Taking (personal) care of the future

The market size of beauty and personal care is huge, valued at a global revenue of over $570 billion in 2023. Such size likely comes to little surprise to anyone, given that the industry includes a vast range of consumer products ranging from toiletries like shampoo and toothpaste, to cosmetics such as make-up and fragrances.  With such large quantities of products being used at a frequent rate, the market’s long-term impact on the environment may be susceptible to falling under scrutiny and producing more sustainable alternatives becomes ever-increasingly desirable.  

Defining sustainability

Clean. Environmentally-friendly. Green. These are but a few of the common phrases that appear with ever-increasing frequency on branded tubs and bottles filled with personal care formulations. But when it comes to defining sustainability in personal care, there seems still to be some perceived ambiguity in its meaning, perhaps based on the different interpretations from the point of view of the consumer and the company behind the brand.
In this regard, in a Provenance survey over 1,500 beauty consumers were asked about their own views.  In that survey, 93% of participants believed that nature and animal welfare is an important consideration,  90% said it was important to consider the treatment of workers, 88% said they considered climate change impact to be important and 82% said they considered commitment to the community. Clearly then, consumer perception plays a significant role in the personal care market, potentially more so than in other chemical industries.

Contrastingly though, almost three-quarters of these consumers in the survey were unsure what phrases such as “clean” and “green” mean. Indeed, in some cases, there is concern that they may amount to no more than attempts at ‘greenwashing’ used primarily, and from a prima facie outlook, to entice consumers into a purchase without the company itself actually taking action to protect the environment.  

To understand sustainability in the context of personal care, it is essential to dial back to the fundamental principles of green chemistry itself.  By its inherent nature, and as with virtually every other chemical industry, there is a general united principle of minimising the use and production of hazardous substances. Certainly, the considerations of sustainability are broadly the same across the entire breadth of chemistry. In this case, it is just in a cosmetics-focussed wrapping. 

With this in mind, sustainability in personal care may be distilled down into the following key aspects, somewhat akin to product’s life-cycle assessment (LCA), which are specific to cosmetic products.

The first is the source of ingredients and, more specifically, how the raw materials for the products are obtained. A question that might initially appear easy to ask would be: are the ingredients natural or synthetic? While it is true that natural is generally more preferred, it is of course more nuanced than that. For instance, the mere use of ingredients derived from plants, as opposed to chemically synthesised ingredients, cannot be considered fully sustainable when those plants are not cultivated or harvested in a sustainable manner. Another caveat to this question is the distinction or differentiation between natural products and synthetic ingredients. It can be inherently difficult to distinguish between the two since synthetic ingredients are often engineered specifically to mimic natural ones.

The second is the use of the product and, more specifically, whether they have any adverse health effects on the user. This is particularly important in personal care, as such products are applied directly in contact with the user’s skin or any other part of their body. For this reason, product safety is not only paramount for the consumer, but it can typically be highly relevant for the manufacturer too.

The third related to the end of the life of the product and, for example, the form of the packaging and its manner of disposal. Are the materials, for instance, made from recyclable/recycled materials and which are also biodegradable?

Risk: real or perceived?

According to Barbara Olioso PhD MRSC, managing director of The Green Chemist Consultancy, “many ingredients used in cosmetics were designed with a linear mindset, i.e. performance at the most affordable cost without thinking about the environment, including the by-products or residues”.  Such ingredients, as she referred to above, include those which are considered very standard in most cosmetic formulations including emollients, emulsifiers, fragrances, pigments, preservatives, solvents, stabilisers and thickeners, to name a few. Indeed, the actual substances used for each of these essential ingredients are usually associated with a real or perceived risk to health or the environment. Interestingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, these views are often associated with materials obtained from mineral mining.

One recent example of this involves talc, a naturally occurring mineral used in personal care products to absorb moisture or to increase opacity. Since 2016, Johnson & Johnson’s talc-based baby powder had been coming under fire for allegedly causing (ovarian) cancer due to the product’s contamination with asbestos. 

