Are cosmetics poisoning our water supply? Episode 154

Should your cosmetics be biodegradable?

Fabi asks about biodegradable products… I have an outdoor shower and it drains into the ground and everyone tells me I have to have biodegradable shampoo, conditioner, and body wash for the ground. Can you explain biodegradable products? It’s really hard to find them. What they’re all about and why would it be important to use them? What are some pros and cons of these products?old_outhouse_-_the_seats

This is a great question that we’ll try to answer but everyone should recognize that this is not our usual area of expertise. We’re not environmental chemists or water treatment specialists but we’ve tried to sort this out the best we could If we’re not quite right on any of these points please let us know and we’ll make corrections as needed. We’ve included references where ever possible so you guys can check out work. Let’s start by explaining what the term “biodegradable” means.

What is biodegradability and how is it measured?

Biodegradable means that a material can be broken down, or decomposed, by the action of bacteria, fungi, or other biological processes.

Here’s a simply analogy from Biodegradable Product Institute (BPI) that explains it really well: “If you think of a long string of popcorn on a thread as a “plastic polymer” chain, then step one (fragmentation) is when the thread is cut randomly between the popcorn kernels and you have a shorter chains of popcorn. The second step “biodegradation”, occurs when you get short enough for you to eat the popcorn and use it as a food.”

It’s important to break down these ingredients because if they persist in the environment they may have adverse effects like toxicity, effect on ozone, bioaccumulation in the food chain to name a few. But if an ingredient is biodegradable, it’s much less likely to cause any of these other problems because it rapidly breaks down.

Not every ingredient is a candidate for biodegradation. Bacteria can only feast on carbon-based materials. (Mention true meaning of organic.) Silicones and other inorganic materials have to be separated and disposed of in a different way. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Biodegradability can be measured in different ways. One key factor is to measure something known as the “DOC” which is Dissolved Organic Carbon. My favorite biodegradability test is the “Porous Pot” test which sounds like something we used to do back in college. But this is apparently different because it simulates the effect of aerobic microbe activity like you’d find in a waster water treatment plant.

Measuring biodegradability is also complicated because an ingredient can be readily degraded into components but some of these components may or may not degrade further. Dialkyl sulfosuccinate is an example. So you have to consider not only each ingredient but WHAT it degrades TO because an ingredient may be biodegradable but parts of it can still persist in the environment.

It’s also important to note that time is a factor when measuring biodegradability. Some tests look at how much degrades in 28 days others look at degradation in just 10 days.

BTW, You’d think that this would be easier for natural derived ingredients but actually it can be MORE difficult to test them because they frequently consist of mixtures of materials compared to synthetic compounds which are more purified and therefore more singular.

So as we said, this is quite complicated. Frequently testing is done for one ingredient and then various models are used to predict how similar materials will biodegrade. For example, there’s the BIOWIN model that uses peer reviewed literature, government databases, and research done by cosmetic ingredient suppliers to predict biodegradability.

Are biodegradable claims meaningful or just marketing?

So clearly, this can be a confusing subject area. How are consumers supposed to know if a product is really biodegradable and if that’s meaningful or not? The answer is…it’s hard to tell.

Different countries have different requirements for making biodegradable claims. We’ll mention a few but you can find more at the Biodegradable Product Institute

In the EU the European Commission has established a voluntary eco label scheme which allows you to label your product with a flower symbol if it meets specific requirements. The regs say that each surfactant in the product must be biodegradable and they establish some very specific parameters for how much non biodegradable materials are allowed in shampoos, liquid soaps and shower products. So, look for the flower.

Canada uses the “Mobius Loop” symbol which I’m sure you’ve seen. It looks like three twisted arrows following one another to form a triangle. Canada does not allow any degradation products to be harmful to the environment, the require substantiation of biodegradability, and they require the conditions for biodegradability to be specified. In other words, you can’t claim that a product is biodegradable if most of time it ends up in a land fill where is won’t degrade.

The U.S. doesn’t have an official symbol, as far as I can tell, although the Biodegradable Product Institute does have symbols. For the most part you’ll have to rely on the company to specifically tell you that the product is biodegradable.

The claims are are governed by the Federal Trade Commission. There are 3 basic guidelines to determine if you can say if your product is biodegradable or not. One, you must have “competent and reliable scientific evidence that the entire item will completely break down into elements found in nature within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal.” Two, solid waste items must break down in 1 year. Three, “claims must be qualified to the point that they’re not deceptive.” That’s similar to Canada, it also means that you have to be clear whether you’re talking about the only the formula or the formula and the package.

So is it more of a marketing story? The testing is complicated and the requirements are vague/broad enough that if a company wants to make a claim, they can. There’s little context/data to know if one product is more biodegradable than another. (No one is doing competitive product testing that I’ve seen.) Also, testing is expensive and there’s not a lot of benefit unless your positioning is natural so most brands don’t do additional testing. They’ll just look at supplier data or previously tested versions.

