Concerns About Cleanliness Drive Surfactant Sales

Cleanliness concerns over COVID-19 have consumers clamoring for detergents, body washes and hard surface cleaners. That’s good news for suppliers of surfactants, those workhorse ingredients that make fast-moving consumer goods work better.

“Demand for surfactants was strong. The pandemic increased overall awareness for hygiene which contributed to a greater demand for cleaning products that contain surfactants,” explained Jarrod A. Kaltenbach, VP-surfactants, Coast Southwest, Inc. “Initial demand was driven by HI&I and hand soap. Hair care picked up steam during the second half of the year with pent-up demand particularly in the salon segment.”

Stepan’s sales volume in 2020 increased primarily due to higher demand for products sold into the consumer product end markets, driven by increased demand for cleaning, disinfection and personal wash products as a result of COVID-19, said Anne Gariepy, global marketing communications director.

Health and well-being led the paradigm shift in the surfactant demand during the pandemic, according to Rishabh Shah, director of technology, Acme-Hardesty. Changes in consumer habits and adaptation of enhanced cleaning procedures drove the demand of surfactants-based products. That was true in 2020 and remains true today.

“The demand of surfactant-based products is on the rise,” he explained. “We believe the consumer washing habits to remain constant in conjunction with increased demand in the industrial, institutional and personal care markets.”

The data certainly suggests that. According to IRI, multi-outlet sales of household cleaners rose 5.9% for the 52 weeks ended August 8, 2021. For the same period, laundry detergent sales were up a scant 0.4%. On the personal care side, soap sales decline ever-so-slightly (-0.1%) and shampoo sales increased just 0.4% (see chart). The big loser as travel restrictions eased? At-home hair color. Sales fell 8.1%, according to IRI.

BASF executives agree that, in personal care in North America, there is continued high demand for surfactants mainly driven by market demand for hygiene articles like soap and cleansers. And although demand from industrial and institutional cleaning industries as well as industrial formulators products has increased for the past several months, they have not returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Arnoldo Fonseca, marketing manager, care solutions, Evonik, explained that 2021 has been marked by a rebalancing in demand.

“Cross-industry consumer behavioral data does suggest that some COVID habits will stick, and certainly the structural shift in the nature of work toward increased worker mobility/work-from-home will most likely motivate higher home care cleaning needs than before,” he predicted.

But market analysts say consumers have reduced their spending on household cleaners as the pandemic subsided. For example, Procter & Gamble reported home care organic sales fell to low single digits in fiscal Q4. The company blamed the decline, in part, to pandemic-related consumption increases in the base period. Results were worse at Clorox. Health and wellness category sales, which includes cleaning and professional products, fell 17% in its fiscal fourth quarter.

Fonseca pointed out that issues related to the pandemic linger.

“Unfortunately, the new COVID variants seem to suggest that the pandemic may remain with us for some time, and this may have an effect by, for instance, actually helping to cement the value of cleaning habits consumers recently thought they could forego.”

At the same time, he noted that specific applications like car care, for instance, have also picked up pace aligned with greater consumer/business activity in that segment.

But Neil Burns, president of P2 Science, prefers to take a long-term view when it comes to surfactant demand.

“When you look at the big megatrends in our industry in 2019, they haven’t changed and will not change in the long term. Things like sustainability, aging Western societies, growing Asian populations, urbanization, digitalization…these are all unchanged by the pandemic,” he explained. “Even the localization of supply chains was underway before the pandemic—due mainly to the trade war with China.”

According to Burns, although the pandemic affected the surfactant industry in a significant way, the long-term impact will be not be visible in light of the effect of the aforementioned megatrends.

Soap sales slipped during the past year, according to IRI. 

With consumers getting ready for more time outside, face cleansing solutions are gaining even more traction than they had before COVID-19, noted Sebastien Massard, global strategic marketing manager, Vantage Specialty Chemicals.

“More than 1.8 million searches for face cleansing are registered every month in the US,” he observed.

According to Massard, skin care enthusiasts are becoming more educated and more demanding when it comes to cleansers.

“The ideal cleanser needs to work with sensitive skin and deliver a delightful sensorial experience that engages consumers’ senses. This challenges formulators to identify enhanced technical solutions that are not only mild to mask-irritated skin, and are sensorially different from traditional surfactant systems,” he said.

According to BASF, cost-efficient cleaning performance remains a baseline need for formulators. Post-pandemic, the company is getting more requests for cleaning efficacy from ingredients that can be used in disinfecting or sanitizing formulas. As a result, surfactants and other ingredients must be compatible with quats or bleaching agents and have EPA inert status.

Shah of Acme-Hardesty maintains that chemists have shifted their focus to the basics to meet the increasing demand on the cleaning products.

“Formulators are going back to conventional surfactants while keeping tab on the pre-pandemic trend of sulfate-free, enhanced efficacy, reduced skin irritation profile and ease of processing,” he said. “In general, the requirements have been constant, post-pandemic.”

These days, when it comes to surfactants, more is more. According to Massard, there is a trend toward added benefits, such as the capacity to add creaminess, softness and other sensorial attributes that will elevate the sensorial experience for consumers.

