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The Truth About Oleochemicals

What is an oleochemical? Oleochemicals are industrial manufactured chemicals used in cleansing and moisturizing and other products in the personal care product and household products and other industries—even used in conventional food products. Following are just a few examples of commonly used oleochemicals often included in "natural" and "organic" and conventional personal care products as surfactants/detergents, emollients, emulsifiers and stabilizers: cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, stearates, triglycerides, emulsifying wax, decyl glucose, sodium laureth sulfate, etc.

Oleochemicals made be made from petroleum oil feedstocks or conventional vegetable oil feedstocks. Whatever the oil feedstock source, petroleum or vegetable, the manufacturing processes are frequently the same. In addition, if a vegetable oil is used, the oil is typically conventional, not sustainable and/or a GMO oil.

The production of oleochemicals is light years away from true organic principles. The creation of various surfactants/detergents, isolated fatty acids and fatty alcohols, and emulsifying waxes, for example, (key ingredients of the cosmetic industry) involves super energy-intensive industrial processes and temperatures ranging from 500 to 2000 degrees celsius—held for twenty four hours or longer—along with pressures up to 1200 pounds per square inch—the same intense heat and pressure found inside a nuclear reactor. These violent reaction combinations of extreme heat and pressure are required in conjunction with a toxic catalyst such as nickel or copper chromate (a carcinogen) and a toxic petrochemical reactive agent (i.e., para-toluene sulfonic acid, methanol, or sulfuric acid—a toxic environmental pollutant) to force the oil molecules to, literally, crack apart to form new substances—not occurring in nature. What delicate and vital nutrients in a vegetable oil can survive such extreme processing?

Many oleochemical materials are used in personal care products because they are inexpensive and because they have a sustained or indefinite shelf-life and have consistent physical properties that are important for large-scale mass manufacturing and mass market acceptance. Conventional oleochemicals are not certified organic. Oleochemicals are unlike Mother Nature's natural and organic oils and butters and waxes which are delicate and have variable qualities due to environmental (soil, water, sun, etc.) growing conditions, and harvesting and handling that requires minimal processing and careful storage. The synthetic oleochemicals are desired by large personal care manufacturers and their distribution partners because the oleochemicals (are, essentially, plastic materials) have attractive attributes beneficial for large-scale manufacturing, international transport, mass market distribution and shelf-life, and maximum profitability. Oleochemicals are not used in personal care products for your skin's benefit.

It’s not permissible to make a certified organic shortening from hydrogenated or trans fat ingredients, since the organic regulations (in general) prohibit not only petrochemicals but also oleochemicals, which are synthetic chemicals just as petrochemicals are. Cold-pressing is the only National Organic Program-approved process for the extraction of organic oils for several very good reasons. Organic, cold-pressed oils are the most environmentally-friendly and nontoxic oils. They are made using hydraulic presses that use minimal electricity (fossil fuels) in their operation and generate very little heat in the pressing. Low heat (less than 110 degrees) is crucial in the cold-pressing because it is well-known that higher temperatures cause the unhealthy trans fats to form and that destroys the desirable and vital phytonutrients that organic-minded individuals seek.

Many health-conscious people are aware that eating hydrogenated fats is unhealthy because of the harmful effects of trans fatty acids and their triggering of free radicals—precursors to cancer—in the body. New evidence shows that oleochemical trans fats used in many “natural” and “organic” body care products, when topically applied to the skin, can inhibit prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are hormone-like messengers produced in most tissues of the human body that have many important physiological actions. Research has shown that oleochemical emollients used in moisturizers and hair conditioners can damage the skin and hair. It's also important to note that skin care product ingredients are absorbed by the skin, and enter the bloodstream directly. Personal care chemicals entering the body through the skin are not processed, filtered or detoxified by the digestive tract as foods are which is why this route of chemical exposure is of critical concern.

Unfortunately, many intelligent people have been hoodwinked by slick  greenwashing marketing campaigns into believing that oleochemical detergents, fatty acids and stearates (to name a few) are “natural” and environmentally-friendly because they are “vegetable-based.” Note that the EPA has stated that personal care detergents (they make no distinction between oleo- or petrochemical-based products) are now considered persistent pollutants because they are released into our waterways every day in very large quantities, and their persistence is alarming because many personal care product ingredients have endocrine-disrupting effects.

The solution? Choose body care products made without oleochemicals or other synthetics. No detergents. No foam boosters. No isolated fatty acids. No chemical preservatives. No chemical fragrance. Instead, look for organic cocoa butter, cold-pressed organic sunflower oil, select organic botanical extracts. Do look at our lovely Terressentials line of handcrafted, small batch organic personal care products! What could be more natural?

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