Sunday, August 5, 2012 in , , , , , , , ,

Questions in "Clean" and "Green" beauty, science, and comic book characters.

This post really began months ago during the heart of my search for new packaging.  Our moisturizer bottles were suddenly completely unavailable at the start of the year, which forced us into a hunt for new bottles and pumps.  It was that hunt and what we found that brought up a whole new set of questions and problems. 

There is very little as agonizing or important as the hunt for the right packaging, as many cosmetic industry folks can vouch.  The "right" packaging can make or break the branding and sales of your product.  Not only that but you need it to do essential things like protect your product and dispense it properly.  It seems so simple, right?  Fundamentally it's a bottle and a cap.  The human race is currently building atomic super colliders and dark matter research facilities that are something like a mile underground.  If we can master technology like that then a simple bottle and cap should be no problem.  

Sadly that assumption proves to be false, at least according to years of my own experience and my current situation.  I don't know if it's just the industry?  Maybe those inclined to spend their time designing cosmetic pumps ended up there because their work wasn't quite up to par for the dark matter research equipment.  One would hope the volume of items produced would feed into a desire for quality construction, though.  Based on the packaging woes I've heard from other smaller companies problems with containers and closures are all too common, causing us a few more worry lines in our faces every time something goes wrong.  (Thank goodness we have good skincare accessible to offset this!)

As a smaller manufacturer we don't have the same purchasing options as, say, the Estee Lauder company or even medium size manufacturers.  Large cosmetic companies can contract directly with packaging suppliers, have their own parts designed for them, and control the entire process.  It doesn't work anything like this when you're a little guy.

Packaging components direct from the manufacturing facilities are sold at minimum increments of 10,000 or more.  And I think you'd be getting lucky to convince them to make that few.  Usually it's 25,000 pieces and up.  For glass bottles it's even more if you want to commission a certain shape and size.  That's just not even close to possible for a company like us.  We're then stuck with buying the items that manufacturers choose to make and sell to the open market in smaller increments.  The amount of choices available narrows considerably with this purchasing plan.

Often what we find at a wide variety of sellers is repeats of what the other guys might have.  Sometimes what is affordable and accessible really narrows down to perhaps a maximum of 5 bottle and closure options.  Sometimes less.

We loved our previous pumps and would never have switched but we had to.  They were a great design, worked perfectly, and had never given us a problem.  But they were no longer available except for direct orders in massive quantities with a 40 week wait.  Um, no, not going to work.

We were pretty thrilled when we found a reasonably priced and unique looking combination from a single supplier.  They looked nice together and were different from what would be available through the really small distributors - the stuff that everyone small has.  It's incredibly difficult to find a unique brand look when you're all stuck with the same handful of options.  We were happy we had seemingly done it.

Some time later we ran our first bottling of product into the new container/pump combination.  We did about 100.  At first everything seemed great, but then a few days in as I was fiddling with them and the new label designs I noticed the pumps weren't staying screwed on.  The slightest friction was causing them to come loose and no matter how hard we tightened them they came back off.

We contacted the company to ask what might be going on.  This is where things get really interesting.

For years now we have used steam as a way to clean our closures prior to putting them into the final product.  It's ecological, non toxic, and best of all nearly free.  Our containers we usually use dry heat to clean, not unlike what people do before canning produce.  Our products have a natural preservative in them but we don't like to take chances.  A clean container and closure ensure less chance of contaminating our products.  In addition it ensures that if there is ever a problem we can reasonably say that it came from our production process or some factor other than trace contaminants on the packaging.  

We have always assumed that this was a pretty standard practice, especially as companies would get larger and liabilities would get more imposing if something went wrong.  I've seen videos of bottling operations at food facilities and containers are washed prior to use.  Why wouldn't the cosmetic industry do the same thing?

It's also true that some plastics can deform with heat.  We couldn't see a visual deformation of the pumps that were now slipping but it was only after steaming that the problem developed.  I approached them and asked them if they had any other thoughts for us on how we could cleanse them prior to use.

The answer that came back made me laugh out loud at the absurdity of it all.

"Steaming is not an acceptable procedure.  Our components will suffer uncontrolled deformation that will affect their functionality.  The only process that can be applied without consequences is gamma rays treatment."

Did you catch that?  They just said GAMMA RAYS were the only way to clean these components.  Say what?  Frank was quick to bring up that Gamma Rays are fabled to have turned Bruce Banner into the Incredible Hulk. (According to science that, by the way, would not happen - he'd have been dead which you can read up on the Incredible Hulking Reality on LiveScience here.)  While we're big on being green let's just say we never thought about being that particular kind of green!

This prompted a flurry of alarmed and astounded emails back and forth.  While I had been ready to find an alternate way to clean the components I was definitely surprised by the answer that came back.  I started trying to imagine how on earth we would ever be able to perform a process like this at our studio, how expensive the equipment would be, and finally leading to that I would absolutely NOT consider having such a thing around myself or my family.  Not to mention what my clients would think, and I was sure the response would be as negative as my own.

I asked how on earth we were supposed to conduct such a procedure.  They replied that normally the items are sent to a facility that specializes in Gamma Ray sterilization and sent back once clean.  That was definitely not going to work for our production process either since we purchase and work in small batches.

As I started to look into the Gamma Ray sterilization process I realized that I had indeed heard of it before but under a different name.  Irradiation.  So what would we do? 
Til then stay green, just not A La Incredible Hulk.

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