By Dr Hannah Sivak
l first saw the term “greenwashing” used by a cosmetic chemist, Perry Romanowsky, to describe the efforts from the industry to “hide” preservatives from consumers who think they are savvy.
“The first form of greenwashed formulating is where you create a standard product but give it a green, natural, granola crunching name. The driving belief behind this type of formulating is that consumers do not look at ingredient lists and are more focused on the product name / design. This is a slightly cynical form of natural formulating, however, it was regularly practiced in the mid to late 1990’s by cosmetic companies. The reason? It was effective….It’s the least expensive way to formulate a natural cosmetic product.”
As Mr Romanowsky discusses, there have been “enhancements” to greenwashing. In my view, they are even more cynical than simply calling a product “Honest” or “Seventh Generation” (granola crunching names). They involve the use of a loophole in the INCI nomenclature that allows manufacturers to hide ingredients used as part of processing the final ingredient. For example, grapefruit seeds have no preservative power by themselves. However, using a series of chemical reactions, the substances in them can be converted into new chemicals, or the chemicals may simply be added (but not listed). Of course, there is no resemblance in the chemical structure of grapefruit seed to this “natural preservative,” but this is what the loophole is about. For example, benzethonium chloride, triclosan, and methyl parabens have been found in grapefruit seed extracts sold as preservatives. Extracts free of these chemicals had no preservative power (antibacterial/ anti-mold activity). It makes sense that if there are no chemicals with preservative power, the ingredient will have no preservative power, because there is no magic to preservation (bacteria cannot read labels).
Don't ask me to use Leuconostoc/Radish Root Ferment Filtrate!
Preservatives are essential to the health of the consumer; they prevent the growth of bacteria and mold on the products that you apply to your skin. But the pressure to hide the preservatives from the ingredient lists is very strong, with some people who don’t know about bacteria and mold insisting that preservatives are not necessary. The answer of honest companies is to explain the need for preservatives and to remind the consumer that a piece of bread, even when kept in the fridge, will eventually be covered in mold and bacteria. Dishonest manufacturers, on the other hand, hide the preservatives in a variety of manners.
How can a Lactobacillus (or Leuconostoc) Ferment be used as a preservative? Lactobacillus ferment is what I would call the yogurt you eat every day. Leave yogurt in the fridge long enough and another bacteria and mold will grow on it. How can such a ferment be used as a preservative, at a very low concentration, to extend the life of a skin care product? It can’t. But it is possible to cheat. Yogurt is a fermentation product of milk made by the activity of Lactobacillus. Just as yogurt is made, the Lactobacillus bacterium can be added to a “soup” that contains a synthetic chemical, undecylenic acid, which has anti-fungal activity. The name will still be Lactobacillus/Radish Root Ferment Filtrate
I have nothing against the use of synthetic chemicals or undecylenic acid, but I think it is fraud to hide preservatives in a way that causes the consumer to believe he/she is buying a "natural" product.
I am sure that many companies that use this “natural” preservative and call their finished product “natural” don’t know that this is not natural. However, ignorance should not be an excuse, and manufacturers of skin care products should know their ingredients. When you buy a product containing Leuconostoc/Radish Root Ferment Filtrate, you should know that you are buying a product that contains synthetic preservatives. I am sure many more preservatives using this nomenclature loophole will keep coming, at least until the consumers "wise up." How about elderberry or Japanese honeysuckle as bases? The nicer the name, the more “granola crunch” the name will be. But the name does not make the preservative any more natural.
von Woedtke T, Schlüter B, Pflegel P, Lindequist U, Jülich WD. (1999) Aspects of the antimicrobial efficacy of grapefruit seed extract and its relation to preservative substances contained. Pharmazie. 54:452-6.