“Formulators not only will have to look for the foaming properties of a surfactant, but they are now extending their interest to many more sensorial attributes that will contribute to reinforce the perception of mildness for consumers,” he explained. “This trend is calling for multifunctional surfactants that can significantly help differentiate the final formulation from the ones formulated with more traditional surfactant systems.”

Unlike past economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t damper interest in sustainability. Nearly every supplier said that their initiatives continued even as the virus disrupted so many markets. Steve O’Connor, director of technologies, Innospec, said there is a notable increase in demand for surfactants that embody a zero-waste approach to formulating personal care and home care products like its dried surfactants, concentrates and super concentrate blends.

“These products promote less water and less plastic usage, reducing the amount of material transported, in turn decreasing CO2 emissions,” he explained. “At the same time, there is continued interest in naturally-derived surfactants and certified ingredients, such as RSPO (Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil), Mass Balance, Ecolabel and Ecocert. Interest in COSMOS and NaTrue approved surfactants has also increased globally.”

Acme-Hardesty’s supply partners, for example, working on improving the processing, synthesis of surfactants, focus on alternatives to petroleum derived products to deliver clean, and improved efficacy.

“We continue to monitor and participate in sustainability initiative such as the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil,” said Shah. “The majority of the products that we offer today are RSPO-certified. Additionally, our principal partner, Citroleo, developed sustainable, fully traceable surfactant products that are alternative to palm derived conventional options.

BASF executives also report growing interest in pre-pandemic sustainability requirements; for example, ingredients that are readily biodegradable and have a high bio-based content, and ingredients that help reduce plastic waste by enabling more concentrated formulas. Sustainability remains a primary demand driver for personal care ingredients. That’s especially true for purpose and conscious beauty; e.g., natural, biodegradable, sustainably sourced or saving water.

“A climate-driven strategy will be vital, as consumers become increasingly conscious of their impact on the planet and will look to brands to reflect this,” they told Happi. “In this context, there is an increasing demand for renewable personal care ingredients sourced from certified sustainable sources, including RSPO-certified oil palm-based ingredients.”

The BASF portfolio for palm-based surfactants with RSPO certification continues to grow. The company committed to sourcing palm (kernel) oils exclusively from RSPO-certified sustainable sources by 2020. Last year, 100% of the palm (kernel) oil that BASF purchased was RSPO-certified sustainable. In addition, BASF made further progress in developing transparent supply chains: almost 95% of the global palm oil footprint, 441,107 metric tons, could be traced back to the oil mill. Other sustainability commitments include expand commitments to significant intermediates based on palm oil and palm kernel oil by 2025 and offer product carbon footprints for the entire portfolio.

Coast Southwest reports renewed interest in responsibly sourced palm for surfactants. The company strengthened its position in RSPO surfactants to meet customers’ needs.

BASF also introduced Texapon SFA, the 2020 BSB Innovation Award 2020 winner in the category “Functionals and Recipients.” Texapon SFA is a very mild, innovative anionic surfactant based on sustainable, RSPO-certified renewable resources. It is suitable as an alternative to surfactants containing sulfate. The ingredient is said to be extremely gentle on the skin and eyes, making it especially suitable for delicate baby skin and formulas for tear free shampoo products.

“Now more than ever, R&D behaviors are driven by consumer preferences. As such, formulators have continued to move to more sustainable and safer ingredients, like glucosides and amino acid surfactants,” said Kaltenbach. “The use of these types of surfactants creates formulating challenges, and formulators are looking for guidance on meeting performance targets, such as viscosity and foaming, within their cost parameters.”

Stepan looks at opportunities across its value chain to drive improved environmental performance of products, said Jason Keiper, chief technology and sustainability officer. Strategies include expanding use of bio-based feedstocks, focusing on biodegradability of final products and growing its portfolio of high-active products.

“These products support environmental goals by helping reduce transport-related energy consumed per unit of active material,” said Keiper. “We’re excited to be diversifying our manufacturing capabilities to include biofermentation technology, and we anticipate opportunities to serve a variety of markets as we expand in this area.”

Stepan is developing a tool to evaluate the sustainability related impacts and benefits of its  products and will use this process to identify new opportunities for improvement and to showcase its top performers.

At the same time, Stepan is engaging in both global and local sustainability initiatives, according to Lucie Maisonneuve, business development manager, consumer products, Stepan Europe.

“We look at local, sustainable sourcing as we design and manufacture our ingredients while ensuring no impact on product performance,” she said.

For example, Stepan’s new Stepantex ELS88-E is a vegan-friendly esterquat designed for fabric softening applications from 3% viscous to 18% fluid active concentrations. While being as efficient as market benchmarks, this softening active is made in France, from European-grown rapeseed. Stepantex ELS88-E provides excellent softening without a greasy feel, as well as good antistatic properties and rewetting properties.

Pent-up consumer demand post-pandemic has led to soaring prices and shortages for raw materials. Nearly every surfactant supplier who spoke with Happi admitted that their supply chains are stretched.

