Blog post

There is a bright future for cosmetics

Published on
May 12, 2021

I have been using cosmetics since birth, just like you. It will have started with talcum powder, wipes and baby shampoo. And I still use around five personal care products every day. This number is slightly higher still for my wife. The market for personal care products is huge and there is a lot of money turned over in it. The margins on such products are usually substantial, which means that producers can continue to invest in innovation. ‘Natural’ is a trend in this innovation, not only because consumers are sensitive to this, but also because the authorities no longer want ingredients that are not or not fully biodegradable. And it is exactly these substances, generally produced from crude oil, that we often find in cosmetics.

Challenges ahead

There is a reason for adding all these solvents, preservatives, thickening agents, thinning agents, cleaning agents and UV blockers to products. The major advantages of the ingredients from fossil origin that are currently still being processed are that they offer excellent functionality and that they can be produced on a large scale. A major disadvantage is that they are often not, or not fully, biodegradable. This is a significant reason why policy makers no longer want these ingredients to be used. The EU is expected to approve a ban on microplastics next year and, consequently, frequently used polyacrylates must also be phased out. If you are using a day cream, you do not want it to run down your finger, but it must also not feel like peanut butter. Polyacrylates make for a firm emulsion. Although they are not toxic, they do not break down easily and are left behind in the natural world in the form of microplastics.

We are working on natural processes that gets microorganisms to produce biobased alternatives.

Accelerating degradability

The urgent need to switch over to sustainable alternatives is present, but it also causes problems for the sector. Price plays a role of course, but biodegradability is also an issue. At Wageningen Food & Biobased Research, we tinker with cellulose, starch and other biopolymers as alternatives to the abovementioned polyacrylates. We are having success here in substantially accelerating degradability. We are also working on other interesting developments. A very promising one is the replacement of surfactants that are currently still being made from crude oil. We are working on natural processes that gets microorganisms to produce biobased alternatives. In addition, we make use of yeasts to produce fatty acids from all kinds of organic residue flows, as an alternative for components from palm oil that are not exactly sustainable. We also have some good ideas about treating starch in a way that it acquires the same characteristics as collagen or gelatine in various applications, including cosmetics. We also feel that combinations of biopolymers are promising, for example by linking a biopolymer that provides viscosity to a polymer that provides the desired structure.

In 10 years time most cosmetics may well be composed to 90 per cent of natural biodegradable ingredients.

Tough challenges

Developments may go quickly, certainly in combination with legislation. At the current rate, in 10 years’ time most cosmetics may well be composed to 90 per cent of natural biodegradable ingredients. This may also change the colour of many creams because natural ingredients are not always brilliant white. The consumer is likely to find that acceptable, but there are still some tough challenges ahead. These include the replacement of silicones, which – due to a unique chemical structure – are responsible for a cream’s moisturising effect. It is up to us to find technological solutions to these and other tricky problems – in cooperation with the sector.