Biobased Ingredients for the Cosmetics Sector

Posted in: biobased

The bioeconomy provides the cosmetics sector with a wide variety of sustainable chemical ingredients to improve both performance and environmental impact.

For chemicals manufacturers in the modern day, the cosmetics industry represents an extremely lucrative target market. Globally, cosmetics account for billions of dollars in revenue, and with new products constantly being developed and hitting the market, the scope for development and innovation is high.

From Natural to Petrol… and back to Bio

Of course, where cosmetics are concerned, the story of their ingredients has a certain circular nature. Cosmetic ingredients have always traditionally been natural – indeed the word alkali comes from the Arabic for wood ash, which was used as soap – historically this was by necessity, but with the advent of petrochemicals, more options opened up. Petroleum-derived chemicals offered cosmetic manufacturers an array of readily available hydrocarbons, which could more easily be processed into chemicals with specific properties, rather than searching for the same properties in natural sources. Crude oil’s relative abundance and low price also makes petroleum-based ingredients cheaper to produce.

However, as products made from crude oil come under increasing scrutiny, companies are starting to go “back to nature”, by substituting petroleum-based ingredients for biobased equivalents. For oily ingredients this has always been easy, thanks to vegetable oils, and now with modern capacity for biorefining, a great variety of chemicals can be produced from biomass to subsequently be used as ingredients. These chemicals can also have additional benefits and functionality that would be harder to induce from petrochemicals, thanks to biomass’ more complex chemistry. The processes for producing these biobased chemicals can also be safer than their petroleum-based equivalents, as fermentation reduces the risk of exposure to potentially hazardous intermediates. One such example is Genomatica’s Brontide – a butylene glycol produced via fermentation, rather than relying on carcinogenic acetaldehyde – which provides a more sustainable alternative ingredient with a variety of uses in cosmetics. It is not just safer, however: biobased processes such as fermentation are much less energy-intensive than petroleum chemical processing, which provides an indirect environmental benefit through emissions reduction.

As always with biobased products, the devil is in the detail. A company is able to call an ingredient or product “biobased” provided it is at least partially biobased. The more likely reality is that biobased products are a percentage biobased. This may be as high as 90%+, or as low as 10%, but due to a lack of regulations around naming, two such products with these percentages of biobased content can both be called “biobased”, making them appear equivalent to the layperson. Certification schemes exist that confirm how biobased a product actually is, but these are rarely known or recognised outside the industry, or the most discerning of consumers.

This is, of course, not a negative in of itself: sometimes products need to maintain low levels of biobased content in order to keep production costs manageable. The bioeconomy has very strong R&D foundations, which mean companies are continually looking to raise the viable levels of biobased content in biobased products. This does however highlight the importance of “smart shopping”, and for consumers to maintain an awareness of just how biobased their products are, to keep pressure on those producing them to continually improve their efforts.

Biobased cosmetic ingredients are certainly spreading, and starting to be recognised. The US’ BioPreferred scheme – which mandates certified biobased products be used in the public sector, and is one of the most respected certifications for biobased products – currently lists 227 biobased cosmetic ingredients. Many more will exist outside the scope of this particular scheme.


Of course, the specific makeup of each cosmetic product is different, but the ingredients themselves tend to be similar in terms of their properties. All liquid cosmetics will have flow modifiers to allow them to be easily dispensed and applied, these usually take the form of soluble polymers. Examples include Nouryon’s newly released Amaze SP for hair products, and Clariant’s Aristoflex.

Another important property that is essential for a great deal of cosmetic products is effective control of moisture – whether applied to skin or hair, consumers expect cosmetics to provide moisturisation. This is achieved through two different classes of ingredient: emollients, such as Elevance’s Soft CG-200, provide an effective barrier on the surface of the skin or hair, preventing moisture loss, while humectants, such as propanediol – of which DuPont Tate & Lyle’s Zemea is a 100% biobased – actively attract water either from the surrounding environment, or the surface of the skin, thus directly increasing the moisture content of skin or hair. Good moisturising products will utilise a mixture of both, and biobased versions of both kinds of ingredient are available.

Many personal care products are also focused around cleaning, which will always require surfactants in order to break down grease and dirt (not dissimilarly to other biobased cleaning products). We’ve already written about Croda’s contributions to the UK’s speciality chemicals market, and duly they have a great range of surfactants in their portfolio.

Beyond these common ingredients, it entirely depends on the desired function of the cosmetic product as to what gets included. Examples of more specialist ingredients include fragrances – which are notoriously easier to derive chemically than to extract from natural sources en masse – sun protection factors, and exfoliants (but more on these latter two later).

A natural angle

For companies who manufacture and market cosmetics, biobased ingredients offer a good marketing approach right off the bat: consumers like for their cosmetics to be “natural” rather than synthetic, despite the differences in their actual effects being minimal. Market research repeatedly shows that consumers are more than willing to support sustainable products, and this is reflected in increasing efforts from companies to raise the sustainability profile of their cosmetics. Younger generations are particularly in favour, which indicates that this market is only set to grow. Even though biobased ingredients (in the form of vegetable oils) have been around for some time, being able to transition from petroleum-based to biobased where the more specialised chemicals are concerned plays into this consumer demand nicely. Switching to biobased is easily marketable as sustainable – producing ingredients from plants represents increased renewability compared to petroleum (provided the biomass is sustainably sourced and managed) – but can there also be an environmental benefit to switching to biobased ingredients?

Outside of their production, cosmetics aren’t responsible for carbon emissions, but it has already been highlighted that biobased production methods are often less energy-intense, causing an indirect emissions reduction for the products’ life cycle. But where cosmetics are concerned, there is a far bigger environmental issue than emissions: since many of them end up being washed away, they can end up in water courses, causing pollution therein. This has led many cosmetics producers to produce ingredients that are biodegradable in aquatic conditions, a property that biobased chemicals can certainly offer. The chief culprits that this new approach aims to tackle are microbeads, and as far as pollution problems go, there are few with a higher profile at present.

Microbeads – a not-so-micro problem

There has been a great deal of controversy in the media in recent months surrounding microbeads – microscopic plastic particles that are often included in cosmetic products to provide texture. Recent research has shown that these find their way into the environment, causing a harmful build-up of plastic in aquatic environments, where due to their small size they are easily consumed by wildlife. Countering this problem has been a priority for the cosmetics industry, particularly in the wake of bans being brought into force. Chief among those countering this issue have been Italian company Bio-On, who have developed biobased and biodegradable “micropowders” that cause no such harm, and have even been developed to have additional properties: notably sun protection. Bio-On claims that traditional UV filter chemicals used in sun protection can cause skin irritation when exposed to sunlight – not ideal for suncream – and thus have developed the micropowders to allow for a reduction in the concentration of UV filter chemicals needed in sunscreen.

As far as target markets for biobased chemicals, the cosmetics sector couldn’t be more ideal, and so it’s no surprise that the bioeconomy continues to permeate the cosmetics industry. Looking ahead, with increasing capacity for biorefining, and newer speciality biobased chemicals being developed all the time, it would be no surprise to find more biobased ingredients coming onto the market for cosmetic manufacturers to make use of. The history of cosmetics may have been natural, but the future is biobased, and we eagerly await it.

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This article was written by Bob Horton, Research Analyst at NNFCC.

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