This term refers to an approach which has recently gained much ground in our trades. Lavoisier told us that “nothing is lost, nothing is created; everything is transformed”! This aphorism is especially meaningful when it comes to the concept of upcycling. It is simple: the idea is to transform a material, whatever it is, into an object that has more value than the initial material.
But, is this totally new? Not really. What is new is that this practice combines other approaches: it uses organic, natural, recyclable – and other synonyms – products to produce supposedly new things. In the cosmetics industry, it emerged a long time ago. Of course, even the oldest practices were not named “upcycling” – the term “valorization” is also used. But the products derived from upcycling do correspond to the following definition: “recycling waste to make products with a greater value”.
In this post, you will discover a few examples which will surprise you.
Lipochemistry or the use of “fat”!
Men have always used animals for various reasons, but above all, for food purposes. Indeed, hunter/gatherers in the Palaeolithic soon chose a diet based on animal proteins… If only because plant supplies were not that abundant. In this context, hunting and/or fishing provided the better part of food resources. Fat meat soon made up the basis of humans’ diet, and then, gradually, fat sources were more and more often derived from animals. Animal fat became a major raw material, as there are multiple fat sources in meat: subcutaneous fat tissues, connective tissues surrounding muscle mass, yellow bone marrow in the medullary cavities of long bones, spongy tissues in peripheral joints or short bones, red bone marrow in vertebral bodies, ribs, breastbone…That is how fats of various natures can be obtained. Long used in their raw state, or refined, at best, these fats became one of the most significant progress factors in the 19th century: that is when lipochemistry emerged. Lipochemistry, or oleochemistry, refers to all physicochemical and enzymatic transformation processes applied to oils and fats of animal and plant origin. The products obtained, i.e. basic compounds, synthetic intermediates, or molecules with a high added value, are used in multiple industries, for applications like biofuels, detergents, cosmetics, food, materials, or lubricants. Today, they still represent essential substances.
French chemist Eugène Chevreul (1796-1889) contributed a lot to this progress. As soon as the Restoration, he focused his experiments on the composition of fats to describe their generic structure, a chemical combination of glycerol and three fatty acids. In 1813, he isolated margaric acid, which was then believed to be one of the three fatty acids contained in most animal fats – the two others being oleic and stearic acids. In 1823, he described the saponification reaction, showing soap was a metallic salt and was not composed of fatty acids, as it was believed back then. He isolated stearic and oleic acids, which he named. His work led tallow candles to be replaced by stearic candles, which better burnt away, since they produced more light, less smoke, and almost no unpleasant smell. That is when lipochemistry applications started developing. In this field, several types of fats are particularly important in terms of volume or applications. The first corresponds to oils rich in saturated fatty acids, like lauric oils (palm and coconut oils), palm stearins, and tallow, since pork fat had been abandoned. On the other hand, there are soya and palm oils (oleic fractions), which are rich in unsaturated fats. In the chemical industry, the use of natural products as raw materials offered a broader range of synthetic processes and finished products.
Many cosmetic applications were derived from this branch of chemistry. First, the idea was to obtain substances that could enhance already known products, like tallow candles or soap, but also to manufacture new fats by extraction of the corresponding acids, and make derivatives like fatty acid esters, such as isopropyl myristate, and later, surfactants, bodying agents, polymers, and other derivatives. One of the oldest fat manufacturers, stearin producer Dubois, recently celebrated their 200th anniversary.
As regards finished products, “stearate creams” also emerged at that time. They dominated the market for almost a century and are still used as a basis in interesting specialties regularly rediscovered by young generations.
