Sustainable Ingredients Science: Natural Oils

Most natural oils are formulated in skin or hair care for feel, consistency and emolliency; however, their added value on skin physiology due to their chemical characteristics (from their fatty acid profile to their content of vitamins, phytosterols, etc.) is often underestimated. Their use in personal care has been limited not only by their stability against oxidation, with possible oxidation leading to rancidity and instability of the final formulation, but also by their color, smell and cost. To appreciate a sensorial difference, high amounts of these oils may have to be utilized, with the aforementioned limitations considered. These limitations, together with the common problems of lacking skin safety profiles and unrefined materials, have pushed the industry to invest in more stable, inert and less costly synthetic oils—many of which demonstrate excellent sensorial properties. However, the growing market demand for natural alternatives to synthetic is pushing brands to continue to consider the use of natural oils in their formulations.

In the past few years, formulations containing jojoba oil or apricot oil have increased, natural oil-based formulas with exotic oil blends have become popular, and cosmetic lines containing argan oil (and most recently baobab oil) have appeared with a certain frequency on the market. The increasing presence of natural oils in finished products has pushed marketing and R&D departments to argue efficacy claims linked to these oils, although these claims are mostly based on traditional usage feedback and rarely supported by scientific evidence. On the supplier side, the high market demand has forced traders to consolidate and leverage their supply chain to avoid risk of shortage and discontinuation. At the same time, these traders are identifying novel sources for less known but promising natural oils, with particular attention to sustainable sourcing.

Sustainable Sourcing

Recent market analysis has shown that consumers are increasingly looking for finished products with sustainably sourced ingredients.1 Sustainable sourcing is often communicated to consumers as ethical sourcing. In effect, sustainable sourcing defines the search for ingredients derived from sustainable development that would include actions linked to and promoting economic development, social equity and environmental protection. By doing business with ingredient producers operating within this framework and, therefore, respecting, protecting and promoting social and environmental issues, the supplier has an ethical and virtuous approach. A finished product formulated with ingredients derived from sustainable development can communicate an ethical business model and world vision to consumers.

Suppliers sourcing a natural and sustainable ingredient must highlight that their goal is to obtain information on plant origin, its cultivation or harvesting practice, and its impact on the environment and the source communities—both socially and economically. Knowledge and control of supply chain is becoming imperative for brands and multinationals, and it is possible that this requirement will force traders to justify their roles within the global supply framework or disappear. A supplier targeting an ethical supply chain will, in addition to bringing highly demanded ingredients to the market, sustain producers and communities by providing stable revenue and support to communities’ local businesses (fair trading), helping them maintain their social and environmental commitment to sustainability.

It is relatively easy for finished product manufacturers and raw material suppliers to work together within the sustainability framework. Corporate social responsibility and sustainable development managers, supported by NGOs and helped by organizations specialized in connecting sustainable development producers with suppliers and brands, are already leading the way in the common effort to succeed in sustaining natural products in the long term.

Sustainable, Functional Oils

Argan and baobab: The recent success in the cosmetic market of sustainable oils such as Argania sponosa (argan) and Adansonia digitata (baobab) oil certainly depends on a strong and mature supply chain and forceful marketing—and these oils have rapidly become a success story for advocates of natural products.

The combination of an excellent stability, a good organoleptic and physico- chemical profile, a pleasant touch and a complete sustainability profile—i.e., their origin, the environment and the communities involved—is the essence of their success. The argan tree forest is endemic to southwest Morocco, and its products are mostly sourced by women cooperatives. The tree grows slowly in a harsh climate, and due to the extensive use of the kernels (from which the oil is produced), reforestation programs are implemented to maintain sustainability and grow the supply to avoid shortage.

The oil, due to its high content of oleic and linoleic acid (comprising 80% of the fatty acids in the oil, see Table 1 and relatively high tocopherol content and other unsaponifiable matter, has been proposed for several skin applications, including repairing and anti-aging creams targeting dry skin.2 A study has demonstrated the effect of argan oil on reducing sebum in oily skin.3 Popular uses also consider argan oil as a treatment for dry hair or hair loss.2

The baobab tree grows in hot, dry areas in Africa. Like the argan tree, the baobab tree grows slowly—however, baobab trees can grow significantly larger and live longer than argan trees; therefore, it is difficult to sustain the increasing demand just with a reforestation approach. In this case, supplier rotations, optimization of the extraction procedure and increasing stock capacity for nuts would be additional measures.

