From eliminating greenwashing through blockchain technology and government-mandated evidence of eco-friendly marketing claims through the Green Claims Code to democratizing access to sustainability substantiation, the realms of ingredient transparency have certainly made great strides. However, with 94% of UK consumers stating that brands need to show more sustainability transparency, there is still more work to be done.
As ingredient manufacturer Inolex’s Manager of Corporate Sustainability, Audrey Wesson, states: “Transparency is the key to the future of beauty. How do you know the social and environmental impacts of your ingredients without it?”
BeautyMatter spoke to brand founders, nonprofit leaders, and supply chain experts to highlight the latest developments facing the industry.
New Challenges Emerge
The beauty industry never sleeps, nor do revelations on stories revealing what’s inside the bottle. Recently, Olaplex announced that its bestelling No. 3 Hair Perfector formula would be reformulated amid rumors around the allegedly reprotoxic ingredient inside it—lilial, which was also widely used in fragrances to replicate the scent of lily-of-the-valley before becoming banned in said product arena as well.
Mehmet Göker, dermatology specialist at Vera Clinic, states: “There is minimal need for any concern if you’ve been using the existing Olaplex formula, this ingredient has been used in cosmetics and household care products for many years and the chances of the ingredient affecting fertility is extremely low. Olaplex are making the change as a precautionary measure.”
In other news, Dazed Beauty reported on mercury contamination in anti-aging and skin-lightening products. A Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG) document showed that in 271 skin-lightening products purchased across over 40 e-commerce sites, including Amazon and Alibaba, 129 had high levels of mercury. The use of mercury is restricted to 1mg/kg or 1ppm (part per million), excluding eye area cosmetics, yet 47% of the products tested had more than 10,000 ppm.
“Physically-located companies have to adhere to national laws and internet companies seemingly don't,” proclaims Executive Director of the Mercury Policy Project, Michael Bender. Policy Manager for the Zero Mercury Campaign, Elena Lymberidi-Settimo, warns that these high mercury levels can cause issues in pregnancy, kidney damage, and nervous system disorders.
In response, various retailers and brands have stated they would update their safety policy, apply AI-driven surveillance systems to ensure legal compliance, and create manufacturer blacklists for those creating these harmful products. But these are just a few companies in a much larger pool; what the industry needs is an all-encompassing global standard that spans physical and digital markets. As long as the easier route is an option and not a legal matter, certain companies will bypass these extensive undertakings.
Lastly, contamination from benzene, a carcinogenic ingredient found in hundreds of products ranging from hand sanitizers to body sprays, also recently came to light. The Valisure lab found that 27% of 662 products contained the chemical. “There are no legal requirements for manufacturers to test personal care products for contaminants like benzene. The source of contamination is currently unknown, but it is thought that benzene may be a contaminant from a manufacturing process or an impurity of some raw materials,” Carla Burns, Senior Director for Cosmetic Science at EWG, tells BeautyMatter. “Depending on the level and length of exposure to benzene, there is evidence of harm to the central nervous system, cardiovascular and reproductive systems, along with increased risk of certain forms of cancer.”
Burns also states that PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) were detected in over 50% of 231 cosmetics, but not listed on their ingredients labels. A 2021 study published in the Environmental and Science & Technology Letters states that exposure to these chemicals “may pose a risk to human health through direct and indirect exposure, as well as a risk to ecosystem health throughout the lifecycle of these products.”
Industry-wide legislation presents one part of the solution towards ensuring products aren’t contaminated with potentially harmful ingredients. “It is critical that raw material suppliers and manufacturers ensure that harmful chemicals are not ending up in products unintentionally. Additionally, the FDA should take action to establish and require standards for chemical contaminants in cosmetics so that consumers don’t need to rely on independent testing,” Burns adds. Independent nonprofits are equally leading the way. Chemical hazards data company ChemFORWARD co-designed a safety verification process and trade-name labeling operation for the B2B marketplace entitled the SAFER initiative. Sustainable B2B marketplace Novi has partnered with the company to bring the program to beauty retailers worldwide.
