We care for our body and skin with cosmetics, we became more aware of the products we buy to be tailored to our routine and be good for the environment. That's why we prefer natural formulations, avoiding petrochemical-derived ingredients, whose production and consumption contribute to the Earth's pollution. We also look for recycled, biodegradable, compostable packaging to avoid single-use plastic. These are all good habits from the personal care consumer, but cosmetics is not the most impacting sector.
A greater quantity of plastic is used for the packaging and distribution of household products, as well as microplastic production. It seems like this sector has not completely turned its path towards sustainability, but most of the power to change the market lies in the requests of the consumers. Household products meet our skin more indirectly, but the ingredients used in the formulation are usually more dangerous and aggressive on our epidermal barrier as well as not so mild on the environment. These products' ingredients are regulated in Europe by ECHA and registered in the REACH tool, monitored also by sanitary institutes and laws (CE n. 648/2004 for mandatory biodegradability of all surfactants used in detergents and correct labeling) that allow their safe synthesis and concentrations values for human health.
The main problems are the modalities in which we use these products in our homes. People need clear instructions on how to use detergents: for example, combining bleach and ammonia produces toxic chloramine gas; products containing ammonia or phosphates contribute to the disruption of the marine ecosystem because these compounds make seaweeds grow, subtracting oxygen from other living species. This doesn't mean that switching to vegetable-based or alternative ingredients could solve all these concerns, but surely, with the pandemic we are all experiencing, reducing our impact on the planet while still taking care of ourselves is a vital goal.
Nowadays, chemists and biotechnologists are contributing to innovation with rhamnolipids, a kind of biosurfactants, which are chemical agents that have most of the cleaning properties. They come from 100% renewable, sustainable, natural, and eventually biological raw materials like sugars and oils. They are used as foam producers, solubilizers, and cleaners, all reached through fermentation by microorganisms like Pseudomonas putida, non-pathogenic. Additionally, no tropical oils are used (palm oil and coconut oil led to Amazon deforestation, 5% of the consumption is involved in the household industry) and the sugar used is usually obtained from corn.
However, most of the responsibility is carried by big companies: Unilever stated to switch to 100% renewable or recycled carbon in its cleaning products by 2039, but they are still on 16% today. Another approach is to increase the role of enzymes or live microbes in home cleaning. Adding enzymes to detergents allows to produce lower pH products (closer to neutral), use less water for cleaning, and lower temperatures. Also, less surfactant is needed: 1 to 3% of enzymes in a formulation can replace 15% of the surfactant, decreasing the level of fossil carbon used.
Besides the ingredients, we must give a chance to smart packaging ideas: new entries on the market are sheet detergents, coming in paper boxes, to solve the problem of heavy plastic bottles distribution, CO2 emissions, and wasting product since the dose for one laundry is set to half a sheet. Some companies also provide bottles in bioplastic (various are upcycled from the ocean and landfill plastic!) to refill with actives’ pouches or tablets to solve in water for all cleaning purposes.
Certifying labels help the consumer through the choice of more sustainable household products, like Ecolabel in the EU which guarantees the absence of liquid and solid microplastics (e.g., butylene/ethylene/styrene copolymer, polyurethane) in formulas or Safer Choice by EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States, that certifies the alignment of formulations to Green Chemistry principles with very stringent criteria on the environment and human health.
A more conscious choice can make a difference for humanity and the planet.
3. Jakob J. Mueller, Hans H. Wenk Biosurfactants – Nature’s Solution for Today’s Cleaning Challenges, Chimia 75 (2021) 752–756, doi:10.2533/chimia.2021.752
4. SuMin Lee, JuYeon Lee, HyonPil Yu, JongChoo Lim Synthesis of environment-friendly biosurfactants and characterization of interfacial properties for cosmetic and household products formulations, 2017, Colloids and Surfaces A: Physicochem. Eng. Aspects, http://dx.doi.org/doi:10.1016/j.colsurfa.2017.05.001
5. Craig Bettenhausen Unilever’s audacious goal, 2021, C&EN 25-27 https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/cen-09902-feature4
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