As talc deposits naturally occur underground in close proximity to asbestos ore, a 2018 Reuters investigation concluded that Johnson & Johnson’s talc-based powder was contaminated with the cancer-causing asbestos. And so, when faced with over 40,000 lawsuits filed by former customers, the multinational corporation announced the discontinuation of talc powder from 2023, and instead will switch to a corn starch-based formulation. Nevertheless, Johnson & Johnson had maintained their viewpoint, in view of decades of independent research, that talc powder (or at least that which is free from contaminant) is completely safe. 

Concrete evidence for adverse health effects is unclear for other ingredients too. Silicones, for example, which form a broad range of organosilicon compounds having siloxane groups (polymeric chains of alternating silicon and oxygen atoms), are popular choices for emollients and thickeners, owing to their desirable potential for different functionalities. For instance, phenyl side chains add shine to hair and glow to skin, alkyl groups increase affinity for hydrophobic substances like oil, and alcohol groups enhance solubility in water and alters volatility. 

Concrete evidence for adverse health effects is unclear for other ingredients too. Silicones, for example, which form a broad range of organosilicon compounds having siloxane groups (polymeric chains of alternating silicon and oxygen atoms), are popular choices for emollients and thickeners, owing to their desirable potential for different functionalities. For instance, phenyl side chains add shine to hair and glow to skin, alkyl groups increase affinity for hydrophobic substances like oil, and alcohol groups enhance solubility in water and alters volatility. 

In a $30 million research program which examined the safety of cyclic silicones D4, D5 and D6, it was shown that no ill effect was caused on rodents, but high doses of D4 resulted in some reproductive harm, such as inhibiting foetal implantation and causing smaller litters to be born. Importantly though, the study’s overall conclusion was that silicones are safe at hundreds, if not thousands of times the exposure that humans might encounter, such as in ingestion. This will be reassuring for many consumers.

Potential health aspects aside, critics might argue that the use of silicones is inextricably linked with environmental concerns, as they are neither biobased nor biodegradable, but synthetic. One particular aspect to consider is that mining is required to obtain silica, the main feedstock which can then be processed into silicones.  However, it is important to note that many in the industry describe silicones as having strong safety profiles and modest environmental impact, while being coupled with excellent and unmatched performance. Therefore, and particularly if an alternative source for the silicone raw materials could be found, it is difficult to envisage a future with a complete shift away from the use of silicones.

In a similar vein, titanium dioxide (TiO2), which is desired for its common use as a pigment, sunscreen and thickener in skin care formulations owing to its strong UV radiation absorbing capabilities and resistance to discolouration under UV light, faces comparable criticisms.

Like the raw materials for silicones, titanium must be mined and processed, and this of course has an impact. To take one aspect as an example, titanium mining produces tailings containing low-level titanium concentrations in the soil, and require proper disposal as sufficiently high titanium concentrations have been observed to be phytotoxic to plants.

Additionally, TiO2 is commonly used in the form of nanoparticles. This form is particularly necessary for light-sensitive applications because TiO2 nanoparticles absorb UV light while being transparent to visible light. Some regulatory bodies, such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), ruled that new understanding of nanoparticles meant that TiO2 could no longer be considered safe as a food additive, despite the long-term stance that TiO2 is completely non-toxic. 

Any risk concerning ingredients in cosmetics, whether it be real or perceived, may be enough to stir up a controversy that remains harmful in the minds of consumers. 

Perhaps this is one reason why there is confusion among consumers – because the mere prospect that there is a risk is enough of a deterrence or, at the very least, creates seeds of doubt. 

Back to nature

When considering suitable replacements for components within cosmetic compositions, inspiration typically comes in the form of looking into naturally occurring materials which are also not obtained by mining, as these are generally seen as less harmful to human health and the environment.

White pigment materials as suitable alternatives to TiO2 are investigated by Impossible Materials, a spin-out from the University of Cambridge. Inspiration was first drawn from the jungles of Southeast Asia, in which resides the unusually bright white Cyphochilius beetle. The colouration of this particular beetle’s scales on its exoskeleton is believed to be for camouflage among similarly white fungi in its habitat. 