The oil is becoming popular as a treatment for dry hair, but its unusually high content of phytosterols (see Table 1) justifies its main use in soothing and healing products.4 This oil was introduced only recently in the personal care market, so few studies are available.

Although some applications for these oils have been explored, the science behind the properties of these two oils is still scarce, and further studies are needed to fully understand their value.

Moreover, the excessive demand and usage of argan, and more recently of baobab oil, is creating the risk of cyclical shortages, high price fluctuations (commodity-like) and possible questioning on sustainability in the long term (if the demand surpasses the offer), as evidenced by recent publications demonstrating a weakness in the sustainable supply chain associated to these oils, both related to environment protection5 and to benefit local communities.6

The example of argan and baobab oil teaches the cosmetic industry that it needs to increase its investment in science to better understand the skin benefits and added value of natural oils, therefore having a proper and validated marketing approach. In addition, the industry also needs to sustain and manage its natural sourcing in a smarter way to avoid possible systemic shortage, reduce the impact on the environment and make sure that communities would benefit both socially and economically.

There are a number of novel oils from sustainable sources just entering the personal care market. Particular attention, both in the supply chain management and in scientific development, would need to be implemented to properly market these oils when approaching global distribution, as discussed above. The key components of these oils are summarized in Table 1.

Ungurahua and buriti: Oenocarpus bataua (ungurahua) and Mauritia flexuosa (buriti) oils from the Amazon forest are mainly produced from the fruit and not the seed. They have been consumed by locals for centuries for the fruits’ health benefits, and the personal care market recently discovered their value. While buriti, also known as aguaje oil, has already experienced some global notoriety in a few natural brands, ungurahua oil is still waiting for its worldwide recognition.

Suppliers of these oils should maintain a fair trade policy with communities and farmers, safeguarding their rights, but also providing them the tools, clothes and medicine needed for support. An environmental policy is sustained through the execution of forest management plans, which involve the reforestation of several indigenous plants and scaling the extraction and production of these plants to produce industrial-size quantities.

Buriti is one of the most abundant South American palm trees, with a large distribution in the lower Amazon region. The fruit provides income for a significant sector of the population, particularly women. In topical treatment, buriti oil has been shown to be antibacterial, wound healing and regenerating.7 These effects are associated with its high content of vitamin A, which creates its orange color, as well as with its significant oleic acid concentration. Moreover, in vitro studies have demonstrated its potential as an antioxidant and in protecting skin cells against UV damage.8

Ungurahua is also a palm fairly abundant in the Amazon. The oil is sold for medicinal purposes and in phytotherapy formulations. Extremely high in oleic acid (omega-9, see Table 1),9 its cosmetic use has been associated with preventing baldness, reducing wrinkle formation (through its regenerative and wound healing properties) and to complement UV filters for better protection.10

An increasing demand for these oils can raise questions on sustainability, especially if no reforestation plans are implemented. By using the fruit, the food supply chain could be depleted.

Marula and moringa: Like baobab, the Sclerocarya birrea (marula) and Moringa oleifera (moringa) trees are often referred to as the trees of life or miracle trees, growing in different regions on the African continent where they survive extreme conditions. Their nuts are harvested once per year and crushed to produce very stable oils. Marula and moringa oil have been introduced in the cosmetic market recently, and their popularity is growing among consumers, thanks to the strong marketing on their sustainability and skin benefit.

The marula tree is indigenous to the sub-Saharan region, growing in arid hot climates. Nuts and kernels have been used by the African people for thousands of years for their high nutrition value. Highly stable oil is extracted from the kernel, and is used by the locals as a hydrating skin lotion with anti-scarring/anti-blemishing activities and as a food preservative. Marula oil is a popular ingredient in local skin and hair care products.11 It contains high amounts of oleic acid (omega-9, see Table 1), and it is used for regenerating the skin. Due to the high gamma-tocopherol content, it has an extraordinary oxidative stability. Finally, marula oil may reduce redness due to its high amount of phytosterols.

The moringa tree, known commonly as ben oil tree or drumstick, grows in many regions of Africa. Fruit and seeds have nutritional and medicinal properties, which have been used to treat inflammation and infectious diseases, in addition to cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, hematological and hepatorenal disorders. The healing properties of moringa oil have been documented by ancient cultures, being used in skin preparations and ointments since ancient Egypt. Its high amount of oleic acid and sterols sustains regenerative and soothing properties,11 while the presence of polyphenols contributes antioxidant characteristics with scavenging activity.12 The presence of 6–8% behenic acid (22:0), unique for this oil, contributes to the skin feeling. Finally, the low peroxide and acid value of the oil (associated with a low amount of free fatty acids) results in stability against oxidation with decreased risk of rancidity.