“Chemical hazard assessments are critical because they help us understand the safety of new chemistries as they are developed and introduced into the products we use every day. But these assessments have traditionally been expensive, inconsistent, and housed on private systems,” Kimberly Shenk, co-founder and CEO of Novi, tells BeautyMatter. “The ChemFORWARD team has designed a unique data-sharing model and digital repository to provide cost-effective, comprehensive, scalable screening of ingredients that break through these barriers.”
Parabens, Sulfates, and Synthetics: Addressing the Gray Area
Whether you are for or against the use of preservative systems and surfactants, it certainly remains a hotly debated topic. What began as a study cited on a single blog has now turned into a movement shaping beauty as we know it, but the truth remains elusive, depending on the commentator.
In a recent skincare myths video, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Shereene Idriss, who has over 420,000 Instagram followers, states that the often-cited study which found parabens in breast cancer tissue failed to research if parabens were present in the healthy tissue as well. Despite singing the praises of preservative systems for ensuring a bacterial-free shell life, Idriss states she will not be using parabens in her upcoming skincare range due to the consumer controversy around them. When consumer demand is heavily steering product development, what is the result?
“A decade ago, when the tension really started to bubble up, the industry didn’t fully grasp how powerful consumers would become in this conversation. We didn’t grasp their passion. The exciting part of leaning into that passion is that it creates opportunity,” Inolex VP of Marketing Lisa Gandolfi comments. “It’s important that we continue to educate consumers about the safety of ingredients and why certain ingredients are necessary.” She praises the recent debates about parabens as having birthed a category of preservation alternatives with “excellent safety profiles.”
Formulas without any preservative system in place risk skin and eye infections due to mold or bacteria growing in the product. “It's always a case of using the least amount of preservative you possibly can. With a 1% limit, usually the formulas contain 0.1% or 0.2%. Because there is such low concentration, even if you use multiple products a day, you aren’t going to reach the limits that are set for these products,” Dr. Ken Marenus of Independent Beauty Association told us back in November 2021, in reference to studies which state that product chemicals can enter the bloodstream. “If a brand is replacing parabens with a different preservative system, it is important to ensure they are not linked to health hazards, but are also effective in preventing growth of microorganisms, and are compatible with the pH of the formula,” Shenk adds.
On the subject of sulphates, The Ordinary’s “anti-clean” approach presents a radical departure. The brand is embracing the use of the ingredient, praised for its cleansing properties, in their new haircare line despite the heavy increase in the sulphate-free formulations. “The overarching message we'd like to get across when it comes to judging ingredients is the core principle of toxicology—the dose makes the poison,” Dionne Lois Cullen, Chief Brand Officer at DECIEM, told BeautyMatter. “Ingredients can’t be named as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ without the context of how they are being used.”
Even the recently birthed category of clean fragrance is learning to live in the gray zone between all-natural and purely synthetic. Although a majority of fragrances on the market are a mix of natural and synthetics, the worry about manufactured ingredients potentially being health hazardous has also infiltrated perfume consumer circles, resulting in “safe synthetic” focuses or formulas made of only natural ingredients altogether. In terms of pure ecological footprint, all-natural perfumes actually carry a heavier weight due to the resources required for growth, harvest, and extraction of the ingredients.
“An eco-friendly perfume should contain a combination of natural and safe-synthetic (or nature-identical) ingredients. This not only helps preserve our planet’s natural resources and lowers our carbon footprint by using green chemistry, but it also helps the perfumer create accords that will smell good and not be volatile,” ASCENTION Wellness Fragrances states in a press release. Its founder, Greta Fitz, formerly the Vice President of Global Marketing and Product Development at Clean Beauty Collective Inc., created fragrances which are also refillable, up-cyclable, and recyclable.
