Bursting the Bubble: The Myth of the "Natural" Surfactant
These days, it seems that everybody wants organic. Because of the dramatic rise in consumer interest in everything organic, manufacturers from all walks of industry are rushing to fill the marketplace with goods labeled as "organic." Unfortunately, whether the products are actually genuine USDA National Organic Program (NOP) certified organic products has not been a primary focus of the businesses seeking to profit from the explosive interest in organic products. The unspoken code within the natural products industry has been "don't ask don't tell".
Understanding the rules for organics is actually quite simple. First, grow and harvest organic botanicals and animals without the use of chemical inputs -- pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, growth hormones, irradiation, defoliants, etc., in accordance with sustainable, humane and environmentally-friendly principles. Second, minimally-process your certified organic materials using traditional and simple processing methods, not extreme industrial manufacturing technologies or synthetic and toxic petrochemicals.
Everyone can understand organic carrots -- preparing the soil, planting seeds, watering, weeding, digging carrots out of the ground and eating them. Most folks can also understand what it takes to raise organic dairy cows and label milk as organic. But what about "organic" shampoo? How can one call a conventional foaming surfactant (detergent) product "organic"? Well...technically, you cannot call a synthetic chemical detergent "organic". But stores and internet companies are flooded with "organic" shampoos, so what's going on?
One major facet of this problematic issue is that the USDA National Organic Program's office has announced that they are just nine people and have approximately $1 million dollars to police the organic industry and the use of the word "organic" in a rapidly growing marketplace that is currently estimated at more than $20 billion dollars. It's too bad that the NOP was so forthcoming with the information about this unfortunate combination of circumstance and lack of funding. Consequently, there has been very little enforcement in the organic foods sector of the natural products industry, and none at all in the personal care products arena. Personal care manufacturers have duly noted and celebrated the NOP's limited resources and are moving quickly to exploit the lucrative "organic" marketplace opportunities at the expense of trusting, organically-minded consumers. This has resulted in numerous mysterious ingredients -- frequently synthetic oleochemicals -- in so-called "organic" products.
Oleochemicals are synthetic man-made industrial chemicals typically manufactured or "derived from" conventionally-grown, third-world vegetable oils -- a.k.a. oleo feedstocks. (From Wikipedia: Oleochemicals are chemicals derived from biological oils or fats. They are analogous to petrochemicals which are chemicals derived from petroleum. ) Well, if the ingredients are "derived from" vegetable oil sources they must be environmentally-friendly and safe, right? Unfortunately, not. Firstly, consider that the vast majority of vegetable feedstocks are conventionally-grown (not organic!) in third-world countries. Conventionally-grown, third-world vegetable oils are frequently contaminated with synthetic pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer chemical residues, including chemicals that have been banned for use in the USA. Secondly, the processes used to convert vegetable feedstocks into the various synthetic oleochemicals are polluting industrial processes that too often involve violent reactions and highly toxic petrochemical agents and heavy metal catalysts. Thirdly, transporting conventional feedstocks from third-world countries requires significant fossil fuel. Lastly, though the oleochemicals may be derived from a vegetable source, the final new synthetic material does not have the same molecular structure as the original oil and, too frequently, as the new synthetic never existed in nature, can have unknown and potentially hazardous consequences/effects on humans, wildlife and our environment downstream.
So what are those mysterious coconut oil- or palm oil-derived surfactants? Surprise -- they're synthetic oleochemical detergents! What are vegetable emulsifying wax, fatty acids -- cetyl or cetearyl alcohol, glyceryl stearate, caprylic/capric triglycerides, stearic acid, etc.? These materials are all synthetic oleochemicals used as emollients, emulsifiers and thickeners. All of these are ingredients are frequently seen on the "natural" and "organic" personal care product ingredient listings of the products sold in the healthy, natural, organic and good-for-you grocery stores and on web sites. The problem is that these ingredients are not really natural nor organic! Another, bigger problem is that many of the surfactants and fatty acids may have toxic catalyst residues or toxic contaminants -- by-products -- from their industrial manufacturing processes. For a new study documenting this problem in common personal care products sold in the natural products industry, take a look at this shocking news story:
Isn't it odd that though you frequently see coconut-derived surfactants, fatty acids, vegetable emulsifying wax or caprylic/capric triglycerides in "all natural" and "organic" personal care products, you never see them in USDA certified organic food products? The reason that you would never see these ingredients in authentic certified organic foods is because they are not natural. In addition, because they are synthetic industrial oleochemicals whose manufacturing processes are unnatural and/or extreme -- environmentally-unfriendly processes -- they can never be certified as organic under the USDA National Organic Program regulations. The polluting manufacturing processes used to produce surfactants and fatty acids involve the use of strong chemical acids and other toxic reactive agents, or employ heavy metals or chemically-engineered industrial enzymes or petrochemical catalysts that do not meet the USDA organic program regulations.
