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Surging Interest in Botanical Ingredients Deserves Credible, Harmonized Assessments

July 12, 2021 Lauren Heine, Ph.D and Chris Bartlett, Ph.D
July 12, 2021
Raghav Bhasin via Unsplash

Driven by surging consumer interest in “clean” and “natural,” ingredients, the use of new plant-derived substances in beauty and personal care is growing much faster than the industry’s capacity to fully understand the impact these can have on the health and safety of workers, consumers and the natural environment.

Consumers and producers often assume that “natural” means “safe,” sometimes without adequate information to determine what hazards an ingredient may truly present.

In an effort to serve this growing market with credible data, ChemFORWARD convened an interdisciplinary group of professionals including representatives from brands of all sizes. Some offer products based mostly on conventional formulations while others focus more on plant-derived and/or renewable ingredients as well as suppliers of botanical ingredients, doctors and herbalists. They were selected to inform the development of an assessment methodology for complex substances such as botanicals.

The principal challenge posed by botanicals is that, in contrast to conventional chemicals produced in a lab, botanicals often contain thousands of compounds, which can vary with seasons, geography, or extraction process, magnifying the complexity of assessing their effects and interactions. And in practice, there is a spectrum of ingredients from natural to natural-enhanced, natural identical, synthetic, and more, which are all used in cosmetic products at the same time.

Assuming that an ingredient is safe for personal-care or cosmetic uses solely because it comes from a plant, or has been used in traditional medicine leaves brands and users open to risks from unknown hazards.

“Without clear guidance based on safety data, the use of botanicals in skin care will become increasingly confusing.”
By Mia Davis, vice president of sustainability and impact, Credo Beauty

Some compounds are benign to eat, but they are dangerous when isolated and applied to skin. A favorite example is psoralen, a compound found in celery which is harmless to human digestive systems but when applied to skin can cause such extreme sensitization to sun that some people have been severely injured from using it as a suntan booster.

Concentration and exposure route are elements that are well understood and critical to both mainstream chemistry and botanical ingredients. These factors present difficulties for users of botanical ingredients because of their complex mixtures of constituents and the differences in metabolism between oral and dermal exposure.

“Concentration and route of exposure matters,” said Mia Davis, vice president of sustainability and impact at Credo Beauty. “Without clear guidance based on safety data, the use of botanicals in skin care will become increasingly confusing.”

How a substance is extracted from its host material can have enormous consequences for the properties it imparts to a final product. Using heat or chemicals can change the characteristics of the resulting ingredient and introduces the possibility for contamination or adulteration.

“If one company sells something extracted in water and another company sells the same thing extracted in an organic solvent you have to understand what might vary, as far as the bioactive compounds within that extract” said Maureen Daniher, director of research and development at North Carolina-based botanical ingredient supplier Active Concepts.

For a pure substance, there is a globally harmonized system for the classification of chemical hazard across a spectrum of human and environmental endpoints. A similar system would help brands, formulators and suppliers to accurately assess botanicals.

“It would be important to have an ingredient hazard profile that demonstrates changes based on a solvent extraction system versus a water extraction system, to distinguish why you might opt for a certain processing choice,” said Heather McKenney, head of toxicology & product safety at The Honest Company.

Themes that emerged from the roundtable included the need for access to harmonized, verified and comparable information about botanical ingredients. A minimum dataset should be specified for credible data. That dataset should include information on skin and eye irritation, skin and respiratory sensitization and photo toxicity.

Other relevant information should include:

  • Extraction method -- a leaf or seed may be safe/ benign but a specific substance extracted from the plant part may be harmful or using heat or a solvent may alter the chemical to introduce or unlock harmful characteristics.
  • Exposure route -- something that is safe to eat is not necessarily safe to put on your skin
  • Concentration -- a substance may appear in a personal care product in a higher concentration than it would be encountered in a fruit, leaf or other plant part; Ingredient suppliers may provide substances as a concentrate, contributing further difficulty to making comparisons.
  • Plant part -- seeds, roots, stems, fruit, flowers… just because one part is safely eaten doesn’t mean a different part is safe
  • Threshold -- how much of an ingredient is enough to be considered present, and effective, in a formulation; any information available about dose response
  • Bioavailability -- the amount of a substance that enters the body and has an effect

These considerations are a baseline from which we can build a dataset that can also grow to include consideration for important endpoints such as whether an ingredient is a reproductive toxin, mutagen, carcinogen or harms endocrine health. Optimally, a shared data repository and common reporting framework for botanicals will offer product developers and consumers confidence around "safer" claims.

Based on input from the roundtable members, an assessment guidance document is being drafted for peer review. A pilot of common botanicals, using the new assessment guidance is expected later this year.

For conventional chemicals, ChemFORWARD uses criteria from the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals and the Cradle to Cradle Certified Material Health program. Leading toxicology firms populate the data and classifications in the ChemFORWARD digital repository. The Beauty & Personal Care dataset is currently used by dozens of brands, while a collaborative of co-design partners and users is working to fill common data gaps across sectors. With a methodology tailored to botanicals, the ChemFORWARD platform and process offer the growing clean beauty sector a solution to the problem of data gaps for botanicals.

Ultimately, we intend to offer complete and credible information to give ingredient users and suppliers confidence in the substances they encounter. Watch for updates as we work with trusted partners across the botanicals and personal-care industries to develop clear, accessible guidance and information about botanical ingredients.

Dr. Lauren Heine is ChemFORWARD’s co-founder and director of science and data integrity. Dr. Chris Bartlett is ChemFORWARD’s chief toxicologist. Lauren is an environmental chemist who has helped develop some of the world’s leading tools for safer chemistry including ChemFORWARD, GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals and CleanGredients™. Chris is a toxicologist with experience spanning consumer products, beauty, biotech and regulatory toxicology.

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