Why You’re Going To Be Hearing A Lot More About Petrochemicals In Beauty Formulas
Similar to countless beauty brands, Youthforia puts the difficult-to-pronounce conditioning agent butylene glycol in its products. Dissimilar from countless beauty brands, the bold makeup startup and TikTok favorite explains where the butylene glycol in its color-changing BYO Blush and buildable Dewy Gloss comes from.
“That sounds like it’s something from petroleum—and it typically is, but we literally go out of our way to source a plant-derived version of butylene glycol,” says Youthforia founder Fiona Chan in a social media post. “It’s not the easiest thing to do because the fossil fuel version is easier to find.”
Chan has chosen to take the hard route of avoiding fossil fuel ingredients as much as possible to reduce Youthforia’s carbon footprint. She’s demonstrated the brand’s commitment to that avoidance by obtaining certification from the United States Department of Agriculture’s BioPreferred program, which enables brands to credibly list the percentage of bio-based content in their formulas on labels. Dewy Gloss’s formula is 100% bio-based, and BYO Blush’s formula is 98% bio-based.
Aimed at encouraging purchases of bio-based products, the BioPreferred program defines bio-based ingredients as alternatives to conventional petroleum-derived ingredients made from raw materials such as plants, and other renewable agricultural, marine and forestry materials. Youthforia isn’t alone in the beauty industry in achieving BioPreferred certification. Sky Organics’ Curl Care haircare collection has done it as well to verify that its Wash Day Shampoo’s formula has 79% bio-based ingredients and its Detangling Conditioner has 94% bio-based ingredients.
“The goal of bio-based products is to increase the quantity of renewable sources used, create new jobs and support economic growth in doing so,” says Dean Neiger, co-founder and chief strategy officer of Sky Organics. “The increased development, purchase and use of bio-based products reduces our nation’s reliance on petroleum and further decreases our dependence on fossil fuels. This will have a positive impact on the health of our planet.”
As beauty brands examine the environmental impacts of their operations, they’re moving beyond addressing packaging to confronting the widespread role of petrochemicals in formulations, and highlighting bio-based ingredients or promoting that they’re fossil fuel-, petrochemical- or petroleum-free. “I do see this becoming part of a larger long-term trend in the beauty space,” says Chan. “Customers are definitely becoming more knowledgeable about sustainability and what ingredients do and don’t go in their products, and I absolutely see there being more demand for non-fossil fuel-derived products in the near future.”
Abstaining from fossil fuel ingredients may seem to be an uncomplicatedly beneficial step, but it’s not that simple. The market for alternatives hasn’t fully matured, resulting in heightened costs for petrochemical substitutes and sometimes subpar performance. The sustainability improvements of substitutes aren’t always straightforward. On top of their contributions to climate change, beauty brands steer clear of certain petrochemical-derived ingredients due to their effects on human health, but those are frequently disputed. And the ubiquity of petrochemicals in the beauty industry makes ridding them from the supply chain a monumental feat that marketing claims can’t capture.
While, as Chan presages, there could be more demand in the near future for products without petrochemicals, in the present, consumers may not know what petrochemicals are or that they’re in everyday items. To clarify, a petrochemical is a compound derived from oil or natural gas. “It is so incredibly processed that, though it is quote unquote natural because it comes from the ground, what we are making from it is so removed from the original feedstock that there really isn’t any debate on the fact that petrochemicals are synthetic,” says Mia Davis, VP of sustainability and impact at clean beauty retailer Credo. She adds, “It’s inherently unsustainable. It’s not renewable. We will never get it back.”
Petrochemicals in beauty and personal care products are byproducts of the oil and gas industry. In a recent interview with Beauty Independent, John Melo, former president of BP’s U.S. fuel operations and CEO of Amyris, parent company of the brands Biossance, Pipette and Costa Brazil, says they’re the most profitable portion of the barrel for oil companies and cheap for beauty companies to insert into formulas. Constance Bailey, an associate professor at University of Tennessee Knoxville, points out in a Salon article that oil companies are making up for losses from the switch to renewable energy sources by selling petrochemicals.
“Today roughly 80% of every barrel of oil is used to make gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, with the rest going into petrochemical products,” writes Bailey. “As demand for petroleum fuels gradually declines, the amount of oil used for that ‘other’ share will grow.”
“When consumers found out that many of the products they use daily—from plastics to personal care products to gasoline—are made from crude oil, they were surprised and disgusted.”
However, oil and gas companies aren’t chiefly beauty ingredient suppliers—and the beauty industry can’t stop them itself. Because petrochemicals in beauty and personal care products are byproducts, Jen Novakovich, a formulation chemist and founder of science communication platform The Eco Well, says, “There is no petroleum sourcing with the intent of producing cosmetics ingredients.” She continues, “As long as the world is fueled by the oil sector, [petrochemicals] will be there with or without the cosmetics industry utilizing them.”
