Savannah Sullivan

Opportunities for Greener Alternatives in Chemical Formulations

Blog Post created by Savannah Sullivan on Jun 25, 2015

When consumers think about chemistry and chemicals, more often than not household items such as cleaning supplies and personal care products are the first to come to mind. Chemical formulators are the chemists who identify the functions a product needs to deliver and the chemicals that, upon combination, can provide the needed function. The industry uses hundreds of chemicals to formulate the products we use everyday—this industry produces “household care products (over US$80 billion worldwide p.a.) such as detergents, cleansers, polishes, air fresheners, and insecticides, plus personal care products (over US$200 billion worldwide p.a.) such as deodorants, cosmetics, fragrances, toothpaste, and shampoo.” Greener raw materials are becoming somewhat more available for formulators, but recently the ACS Green Chemistry Institute’s® (ACS GCI) Formulators’ Roundtable, an industrial collaboration between member companies and the ACS GCI, took a important step towards catalyzing important innovation in this industry.


The important step was the release of a recent paper, “Opportunities for Greener Alternatives in Chemical Formulations.” The Roundtable collaborated on this paper with Professor Philip Jessop of Queen’s University, where he is the Canada Research Chair of Green Chemistry. He also serves as Technical Director of GreenCentre Canada and as an ACS GCI Board Member. A primary goal for the development of this paper was to initiate a conversation between the formulation industry and academia. “Academic researchers can help industry make its operations and products greener, but only if the academics know what is needed,” said Jessop, the lead writer of the publication. “This research will give guidance for choosing greener alternatives to encourage the incorporation of changes that will benefit not only the entire value chain from manufacturing to consumer, but the environment as well.”


The paper outlines ten specific chemical categories where more green innovation is needed, along with a list of general requirements (for example, replacements should not contain any toxic heavy metals) that replacement technologies should meet to be truly greener and avoid regrettable substitution (where a chemical is replaced by another, only to find out that the replacement has as many or more negative attributes than the original chemical). These opportunities and suggested requirements were developed and reviewed by all member companies of the Roundtables, and were selected because of potential concern and/or the existing “greener” alternatives are inadequate. So what are the opportunities? And how might they affect products you use? See the following quick list, and read even more detail on the concerns and criteria for change in the Roundtable’s open source paper:

  • Antimicrobials
    Bacteria are everywhere, and your formulated products are no exception—except for the fact that antimicrobial preservatives are incorporated into products to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi, which could destroy the function of the product if not controlled. Whether it’s skin sensitization or lack of biodegradability, most of the common preservatives are associated with some sort of health or environmental concern. The Roundtable is seeking holistically greener alternatives, meaning, for example, low toxicity, not causing antimicrobial resistance, and yet are still functional.
  • Solvents
    Solvents have many uses in the chemical industry, the formulations sector included. All types of solvents are used to dissolve various components when mixing ingredients for a product, or can be incorporated into the product itself to carry fragrances. A priority for the industry is to have solvents that have minimal heath and environment impact, but also are derived from renewable resources. Most to all solvents are currently petroleum-based, so the industry aspires to move towards biobased alternatives to, for example, lower the global warming potential of formulated products.
  • Small Amines
    Small amines are versatile ingredients that can serve many important functions in a household product—they can cut grease, stabilize other ingredients (so the product can be homogenous), etc. However, most small amines have the potential to form a by-product (nitrosamines) that has been shown to be carcinogenic. The Roundtable seeks replacements that can avoid these byproduct reactions.
  • Chelants and Sequestering Agents
    Chelants and sequestering agents are important ingredients for cleaning products and scale inhibitors, as they bind to various metals that contribute to scale or other things you may want to remove from your shower, surfaces, etc. The current issues faced by the industry is that some of the most effective chelants present some toxicity concerns and many of the existing alternatives are not effective on scales most often encountered by consumers.
  • Boron Alternatives
    If you’ve ever done laundry, you might be familiar with Borax? Boron compounds have long been important for a wide variety of cleaning and bleaching products. While most boron containing products are safe for humans (i.e. likely no skin irritation upon contact), it does present some toxicity issues to plants and mammals (which is a problem for a product that is often incorporated into water streams which can then make their way to the external environment). It is also one of the least abundant light elements on the planet, therefore eventually presenting some potential supply concerns.
  • Fragrance Raw Materials
    Fragrances, whether natural or synthetic, often have issues associated with them including respiratory sensitivity, bioaccumulation, and more. The US Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment Program and the International Fragrance Association both have standards and guidelines that the Roundtable seeks to have adopted throughout the industry.
  • Corrosion Inhibitors
    Corrosion, whether it’s affecting the appliances in our home or at a large company, is a huge problem (according to the paper, the annual cost of corrosion is $276 billion in the US, largely from replacing corroded steel). Many of the inhibitors on the market have a host of concerns, including lack of biodegradability, bioaccumulation, and energy-intensive production methods. The Roundtable aspires for corrosion inhibitors to become safer and more sustainable across the board, including becoming biobased (like solvents).
  • Replacements for Alkanolamides
    While the word alkanolamide might be unfamiliar to most, their use is not—these compounds are widely used to stabilize foam and increase effectiveness in various soap products, including most detergents. Unfortunately, they present the same byproduct issues as mentioned above in the small amines category, so the Roundtable identifies this as an opportunity for great improvement.
  • Surfactants
    Surfactants are hugely important to almost every sector in the chemical industry, perhaps most prevalently in formulations. They are the surface-active ingredients in products that allow for the breaking down of the interface between water (usually the base of detergents), oils, and dirt. There are such a wide variety of surfactants and therefore a wide variety of impacts. Because of their wide-use in high volumes, the industry is always looking for greener alternatives.
  • Ultraviolet Screens
    It’s officially summertime here in Washington, DC, and that means sunscreen. Ultraviolet screens or filters are the often nano-scale inorganic components incorporated into lotions to block your skin the negative effects of too much ultraviolet exposure from the sun. Currently, there is a slight trade-off present in using many of these protective products—many of these screens have been predicted to be persistent (in terms of bioaccumulation) and potentially present toxicity risks.




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