Environmental concerns have scientists looking at sustainable, more environmentally friendly alternatives to substances and materials currently used in industry. The natural properties of a microbe may hold promise as a replacement for synthetic surfactants found in beauty products like shampoo.
For many years, beauty product advertisements have touted their ability to give the smoothest skin, the healthiest hair, among other desirable outcomes. Behind the glitzy ads, sophisticated science is needed to deliver what is promised. Chemistry has always been the unsung hero behind the formulation and manufacturing of these products; an understanding of how different substances work and how they relate to one another has led to elegant formulations and delivery mechanisms that we now take for granted. Take your shampoo, for example: infused with ‘natural oil extracts scientifically proven to nourish your hair’. Simply put, science found a way to store a stable formulation of various components in a shampoo bottle at room temperature, distribute and infuse it into your hair for its beneficial effects, and make sure everything else can be rinsed off afterwards.
To achieve this, the oil and minerals are suspended (or emulsified) within the liquid of the shampoo; by lowering the surface tension, surfactants can then facilitate the release of stored substances so they can be absorbed into the hair, as well as assist in the removal of dirt and oil. Surfactants are indispensable, not only in beauty products but also in soaps and detergents.
We have long used synthetic chemicals as surfactants, and they are usually derived from petroleum, or oleic (fat and oil) sources. Industrial processes have made their manufacturing very inexpensive, but a major concern is that they are not biodegradable. Their production creates a lot of waste material, and not everything that gets washed down the drain is broken down. Where these surfactants are sourced from also leads to questions of sustainability—fossil fuels will eventually run out.
To address this, scientists are looking to biology for a reasonable alternative. The microbe Lactobacillus Paracasei produces a substance that has similar surfactant properties, and studies are currently ongoing to determine if this biosurfactant has equivalent properties to the synthetic surfactants currently used in various industries. Initial results have not only proven this equivalency, but also revealed that the biosurfactant has natural anti-oxidant properties as well as improved formulation stability that could potentially increase the shelf life of a product. Moreover, there was also note of an improved safety profile and the organic nature of the biosurfactant means it is totally biodegradable. These findings point to the potential of integrating biotechnology that is not only effective, but is also sustainable, and less harmful to both the human body and to the environment.
While these results look promising, the cost of shifting to biotechnology manufacturing remains prohibitive. However, how consumers buy products is indeed evolving: beyond how these products work, buyers are becoming increasingly cognizant of a product’s impact on the environment. Hopefully the cosmetic industry will commit resources to developing biosurfactants for new environmentally friendly products. Who wouldn’t want to buy shampoo that does wonders for your hair while being environmentally friendly?
Written By: Jay Martin, M.D.