When it comes to controversial ingredients, the push and pull of consumer and ecological safety is pressuring change, which presents limitations for product developers but is also boosting research for finding suitable alternatives. “There are two main themes in regulation challenges facing product developers today: globalization and environmental impact. Ingredient regulation is not globally consistent,” Gandolfi explains, citing the challenge of creating formulas that meet all global regulations while remaining exciting to consumers. “Regulations related to environmental impacts continue to pose positive challenges for product developers and ingredient manufacturers. As we learn more about the impacts of past innovations on the environment, regulation challenges us to think of new ways to bring value to consumers,” she adds.
Case in point: Inolex recently created 100% biobased and biodegradable silicones, like LexFeel WOW, a cyclopentasiloxane replacement, an ingredient which had faced restrictions in recent years. The next “game changing regulation” according to Gandolfi will be microplastics, which are currently found in 90% of cosmetics. The nonprofit group Plastic Soup Foundation (PSF) is now calling for stricter regulation of the use of synthetic polymers in products.
Carbon-Free Supply Chains
Creating a carbon-free supply chain spans extensive networks, from raw materials through to factory storage. “Full transparency of ambiguous and large supply chains is a daunting call-to-action that contains enormous complexity. Oftentimes, it is only possible to have full transparency one step upstream the supply chain,” Wesson states. “However, if we all do our due diligence one step upstream we can ignite chain reactions, pun intended, that fuel significant changes.”
Fragrance manufacturers have been focusing their efforts at the root, literally. Firmenich recently debuted a completely traceable vanilla planifolia from Madagascar, which offers complete traceability thanks to the Path2Farm tool. Symrise collaborated with agricultural research institute CRIEPPAM on its “Plants Sains” accredited white lavender plants, which ensures not only a reduced risk of plant disease thanks to in-vitro laboratory cultivation of 100% bacteria-free seedlings, but also stable income for the farmers harvesting it.
On the haircare front, Purezero, which has recently been granted Carbonfree Product Certification from Carbonfund.org, managed to achieve carbon-neutral status after three years of operations, thanks to working with carbon life cycle analysis partners to fully identify all areas of environmental footprint. All the technological advancements notwithstanding, internationally operating businesses still have a huge hurdle to overcome.
“One of the largest challenges was that many companies are conducting overseas manufacturing of either components or finished goods, which in turn produces significant carbon emissions due to the superfluous shipping required to get goods into the US,” explains Purezero co-founder Matt Kuhlman. “Creating a hyper-localized supply chain was something we knew had to be done to reduce those emissions, which we’ve successfully done on the Atlantic coast in Florida. This removed up to 40% of net carbon emissions from certain inputs right off the bat.”
The sheer volume of information across a supply chain means a short overview is an oxymoron. “Currently, the lack of standard for how the information is collected, stored, and in real time distributed where the information is needed in a user friendly way is a challenge because the information upkeep for each SKU, each variant, and any future SKUs is cumbersome and is needed across hundreds of channels,” Sabrina Noorani, founder and CEO of ClearForMe, a centralized ingredient database to help demystify product labels and marketing claims for consumers, explains.
For Noorani, ingredient sustainability in an environmentally friendly supply chain is not always a fixed matter. “The largest misconception about Earth-friendly ingredients is that once an ingredient is labeled Earth-friendly, it stays Earth-friendly. Once an ingredient is over-farmed, produced, or manufactured, the likelihood of the ingredient continuing to be sustainable for the environment and planet decreases,” she states.
Challenges to Sustainability Transparency
Evolving from ingredient lists and recycled packaging, brands practicing sustainability transparency will increasingly illuminate the general public on the entire carbon life cycle, which in turn will push changes within other corporate structures forward. “One of our biggest challenges is education around what it really means to shop sustainably and open consumers’ eyes to the barriers presented by the industry as a whole,” Kuhlman states. “Consumers need to understand that sustainability transparency from brands will not happen on a wide scale unless they force the hand of big brands through their purchasing decisions.”
