Companies in the cosmetics industry are increasingly sharing information about the environmental impact of their businesses, and how they are reducing this in line with the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Does this also apply to their products? Do the chemists whose innovations are so vital to new cosmetic brands and products act in the same way?
In fact, there’s been lots of progress in this area! Scientists across the world have been working collaboratively for over 30 years to develop what is now called ‘green chemistry’ or ‘sustainable chemistry’.
According to the American Chemical Society, ‘green chemistry’ is a way of thinking about chemistry that focuses on protecting and benefiting the economy, people and the planet by finding creative and innovative ways to reduce waste, conserve energy and discover replacements for hazardous substances.’
However, green chemistry does not mean "no chemistry". chemistry is essential for our modern lifestyles and all of the products we take for granted, from cars to consumer electronics and from clothing to cosmetics. Green chemistry uses modern and innovative techniques so that chemistry is more efficient and less damaging to the environment.
The principles of green chemistry aim to ensure that chemists use less energy, less water and solvents, and fewer process steps (a smaller series of reactions). The key ideas are:
- Prevent waste: Design chemical reactions with as few unwanted waste products as possible
- Design less hazardous chemical reaction: Design chemical reaction processes which use and generate substances with minimal hazardous properties.
- Use renewable substances to start the process: Use raw materials that are renewable, such as plants or waste products from other industries, rather than depleting, such as fossil fuels.
- Use substances which can be used again and again: Minimize waste by using ‘catalytic’ reactions. Catalysts are used in small amounts and can carry out a single reaction many times. They are preferable to substances which are needed in larger amounts and are used up in the reaction.
- Design chemical reactions with are specific and selective: Avoid using ‘protecting’ groups to direct a chemical to only react with a specific part of another molecule. These processes use additional reagents and generate waste.
- Maximize ‘atom economy’: Design reaction processes so that the final product contains as many atoms as possible from the starting materials. There should be few, if any, wasted atoms.
- Use safer solvents and reaction conditions: Use innocuous solvents or other chemicals where possible.
- Increase energy efficiency: Run chemical reactions at room temperature and pressure whenever possible.
- Design chemicals and products to degrade after use: Design chemical products to break down to innocuous substances after use which do not accumulate in the environment.
- Analyse in real time to prevent pollution: Monitor the chemical reaction as it happens to improve control over the process and to help minimise or eliminate the formation of by-products.
- Minimise the potential for accidents: Design and use chemicals in a form, such as solid, liquid, or gas, to minimise the potential for chemical accidents including explosions, fires, and releases to the environment.
You can be sure that cosmetic and personal care products are safe for us to use because they go through rigorous safety processes governed by the UK Cosmetics Regulation. However, safety isn’t just about our health. Cosmetic products and their ingredients are increasingly being designed according to the above principles. Years of scientific research and testing goes into making each and every item in our bathroom cabinets and make-up bags to ensure they are safe for yourself and the planet.