For example, many folks avoid hydrogenated fats because they understand that hydrogenated fats contain trans fats and are unhealthy because they are understood to cause free radical formation and prostaglandin inhibition. Hydrogenated fats are not permitted in certified organic products because they are industrially-created and chemically-reacted in environmentally-unfriendly processes that render oils into unhealthy synthetic waxy materials. Another concern is that hydrogenated fats, fatty acids and emulsifying waxes or surfactants may have petrochemical, synthetic enzyme or metal catalyst residues in the final product. Most people would be surprised to learn that the ingredients -- vegetable emulsifying wax (a.k.a. soy wax), coconut fatty acids, cetyl alcohol and jojoba butter/beads -- that are frequently used in "all natural" and even "organic" personal care products are hydrogenated synthetically-reacted materials. These hydrogenated fats are synthetic waxy substances with consistencies ranging from soft and creamy to a firm wax. Most of the oleochemical emollient fatty acids used in personal care products are virtually indistinguishable from ordinary shortening. Manufacturers love these synthetic fatty acids because they have a long shelf-life and they have a distinctive waxy, not oily feel. Also, as they are synthetic, the oleochemical emollient substances offer consistency in viscosity and texture, unlike truly natural botanicals that have wide variations in color, smell, viscosity and texture due to rainfall, soil conditions, harvest time, etc.
There are many different industrial processing methods for manufacturing oleochemicals, yet some of the processes used to make surfactants and fatty acids and emulsifying waxes are similar in many ways. These conventional oleochemicals require the use of a multi-million dollar industrial processing unit called a “reactor,” and vegetable oil feedstocks (conventional, third-world-grown). Many folks associate the word reactor with a nuclear reactor, which is designed to split atoms. Indeed, oleochemical reactors are very similar in that they also utilize extreme heat and pressure to split molecules. A typical reactor utilizes extreme pressure -- up to 1800 p.s.i. -- and heats the oil to temperatures in excess of one thousand degrees, and often much higher, for up to 24 hours; thus, requiring substantial inputs of coal and oil fossil fuels. It may surprise one to learn that this temperature and pressure range is nearly identical to the conditions found in the core of a nuclear reactor. Environmentally-conscious individuals will be disturbed to learn that the detergent industry's large consumption of coal as a primary heat source for their reactive processes is one of the top sources of mercury contamination of our environment.
Oleochemical manufacturers seeking to increase profits are abandoning the older fixed bed reactors in favor of new technology -- fluidized bed reactors. Fluidized bed reactors frequently use nanoparticle (controversial, unnaturally-engineered microscopic particles of various materials) heavy metals in the reaction process. This new trend allows for a speedier reaction and processing time because the use of heavy metal nanoparticles (zinc-chromite, for example) in the fluidized bed reactor provides dramatically more catalyst surface area for the reaction of oil feedstocks than do fixed bed reactors. In the fluidized-bed oleochemical reactors, the hot oils are mixed with the heavy metal nanoparticles or engineered enzyme or para-toluene sulfonic acid (PTSA) catalysts in a fluid (moving) slurry. Other toxic strong acid reactive agents, such as sulfuric acid or ethylene oxide or sodium methoxide, may be added to the reactor, then the combination of the catalyst, reactive agent and feedstock oil under high temperature and pressure results in a potent reaction that splits -- cracks -- the molecules of the conventional vegetable oil (splitting off the healthy and delicate oil fraction) and changes it into a new synthetic substance that does not occur naturally in nature. Many different types of oleochemicals can be created when different catalysts, reactive agents and feedstocks are combined at various temperatures and pressure and processing times.
Though there may be residues of the nano-metal catalyst (or synthetic engineered enzyme or petrochemical residues) in the final product, there are few nanotoxicology studies that have examined the effects of nanomaterials in organisms and environments. Frighteningly, the minimal nano research done so far raises strong concerns about the safety of nanomaterials. Leading environmental scientists are now speaking out about the potential for widespread toxic effects of engineered nanoparticles on humans, wildlife and our environment. Take a look at this interesting visual that depicts the scale of nanoparticles (Courtesy of the US EPA web site.).
To learn more about nanoparticles -- how they are used in personal care products, their harmful effects and why you should avoid them -- scroll down this page to our post from Monday, June 14, 2004 and read the article titled "Sunscreens, Titanium Dioxide, Zinc Oxide and Color Cosmetics."
We now know that the surfactants, fatty acids, fatty alcohols, trigylcerides and emulsifying waxes and "beads" are synthetic ingredients and not certified organic. How "healthy" is a synthetic ingredient manufactured under such extreme industrial conditions? Why do personal care product companies that claim to be "natural" and "organic" use such unnatural ingredients? There are three very important reasons. First, these ingredients are common, conventional and cheap. Second, they are fractionated/hydrogenated synthetics so their shelf-life is, essentially, indefinite. Third, no one is policing "organic" or "natural" or "synthetic-free" label claims, so using the word organic (or natural) on conventional product labels and advertising is a strategic ploy that provides an excellent opportunity to exploit the consumer's trust in the organic certification process and the word "organic," and guarantees manufacturers greatly increased profits. This makes the use of oleochemicals a particularly profitable idea for companies that manufacture in very large quantities or manufacture overseas and use ocean transport to ship goods via long ocean voyages with stops in multiple ports to warehouse distribution centers around the world.
