The latest naturals for hair care

When it comes to hair care product ingredients, ‘natural’ and ‘high-tech’ need not be strangers, writes Jennifer Hirsch

The alchemy that makes one ingredient trend – catching the imagination and attention of formulators, brands and ultimately the public in the same moment – while another sinks without fanfare, is unpredictable.

What we do know is that on the chessboard of product, performance is queen. Ask a consumer to choose between performance and values messages (eg, perceived naturalness, safety, sustainability or price sensitivity) and performance will win out for the majority.

That performance imperative is driving innovation and evolution in plant-based ingredients from functional surfactants and emulsifiers to complex actives combining disparate plant chemistry to deliver performance ingredients that push our understanding of what the natural and naturally-derived can contribute to a formulation.

Hair care, long the bastion of silicones and petroleum-based ingredients, is reaping the benefits of this approach. Even better for the consumer, it’s coming at a mass market price as up-and-coming brands like Noughty Haircare with a £6.99 price point and 97% natural promise challenge titans like Garnier for shelf space and customers.

From a millennia-old core of traditional botanical ingredients (essential oils, plant oils, simple extracts) have sprouted two entirely modern families of plant-based ingredients for hair care, both with the aim of delivering performance previously perceived to be the remit of synthetic chemistry.

These are substantiated actives with science-led claims and a percentage inclusion driven by research and testing with a price point to match the effort in creating them; and naturally-derived functional ingredients that compete with synthetic equivalents on performance and price.

While advances in the latter category are happening at a rate of knots, pushing the boundaries of what is possible within the natural envelope, functional ingredients just aren’t sexy contenders for front-of-pack communication.

So when it comes to telling the performance story through a botanical lens, it’s down to substantiated actives. From exciting headline naturals like green rooibos and Trametes versicolor to the more pedestrian wheat bran extracts, an approach to the creation of high-performance natural ingredients that focuses on combining available plant chemistry to target hair issues is making unlikely heroes of mushrooms, ferments and the by-products of refining flour.

The marriage of high-tech extraction techniques and advanced plant chemistry, substantiated actives are complex combinations of plant materials with tested, proven results.

If the science is a challenge to communicate to the customer, then ingredient performance in areas ranging from heat, pollution or UV protection to curl retention and anti-frizz provides compelling natural messaging.

The playing field has been levelled(ish) by advances in ingredients

Conventional hair care has provided the performance benchmark against which natural products were measured. But now that the playing field has been levelled(ish) by advances in functional and active ingredients, new arenas are opening up.

On a planet with a population growing exponentially and natural resources under pressure from every angle, the next evolution in hair care is going to be driven by sustainability. Just as there’s the consumer perception that natural = good/safe/effective/better, there’s the perception that natural = sustainable.

Explaining to the consumer that this isn’t always the case is going to take education and commitment on the part of brands and the industry.

By championing the percentage of synthetic ingredients and educating the consumer on why synthetic is sometimes a better option than natural, small brands like Noughty are leading the way in that education.

Meanwhile, suppliers making substantiated performance actives from by-products of agriculture, who include Vinscience and Symrise, are attacking the challenge from another angle.

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