The Role of Surfactants

The Role of Saponified Systems as a Substitute for Ethoxylated and Sulfonated Surfactants and the Assembling of Safe and Sustainable Molecules in the Green Formulator’s Kit

“Above all else, do no harm”, wrote Hippocrates 2400 years ago. This, more than anything else, defines Green Chemistry principals. Creating safe and nontoxic formulations is no longer the goal; it is now the starting point in formulating for a sustainable future.

Our globalized society brings complex cultural overlays to the sourcing of chemical raw materials.

While biologists and chemists are aware that molecules are endlessly recycled and reused in nature; most of the people buying consumer products are not. Their focus is often on the most recent form assumed by the molecular building blocks.

Sustainably grown/harvested has become the new minimum standard for green sourcing. Bio-based, rather than petrochemical based raw materials will certainly dominate the future. But where will all these vegetable and plant ingredients come from? We humans make a big footprint on the earth, and many green thinking people are concerned about conserving the remaining wild areas.

Human beings evolved in and from the elements and molecules that make up the world that begat us. Like every other living thing on earth, we are ourselves complex chemical factories utilizing carbon as our basic energy source. To speak of “The Environment” as if it were a thing outside of ourselves is in itself a delusion and the root cause of the issues that now bring us together to seek alternatives.

Take any one of us out of “The Environment” and they quickly cease to exist.

Over time, humans have evolved the mental capacity to super specialize; to hyper focus on a certain aspect of our existence as if it existed in a vacuum. Other hyper specialists would deal with the missing connections (like what to do with the by-products of production), that being their particular area of expertise.

This kind of thinking, while useful in creating computer chips, nuclear power and Mylar packaging, is in fact both dangerous and foolish; for it is ultimately based on the myth that there IS an environment. There is in fact only one all encompassing ecosystem of which we are part and parcel.

You can’t just bury the garbage. It doesn’t really go away.

Molecules don’t like to stay put, and anything we put into the ecology, we literally put into ourselves.

The vast majority of humans DO care about “the environment” and this is initiating a revolution in how the world does its daily business. This green consuming revolution presents both challenges and opportunities to be part of the now greening economy, built on the realization that as we do unto our environment we also do unto ourselves.

The parsing of molecules is tricky business indeed, but fortunately, we have some basic tenets that simplify the task.

Green Formulation Kit Rule #1

“Natural means as close to original form as is feasible and effective.”

This means that if a molecule is not a general part of the ecosystem, it doesn’t make the kit.

Proliferating even the most natural molecules in unique locations is risky business. The classic example is the famous algae blooms brought on by incorporating soft rock phosphates into laundry powders.

Rock phosphate is an important natural fertilizer than increases food crop yields dramatically while building soil composition. Instead of using our limited soft rock phosphate supply to feed ourselves more effectively, we squandered this limited and diminishing resource as a washing powder additive. It is generally agreed that the world will approach peak phosphorus on or about 2030. (1)

Now imagine how much more lightly we need to tread regarding the introduction of new and novel chemicals into own our little biosphere.

Most green thinkers view transgenic organisms (GMOs) with suspicion or even consider them a source of genetic pollution. GMO based feedstocks are not considered green and are disallowed under USDA organic rules.

Green Formulation Kit Rule #2

“Petroleum is Not the Green Ingredient.”

I am a big fan of carbon. It built the ecosystem we all live in. And petroleum, being mostly old carbon is one obvious source for it. But too much of a good thing in one spot is the definition of pollution. Awareness of carbon neutral sourcing is growing, and it is being factored into the buying decisions of your present and future green customers.

Since bio-based ingredients are more carbon neutral, carbon watchers will be happier when you use plant based sources instead old carbon ones.

Green Formulation Kit Rule #3

“Nature uses its molecules in a bundle; it is we humans that break them down into purified units.”

Molecules in living systems do not occur in isolation, they occur in a matrix with other related compounds. Think of vegetable oils for example, a rich and varied mix of triglycerides, waxes, and fatty alcohols with traces of tocopherols, tocotriols and phospholipids sprinkled in.

Nature does not just synthesize single fatty acids; it creates bundles of compounds, rich and varied. Biological systems create complex synergistic molecular combinations utilized by living systems.

Use the natural bundles like minimally processed vegetable oils in your formulations and allow the plant kingdom to become your chemical factory.

