Monday, January 31, 2011

Question: What does "coconut derived" mean?

As people refer me to things they consider to be natural products, I keep seeing the words "coconut derived" beside surfactants, fatty alcohols, fatty acids, and other ingredients that are, in fact, coconut derived. But what does this mean?

Coconut oil is often the starting point for surfactants because it has a fatty acid profile that is very compatible with those ingredients and it's inexpensive. Lauric (C12) and myristic (C14) fatty acids are the types we want in foamy and lathery surfactants - the C12 to C14 chains are the ones most likely to create foam and lather as opposed to the higher carbon chains that behave as emulsifiers or conditioners.

Remember that surfactant doesn't always mean foamy and lathery things we use in bubble baths and shampoos. The word surfactant is short for "surface active agent" and has a hydrophilic (water-loving) head and a lipophilic (oil-loving) or hydrophobic (water-hating) tail. This means it can bring things together like oil and water. So an emulsifier, like emulsifying wax or Incroquat BTMS, is a surfactant.

So when you see a surfactant like sodium laureth sulfate (SLeS), you know that it has been derived from lauric acid, most likely from coconuts but sometimes from palm oil (look at the "laur" in the middle word). Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfoacetate (SLSa) are derived from coconuts. If you see something like sodium cocoyl isethionate (SCI), the "coco" part means it's derived from coconuts. Some of these are very lovely mild cleansers, but one of them - SLS - is not.

Fatty alcohols and fatty acids can be derived from coconuts as well. Myristyl alcohol, found in this Aubrey Organics product, is derived from the myristic fatty acid (C14). Is myristyl alcohol more natural than cetyl alcohol (C16)?

So what does it mean when a manufacturer puts "derived from coconuts" or "derived from sunflower" or "derived from insert some natural sounding thing here". It means the starting point of the ingredient was coconuts or sunflowers or other natural sounding thing, but it doesn't mean that because it's derived from a coconut it contains any of those wonderful things we find in coconut oil, that it's natural, that it's mild (take SLS for an example), or that it's not very processed. In fact, being derived from coconuts means just that - the original starting point of the ingredient was a coconut. I think it's a sneaky way for manufacturers to make their products seem more natural and, therefore, more appealing.

Question when you see something as listed as being "derived from something or other". My favourite example was to see dimethicone and cyclomethicone, both silicones, listed as being "derived from sand" and, therefore, natural. I love my silicones, but I wouldn't consider them natural in any way!


Anonymous said...

Great post Susan with nice explanation. Very deceiving this "derived from - whatever".

Blessings be

madpiano said...

well - according to this, Soap is derived from doesn't mean that it will take your skin off or clean your drains though....

I never knew that SLS is also derived from coconuts. That made me smile. They don't write that on the bottle.

Karen said...

There's a shampoo product that uses yucca and coco-protein from virgin coconut oil as the surfactants. I cannot find any information about coco protein... does it really exist or it a form of green washing?

Lee said...

Greetings, I am interested in making lotions. I am looking for non-coconut/palm derived stearic acid and/or emulsifying wax. Do you have any recommendations? Coconut seems to be king and find alternative options for sensitivity sake seems a mountainous task. Thanks.