Green Processing: The Cosmetics Industry’s Best-Kept Sustainability Secret

by | Jan 8, 2013

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Consumers are increasingly demanding “greener” products. Today more than ever, buyers care not only about the ingredients inside their favorite products, but also about the impact manufacturing these products has on the environment.

When it comes to the cosmetics industry in particular, “natural” and “green” offer distinct marketing advantages. In fact, consumer demand for natural cosmetics products grew 13.9 percent in 2011 alone, according to research firm Kline & Company. Although it’s difficult to find a single definition, “natural” typically refers to the source of the raw materials, while “green” refers to the process used to convert starting materials into a finished ingredient.

To address the demand for more sustainable products, some cosmetics companies (and more specifically the companies who supply them) are adopting a green process known as biocatalytic processing. This process is a major breakthrough in the greening of cosmetics manufacturing because it reduces the amount of energy needed to make cosmetics and eliminates solvents and other wastes.

Esters: Vital Building Blocks of Cosmetics Products

Green processing is particularly advantageous when manufacturing naturally-derived cosmetics ingredients such as emollient esters, which are used as spreading agents and skin moisturizers. The cosmetics industry in North America alone annually consumes an estimated 50,000 metric tons of emollient esters, so the processes by which these esters are manufactured have a significant environmental impact. While esters are a necessary ingredient for many cosmetics products, the chemical reactions used to produce esters are highly energy-intensive. These reactions can also be detrimental to many starting materials such as unsaturated fatty acids, requiring additional purification steps.

Biocatalytic processes use enzymes and closely-controlled conditions to make esters without the energy-intensive high temperatures and strong acids traditionally required to produce them. A true breakthrough in the deeper “greening” of biocatalytic processes is the elimination of the organic solvents (substances that dissolve reactants) that are typically used in these processes. These sustainable, solvent-free processes can reduce more than 10 liters of waste per kilogram of product when compared to processes using solvents. Solvent-free biocatalytic systems can also yield higher purity products, in many cases eliminating the need for energy-intensive additional processing. Biocatalytic processes adhere to the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) “12 Principles of Green Chemistry” standards, as one of the principles is to reduce solvents whenever possible.

Weighing the Costs of Green Processing

Despite these distinct advantages, there are still hurdles to the industry-wide adoption of solvent-free biocatalysis. As with many sustainability investments, biocatalytic processes have a higher initial cost than traditional chemical reactions. However, the appropriate choice of production conditions can spread this initial cost over a large volume of product, making production using biocatalysis much more cost-effective. In addition, given the increasing demand for sustainable consumer products, chemical manufacturers that develop esters and other ingredients for cosmetics have a competitive advantage in the marketplace when they offer sustainability-advantaged products.

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