As a cost-cutting measure to increase profits, many personal care products are now made in foreign and third-world countries where labor and materials are cheaper. In addition, a company's cost savings are greater if they aren't required to comply with costly industrial manufacturing environmental safeguards and regulations and, conveniently, environmental regulations for polluting oleochemical industrial factories in the foreign third-world countries are very weak, if they even exist at all. Currently, the personal care marketplace is flooded with lower quality, mass-produced non-certified "organic" and "all natural" personal care products that are shipped from third-world countries across the oceans in non-temperature controlled metal containers where they are exposed to widely varying temperature extremes for a multi-month voyage to the US. At the port of entry, products may be held in unheated and humid warehouses for 30-90 days awaiting customs clearance, and then are shipped in tractor trailers, without air conditioning or heating, across the country to regional non-temperature controlled warehouses where the products may sit for months to a year or more before they even reach the local retailer's store. Transport and storage conditions like this subject products to very extreme temperatures and long delays. Personal care products that are not certified organic are obviously made from significantly cheaper and lower quality raw materials, and have usually undergone extreme handling conditions. Thus, conventional personal care product manufacturers have a need to use synthetic waxes and oils, and add strong, toxic preservatives to stabilize their products until they can be sold for a profit. Many people would be surprised to learn that their "all natural" and "organic" personal care products are not really organic and not fresh at all -- in fact, the "all natural" and "organic" products that they buy may be two to three years old, or even older.
It is unfortunate that the vast majority of personal care product ingredients are synthetic and their manufacturing processes so harsh and complex. It's unfortunate also that few consumers have the technical background to be able to identify chemical ingredients used in personal care products or the time to study the complicated industrial manufacturing methods and origins of the chemicals that are used to manufacture their "organic" shampoos, conditioners, lotions, "soaps" and color cosmetics. To further complicate the situation, an unfortunate and misguided FDA soap labeling regulation confuses consumers even further. The FDA soap labeling ruling permits manufacturers of synthetic detergents to call their chemical products "soap" in competition with traditionally-made and truly environmentally-friendly castile soaps. As if this identification issue isn't problematic enough, the FDA has no requirement for bar soaps or household cleaning products to list any ingredients on their labels. Buyer beware when it comes to bar soaps and household cleaners!
Manufacturers and retailers are exploiting the trust of environmentally-conscious, organic-minded consumers and charging premium prices for oleochemical and petrochemical "organic"-labeled products. Too many of these faux-organic personal care products are essentially the same as conventional drug and discount store personal care products.
The personal care products industry needs to be more responsible and invest some of their bountiful profits in new and truly environmentally-sustainable innovative technologies, and long-term safety studies. Our US consumer protection and environmental laws must be updated...now. We desperately need more visionary laws like the new regulations in the European Union that require that any new personal care product chemical ingredient that is manufactured must be proven safe before it can be used in products and sold to consumers in the marketplace. In other words, a synthetic chemical is considered guilty -- potentially toxic -- until it is proven otherwise. Conversely, at present in the US, contrary to what most consumers believe, any chemical manufacturer can create a new compound and use it in consumer products that are introduced into the marketplace without any guarantee of long-term safety. In the US, synthetic chemicals are considered innocent until the government is forced to commit millions of dollars and many years of study to prove just one chemical guilty!
This current situation in the "natural" personal care products industry is outrageous and wrong. It's time to burst the "organic" shampoo bubbles. We need to halt the misinformation campaign that seeks to destroy the integrity of the word organic and threatens the livelihood of legitimate certified organic farms and businesses. We must share the truth about synthetic personal care products with our families and friends so they will have more accurate information about personal care product ingredients and the health and environmental implications that result from the manufacturing of the chemical ingredients, their use and disposal. We believe that intelligent and caring individuals, when truthfully informed, will make better choices -- will demand genuine, USDA third-party certified organic products. We all need to have the word "organic" mean what our USDA National Organic Program law has declared that it should be, since 2002.
What can you do to be sure that you are getting genuine USDA certified organic personal care products? What products should you buy for yourself and your family? At this time, the only products that you can trust are those personal care products that bear the distinctive USDA seal on the front label of each individual product. The USDA organic seal placement on the FRONT label of a product is the consumer's only assurance that products have been genuinely certified by a third-party government-accredited certifier and have had their ingredients and processing independently verified to be in compliance with the USDA National Organic Program, the most strict organic standard in the world. Here's a link to more information about the USDA organic labeling rules:
When searching for genuine USDA certified organic products, remember: If it doesn't have the seal, it ain't the real deal!