Taking inspiration from this, Impossible Materials is leading the way with sustainable cellulose-based white pigment products by mimicking the exoskeleton nanostructure of the Cyphochilius beetle using cellulose microparticles. Cellulose provides an ideal rough, fibrous and porous structure that light of all visible wavelengths can bounce around and be scattered, thereby providing the stark white colouration. As a widely available and biocompatible material, which can be obtained from natural biowaste, like wood pulp or agricultural waste, cellulose is proving to be a perfect choice, with Impossible Materials raising over $3.8 million to fund the commercialisation of its product.

An additional advantage over TiO2 is the avoidance of the high environmental cost associated with extraction of titanium via mining, which can simply be steered clear of with the adoption of cellulose pigments. This is in itself a substantial factor when considering that about 95% of all titanium ore mined is used for TiO2 production.

Innovative developments in sustainability may also be seen from Scott Bader’s Texiterra range of natural oils for personal care. Their natural oil formulations, which find use as base or carrier oils in various personal care applications such as shampoo and moisturisers, are based on rapeseed oil.

Importantly, the rapeseed oil from which Texiterra is sourced is carbon neutral and grown to sustainable LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming) Marque standards. Thus, the rapeseed oil is produced from crops which have been grown in a sustainable manner, for instance by extended crop rotations, companion crops, tree and hedgerow planting and beehives, all of which vastly improve the biodiversity on the farm. In line with the ethical side of its sustainability ethos, Scott Bader also partners with African oils suppliers, contributing to community development throughout Zimbabwe by helping to improve employment opportunities and living conditions.

Further inspiration for other alternative materials come in the form of something that is neither plant nor animal, but fungus. Fungi often take the form of a filamentous root-like webs called mycelium, typically growing underground or inside rotting tree trunks, and it is the mycelium itself which houses a myriad of material-based opportunities (see our previous blog on Mycelium, the miracle material).

In this connection, Ecovative is using mycelium technology in the beauty and skin-care area, among several others, as sustainable alternative materials for a whole host of markets. For instance, Ecovative are currently developing eye masks, sheet masks and makeup wedges, all of which are produced biologically by growing the mycelium in a way to mimic the properties of existing products, and which composts in 45 days after use. 

Ecovative also offers Mushroom® Packaging which uses MycoCompositeTM, a mycelium and hemp hurd based blend which can be grow into a custom shape fit for protective packaging to form a solid lightweight material that composts in 45 days after use. This aims to provide a replacement for plastic and Styrofoam packaging used e.g. for fragile beauty products.

While mycology, the study of fungi, is a relatively new field of research, it holds some huge untapped potential as having non-toxic, biodegradable and, in some cases, cosmeceutical traits.

Relatedly, recent work by Nisshinbo Holdings focusses on marine biodegradable cosmetic-suitable materials derived from alginic acid, a natural polysaccharide extracted from brown algae. As with many naturally occurring polymers, alginic acid readily absorb water and so have a relatively high swellability, thereby making for poor compatibility with oil formulations. This consequently has undesirable effects on the dimension stability and tactile feel of any cosmetic composition. 

The company’s recent European patent application EP4166606A1 describes subjecting alginic acid particles, or polyvalent salts of alginic acid particles, to a hydrophobising treatment to provide a certain degree of water repellency. In essence, the hydrophobising treatment causes the otherwise hydrophilic alginic acid particles to be amphiphilic, a desirable property in personal care compositions due to the need for compatibility with both water and oil components. Test results in the patent application also show that these alginic acid particles have excellent adherence to and sensation on the skin when used as part of a cosmetic composition. Indeed, the fact that these results are achieved using a material derived from mere seaweed is promising.


It is evident that risks, both real and perceived, continue to be a major player surrounding discussions of the sustainability of personal care products. However, while it certainly looks like it is inherently difficult to divert consumer perception of ingredients, almost regardless of its true genotoxicity status, promising progress in finding naturally derived alternatives is becoming equally apparent. Indeed, this should at least lessen the reliance on extraction of minerals for products. The question to be asked next is how consumers respond to these new products which are slowly but surely arriving on the market, and whether these can start or continue finding mass successful commercialisation. Watch this space!