Based on what we’ve read it looks like a lot of ingredients used in shampoos, conditioners, and body washes are biodegradable to some extent when properly processed. According to a water quality report by Cornell University which says “most laundry detergents and surfactant-based cleaning products are considered safe for both septic systems and groundwater.” And just in case you’re worried about things like silicones, check out this report from Dow Corning that says silicones used in personal care products degrades into silica and carbon dioxide.

It seems like this is more of a concern for products that can “exist in the wild” like sunscreens. Sunscreen ingredients get rinsed directly into the ocean where they may be creating adverse effects.

Examples of biodegradable products

You do tend to see this claim more from brands positioned as natural and organic. Brands that make biodegradable shampoo include Avalon Organics, Kiss My Face, Dessert Essence, Nature’s Gate, Live Clean and Toms of Maine. Lets look at a few examples:


Even a big brand like Garner is making these claims. For example, for their Pure Clean shampoo, Garnier claims the product is “92% biodegadable” which is great. But if you look at the ingredients you see the product is based on standard surfactants like Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate and Cocamidopropyl Betaine. So at lot of shampoos will have similar biodegradability just by using standard ingredients.


Ingredients: Aqua/Water/Eau, Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Chloride, Hexylene Glycol, Pyrus Malus Extract/Apple Fruit Extract, Parfum/Fragrance, Sodium Benzoate, Hydroxypropyl Guar Hydroxypropyl-Trimonium Chloride, Citric Acid, Salicylic Acid, Benzoic Acid, Niacinamide, Pyridoxine HCI, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Linalool, Hexyl Cinnamal, Saccharum Officinarum Extract/Sugar Cane Extract/Extrait De Canne A Sucre, Citrus Medica Limonum Peel Extract/Lemon Peel Extract, Camellia Sinesis Extract/Camellia Sinesis Leaf Extract, Malphighiapunicfolia/Acerola Fruit Extract, Sodium Hydroxide.

California Baby

California Baby Shampoo is formulated with glucosides which are less common surfactants derived from corn. They claims the product is “extremely biodegradable” which doesn’t tell us very much.

Ingredients: Water, Decyl Glucoside (Sustainable Palm Fruit Kernel and/or Coconut), Lauryl Glucoside (Sustainable Palm Fruit Kernel and/or Coconut), Quillaja Saponaria Bark Extract (Soap Bark) (Certified Organic), Vegetable Glycerin USP (Sustainable Palm Fruit Kernel and/or Coconut), Calendula Officinalis Flower Extract (Calendula) (Certified Organic), Viola Tricolor Extract (Pansy) (Certified Organic), Yucca Schidigera Root Extract (Yucca), Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice (Aloe Vera) (Certified Organic), Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil (Certified Organic), Hydrolyzed Quinoa, Xanthan Gum USP, Panthenol (Vit. B5), Phytic Acid (Rice Origin), Gluconolactone (Sourced from Corn (Non-GMO)) (and) Sodium Benzoate. No Fragrance or Scent Masking Agents.


Then there’s the brand Method that seems to provide the most information. For their Mickey Mouse body wash and shampoo They claim the ingredients “degrade into simple and benign components in the environment. Method follows the highest technical standard for defining biodegradability, whereby at least 70% of organic ingredients break down within 28 days.” This particular product uses baby shampoo type surfactants.

Ingredients: Water, Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine, Disodium Lauroamphodiacetate, Sodium Coco-Sulfate, Propanediol, Disodium Oleamido MIPA Sulfosuccinate, Fragrance, Citral, Limonene, Linaool, Caprylhydroxamic Acid, Caprylyl Glycol, Glycerin

Do beauty products contaminate the water supply?
With all that background in mind, let’s go back to the first part of Fabi’s question. Essentially she wants to know if she needs to buy special BD products for her outdoor shower.

For indoor plumbing, waste water is pumped to a treatment center. For an outdoor shower it drains into an underground septic system which is a tank buried underground. Either way, it works like this: the oil and fat based materials (most of the surfactants and conditioning agents) float to the top to form what is called the scum layer.

These materials can be treated with bacteria to be broken down. The water layer in the middle can be drained away and the bottom layer, the sludge that doesn’t degrade can be sent to a landfill (in the case of water treatment plants) or it can be pumped out (in the case of home septic systems.) Home septic tanks are supposed to be cleaned out every few years.

So, Fabi, if you have a septic tank it doesn’t really sound like you need any special products. If you don’t have a septic tank and you’re just letting waste water drain into your yard then that’s kind of messed up. Talk to a plumber.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

So the bottom line is that while there are specific ingredients used in shampoos that don’t biodegrade, it appears this isn’t a big problem because the majority of cleansing and conditioning agents (which make up the VAST proportion of the stuff that gets into waste water) are pretty readily degradable.

If Fabi is worried about her outdoor shower, this doesn’t seem to be a huge problem. If you want to make the planet a better place and reduce stuff that ends up in land fills and so forth, then vote with your dollars and buy products that make it clear that they adhere to higher standards. Method is apparently one of these.

