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Are “plant-based” ingredients good or bad? And for what?

I am worried about all that talk about “plant-based” you see in skincare advertising. Why? Because it seems that in pursuit of anything and everything “plant”, we are going in the wrong direction.

Example: alkanes. I love alkanes: linear carbon and hydrogen chains, make up waxes that will protect leaves and fruits from losing water. They also work great at preventing water loss from our skin, and the most expensive skincare products use inexpensive petrolatum and mineral oil to make a cream that will prevent water loss and accelerate healing.

Most of the petrolatum and mineral oil we use comes from ancient organic matter, the same source of the gas/petrol we use in our cars. Refined from petroleum, petrolatum is that waxy, greasy stuff you can buy for a dollar from the supermarket. Add it to any cream and it will help soften the skin and keep it moist and healthy. Recently, TikTok has been trying to bring back petrolatum. Wise idea.

In the pursuit of “green”, the industrial apparatus manufacturing skincare ingredients may be wasting energy and plants, by hydrogenating plant matter that could be used for something else. The hydrogenation process requires energy, which is probably obtained from burning petroleum or the other, even dirtier option, carbon. If you think about it, this is the opposite of green, in the sense of good for the environment. To make things worse, depending on the source of plant material they use, they may be increasing the price of food in one country or another. This is what happened when they used ethanol obtained from corn for their trucks: the price of corn, used as food in many countries, shot up.

What matters for the function of an ingredient is the chemical structure, not the way it was made. If your objections to alkanes are in their slow breakdown in the environment, this applies to “plant-based” alkanes also. We need the industry to stop advertising “fake-green”, like alkanes synthesized from plant material, or fake “natural preservatives” like “grapefruit seed extract” or “Leuconostoc/radish root ferment filtrate (with added benzethonium chloride, benzalkonium chloride, triclosan or methylparaben).

A noxious combination of fake green advertising machines and the industry is giving us the worst of all worlds. We are supposed to discard alkanes purified from existing fossil fuels but expend fossil energy (and produce greenhouse gases) in chemical modification of modern plant material. Silly! All in the name of “green” and “plant-based”.

On the other hand, we should always go to plants for discovery of new chemicals. Plants are the best biochemists in nature and we benefit enormously from their chemicals. A quick look at our ingredient lists will show hundreds of plant chemicals we use to benefit our customers’ skin and scalps. But once discovered, let’s make sure we don’t exploit a plant to extinction. Let’s make sure we don’t invade and destroy a natural ecosystem just to expand the cultivation of plants that are useful to us. We may be exterminating plant species that could benefit us in the future. Responsible humans care about the earth.

My advice? Concentrate on the chemicals in the ingredient list and how closely it matches your skin needs. The environmental impact of skincare is not that large, after all, when compared with the energy cost of cars and the environmental impact of the food industry. We at Skin Actives have the expertise required to make the best use of ingredients and source the best while keeping overall environmental costs as low as possible.

We care about the environment (I have grandchildren, after all!).