3 things you should know about extracts in cosmetics
In the cosmetics industry, plant extract is one of the most widely used types of ingredient. However, what exactly is it and how is it made? Is it ok to trust all kinds of ingredients?
1. How it is made - solvent or grinding
There are two types of extracts. The first method is extraction. In this widely used method, the plant is extracted in a solvent. The solvent can vary from pure water to alcohol. Depending on the plant and target molecules, some solvents are more effective and efficient than others. Alcohol is one of the widely used solvents as it can extract essential oils, alkaloids, or resins which are not water-soluble. The extraction time, temperature, or pressure all affect how it is extracted.
Sometimes extracts are made not by extraction in a solvent, but by grinding part of the plant. For example, some manufacturers grind and filter the inner flesh of the leaf to make aloe vera leaf extract. This can be used if the plant to extract contains high level of liquid such was water.
2. Chemical additives can be added and be hidden
In many cases, extracts are not only comprised of the solvent and the plant because they need chemical additives such as a preservative or ph balancer. They may have to be kept for a certain time before they are used or they may need to have some intended properties such as pH level or viscose with the chemicals.
Ingredients that are used to make extract may be exempt from labeling. According to the US FDA labeling guideline (link), "any ingredient of another ingredient" that is "present at an insignificant level and having no technical or functional effect" don't need to be declared. However, there is no methods or standards that are recognized by the US FDA to decide whether an ingredient of an ingredient exists "at an insignificant level."
A good (or bad) example of this is the antimicrobial efficacy of grapefruit seed extract. Some argue that grapefruit seed extract has antimicrobial efficacy and thus can act as a natural preservative. However, According to this study, the authors concluded that "the potent as well as nearly universal antimicrobial activity being attributed to grapefruit seed extract is merely due to the synthetic preservative agents contained within."
3. Extracts can be used to trick consumers into believing that very little chemicals are used
Another reason a brand owner uses many extracts is to make it harder to notice chemicals that some customers might not like to see or read or to indicate that it is the “last” ingredient to be listed. They typically add many extracts, as many as tens of extracts, to list their extracts in front of the chemicals they might add. What you need to know is that the listing ingredients should be in descending order only if the amount is more than 1%. According to the US FDA guide, "Ingredients present at a concentration not exceeding 1% may be listed in any order after the listing of the ingredients present at more than 1% in descending order of predominance."
Let's say that an imaginary product is made of 95% of water, 3% of lemon extract, 0.8% of paraben and the rest is various extracts whose percentage is 0.2% each. Then, the labeling would look like this: water, lemon extract, extract A, extract B, extract C, extract D, extract E, extract F, paraben. This could make an illusion that lots of extracts were used and the amount of paraben is the least among the ingredients.
Not all extracts are not ineffective or harmful. However, keep in mind those tips can be helpful for your better choice.