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Working Up a Lather

Luis Vazquez

Driven by increasing awareness and concern by consumers about the source and properties of the ingredients in their personal care products, the conversion to more natural formulations in personal care is gathering momentum. The natural hair care category is undergoing a shift as technology and formulations improve, enhancing performance and functionality while maintaining the natural integrity and positioning of the products.

Traditionally, many consumers shopping in natural product stores have been disappointed with natural hair care products, and often have continued to buy hair care products in mainstream outlets due to the noticeable differences in texture, lather and functionality that non-naturals provided. Some of the features expected from a shampoo—a rich creamy lather, for example—are created with synthetic or harsh chemicals that natural formulators do not use. In addition, the natural hair care category has consisted primarily of shampoos and conditioners differentiated by scent and aromatherapy benefits rather than function or hair care solutions. Marketers of natural hair care products are increasingly developing and introducing products that are benefit driven rather than aromatherapy based to attract new consumers and bring shoppers back into the natural hair care category. Based on current consumption data, this strategy seems to be working. The natural hair care category is the second fastest-growing HBA naturals category, up 19.4% on an annual basis.

Defining and Differentiating Naturals

Natural formulations often are defined by what they do not include: parabens, sodium lauryl/laureth sulfates, and petroleum-based and animal-derived ingredients. Excluding these ingredients often extends the development time because new ingredients have to be sourced, evaluated and tested for effectiveness.

Increasingly, natural marketers also are seeking to differentiate themselves with unique plant-based ingredients not available in mainstream products. Research to support the topical benefits of these ingredients is being conducted by both ingredient suppliers and marketers to support the effectiveness and help persuade consumers that natural products can effectively address their hair care needs. In addition, suppliers are discovering new botanicals and indigenous ingredients more rapidly due to global sourcing. Just a few years ago, most marketers and consumers were not aware of the moisturizing benefits of babassu oil from Brazil or the antioxidant benefits of rooibis red tea from South Africa. These new ingredients supported by research data and a better understanding of natural formulation techniques have enhanced natural hair care to more effectively meet consumer demand and expectations.

Lather and Foam

Formulating hair care products presents numerous challenges due to the characteristics and needs of every individual’s hair. Human hair varies enormously depending on race, gender, age and genetics—which, in turn, affect the diameter, color and texture of the hair. In addition to cleansing and conditioning, consumers demand hair care products that solve specific hair problems or complement a particular style. To achieve these goals, all the characteristics of hair must be taken into account during the development phase.

The first challenge formulators face in developing natural shampoos and conditioners is foam and lather that both reinforce the perception that the product is working. Consumers expect foam and lather. Many traditional surfactants and foaming agents, such as sodium lauryl/laureth sulfates and cocamide DEA, are harsh and extremely irritating to the scalp. There also has been some preliminary research implying that these agents may be carcinogens, however, there has not been sufficient research to prove this claim. Natural formulators seek out mild, naturally derived surfactants such as sodium myreth sulfate, which is derived from coconut oil.

A second challenge for natural formulators is enhancing the cleansing properties with plant-derived ingredients that solve specific hair needs. Natural oils, such as jojoba oil, effectively condition and hydrate the hair, while wheat proteins add shine. As natural ingredients become more popular, additional research is being conducted by both manufacturers and suppliers to support ingredient effectiveness and discover new properties and applications. For decades, tea tree oil has been known for its therapeutic benefits to the skin. Now, it has found its place in hair care formulations as an effective ingredient to soothe scalp irritation and help eliminate dandruff.

Natural Preservation

Effectively preserving natural products is perhaps the most challenging aspect of developing naturally based shampoos and conditioners—as well as other natural personal care products. Parabens are the most commonly used preservative system outside the natural industry. They are economical, broad spectrum, petroleum-based preservatives that usually appear as methylparaben or propylparaben on an ingredient list, are used in many pharmaceutical, food and cosmetic products. Due to consumer demand, however, the natural industry is eliminating the use of parabens as a preservative system in all formulations. While effective at low levels, parabens have been found in breast tumors, leading many to question the ingredient’s safety. Although there is no firm evidence or causal linkage established between parabens and breast cancer, consumers are increasingly selecting paraben-free brands. Jason was the first brand to remove parabens from its line. Avalon Organics, Kiss My Face and Burt’s Bees also are paraben-free.

Paraben-free formulations often require the combination of multiple ingredients to effectively preserve the product. Varying pH levels, viscosity and water content combined with the different properties of antimicrobial agents require that each formula utilize a different preservative system—or at least a different combination of preservatives. Certain preservatives may reduce the viscosity of a formula, change the color or alter the performance. Common paraben alternatives are sodium benzoate, phenoxyethanol and enzymes such as glucose oxidase and lactoperoxidase.

Challenges Offset by Opportunity

Along with challenges, natural product marketers and formulators are presented with the opportunity to bring innovation and creativity to the formulation of hair care through the sourcing of new natural ingredients and developing new ingredient combinations to achieve the desired results. As traditional assumptions are questioned and new data collected, there is a greater opportunity to bring unique products to market and address consumer needs. Natural product marketers are increasingly developing ranges that target specific consumer needs—helping to differentiate products within the natural category while also enabling these brands to better compete with mainstream products that are perceived to be more effective. Although many consumers are demanding more natural ingredients and seeking out information about the ingredients in their personal care products, they are not willing to give up performance or effectiveness. Natural product marketers are addressing these concerns and perceptions through advertising, education and sampling.

The double-digit growth the natural hair care category is experiencing confirms the success that natural marketers are having. The introduction of functional-based products is driving the growth in the styling category, up 22.6%* annually, representing the fastest-growing segment of the natural hair care category. Consumers can look forward to additional product introductions that address their need for functional, solution-driven hair care products that fit into their natural lifestyle and values.

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