But as Kuhman notes, sustainability comes at a cost, and competitive pricing is a challenge for brands that are investing in their supply chain and reducing their carbon footprint. But perhaps looking beyond initial cost and into environmental cost will open up minds to a new purchasing paradigm.
Natural skincare brand Three Ships Beauty developed a digital source map which enables the trace of product journey from farm to shelf. “The more research that I started to do on this topic, the more that I realized that where ingredients are sourced from is just as important as what the ingredient actually is. Just being natural isn’t enough anymore,” explains the brand’s co-founder Laura Burget.
The sheer volume of data points made it a challenging undertaking, but now consumers shopping the brand’s site are able to explore the exact origins of their product. “The level of interaction and information that is shared is what makes this platform truly unique. It was a painstaking process to build out these maps, requiring thousands of hours to build, research, and integrate into our site,” Burget states. “Owning our own formulas has been critical in being able to have access to this information and is actually surprisingly rare among beauty brands in our space.” A trusted and ethical raw material supplier is vital, but brand owners also need to be armed with the correct facts in order to ask the right questions of potential collaborators.
Since launching the source maps, Three Ships Beauty has seen a 50% increase in site visits. Burget sees “overcommunication” with customers as an important action for brands wanting to exhibit full transparency. “Consumers now have so much information available at their fingertips that gone are the days that you can hide your dirty laundry or make claims that you can’t substantiate. Share as much information as possible about what is in your formulations, why you include it, and where it’s sourced from,” she says.
Expired Product: A New Waste-Reduction Challenge
No matter how sustainable a product, a product which sits on retail or factory shelves unused will ultimately go to waste. Avery Dennison is hoping to enable easier access to information thanks to its recent extensions of the atma.io product cloud—one for real-time carbon impact analytics in line with forthcoming EU “Digital Product Passport” regulations, ensuring end-to-end visibility, and another for waste elimination by tracking warehouse pallet movement and approaching expiry dates. According to IHL Group, expired and overstocked products cost the industry $1.8 trillion annually.
Vegan makeup brand All Tigers is aiming to do its part in waste reduction by selling imperfect products at a 30% discount. Skincare brand Gallinée is offering near-expiry products at an up to 70% discount on its site. However, these solutions are not without potential repercussions. “The sale of near-expired beauty products creates a risk for beauty companies, which risk selling products to consumers that have microbial contamination and less efficacy. That could damage brand reputation, brand image and the user experience,” Euromonitor’s industry manager Kayla Villena tells Vogue Business.
Perhaps a shift in consumer mindset could also assist in the matter. Rather than stockpiling products for Instagram-worthy shelfies, adopting a “less is more” and “buy as and when you need” purchasing mantra could reduce waste as well. Furthermore, increased accuracy for retail stock and production figures, aided by lowered MOQs (minimum order quantities) with manufacturers, would mean less product goes to waste because less product is created in the first place.
Taking all factors into play, the sustainability playing field has become more complex than ever. Ethical supply chains, safe ingredients, evolving studies, changing regulations—where do we take it from here?
Change is not going to be an overnight matter, and will undoubtedly include some hiccups along the way. Developing and applying machine learning to these endeavors are the only feasible option, but there needs to be democratization in access to these programs, and increased pressure on governments as well as industries (not just those in the beauty realm) to reform matters. It’s a case of power in numbers, but those figures can only rise if there is an urgent impetus, not a lackadaisical potential option, to do so. Consumers, brands, and legislative bodies all must partake, but there also needs to be unified data to counteract the sweeping clouds of misinformation which spread like wildfire across social media platforms. Until misinformation, or a complete lack of transparency, is stopped being used as a marketing benefit, even if unintentionally, consumers will continue to remain in the dark. The reality of the challenges of the mission that lie ahead also needs to be acknowledged. As Wesson states: “The biggest change we need to embrace is getting comfortable with progress, not perfection.”
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