When chemical guides don’t apply

Some chemicals aren’t as nasty as they first look.

There are ingredients in natural and organic beauty products that are frowned upon by the likes of The Chemical Maze and the Environmental Working Group.

This is because some guides are simply that, quick guides. They are general and can’t accommodate the complexity of chemistry, in this case green chemistry.

Sometimes we need to stop poring over pocket guides and look for other signs that show the shampoo or concealer is okay.

What is green chemistry?

Green chemistry refers to ingredients that have been extracted or processed using non-toxic methods. This creates a safer ingredient and work environments and reduces waste. In a simplistic sense it would use water or heat to extract oil rather than solvents.

Green chemistry is topical at many conferences around the world, such as the Sustainable Cosmetics Summit.

Most ingredients in skincare and cosmetics can be produced using green chemistry which means companies can get organic certification such a COSMOS. Green chemicals can be vastly more expensive and difficult to source.

Organic Monitor says finding reliable green preservatives that don’t change the colour of a product or scent are the biggest challenges for natural and organic companies.

Chemical bibles don’t include green chemistry

Ingredients used in nvey lipstick get a bad rap by The Chemical Maze and the Environmental Working Group – two popular guides for chemical safety in food and cosmetics. nvey is certified organic.

Amongst other things the lipsticks contain benzyl alcohol, salicylic acid, sorbic acid, titanium dioxide and ultramarine blue – ingredients recommended as ‘best avoided’, ‘harmful’ or ‘unknown’.

nvey’s Rohan Widdison says there is a natural and a chemical version of all ingredients and says he goes to a lot of trouble to source naturally derived and safely extracted ingredients.

“Most glycerin comes from palm but to process it, it goes through a chemical reaction to get to the material and to be certified you might not get it over the line,” says Rohan. “If you follow the process it drops out of organic and goes into the loose ‘natural’ category.

“I think in essence there is a lot of information floating out there, it’s the pin point accuracy and relevance of that information that is difficult for consumers to process as one would need to be a chemist and regulatory expert to navigate the field.”

“We don’t prefer palm, our glycerin source is a renewable crop. You can mechanically process it to a glycerin without it going through a chemical process. For us as a manufacturer it’s ridiculously expensive but it’s also frustrating because you get benchmarked against other brands that say it’s organic. You know this can’t be because we know there’s only one source in the world and we’re buying it.”

The proof is in the paper trail 

To comply with organic standards companies have to show auditors manufacturing flow charts for all their materials, showing origin and processing. Any prohibited methods, such as petro chemical extraction, would be picked up.

Certifiers can’t approve an ingredient for use in an organic skincare or beauty product based on its name. They need to know where it comes from and how it has been extracted and processed.

Organic certifiers such as Australian Certified Organic maintain lists of raw materials that have been approved for use as preservatives, emulsifiers, emollients etc in organic skincare and cosmetics.

“I think in essence there is a lot of information floating out there, it’s the pin point accuracy and relevance of that information that is difficult for consumers to process as one would need to be a chemist and regulatory expert to navigate the field.” Rohan says.

He says it’s difficult to explain the details of chemical ingredients on labels because it contravenes labelling laws.

No arguments from Bill

Author of The Chemical Maze, Bill Statham agrees that while the guide points out examples of when green chemistry can be applied, it is designed to be general.

It is based on information from scientific journals and material safety data sheets, but he says it’s impossible to be exact and you would need a chemical book for expanded information to factor in all the variations of chemicals.

What’s a layperson to do?

When you’re shopping for skincare and cosmetics you might want to let an organic certification override a chemical guide.

Look for one of these logos or the COSMOS logo. They show that the ingredients have been scrutinised which is more than can be said of chemicals/ingredients in conventional products.

Rohan Widdeson suggests sustainable shoppers buy a brand that is also the manufacturer because they’ve got more invested in their product and not to get hung up on individual ingredients, rather look at the overall ingredient listing and consider whether it looks reasonably clean.


Kathy Cogo is the founder and editor of Sustainable Shopper. A journalist of 15 years, she's been a senior reporter with the ABC and has managed communications and media for a range of not for profit organisations including Australia's largest organic certifying group, Australian Certified Organic.

No Replies to "When chemical guides don’t apply"

    Leave a reply

    Your email address will not be published.