A great many cosmetic products nowadays contain plant extracts of one kind or another. I think the first product that really captured the imagination of the public with this approach was the shampoo Timotei. When it was first launched it was advertised by a slim blond woman who was pictured wandering dreamily around a field in her night dress putting weeds in a basket. It was a big hit.
The brand still trades heavily on botanical names. The Fresh and Strong variety for instance contains thyme, tarragon and sage making me wonder if it was formulated on the quiet by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
Timotei is about as mass market as it is possible for a brand to be. Unilever sell it all around the world and manufacture it at several locations. I have never been involved with this brand in any way, but even without first hand knowledge I am pretty confident that the herbs that go into Timotei are not gathered from meadows by inadequately clothed young women. I don’t know how it is made, but I can make some guesses.
One possibility is that they use what is called in the trade a tip in. Tip ins are produced by companies that specialise in this sort of thing. Say you want to produce a shampoo that contains, I don’t know, how about daisy. One option would be to be find a farmer and buy some daisies. You would then have to work out an extraction method to produce some kind of daisy liquid which you could then add to your shampoo. But it is much easier to go to a company that makes tip ins. These guys hold stocks of hundreds of different extracts and have all the equipment and expertise to process them quickly and efficiently.
So how do you make a tip in? The basic approach is fairly simple. You grind your plant material in a mixture of something like glycerol or propylene glycol. The glycerol makes the mix very high in osmotic pressure (see the blog post on humectants for details of osmosis ) which disrupts the cells releasing the plants juices. The mix is then filtered and further water added to give a water soluble extract. The final product is usually a pale straw colour with a light odour of the plant being used. Your tip in can now be dispatched to the manufacturer giving them a quick and easy way to transform a boring ordinary shampoo into a natural daisy shampoo.
The quantities involved are typically about 1% of the extract being added. The amount of plant matter in the extract is hard to assess but it will normally be less than 5%. So the amount going into the shampoo will in turn be less than 0.05%. That might be a generous estimate.
The great beauty of tip ins is that they are cheap and convenient. Some formulators, or more likely the marketers briefing them, can get really carried away. You get huge ingredient lists packed with goodies. I found all these on one ingredient list for a reasonably prominent shampoo that trades on its natural credentials.
Ginkgo Biloba Leaf Extract, Cucumis Sativa (Cucumber) Fruit Water, Hamamelis Virginiana Flower (Witch Hazel) Water, Camellia Sinensis (Green Tea) Extract, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower Extract, Spirulina Maxima Extract, Punica Granatum (Pomegranate) Peel Extract
That is seven, count them, seven different plant extracts. I wonder if there is some kind of competition going on there – a bit like the number of razor blades thing. I am not saying that I know for sure that the company involved is buying in tip ins. They may be taking delivery of all these plant materials and infusing them themselves on the spot. But if they are, they are doing it the hard way. A good clue to whether or not tip ins are being used is if in addition to the name of a plant there is also glycerol or propylene glycol quite a long way down the ingredient list. This is most likely the solvent from the extraction process. Propandiol gets used as well, it is pretty much the same as propylene glycol but has the advantage of not being called propylene glycol which some people object to.
On the whole, in the overall scheme of things tip ins are not all that evil really. Strictly speaking they do exactly what they are supposed to do. They give companies a chance to bolster their natural credentials by giving them an easy way to add natural components to their formulations. There are much much worse betrayals of people’s trust being carried out every day. And although I dare say not many people give it that much thought, I don’t think that anyone really thinks that mass market brands really do send people out to pick wild flowers. But I still don’t really like them. Especially when they turn up in brands that like to make out that they are natural. When I see them I can’t help thinking that someone somewhere is having a laugh at my expense.