In cosmetics, petrochemicals are utilized as emollients, surfactants, emulsifiers, solubilizers and thickeners, according to Manjot Shergill, a cosmetic chemist and founder of contract manufacturing firm Skin Affinity Inc. Among the petrochemical-derived ingredients in beauty and personal care products are mineral oil, petrolatum, paraffin wax, polyethylene glycols (PEGs), sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) and isopropyl alcohol. Shergill indicates eschewing petrochemicals can have formula repercussions. She advises brands to identify suitable bio-based alternatives if they’re attempting to keep petrochemicals out of their formulas.
“By eliminating PEGs from formulations, it becomes much more difficult to thicken systems, and [brands] would have to use higher percentages of other thickeners, and you can still have issues with stability in your products,” says Shergill. “Because PEGs are also great solubilizers, it could also mean that you can no longer solubilize certain active ingredients into formulations. This means, as a beauty brand, you would most likely be limited to the types of products or textures you can offer. PEGs are also very stable ingredients, so it could impact the long-term stability and aesthetic of products.”
Americans are often unaware petrochemicals are in beauty and personal care merchandise. A 2019 survey by Genomatica, a biotechnology company that produces Brontide, a natural butylene glycol it estimates releases half the carbon of petrochemical-based butylene glycol, of 1,000 adults in the United States found that 55% were surprised to learn baby sunscreen contains ingredients from crude oil, and 42% didn’t realize personal care products like face moisturizers have petrochemical ingredients.
Despite the lack of awareness, Sasha Calder, head of sustainability at Genomatica, suggests people care about petrochemicals once they’re informed about them. “From our 2019 sustainability survey, we discovered that, when consumers found out that many of the products they use daily—from plastics to personal care products to gasoline—are made from crude oil, they were surprised and disgusted,” she says, emphasizing, “Now more than ever, they’re demanding brands are aligned with their values and also taking action.”
But what does taking action on petrochemicals in the beauty industry require? Even if a beauty product doesn’t have obvious petrochemical ingredients on its ingredient list, it isn’t necessarily entirely without petrochemicals. “Petrochemicals are hidden everywhere,” says Krupa Koestline, a cosmetic chemist and founder of KKT Consultants, a consultancy specializing in the development of clean beauty formulations. She elaborates, “Let’s say I have chamomile oil. The chamomile oil is going to read as chamomile oil and all the documentation is going to be chamomile oil. There is not going to be anything that’s going indicate otherwise, but chamomile oil could be extracted using hexane, which is a petrochemical derivative.”
Yashi Shrestha, director of science and research at ingredient data company Novi, says brands have to dig deep to uncover petrochemical information from suppliers. “There’s a lot of people that just have ingredient names on their restricted list or do-not-use list, and that’s not sufficient,” she underscores. “There could be thousands of ingredients that fall under this [petrochemical] category, and you need additional information to truly say you are not using petrochemical-based materials.”
Although the lists of forbidden ingredients and practices are mounting at Credo and Sephora’s Clean at Sephora initiative, they’re far from banishing all petrochemicals. What Credo doesn’t allow is ethoxylated ingredients, a class of petrochemical-derived ingredients that encompasses polypropylene glycol, polyethylene glycol and sodium laureth sulfate. In the chemical reaction ethoxylation process, 1,4-dioxane is generated. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies 1,4-dioxane as a probable human carcinogen, but it can be removed from beauty and personal care products before they’re snapped up by consumers.
“Petrochemicals are hidden everywhere.”
Prior to Credo, Davis was an organizing director at The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a nonprofit that fought to remove 1,4 dioxane from baby care products more than a decade ago. “Behind the scenes, there’s been a ton of work on that. Now, you can contact an ingredient supplier that says, ‘Yes, we are using ethoxylation in the processing of these chemicals, but we are cleaning it up so we don’t have 1,4 dioxane in the products we use every day,’” she says. “Really, this is a success story.” Talking about petrochemicals broadly, Davis says, “Though I know petrochemicals are not sustainable, I’m not telling you they are not safe because it completely depends on the data…Show me the safety and sustainability data, and I will reward you with my dollars.”
Ezmer Harris, a cosmetic chemist with product formulation company The Chemically Divine Laboratory, maintains petrochemical-derived ingredients used extensively in contemporary beauty and personal care products are safe for humans. “There should be not be any caution involving these things in cosmetics,” she says, noting, “Things that we use in our cosmetics are regulated, and it’s up to manufacturers to uphold standards.”
For both human health and environmental reasons, beauty brands are turning to replacements for common petrochemical ingredients. Ingredient supplier Croda offers bio-based surfactants it calls ECO Range that it describes as having performance identical to that of petrochemical-based surfactants. “We are working with large customers and indie brands. They are all looking to go to these type of ingredients,” says Donna Petretti, the marketing lead in North America for Croda, which has a goal of 75% of its raw materials being bio-based by 2030, up from 67% currently. “You are not lacking on performance, but you are reducing the carbon footprint pretty significantly.”