Green Formulation Kit Rule #4

“Don’t torture your molecules; herd them.”

Think of the molecules in your green kit as being passionate; they want to combine for you. Each has an inner nature and its own special and unique tendencies. It is the formulator’s task to understand the true nature of the molecules and to coax them into new functional combinations.

Let’s review our Green Formulation Kit rules;

“Natural means as close to original form as is feasible and effective”,

“Petroleum is Not the Green Ingredient”

“Nature uses its molecules in a bundle; it is we humans that break them down into individual pieces”

“Don’t torture your molecules; herd them”,

With these rules in mind, let’s compare two similar surfactant systems; detergents and soaps. Both foam, both clean, both are affordable, and both are mostly carbon and hydrogen.

Because alkali is an allowable synthetic for use in the processing of organic food, soap was one of the first topical products certified to USDA food standards. The higher pH of soap, especially in the 9.45 to 10.15, range acts as a microbial deterrent, mitigating the need for synthetic preservatives, most of which are disallowed under this tough food based standard.

Soapy molecules are found in nature, and may even protect our liver cells from immunologically induced liver injuries. (2) Green Chemistry principals indicate that there is greatly diminished possibility of unforeseen reactions, interactions, increased cancer risk, or environmental damage associated using molecules found in ecological systems, as compared to using new molecules that did not exist on this planet before the Industrial Age.

Remember Rule #1:

“Natural means as close to original form as is feasible and effective.”

Surface acting agents break down the meniscus of water (it’s interface with gravity), changing the way water goes about its business. This is a useful trait if you want water to penetrate soil, to clean, or to precipitate minerals. There are literally hundreds of applications for surface acting agents.

Saponified systems can be thickened or thinned, fragranced or not. They will hold natural degreasers loosely and can be modified for astringency and foam. They can be made with a pH from 9.45 and higher without further microbial preservation, which opens up the opportunity to offer USDA food grade organic certification for your product, the Gold Standard of Green worldwide.

Organic fruits and vegetables now account for over 11% of the total industry output in the USA; (3) a rise of over 300% from 2000 to 2009. (4)

The pH of soap can be lowered further, to about 8.5, but there is a compromise with regards to foam building as the pH drops below 9.2, plus the product becomes more vulnerable to microbiological contamination. Soap systems are usually considered low foaming when compared to ammonium lauryl sulfate detergent combinations, which are generally considered high foaming. While formulation changes can compensate for low foam, soap systems frequently utilize mechanical means to compensate.

Foaming caps, which utilize air/soap mixtures forced through screens mechanically, enhance foamability, mitigating many issues in this regard and reduce water use in the process.

Mechanically enhancing the foamability of natural bar, liquid, paste and gel soaps helps to mitigate their lackluster performance in the presence of calcium carbonate ions aka hard water. In hard water, sulfonated products have a clear edge in this regard.

Ethoxylated molecules like sodium laureth sulfate have been shown to contain trace amounts of 1,4, dioxane, a powerful weed killer suspected of increasing risk of liver cancer. (5) This molecule is an unintended consequence of the production process.

Note: Ethoxylated molecules do not naturally occur in the world we live in.

“Above all else, do no harm.”

Ever rising petroleum prices have direct effect upon the affordability of bio-based products, which tend to price inflate at a slower rate than petrochemicals.

Rising petroleum costs offer a unique opportunity to formulate with bar, liquid, gel, paste and foam soap in numerous specific applications as a replacement for petroleum based surfactants which accurately or not, are perceived of as being less natural, less safe, less green and less socially responsible than organic soap based surfactant systems.

While saponified systems will probably never completely replace detergent systems due to their inherent downsides including low foaming tendencies, higher pH and increased cost; they are certainly an excellent starting point in the creation of new families of safe products to bring us all into the a greener and more sustainable future.

(1) Cordell, Drangert and White, 2009

(2) Hikino and Kiso, 1988

(3) National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council, June 2010

(4) Organic Trade Asssociation 2010 Organic Industry Survey

(5) Occurrence of 1,4-Dioxane in Cosmetic Raw Materials and Finished Cosmetic Products: Journal of AOAC International Roderick E. Black 1 | Fred J. Hurley 2 | Donald C. Havery Volume 84 Issue 3 pgs 666 to 670


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