Science

5 Myths About Clean Products and Packaging, Debunked by Experts

9 min read

Article Content

Chemicals, bad. Natural ingredients—good. And if it comes in plastic? Consider it an environmental pariah.

Accurate or not, these adages probably sound familiar. Because when it comes to the world of clean product development and packaging, there’s no shortage of misconceptions out there.

In some ways, this discernment can be seen as a very good thing—it means people are asking questions about what they’re putting into (and onto) their bodies. (To be clear, we’re big fans of skepticism over here.)

The thing is, many commonly held assumptions around formulation and sustainability are misunderstood, if not entirely erroneous—and when it comes to making informed decisions, knowledge and context are paramount.

We spoke with two of our in-house experts—Kevin Ewell, VP of Product Innovation, and Michael Houston, Senior Director of Package Engineering & Sustainability—to do some myth busting and finally set the record straight.

Myth

Chemicals should be avoided.

Fact

Kevin: “Much of this perception stems from the notion that what we don’t understand, we fear—and chemicals can be a good example for that confusion, partly because of their nomenclature, which can come across as technical to the point of unapproachability (especially for people who don’t work in the industry).

Take coconut oil, for example—a ‘natural’ ingredient that everyone is familiar with. When we hear the term coconut oil (or coconut oil extract), we all know what’s being referred to. But then consider MCT oil—just by calling it MCT oil, as opposed to medium-chain triglycerides oil (which is its full scientific name), it may sound different. These are two examples of the same ingredient being referred to in two different ways—gradually devolving from something super familiar into something unfamiliar to the average consumer.”

The essential takeaway? Chemicals aren’t inherently good or bad, they’re agnostic. “Chemicals are simply mixtures of different atoms and molecules that make up an ingredient,” explains Kevin. “So a chemical can be water, a chemical can be oil, a chemical can be plant extracts—or it can be a really difficult-to-pronounce solution. Chemists work in the language of specificity, which can lead to long names—but that nuance is crucial to ensuring we’re making the right products.”

“The notion that all chemicals are bad, or are by their very nature something to be avoided, is a misunderstanding.” -Kevin Ewell, Ritual's VP of Product Innovation

Myth

All plastic is bad.

Fact

Michael: “Sadly, plastic has become synonymous with single-use packaging. Many consumers are tired of this kind of packaging, and frustrated by the terminal outcome of waste—but to see plastic as an enemy to our environment is one-sided and doesn’t address the root cause of the problem. In order to make plastic, you typically have to pull from natural resources, like petroleum, which is taxing on the environment. That’s what most people may think of when they think of plastic: waste, pollution, oil—all of which make sense. But that perspective doesn’t necessarily take into account the whole picture.

The onus is ultimately on the brands to educate consumers on how to properly dispose of their packaging and to choose packaging that isn’t designed to fall apart after one use; when feasible, brands should leverage mono-material plastic packaging that the majority of recycling centers will accept, like polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyethylene (PE), or polypropylene (PP). It is also incumbent on the brands to develop the packaging so it can be reused or repurposed. Being mindful about these considerations can have an impact.

At Ritual, all of our plastic multivitamin bottles are created using 100% recycled materials. As we think about the cumulative impact of plastic packaging that’s created only to be thrown away—and the use of crude oil or natural gas for virgin plastic—it became clear that, in this case, embracing recycled plastic was a good alternative.

One of the primary purposes of packaging is to protect products from water, oxygen, and/or light—three major properties that can impact the efficacy of any formula. When it comes to our packaging philosophy, a key priority is ensuring our formulas maintain their stability through the targeted shelf life. We determine what packaging formats will meet this objective on a case-by-case basis, working with the suppliers and their constraints (including what materials are commercially available). For example, our protein powders are packaged in a multi-laminated gusseted bag, which at the time presented the best option for our formula.”

The essential takeaway? Don’t assume all plastic is bad, for one! Do some digging to see what brands have put thought behind their packaging decisions, and reach out to them if you have questions regarding a certain material and the decision behind using it. “At Ritual, all of our multivitamins are housed in clear bottles created using 100% recycled materials,” says Michael, noting that most things need to be larger than 2x2 inches to be recycled.

“Our ultimate goal is to ensure the terminal end of our packaging is either fully recyclable or compostable—it’s a complicated process that will take time, but we’re diligently working toward it.” -Michael Houston, Ritual's Senior Director of Package Engineering & Sustainability

Myth

Natural is better than synthetic.

Fact

Kevin: “What I believe people are really trying to elucidate here is the underlying question: ‘Is this ingredient safe for me, or is it harmful for me?’—the answer to which can vary for both natural and synthetic ingredients. A completely natural ingredient can still be potentially harmful, despite being a naturally-occurring substance. The converse? There’s plenty of synthetic ingredients that are safe for use.

Essential Protein Daily Shake is a great example of how synthetics can be utilized. Our goal was to formulate a plant-based protein powder with a complete amino acid profile. One of the most common sources is whey protein—the caveat being that it’s not vegan (or especially sustainable). In light of this, we opted for a plant protein source: pea protein, derived from regeneratively-farmed peas.

