A lot of scientists are keen to point out that ‘safe’ and ‘natural’ don’t always go together. It is equally true that ‘synthetic’ and ‘toxic’ aren’t the same thing either. Another less obvious pairing is that something can be both natural and synthetic at the same time.
Take coco-glucoside- a shampoo ingredient. This made by reacting the perfectly natural glucose with the equally natural coconut fatty acid. This is a coupling that doesn’t actually occur in nature, or at least not that I know of, but is completely consistent with the way nature normally works. As a result, coco-glucoside is made up of components that can easily be broken down by enzymes in bacteria, and plants and animals when it comes to that. It is therefore perfectly biodegradable.
Coco-glucoside was developed when there was a lot of concern about pollution. That concern hasn’t entirely gone away, but most environmentalists would probably regard climate change and habitat loss as the big ones nowadays. And in fact the particular ingredients it is a substitute for are pretty biodegradable anyway. But I think it still does have a role.
For a start it is pretty sustainable. The source materials can be derived from just about any agricultural source if you choose to. I imagine that it would not take too much effort to produce it on a small scale in a biotech plant, which could free up land for farming or wildlife. So a pretty green material already and one that could be made greener still.
Conventional shampoo formulations are safe enough already, but coco-glucoside is virtually a foodstuff. This is really what biodegradability looks like close up. If you create something that can be easily broken down by regular enzymes it is almost inevitable it will not pose any risk to the end user.
But the big question is how well does it work?
You can’t simply substitute a green material into existing formulations and hope for the best. You need to work on the new system and do some optimisation. Not every formulation from the natural product sector seems to have gone through this process. Green people might be well meaning but they don’t always know what they are doing. I have had some pretty horrible experiences with natural shampoos. In the hands of professional formulators the results are much better. To my mind, I don’t think that the performance of a conventional shampoo can be bettered, but you can get pretty close. And maybe we should educate ourselves that a rich creamy foam isn’t actually necessary. The feel of the hair afterwards is a bit tougher to explain away, but maybe I just like what I am used to and with time and familiarity the slight after feel coco-glucoside and similar leave might be something I’d get used to.
For now though, at least you can be reasonably sure if you see coco-glucoside on an ingredient list that somebody somewhere has been trying to do the right thing.
Unfortunately you can’t be quite so sure they have actually done the right thing.