Everything you need to know about Biodegradable Shampoo [Infographic]
Have you ever taken a look at the ingredients of a biodegradable shampoo?
They all start the same way; Aqua (water), followed by sea salts, and aloe vera. All healthy clean ingredients.
But then the chemical formulas begin to appear.
C14-16 olefin sulfonate, cacmidopropyl betaine, potassium hydroxide …
And maybe you start to question, what about this shampoo is really biodegradable?
The amazing thing, is that unlike biodegradable sunscreens, which don’t exist by the way, shampoos can be biodegradable in a whole host of ways from their (1) ingredients, (2) bottles and by the (3) methods they’re produced.
To understand the environmental impact of your next shampoo, we’re going on a journey from greasy hair to microbes drowning in oil to the 824 biodegradable chemicals permitted by the EPA.
Now, let’s start at the beginning…
The cure for greasy hair
Each day your hair produces a greasy substance called sebum. This substance coats the outer keratin coat of each hair strand and protects it from the elements. Unfortunately, it also makes hair stick together and gives it an overall dirty and greasy appearance.
Everyone knows that a shower with water alone doesn’t eliminate that greasy feeling. That’s because sebum is hydrophobic, meaning it naturally waterproofs hair and that’s where surfactants come in.
Surfactant: a substance which tends to reduce the surface tension of a liquid in which it is dissolved. – Oxford dictionary.
Shampoo contains unique amphipathic surfactants, meaning they have one hydrophobic and one hydrophilic end. One binds to the sebum, while the other allows water to wash the detergent away.
And wash away it does. We consumed some 5.7 million tons of surfactant worldwide in 2009. Non-renewable fossil fuels like crude oil made up the bulk of surfactants. But in Germany, 20% were biodegradable and made from renewable resources like coconut oil, palm kernel oil and corn starch.
Sustainability and renewability
Before we go any farther; yes, environmentalists across the world call for the boycott of products containing palm oil.
Let’s be clear:
Renewable ≠ sustainable.
Consumers and producers still need to push for environmentally sustainable practices, even when dealing with any renewable materials.
In the case of palm oil production, the “Roundtable of Sustainable Palmoil” (RSPO), consisting of palm oil producers, NGO’s and palm oil consumers, is one of many organisations that work together with plantations to improve sustainability and work conditions.
But back on point…
Mean, green biodegrading machines
In 1968 three Japanese scientists developed a blood clotting inhibitor created from microbial products. It did its job remarkably well and significantly elongated the time required for a clot to form.They named this substance Surfactin (Arima et al., 1968).
And the first biosurfactant was created.
Biosurfactants are amazing. They’re clean, efficient, and work just as good (if not better) than traditional surfactants.
Microorganisms like bacteria, yeast and fungi produce biosurfactants on the outsides of cells, or attached to parts of cells during growth in certain mediums. The function of biosurfactants has been linked to improved survival in harsh environments, to find new habitats for survival and to discourage the growth of other microbes (Desai and Banat,1997).
Biosurfactants are grown from microbes seeded with a carbon substrate ranging from diesel to glucose. Nitrogen, which is essential for microbial growth, is then added through yeast extract or urea. The temperature is mediated between 25-300oC and pH is maintained around sea water values. The microbe bearing solution is then aerated and agitated. These conditions provide the best environment for biosurfactant growth (Fakruddin, 2012).
Once they are ready to be recovered; a variety of methods are used to extract the carbon substrate, biosurfactants and remaining metabolites. Extraction is rather effective, and the biosurfactants are grown with little waste or by-products, therefore complying with “green chemistry”. Any remaining biomass can be used for animal feed and fertilizer. (Dreja et al., 2012).
Is my biodegradable shampoo actually biodegradable?
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to tell.
Each country has it’s own guidelines dealing with biodegradable products. These are based on tests regarding biodegradability, including the environmental impact of a products life cycle and where in the environment the product will enter e.g. waste water, or landfills.
In Canada, a biodegradable shampoo would have to degrade in a wastewater treatment system to be considered biodegradable. However, if its not biodegradable in a landfill it can still be considered biodegradable. This is because the label “biodegradable” refers to the typical disposal circumstances, which in this case would be into wastewater rather than a landfill.
In the United States, biodegradable shampoo brands may be labeled with “all ingredients are biodegradable” or “the surfactants in this product are biodegradable“. Each label requires the ingredients to be free of carcinogens, mutagens or reproductive toxicants and that they don’t posses an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment.
We can’t provide a list of environmentally safe surfactants as the list provided by the EPA contains 824 surfactants.
But we’ve taken a look of some of the most common ingredients found in eco-friendly shampoos and broken them down (Spoiler: their almost all surfactants):
Sodium C14-16 olefin sulfonate: A high foaming surfactant recognized as biodegradable by the EU Ecolabel program.
Cocamidopropyl betaine: Biodegradable surfactant derived from coconut oil, used to increase foaming.
Polysorbate 20 (a.k.a. Tween 20): Biodegradable surfactant.
Potassium sorbate (E202): Readily biodegradable preservative that prevents the growth of microorganisms.
Coco-glucoside: Readily biodegradable co-surfactant produced from a reaction between glucose and coconut-oil.
Glyceryl oleate: Biodegradable surfactant produced from oils with high concentrations of oleic acid e.g. olive oil, peanut oil.
Just as good as normal shampoo
Are you convinced yet?
Biosurfactants in biodegradable shampoo:
- Can be efficient co-surfactants.
- Can out-compete traditional surfactants.
- Are entirely renewable.
- Are efficiently produced.
- And have lower carbon footprints than traditional surfactants.
If you haven’t considered it yet, try out a biodegradable shampoo for camping the next time you’re out in the bush.
If you got a favorite shampoo, give it a shout out in the comments below. We’d love to assemble a list of biodegradable shampoo brands.
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