Soap and multiple valorization
The term “soap” seems to be derived from Latin word sebum, for tallow (sapon, in Greek). The term “sapo” refers to a legend according to which the Romans, as they were celebrating animal sacrifices on the slopes of Mount Sapo, found out that the wood ashes resulting from their fires mixed with the fat of the animals sacrificed, forming a sort of “primitive soap”. This soapy liquid allegedly flowed towards the clayey shores of a neighbouring stream, where the inhabitants noticed clothes could be washed very easily and efficiently. So much for the legend. Soap as we know it is believed to have been invented 4,500 years ago by the Sumerians in the form of soapy paste based on fats and potassium carbonate. It was not used for hygiene purposes, but as a remedy against skin diseases. The Egyptians used it for their laundry. The Germans and the Gauls made soap based on wood ashes and tallow. They used it to lighten and dye their hair. Invented in Syria about 3,000 years ago and based on olive oil and bay leaves, Aleppo soap is the oldest soap still used today. And yet, the Romans started using it for hygiene purposes only in the 2nd century AD. It is under the influence of the Arabs that the soap industry developed on the Mediterranean coasts. Back then, the port of Marseille, in the south of France, was the main transit centre for soap and for the raw materials and perfumes used to make it. Many soap factories settled in this city as soon as the 9th century: that is how the famous Savon de Marseille was born! After 1750, soap got produced on an industrial scale in Marseille, in particular after Nicolas Leblanc’s discovery, which consisted in making soda based on sea water. But it was not until Eugène Chevreul’s work that further progress was made. In 1823, he described the saponification reaction, which showed soap was a metallic salt, and not fatty acids, as it was believed until then. The Solvay process supplanted the Leblanc process: sodium carbonate was synthesized on an industrial scale as soon as 1865, making it possible to obtain soda for a very competitive price. Manufacturing processes benefited from this. Soap became a commodity, appearing in middle-class homes and completing housework equipment. Now, manufacturing and industrial processes have changed since the first discoveries. Brittany contributed to this via the Atlantique soap factory in Nantes. In the 1970s, fat hydrolysis by water under pressure at high temperature, in the presence of zinc soap as a catalyser, helped obtain a constant quantity of fatty acid and glycerol, which were immediately separated by distillation. The fatty acids were neutralized by soda and resulted in soap. As it had no rival until 1907, soap was used for laundering and linen and wool dry-cleaning. In 1906, Jules Ronchetti invented laundry soap powder, which was marketed under tradename Persil. Then, the year after; German company Henkel launched a similar product. Soap bars, or toilet soap, are derived from this process
Cod liver oil or white oils
Cod liver oil dates back to the Viking era. At that time, the Vikings used this fish oil both as foodstuff and drug. This product was actually an integral part of the Nordic diet. Cod liver oil is a derivative of cod liver (fish). This food supplement used to be given to children suffering from rickets and bone growth troubles.
Also, publications highlighting positive effects on burns after applying cod liver oil contributed to the growing interest in this ingredient. By extension, other fish oils were viewed positively, so that halibut liver oil got also used. Some of the most popular brands at that time took advantage of this, like Ella Baché, a young Hungarian dermatologist, who made it a flagship active in her range. The problem was that the use of these fish oils was tricky due to their organoleptic properties: strong smell, possible colouring… Plus, they are mainly composed of unsaturated fats, which are very sensitive to oxidation. But, since fishing made it possible to obtain quantities of fish oil that far exceeded needs in terms of food supplements and others, chemists started to think about new products based on this biomass. Japanese researcher Mitsumaru Tsujimoto thoroughly described the cod liver oil he obtained in the unsaponifiable fraction of shark liver oil. He isolated oil he named squalene, as a reference to its origin. Then, a few years later, he hydrogenated it and obtained squalane. Manufacturing was simple: based on the squalene obtained from fish liver oils, including shark liver oil, complete hydrogenation of alkene (squalene) resulted in the corresponding alkane: perhydrosqualene, or squalane. This lubricant was then forgotten and replaced by squalene, due to its role as a precursor of steroid hormones.
Based on this research work, French chemist Sabetay continued tests which resulted in the product named Cosbiol®, a colourless, clear, neutral oil which did not become oxidized in the presence of air, even after prolonged heating. It became a basic ingredient in cosmetics formulation. From a chemical standpoint, it is an isoparaffin with a high molecular weight and many similarities with paraffin oil. Barbara Gould and many other brands used it a lot.
The origin of this ingredient, the new quotas on shark fishing and the action taken by some NGOs eventually led cosmetic brands to more or less give up its use. Later, it became widely used again following the same process, but with different sources: squalene became plant-based: it was derived from sugar cane and olive, and then hydrogenation resulted in squalane (not plant hydrogenation, plant-based hydrogen does not exist!). The green, recycling and other trends took care about the rest. Plant-based squalane is now a star ingredient. But what’s more?