It’s tough to tell in the US because there’s no universal standard. If enough people do this it will encourage companies to follow stricter standards (like the EU Flower) because that’s where the money is. As always though, be careful about companies that try to get you to spend a lot more money products just because they have a vague claim of “biodegradble.”

What are Dry Oils?

United States 35 says “Can you please talk about this kinda new, not new anymore, trend of dry oils?”

“Dry oils” seems like such a strange term. Oils certainly aren’t “wet.” I think what they really mean is more like “non-greasy, quick absorbing oils.” That would be in contrast to things like mineral oil and most traditional vegetable oils like olive oil. That “oily” feeling is a function of the long carbon backbone that’s characteristic of these oils.

Since this is a marketing term there’s no universal scientific definition so companies can call just about anything they want a “dry oil.” But typically they fall into two categories. Some are true oils, like squalane, that just have a lighter texture. But most “dry oils” are not really oils at all.

Sometimes they’re silicones like cyclomethicone and sometimes they belong to a class of materials known as esters. Esters are esters are typically derived from a carboxylic acid and an alcohol so they have different properties than just a long chain of carbon atoms with hydrogens attached. They have a lighter texture.

In either case, these materials feel like they sink into skin quickly and don’t leave as much residue. However, the trade off is that these “dry oils” are not as occlusive as traditional oils. So don’t think you can get a great moisturizer that’s formulated exclusively with “dry oils.”

Beauty science news

New scar technology


Here’s a story about some new technology to help prevent scarring on people who are severely injured. A team out of the University of Western Australia are studying compounds that inhibit an enzyme that enables the cross linking of collagen. See when a scar is formed, this enzyme causes collagen molecules to form chemical bonds within themselves which leads to scar formation.

The idea is that if they can prevent that cross link bonding, then they will prevent scar formation. They are working with a pharmaceutical company to find compounds which inhibit an enzyme called lysol oxidase or LOX.

They test new compounds using a “scar in a jar” model which is a lab culture which mimics scar formation in a petri dish. Who knew there was such a thing?

Anyway, they have found a few compounds that have inhibited the LOX enzyme in the petri dish model and will be moving on to mouse and pig models. If that’s successful they’ll move on to human trials in a couple years.

While the technology is being developed for burn victims or others with severe scarring, there is no reason why this couldn’t work for cosmetic applications too.

So maybe there is hope for me to get rid of the scar in the middle of my face caused by the chainsaw accident.

Facial hair transplants are growing


Remember last week or the week before we talked about the breakthrough scientific study showing that bald guys are less attractive? Well while we’re waiting for the hate mail from that story to come in and start flooding in I thought I would share another male hair related story.
Apparently facial hair transplants are on the rise. Up like 200% in the last few years.
Here’s how it works they cut out follicles from the back of your scalp and transplant those viable follicles to your face.

It seems to me this would appeal to a very small sub segment of the population three overlapping circles one would be guys who have trouble growing a beard and I would have to include myself in that first group. Second group are the ones who have enough money to actually have a procedure like this done because it’s bound to be expensive. And thirdly they also have to give a crap about this. I’m going to hold off investing in that facial hair transplant clinic for right now.

Grey hair pills don’t work


Have I ever told you how I feel about dietary supplements? Well, the way they are regulated in this country is shameful, dangerous and embarrassing. Now, I’m sure there are some reputable supplement makers who attempt to create quality products, but there are a ton of sketchy manufacturers who try to scam people by selling products that don’t reflect what’s on the label, making impossible claims, and generally tricking people into buying useless products.

According to this story apparently one such company went over the line when they tried to claim that their product could reverse or prevent the formation of gray hair.

A US district judge ruled that Coorga Nutraceuticals Corporation violated the law by claiming they product Grey Defense which is a dietary supplement could reverse or prevent gray hair. They were ordered to pay nearly $400,000 fine and told to stop making those claims because they are misleading and not supported by scientific evidence.

The bottom line is that gray hair preventing pills don’t work. Don’t waste your money.

The thing that is troubling about this is that the companies only have this small fine (I’m sure they made more than $400,000 on sales of this product) and they can continue to sell the product as long as they don’t make the claim. Or they can just start up another company, make the same claims and bet that the FTC won’t be able to catch up to them. It’s ridiculous.

Science says Clark Kent’s glasses are a good disguise


You know the deal with Superman’s secret identity? He doesn’t wear a mask or anything. When he switches to Clark Kent he just puts on a pair of glasses and POOF no one recognizes him. Pretty ridiculous right! Wrong! Science says this really works. Sort of.

A study published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology described how a researcher showed panelists pairs of pictures of people with and without glasses. When both pictures either had or didn’t have glasses the panelists could tell they were the same person. 80% But when just one picture had glasses only 74% of people could tell. The researcher concluded that glasses are a good disguise and that Clark Kent and Superman did indeed look like two different people. It doesn’t work with people who you know well so Lois would have been able to tell.

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