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Working Up a Lather

By: Luis Vazquez
Posted: October 26, 2006, from the October 2006 issue of GCI Magazine.

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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.