Let's face it – some of the most popular words used to market cosmetic products today are largely unregulated. Terms like green, clean, non-toxic, sustainable and even the overused word "natural" can mean something different to each of us.
How well do you really know what biodegradable means? How many items do you use daily that you think are biodegradable?
First, let's define what biodegradable means, especially in the Canadian context. Here, a product is considered biodegradable if it can be broken down into natural, non-toxic substances through the action of microorganisms – such as bacteria, fungi, and enzymes – in a reasonable amount of time when it's disposed of in a waste management system or naturally in the environment. It means it can be broken down naturally without causing harm to the environment.
Some ingredients used in cosmetics – from carrier oils and cosmetic butters, cleansing ingredients to actives and preservatives, will have different toxicity values that are defined by their source – depending on where they come from and how they're manufactured.
For example, in cosmetics we often use an ingredient called an emulsifier: It's an ingredient that helps us Formulators to combine water-based ingredients, like aloe vera extract and glycerine, with oil-based ingredients like argan oil and shea butter. Without an emulsifier, we would not be able to combine these homogeneously into a lotion or cream. These emulsifiers can be made using various methods and can be derived from various sources: Some are sourced from coconuts and responsibly farmed palm (nature-derived and most often biodegradable) and some are petroleum-derived (like anything you see on your cosmetic label that says PPG or PEG or Polysorbate). These latter ingredients are not biodegradable and the process to make them is quite polluting to the environment, and non-biodegradable.
Some petroleum-derived ingredients to watch for include:
Mineral Oil: Often used as a moisturizing agent in skincare products, it forms a barrier on the skin, which can inhibit natural skin functions.
Paraffin Wax: Found in various cosmetic and personal care products, it's used for its emollient and thickening properties.
Petrolatum (Petroleum Jelly): Known for its skin-protective qualities, it's commonly found in lip balms and moisturizers.
Isoparaffin: Used in cosmetics as a solvent and to create a smooth texture in products like foundations.
Synthetic Fragrances: Many synthetic fragrances in cosmetics contain petrochemicals that can linger in the environment and potentially cause skin sensitivities. You will see these often listed as "parfum" or "aroma" in your cosmetic products.
Polyethylene (PE): Microplastics like polyethylene are sometimes used as exfoliating agents in scrubs and cleansers, posing environmental concerns.
Polypropylene (PP): Another microplastic that may be used in cosmetics, particularly in exfoliating and thickening products.
Polybutene: Commonly found in lip glosses, it's used for its gloss-enhancing properties.
Ethylene/Propylene/Styrene Copolymer: Found in some lip products, it helps create a smooth texture.
Butylene/Ethylene/Styrene Copolymer: Similar to the above, it's used for texture enhancement in cosmetics.
Phenoxyethanol: Often used as a preservative in cosmetics and personal care products.
PEG Compounds (Polyethylene Glycols): These are often used as emollients, thickeners, or solvents in cosmetics.
It's worth noting that the use of petroleum-derived ingredients in cosmetics has raised concerns due to their potential environmental impact. This has resulted in a growing desire for more eco-friendly and biodegradable alternatives in the beauty industry. We listened, and are doing our part, and you can too.
Why are petroleum-derived ingredients in cosmetics not biodegradable?
Petroleum-derived ingredients are not biodegradable primarily because they are derived from fossil fuels and possess complex chemical structures that microorganisms, such as bacteria and enzymes, struggle to break down naturally. Here's why they resist biodegradation:
Chemical complexity: Petroleum-derived ingredients often consist of long and complex hydrocarbon chains. These structures are foreign to the natural metabolic processes of microorganisms, making it challenging for them to enzymatically cleave these bonds.
Lack of nutrient value: Microorganisms typically break down organic matter because it serves as a source of energy and nutrients. Petroleum-derived ingredients lack nutritional value for these microorganisms, so they do not see them as a viable food source.
Inert properties: Many petroleum-derived compounds, like mineral oil and paraffin wax, have inert properties, meaning they do not readily react with other substances. This inertness makes them resistant to biological degradation.