Another, totally synthetic process, but which followed the principle of precursor hydrogenation, also helps obtain white, isoparaffin oils, Hydrogenated Polybutylene, with very interesting properties.
That is how an old ingredient can become fashionable. Well, why not? Especially since it plays its role perfectly well, like its predecessor!
Lanolin, or wool wax
Lanolin, also called wool grease or wool wax, is fat obtained by suint purification and refining. It corresponds to the adsorbed fat part in wool. Lanolin has been known since very ancient times: it was used for thousands of years in cosmetics under the name Oesipe. Then, it seems to have been forgotten in the Middle Ages, like many other cosmetics. It re-emerged in the Italian pharmacopoeia of Florence starting from 1560, and then, again, it fell into oblivion in the early 19th century. It made a strong comeback after the presence of cholesterol and oxycholesterol was identified in it, and especially when Braun showed its water-absorbing power in 1882. The development of formulas based on water-in-oil emulsions contributed a lot to its use.
The name of lanolin, or Lanolein, comes from Latin words lana and oleum. Lanolin is obtained by separation: it is based on the alkaline waters derived from wool washed without taking off suint. From a chemical standpoint, lanolin is wax, a mixture of esters and fatty acids with alcohols with a high molecular weight. More than 180 fatty acids and 80 alcohols were identified. Lanolin is amphiphilic and forms very stable emulsions with water – it is a very hygroscopic species. Thanks to these properties, it was used for very different purposes, whether as pure lanolin or in a series of products called Lanovaselines.
It was contained in many specialties, one of the most famous being Eucerin®, the basic ingredient of a cult product: the Nivea cream.
Manufacturing processes play a key role in the final quality of products, and there are several types of them. The most recent result in extremely refined, colourless, odourless lanolin grades.
Again, this ingredient got through very hard times in France in the late 1970s. Given its very large use, it was associated with safety problems and accused of having allergenic properties. Its origin and quality often raised issues about it, so that it became part of a particular list of demeaned substances, which contained banned substances authorized by special dispensation. These provisions disappeared when cosmetics regulations were changed. But then, lanolin was again targeted by particular regulations in the 1990s, which restricted the use of substances of animal origin. The use of lanolin declined again, although it was actually allowed. But due to its qualities, the restrictions were eventually cancelled. The role of lanolin as a precursor of vitamin D, whose use in cosmetics is prohibited, contrary to its precursors, might renew interest in it, especially since vitamin D plays an essential role: it is skin’s vitamin, and it is produced in the skin by the skin!!!! There is an interesting rehabilitation programme for the sheep branch in France called TRICOLOR: maybe it will result in the resurrection of French lanolin!
Since then, the recycling trend has become one of the main trends of the last decade. Some people will pretend the products mentioned below cannot really be considered as derived from upcycling. But they do correspond to the definition of this concept. Many ingredient manufacturers now offer products based on this approach. I cannot name them all, and it is actually not the role of La Cosmétothèque, but for those who are interested, this information can be found easily. Here are a few examples, some of which were mentioned on our website.
– Passionline®, by Expanscience: an ingredient derived from the recycling of passion flower seed.
– Original Extracts™ by Gattefossé: “active” botanical water which became the precursor of what we now call fruit waters.
– Koffee’Up® by Givaudan: a very recent launch consisting of oil derived from already used ground coffee.
In addition, avocado has gained a new lease of life with interesting proposals by Biosynthis, or by Expanscience: Number 6 is an extract rich in polyphenols or 5αavocata which regulates the sebum. There are a few others, including regenerating Effipulp®.
Lastly, here is an original cosmetic product also derived from recycling. Developed by a much anticipating laboratory, it is based on recycled coffee capsules: the coffee beans act as exfoliating agents. It was Product of the Year 2018 in the US.
Universities also take action. The cosmetic programme of UCO, in Guingamp, Brittany, which regularly organizes the innovation contest named U’Cos, and which I supported for a while, focused on this theme a few years ago. Valuable products were developed by groups of students: for example, some of them invented a product based on recycled unused parts of beetroot.
Sometimes trends have older roots than we think! And it can be interesting to look back to understand the present, and even more!
Jean Claude LE JOLIFF