How to calculate sustainability of a cosmetic formula
Belinda Carli, 10/2023
Since consumers increasingly look for brands with strong eco-conscious messages, formulating a sustainable cosmetic product is almost essential these days. We are also seeing consumers demand more truth and transparency from labels and product marketing claims.
Your brand can ensure your sustainability message is truthful and not misleading by providing clear statements about sustainability – but how do you prove sustainability statements you make, and just how would you calculate the sustainability of a formula? This blog explores sustainable marketing claims, sustainability calculations of cosmetic formulas, and how you can protect the marketing claims of your cosmetic brand.
Why is it important to calculate the sustainability of a cosmetic formula?
It is essential that your cosmetic brand avoids ‘greenwashing’: the use of misleading or deceptive claims when it comes to the naturalness of your cosmetic product. For background information on how to avoid greenwashing, read our blog: 4 key rules to avoid greenwashing in the cosmetics industry.
At the same time, it is important to recognise that there are different ways to achieve the concept of sustainability in a formula. See tips in our blog: Top 5 sustainable cosmetic formula trends.
A proportion or percentage statement to back up your sustainability claim can be a great addition to your product label. It tells the consumer not only how the product is truly sustainable, it also shows you want to give them complete transparency (and build trust) with their purchasing decision.
Be clear with how your cosmetic formula is sustainable.
The first thing you will need to do is determine how your cosmetic formula is sustainable, and make sure that is clear. Don’t just call your cosmetic formula ‘sustainable’; make sure you are clear in exactly how your cosmetic formula is sustainable.
Here are some examples:
- if your brand considers a cosmetic formula to be ‘sustainable’ because it contains less water than a formula of that type normally would, then your claim needs to state that clearly. For example, if you make a concentrated shampoo formula that uses half the water that a normal shampoo would use, then a claim such as ‘Uses 50% less water’ would be a truthful claim (so long as you hold the evidence that it does in fact contain 50% less water than it normally would!)
- if your brand considers a cosmetic formula to be ‘sustainable’ because it uses upcycled materials, then make that clear. For example, if you make an emulsion-based scrub using 5% upcycled coffee grounds, then your claim could be, ‘contains 5% upcycled materials.’
- if your brand considers its’ cosmetic formula to be sustainable because you are using natural materials, then your statement should be about the natural content of the formula as the sustainability concept. As an example, you could claim ‘contains 95% naturally derived ingredients.’ (If it does, in fact, contain 95% naturally derived materials).
Simply calling your cosmetic formula ‘sustainable’ opens your brand up to potential allegations of misleading and deceptive conduct – because it does not make it clear exactly how or why you consider it to be sustainable. Be clear with how your formula is sustainable, to avoid such issues with a regulator!
Important! Naturally derived ingredients do not necessarily make a cosmetic formula sustainable!
Think using naturally derived ingredients makes your cosmetic formula sustainable? Think again! Watch this video to see how natural ingredients are not necessarily sustainable, when you consider the impact of their carbon footprint.
How to calculate the sustainability of a cosmetic formula.
Remember, before you can calculate the sustainability of a cosmetic formula, you do need to determine how your formula has achieved sustainability (like our examples above).
To show how to correctly calculate the sustainability of a cosmetic formula, and be truthful and transparent with your sustainability claims, we are going to use our Sustainable foaming scrub formula as an example. See how this sustainable foaming scrub formula is prepared, watch this video.
Here is the formula:
Before you read on: if you are new to formulating, or have difficulty understanding the use of trade names and % inputs, please watch our video on how to write a cosmetic formula first, or consider taking our FREE formulation fundamentals masterclass to understand these concepts better.
From this formula, we do need to find out the active and naturally derived portion of the Plantacare 2000, Hostapon SG and Genagen CAB before we can complete calculations. To be accurate, we have used the trade names of the materials; using simply the INCI names would not give us truly correct and accurate information. To get this information, you would need to contact the supplier, and they have told us:
- Plantacare 2000 (refer: BASF) is 65% decyl glucoside, of which 100% is naturally sourced;
- if water is included in this calculation, then the input of 3% in this formula is considered 100% naturally sourced.
- if water is excluded from this calculation, then 1.95% of the 3% is considered naturally sourced.
- Hostapon SG (refer: Clariant) is 30% sodium cocoyl glycinate, of which 100% is naturally sourced;
- if water is included in this calculation, then the input of 23.33% in this formula is considered 100% naturally sourced.
- if water is excluded from this calculation, then 7% of the 23.33% is considered naturally sourced.
- Genagen CAB (refer: Clariant) is 30% cocoamidopropyl betaine, of which 66% is naturally sourced.
- if water is included in this calculation, then 17.96% of this ingredient is considered naturally sourced.
- if water is excluded from this calculation, then 3.96% of the 20% input is considered naturally sourced.
It is important to note that many regulators will not allow you to include the water content of a formula when calculating how natural it is – so if you want to include the water % input as part of your natural claims, you should be making this clear as part of your final statement (our example shows you how).
Calculating the naturally derived materials (including the water present in the surfactants) works out to be (in order of the materials listed):
- 3.0 + 1.0 + 0.2 + 23.33 + 17.96 + 39.67 (the hydrosol) + 5.0 + 0.8 + 2.0 + 0.5 = 95% naturally derived ingredients (when rounded to the nearest whole number).
- if we wanted to exclude water from that content, it would be a different calculation entirely – and significantly more complicated!
This claim could be made: Contains 95% naturally derived ingredients*
* including water.
In our example formula, we used 39.67% hydrosol in place of water. Hydrosols are an upcycled ingredient of making essential oils, so we could also make the claim: Contains 40% less water than normal.
As an extra claim, there are upcycled ingredients in this formula too! The hydrosol and the scrub materials used are both upcycled. This means the formula contains 45% upcycled ingredients.
Finally, this formula is all cold processable – no heat is involved during its manufacture. So, this is another claim we could make: Mixed without heat. Note: it would be incorrect to suggest this formula was made without heat, as many of the ingredients did use significant heating as part of their creation; so be careful with the final words of your claims to prevent being misleading!
So, our final claims for this product could be:
Contains 95% naturally derived ingredients*
Contains 40% less water than normal.
Contains 45% upcycled ingredients.
Mixed without heat.
* including water.
Important: we should not imply this product has a low carbon footprint, or is ‘environmentally sustainable’, because significant energy is required to prepare a few of the cosmetic ingredients it contains. If you are not sure why, please watch our carbon footprint video here.
Why calculating sustainability, and defining it clearly, is important.
As you can see from our example, a company should not just claim their product is sustainable without:
- first defining how the cosmetic formula is sustainable; and
- second, ensuring the appropriate evidence is held to substantiate those claims.
Percentage input statements are a fantastic way to be very clear about the claims you are making, as we have shown.
You should also have seen why, under strict sustainability definitions, we should not use a blanket claim of ‘this product is sustainable’, because of the carbon footprint of many of its ingredients. In other words, if your brand is claiming your cosmetic formulas to be sustainable just because they contain naturally derived ingredients, you could be guilty of greenwashing without even knowing it!
Offer truly sustainable cosmetic solutions to consumers.
Consumers want eco-conscious products, but they don’t want to feel misled. Remember to determine what your sustainability claims really are, then calculate carefully to give your consumers the right information.
If you read this and realised your formulas aren’t as sustainable as you would like them to be, then now is the time to make the necessary changes, by following our helpful guides.
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