She mentions there’s no difference in cost between ECO Range and petrochemical surfactants, and Calder says Genomatica’s petrochemical alternatives are priced competitively to petrochemical ingredients. In general, petrochemical substitutes can be costlier than their petrochemical counterparts. Koestline elucidates it’s a matter of supply. For instance, she says, “If you look at a silicone alternative, there are only two to three vendors that do silicone replacements. They drive the price up and control the market.”
The elevated price of launching beauty and personal products without petrochemicals isn’t solely from ingredient costs. In order to investigate ingredient sources to ensure they aren’t petrochemical, Koestline believes beauty brands have to partner with third-party certifiers like NSF International, Ecocert COSMOS and USDA’s BioPreferred program. “Brands get charged so much for having a COSMOS or USDA certification because it’s very intense,” she says. “There’s a lot of restrictions to think about, but, if I have that COSMOS product, I’m going to know for sure that it doesn’t have petrochemicals.”
Whether they’re costlier or not, petrochemical replacements aren’t perfect environmentally. Novakovich says, “I understand the temptation to believe that bio-based or renewable will be inherently environmentally superior, but that’s just not the case, and there are many examples that highlight this.” She cites fragrance ingredient company Symrise’s synthetic menthol, which she says produces 8 kilograms of carbon dioxide per yield in contrast to 50 to 100 kilograms per yield of natural menthol. Novakovich stresses, “The assumption that renewable is inherently less impactful is just not aligned with reality if you actually go and look at the science, which I so wish these companies with influence would do. Today, we know that agriculture is the largest driver for biodiversity loss and a significant emitter of CO2.”
Davis doesn’t shy away from complexity. Speaking hypothetically of petrochemical substitutes from sugar beets, she says, “Where are they grown? Did they dump a ton of pesticides on them? Where are they shipping them to be refined? What is their carbon footprint? Those are all sustainability questions. So, just because it’s bio-based doesn’t mean it’s sustainable. However, if you are just comparing a petrochemical to something from a sugar beet, probably the sugar beet is going to win, but it would be doing a huge disservice if we didn’t ask those other hard questions.”
Davis argues for a focus on green chemistry, which strives to adhere to 12 principles, including preventing waste, heightening energy efficiency, designing degradable chemicals and employing renewable feedstocks or starting materials, and compounds bioengineered from sustainable feedstock. Brought about through sugar fermentation, Genomatica’s Brontide is a bioengineered compound. At Genomatica and elsewhere, efforts to bioengineer substances with petrochemical properties at scale are expanding.
“Where there is a bright spot I think is in a lot of the innovation in green chemistry. It’s an actual discipline with principles. It’s not marketing green,” says Davis. “It’s designing a chemical that’s inherently more safe and sustainable than alternative chemicals. There is more that we can be doing there.”
- Petrochemicals are derived from natural gas and oil. Speaking about them, Mia Davis, VP of sustainability and impact at clean beauty retailer Credo, says, “It’s inherently unsustainable. It’s not renewable. We will never get it back.”
- Petrochemicals are ubiquitous in the beauty industry. They are utilized as emollients, surfactants, emulsifiers, solubilizers and thickeners, according to Manjot Shergill, a cosmetic chemist and founder of contract manufacturing firm Skin Affinity Inc.
- Among the petrochemical-derived ingredients in beauty and personal care products are mineral oil, petrolatum, paraffin wax, polyethylene glycols (PEGs), sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) and isopropyl alcohol.
- Beauty brands are moving away from petrochemical-derived ingredients for environmental and human health reasons, but the move can be costly for them and lead to unwelcome changes in product formulas.
- The beauty brands Sky Organics and Youthforia have obtained certifications from the United States Department of Agriculture’s BioPreferred program, which enables brands to list the percentage of bio-based content in their formulas on labels. Brands generally are increasingly highlighting bio-based ingredients and touting their formulas as petrochemical-, fossil fuel- or petroleum-free.
- Krupa Koestline, a cosmetic chemist and founder of KKT Consultants, says petrochemicals are "hidden everywhere" in the beauty industry. As a result, she asserts beauty brands have to turn to third-party certifiers if they want to ensure their products are truly avoiding petrochemicals.
- Increasingly, there are petrochemical alternatives on the market geared toward cosmetics. For example, ingredient supplier Croda's ECO Range provides alternatives to petrochemical-based surfactants. Genomatica's Brontide is an alternative to petrochemical-derived butylene glycol.
- Petrochemical alternatives aren't necessarily environmentally perfect. Natural ingredients, for example, can be grown in unsustainable ways and undermine biodiversity. Jen Novakovich, a formulation chemist and founder of science communication platform The Eco Well, says, “The assumption that renewable is inherently less impactful is just not aligned with reality."
- Davis and others interested in sustainable beauty argue for a focus on green chemistry, which strives to adhere to 12 principles, including preventing waste, heightening energy efficiency, designing degradable chemicals and employing renewable feedstocks or starting materials, and compounds bioengineered from sustainable feedstock.