Persistence in the environment: Due to their resistance to biodegradation, petroleum-derived ingredients can persist in the environment for extended periods. This persistence can lead to the accumulation of these substances in ecosystems, causing potential harm to wildlife and aquatic life.
Bioaccumulation: Some petroleum-derived compounds can bioaccumulate in organisms, meaning they can accumulate in the tissues of living organisms over time. This bioaccumulation can have negative ecological and health impacts.
Environmental Concerns: The accumulation of non-biodegradable petroleum-derived ingredients in the environment, such as in water bodies and soil, can contribute to pollution and ecosystem disruption.
Given these factors, there is a growing push in the cosmetic industry to replace petroleum-derived ingredients with biodegradable and nature-derived alternatives to reduce the environmental impact and support a more sustainable and eco-friendly approach to beauty products. For these reasons, we do not use any petroleum-derived ingredients in our OBLOOM hair products.
So as you can see, each ingredient in your cosmetic product matters, and will define whether your shampoo, lotion or foundation is actually biodegradable.
Technically speaking, every material is degradable, which means it will break down into smaller pieces over time (even plastic, which degrades into smaller microplastic bits anywhere from 400 to 1000 years, depending on its composition). This means it will not ever biodegrade into a natural element, regardless of how much time will pass.
Timeframe for Biodegradation
As previously mentioned, the timeframe is a crucial aspect of biodegradability in Canada. While there isn't a fixed, one-size-fits-all timeframe set by the government, a general consensus is that a biodegradable product should break down within five years or less. This aligns with the goal of minimizing long-term environmental impact.
How long does it take for a nature-derived cosmetic product to biodegrade? Ah, the million-dollar question! The time it takes for something to biodegrade depends on various factors like environmental conditions, the specific product, and the materials it's made of. Even an ingredient that is seemingly innocent, such as shea butter – often used in body butters, creams and shampoos – can take 30 days to fully break down due to its high-fat content. The same goes for beeswax, albeit natural, due to its dense and waxy nature.
What about hair? Is hair biodegradable? Although hair will biodegrade over time (up to 2 years in a landfill site), there is so much of it being thrown out daily (think haircut waste) that it accumulates – to a whopping 63,000 pounds every single day! And this hair produces an immense amount of greenhouse gases as it tries to break down, contributing to climate change. Not that we have a choice on the matter since we all need a haircut sometimes, but you can see the grandeur of garbage we produce on a daily basis – and this from just hair!
HAIR CARE: How can we make a difference?
When it comes to hair care, the choice of ingredients is paramount, and opting for biodegradable choices is a vital step toward a more sustainable, eco-friendly beauty routine.
Manufacturers of cosmetic ingredients, recognizing the demand for change, have developed tens of thousands of biodegradable choices for us Formulators to choose from. These biodegradable ingredients that we have chosen, break down naturally into harmless substances, reducing our environmental footprint. This not only ensures that your hair receives the care it deserves but also contributes to the well-being of the planet. By selecting hair care products that prioritize biodegradability, you're making a conscious choice to minimize the impact of chemical residues on ecosystems, waterways, and wildlife. It's a small yet impactful way to embrace both healthy, luscious locks and a greener, cleaner Earth!
We designed our OBLOOM hair products to use Ecocert® certified ingredients. Ecocert® is an organization that certifies cosmetic ingredients for their naturality, as well as cosmetic products that contain 99% natural origin ingredients. Ecocert® also guarantees the absence of GMOs and petrochemical ingredients in the products they certify.
In conclusion: Biodegradable cosmetic products in Canada are designed to break down into harmless substances within a reasonable timeframe. Remember to keep an eye out for certifications and labels to ensure the products you're choosing are genuinely eco-friendly. And as always, at OBLOOM, we're committed to providing nature-derived hair products without compromising on our Earth.
Stay green, stay beautiful, and let's keep the planet blooming with health and beauty!