,4 dioxane in household and personal care products at 2ppm (5).


Shifting to a circular approach means considering many factors at once. It also means gathering a lot of data and making sense of it. All of this is quite complicated, not only for consumers but also for marketers and even the industry itself. We are all on a journey to move from linear to circular and this takes time and effort. Unfortunately marketers, being used to give easy to understand messages that consumers want to hear, often end up giving “sexy” green messages that are not validated or indeed even true. A classic example is the coral reef friendly claim driven by the coral reef degradation and detection of sunscreen components in several part of the world like Hawaii and US Virgin Islands (6). The National Ocean Service, aware of the immense value healthy coral reefs provide, has come up with a very useful infographic explaining how sunscreen chemicals can affect marine life and how to protect your skin and marine life at the same time (7). Hawaiian state went further and introduced a ban on the UV filters of most concern, ie oxybenzone and octinoxate (8).


This growing concern around the impact of sunscreen on marine life has generated a proliferation of “coral reef friendly” messages in the market place, despite no validated test proving that is the case. Most of these claims are based simply on the absence of the ingredients which are under scrutiny the most, however there are studies showing environmental issues with avobenzone, octocrylene and homosalate. This means people with the good intention of buying products that are not harmful to the coral reef do not only end up paying more but also using products with the potential to harm the reef. This greenwashing increases the mistrust towards our industry to the point even of triggering class action lawsuits like the one against Australian brand Bondi Sands, accused of mislabelling products in the US as reef friendly. This affects everybody in the industry as it becomes more difficult and expensive to be credible and believable, feeding the eco-skepticism.


Marketers need to expand their focus on consumers and work in close collaboration with scientists with a multi-parameters approach. It is easy to claim sustainable, eco friendly, nature or ocean friendly, based on one small detail forgetting about the rest. The journey to sustainability and even regulators call for inclusion of every parameter involved in the production and final use of a beauty product. The devil is in the detail they say, well greenwashing is in the detail too or the lack of.


Along with the multi-parametric approach it is important to have validation tests or data behind the parameters in question. Sometimes there are data gaps either because there is no testing protocol available or because the ingredients or packaging manufacturers have not done the test. Whatever the availability of data, transparency about it is also key, so that consumers can look into it and decide for themselves even if it might be complicated to understand at first.


This complexity can also be an opportunity for scientists who usually hide behind the scenes, to engage with consumers and find ways to communicate without blinding with science. Beauty brands working with scientists for more honest and transparent communication gain also extra credibility because scientists tend to fact check and understand more deeply the intricate details behind a simple claim. For example when I was interviewed by the BBC on the Sliced Bread podcast about natural deodorants I spent quite some time to research and prepare for that. There is a lot of misinformation out there so I do not wish to add more of that. It is quite exhausting to navigate through that for consumers.


All of this leads to brands having a voice that is speaking authentically and to accept that sometimes it is not as good as we would like it to be but it is true progress or the best we can do. Being aware of this means that we know we need to keep on improving and drive more sustainable innovation. The social media platform BeReal is very much about celebrating who you are exactly as you are, by sharing photos without any filters. This concept based on radical authenticity is very popular with Gen Z (10), which to me means the younger generations are ready to embrace honesty and transparency perhaps more than before.


I believe scientists need to have a stronger voice when it comes to concept development because that sets the key criteria behind the product or formula and if these criteria are not coherent together, like the price set too low or sustainability credentials not achievable, the poor scientist has an impossible task.
Shifting from linear to circular means also to work in a more collaborative way, with experts of different fields to unravel the complexity that is behind sustainability.


Although I’m not a fan of greenwashing I must admit that at this stage, it has helped to create a stronger desire and need for responsible and honest communication as well as collaboration. Things might look challenging at the moment, but consumers keep on learning and evolving too, relying heavily on online resources for education and research. They are not always the best resources however that is the way it works. Therefore best to be there for consumers as a scientific, transparent and understandable source of information now rather than a few years down the line being in a pickle and unable able to keep up with the increased drive for transparency in the market place and conscious consumerism.


I believe L’Oreal knows this is coming and announced their sustainability targets for 2030:

  • reducing by 50% GHGs per product in comparison to 2016
  • reducing by 25% on average and per finished product the water consumption linked to the use of the product compared to 2016
  • 100% of the water used in production will be recycled or reused in a loop
  • 95% of ingredients in formula will be bio-based, derived from abundant mineral or from circular processes
  • 100% of plastic packaging used for the finished products will be either recycled or bio-based


What about you, are you ready to be in the market place in 2030?

Dr Barbara Oliosio

is a doctor of chemistry, a cosmetic formulator, a speaker, and a writer. She has been using green chemistry and sustainability applied to cosmetics for over 20 years with a particular focus on applying green chemistry to cosmetic development (skincare and haircare). She moderates the Sustainability Corner at In Cosmetics Global and other events, including webinars. She wrote the Green Chemist Handbook for Cosmetic Preservation, she is a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Society of Cosmetic Scientists.

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Words by Dr Barbara Oliosio

Words by Dr Barbara Oliosio

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