Marula and moringa oil suppliers have adopted a business model that considers sustainable development as the main driver. Programs aimed to develop the society and protect the African environment and its bio-diversity are constantly implemented. Suppliers’ involvement is documented with participation in programs such as Seed Initiative, sustained by governmental institutions, where priority is given to species and crop conservation complemented by social programs targeting farmers and communities to alleviate poverty while providing education and governance. There is a considerable effort in relaunching a farmer economy by using local species (with parallel reforestation) that can bring economic value while preserving and marketing local biodiversity.

Tomato, pomegranate and Aleppo pine: These oils originate from plants and trees growing in the Mediterranean region. Supply chain can be traced to biological agriculture, farmers’ cooperatives and biodiversity protection through forest preservation. Suppliers are engaged in sustaining an ethical model and willing to re-invest in their communities while protecting the environment. Many of their oils have obtained organic certifications. The oils are often associated with healthy benefits, as the Mediterranean region itself is a symbol for healthy food. The oils are healthy for the skin, with a high content of antioxidants. Their use in the cosmetic industry is still limited. While their water-soluble counterpart is more known, their protection against oxidation makes them attractive.

Solanum lycopersicum (tomato) oil is mainly sourced in Italy from seed and peel byproducts recovered during tomato paste manufacturing. Therefore, this sourcing utilizes all parts of the tomato by recycling the components. The oil—rich in omega-6, tocopherols, phytosterols and lycopene (see Table 1)—is a strong antioxidant for sun protection, with additional soothing and regenerating properties.13, 14

Punica granatum (pomegranate) oil can be sourced from many countries, including India and China, but Turkey has established a sustainable supply chain for the ingredient. The pomegranate tree, a small 3–5 m tree, can be cultivated and replanted, providing plenty of fruit for oil production. Extensive biological agriculture with organized cooperatives of farmers are implemented to produce organic certified oil. Optimized extraction procedures and reduced wastewater further increases production and sustainability. Pomegranate oil is rich in alpha punicic acid (omega-5, see Table 1), which makes this oil unique. The punicic acid content makes this oil a powerful antioxidant, and it can be used in cosmetics to protect from UV oxidation damage and to soothe and regenerate.15, 16

Pinus halepensis (Aleppo pine) is native to the Mediterranean region. This relatively tall tree (20 m) is predominantly sourced from Tunisian forests. Frequent fires, cutting and deforestation are endangering this tree. Reforestation programs are needed to maintain a sustainable source of the oil. Aleppo pine seed oil has a strong antioxidant profile due to the high level of tocopherols; it also contains polyphenols such as oligomeric procyanidins, making it unique. Also, the high level of omega 3 (up to 20%) and phytosterols (see Table 1) make this oil an ideal regenerative and soothing agent.17, 18


The market demand for naturally derived products and alternatives to synthetics is increasing. Natural oils represent an interesting solution for the formulator, bringing both sensory and efficacy to personal care applications.

Care needs to be taken in selecting and managing a sustainable supply chain. Investment is necessary to further explore the science behind the oils to gain a better understanding of how these oils can benefit the skin either in protecting or repairing it. The formulator should explore the oil chemistry, the feel and other characteristics to select the best oil for a given formulation.

Since several of these oils have different percentages of unsaturated fatty acids with antioxidant and repairing properties (in addition to vitamins, polyphenols and sterols), the choice of the oil can alter the final formula application and efficacy required. For example, oils with clear antioxidant profiles (containing tocopherols, beta carotene, omega-5, etc.) would be ideal to complement UV-protecting formulas, while oils rich in repairing and soothing ingredients (omega-9, omega-6, omega-3, vitamin A, sterols, etc.) would be ideal in repairing products such as after sun, night creams, etc. Concentration of use may vary depending on the formula and the claims, although a range between 1–5% is most common. Finally, some oils would need the addition of antioxidants in the formulation (most commonly tocopherol) to protect the less stable oils.

In conclusion, it is possible to have natural sustainable oil with additional functional benefits in the areas of protecting, soothing and repairing. The successful combination of supply chain management, formulation skills, scientific knowledge and marketing strategies will allow these oils to grow in the personal care market.


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