How do you define clean beauty products

More sustainable cosmetics for a cleaner environment

Cellulose can be used as a substitute
This is where the “KosLigCel” project comes in, which is coordinated by the Fraunhofer Institute for Mechanics of Materials IWM in Halle. “Today, polyethylene is mostly used for microplastic particles in cosmetic products. On the other hand, we want to use particles from a natural product, namely cellulose, which is made from beech wood residues and which is biodegradable, ”explains project manager Dr. Vanessa Sternitzke from Fraunhofer IWM.

If the project succeeds, it would make a valuable contribution to reducing the environmental impact of microplastics. Project leader Vanessa Sternitzke refers in this context to a study by the United Nations (UN), according to which in 2012 in the EU alone 4,300 tons of microplastic particles were used in care products, which are ultimately released and released into the environment in the course of their use. These 4,300 tons of plastic can be deployed and used for more meaningful processes and products in the future.

Everything needs a starting point
In the current “KosLigCel” project, which has a term of two years and belongs to the top cluster “BioEconomy” of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, a body peeling and a toothpaste are to be developed. Project partners are CFF GmbH, a pulp processor from Gehren (Thuringia), who provides cellulose and lignin particles for the project, and Skinomics GmbH from Halle, which is primarily responsible for the dermatological examination of the new products.

The particular challenge, reports the IWN, is to find or develop a replacement material that has the desired profile of properties, i.e. corresponds in size, shape, hardness and surface structure to those of the microplastic particles that are to be substituted and that are skin-friendly at the same time. What is comparatively easy with synthetic polymer materials, which can really be designed according to individual specifications and goals, proves to be a challenge when using natural ingredients.

Focus on new paths
In order to get closer to the set goal, the IWM researchers are working on modifying the cellulose from beech wood and analyzing it down to the microstructure level. The use of cellulose from other sources, for example residues from oat, wheat and corn production, is also being examined. For the first time, the researchers also want to test the use of modified, sulfur-free Organosolv lignin particles in cosmetic products.

Occasional attempts have been made to replace microplastic particles in cosmetic products with other materials such as wax, salt or olive pits. So far, however, such substitutes have never been evaluated in terms of materials science. That should change in the course of the KosLigCel project: "The scientific challenges are still great to find a substitute for polyethylene that works just as well, but, unlike polyethylene, is biodegradable in water and can be produced as cheaply as possible", says Dr. Vanessa Sternitzke. The aim is to find out as precisely as possible which criteria are decisive for the desired properties. “If we know that,” the project manager is convinced, “we can reliably assess which materials are particularly suitable for replacing microplastic particles.”

Use polymers better, generate added value
Ideally, the use of cellulose could also open up other fields of application. In contrast to polyethylene, cellulose also absorbs water and oil. This effect, which is only marginally noted, could help improve the long-term effectiveness of moisturizers. Cellulose particles can also be used as fillers in aluminum-free deodorants. The 4,300 tons of polymer material that have so far gone into the manufacture of microplastics in cosmetics and personal care products will foreseeably flow into more sustainable applications.