Pea protein has essential amino acids, but it’s lower in one essential amino acid: l-methionine. That’s why we compliment our pea protein with synthetic l-methionine—to provide a complete amino acid profile. Many brands that have plant-based protein powders also utilize pea protein, but end up combining it with rice, pumpkin, or hemp proteins, which can potentially come with other contaminant concerns. We found synthetic l-methionine was a great option to help preserve the quality of our product.”*

The essential takeaway? Don’t be scared of synthetics—when used strategically, they can actually be beneficial. “When developing with a synthetic ingredient, there can often be more control over the inputs,” Kevin notes. “When harvesting from plants, on the other hand, the ingredient is subject to things that can happen during that plant’s life-cycle, like the soil quality.” (Another reason Traceability is so important.)

Myth

Being renewable is the same as being sustainable.

Fact

Kevin: “Don’t conflate the two. Being renewable isn’t always the same as being sustainable—but it’s easy to get confused, since some brands may tend to imply exactly that, leaving consumers with a slightly skewed perspective.

What we’re interested in at Ritual is this idea of sustainable synthetics, and biofermentation in particular—utilizing bacteria or fungi to transform an ingredient into something else. Similar to how bacteria can be fed old potatoes to produce vodka or ethanol, that same biochemistry can be used to produce some of the ingredients we want to utilize, like the fermented sugarcane (Reb-M) in Essential Protein Daily Shake.

This method allows production at large scales without using a lot of natural resources or space. Instead of factory farming in sensitive agricultural areas, labs can be utilized instead—which take up only a couple thousand square feet.”

The essential takeaway? When it comes to talking about sustainability, we have to look deeper—it’s not as simple as checking off a label or a standardized list. “It comes down to doing the research, and finding transparent companies that are willing to lift the curtain into their supply chains and sourcing methods,” says Kevin. “How do they define what sustainability means to them? And does their definition align with what it means to you?”

Myth

If it’s paper, it’s eco-friendly.

Fact

Michael: “Not necessarily—it depends on how it’s being sourced. Many people aren’t aware that every pound of paper requires roughly three hundred gallons of water to create. The tree needs water to grow, then once it gets cut down and taken to the paper plant, the wood goes through a mechanical process to create pulp. Then it needs to be bleached to convert it from a kraft brown to white. In short, there’s a lot of water and energy that goes into creating virgin paper—and eliminating the need to make that new paper can save a substantial amount. By using 100 percent recycled newsprint and plant fibers for our mailers (and bypassing the dyeing process), we’re able to do just that: Save water and energy.

The essential takeaway? Virgin paper may be a renewable resource, but that doesn’t mean it’s always the best choice for the environment. “We have such a large supply of reclaimed virgin and recycled paper on the planet right now, there’s really no need to go out and make new virgin paper today,” says Michael. “The fact that we’ve been able to reduce our carbon emissions, simply by switching to recycled paper, is an alternative worth noting.” Read more about our journey toward sustainable packaging.

References:

  1. Paper Recycling Coalition. (n.d.). How Recycling Paper Fights Global Warming. Paper Recycling Coalition.
  2. Ocean Conservancy. (n.d.). The Problem with Plastics. Fighting for Trash Free Seas®

Share

Meet Our Experts

This article features advice and has been reviewed by members of our Science Team.

Science Thumb — Kevin

Kevin Ewell, MPH, VP, Product Innovation

Kevin Ewell received his MPH at Rutgers University where he researched the safety of personal care products. He has worked with prominent companies, including The Honest Company, J&J, Unilever and Estee Lauder. He has over twelve years of R&D experience in the personal care space and is inventor of several patents related to cosmetics and household cleaning.

Science Thumb — Kevin

Kevin Ewell, MPH, VP, Product Innovation

Kevin Ewell received his MPH at Rutgers University where he researched the safety of personal care products. He has worked with prominent companies, including The Honest Company, J&J, Unilever and Estee Lauder. He has over twelve years of R&D experience in the personal care space and is inventor of several patents related to cosmetics and household cleaning.

Michael Houston

Michael Houston, Senior Director of Package Engineering & Sustainability

Michael Houston received his B.S. from Tuskegee University where he specialized in mechanical engineering with a focus on material science. An experienced packaging engineer and innovator, he has more than 17 years of experience working at leading Fortune 500 companies and start-ups, from Procter & Gamble and J&J to The Honest Company.

Michael Houston

Michael Houston, Senior Director of Package Engineering & Sustainability

Michael Houston received his B.S. from Tuskegee University where he specialized in mechanical engineering with a focus on material science. An experienced packaging engineer and innovator, he has more than 17 years of experience working at leading Fortune 500 companies and start-ups, from Procter & Gamble and J&J to The Honest Company.

Shop Multivitamin

Multivitamin

Shop Protein
New

Protein

Shop Pregnancy

Pregnancy

Shop Bundles

Bundles