“Overall, the pandemic and supply chain challenges have created shortage of the raw materials used for the development of finished surfactant technologies,” said Shah of Acme-Hardesty. “As a result of shortage and shipping delay, inflation is on the rise, due to limited available supply. Overall, the industry is experiencing disruption because of the unprecedented situation.”

According to Kaltenbach of Coast Southwest, this year there more issues concerning freight, via both land and ocean, which are driving price increases.

“Availability to certain chemistries has also been impacted by the Texas winter freeze which adversely impacted a number of raw materials for surfactants,” he said. “Despite these challenges, demand has remained strong as the economy has continued to regain its footing.”

As a company, Coast Southwest made the decision to increase inventories early on to protect customers as much as possible.

“As shortages and cost increases have continued to exert pressure across the industry, as a result of corresponding increases from feed stock suppliers and our distribution partners, we have seen the need to increase prices,” admitted Kaltenbach.

Raw material shortages as well as supply chain and logistic issues are challenges for the whole chemical industry these days, noted BASF executives. That said, the company is committed to do the utmost to limit the impact for customers and continue to offer them its full support.

“This is not the first year with challenging circumstances: 2020 was a year with increased demand for cleaning ingredients and our customers appreciated our supply reliability and flexibility during the peak of the pandemic,” they told Happi.

Gariepy explained that higher North American supply chain costs were due to inflationary pressures and feedstock supply issues following the first quarter 2021 severe weather in Texas.

“We also saw lower demand for consumer cleaning products versus the pandemic peak in 2020,” she added.

However, higher demand for products sold into institutional cleaning and functional product end markets partially offset the above and Stepan Company delivered record earnings in the first half of 2021.

“Looking forward, we believe surfactant volumes in the North American for institutional cleaning will remain strong through the end of 2021,” said Gariepy.

In March, Innospec completed a capacity addition at its Salisbury, NC site and an adjacent new rail car handling facility, enabling Innospec to receive raw materials and deliver the finished product via rail.

“These investments serve to lower reliance on trucks, decrease supply chain costs, and reduce carbon footprint,” explained O’Connor.

To meet accelerating demand for its innovative, industry-leading, mild and sustainability-focused surfactants, Innospec also announced further investment in a new performance chemicals technology center in Salisbury. The 20,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art facility includes 10 laboratories that will support its global R&D, new product development and technical service activities with its customers in the personal care, home care, agrochemicals, industrial and metal extraction markets.

According to Innospec, these investments combined represent a step-change in its ability to support global demand.

Acme-Hardesty’s principal partner, Citroleo, developed three unique innovative surfactant products. All are palm oil alternatives. They include cocoamidopropyl betaine derived from babacu oil, behenamidopropyl dimethylamine derived from pracaxi oil and green cocoamphoacetate derived from babacu oil.

In addition to the aforementioned Texapon SFA, during the past year BASF launched Dehyton SFA, a blend of Texapon SFA and betaine. It is cold processable, easier to formulate and comes with very low risk of irritating the eyes. It is extremely gentle on the skin and mucous membranes and can be used as a micellar thickening agent in formulas. Also new is Lamesoft Balance, a natural based, cold processable compound specifically designed to stabilize opacifying wax dispersions in personal care rinse-off products.

Last year, BASF announced a strategic biosurfactant partnership with Allied Carbon Solutions Co Ltd (ACS) Japan, a commercial provider of surfactants from biomass. BASF has already developed a novel sophorolipid-based ingredient produced via fermentation technology in collaboration with ACS, which was launched in the Asian market under the brand name BioToLife in the second quarter of 2020. While the first product is already available, ACS and BASF will deepen the collaboration with the focus to develop a range of formulations based on sophorolipids with targeted performance. BASF also announced a strategic technology cooperation with Holiferm Ltd, UK, to develop a state-of-the-art production process for biosurfactant products.

Burns, of P2, is a fan of biosurfactants.

“What’s cool is the surfactants themselves have been around in nature for millions of years. The academic work on purification and characterization started in 1960s and now here we are, 60 years later, with mainstream global surfactant companies investing in production—as well as, again, venture backed startups,” he told Happi. “There is a huge amount of room still for improvement in cost and efficiency and leadership positions are up for grabs.”

During the past three years, BASF expanded its global alkyl polyglucosides (APG) production capacity with two production expansion projects at sites in Cincinnati, OH and Jinshan, China. These investments are intended for future growth with focus on bio-based/biodegradable technologies.

“Additionally, BASF Care Chemicals is committed to investing in digitalization for improving our solution-oriented business models, to reduce response times and increase overall supply reliability,” the company told Happi.

To this point, most activity at P2 Science has been in cosmetic emollients and fragrances. But Burns pointed out that P2 has interesting intellectual property relating to surfactants which is not yet commercialized.

“I can’t say too much about it right now, except that we have a very large group of patented terpene compounds and we have only made and marketed a small portion of them,” he told Happi. “I’ll also point out that our patented ozonolysis technology opens up routes to many more products than we currently have in our product line. It would not surprise me if we initiated some surfactant related projects in 2022.”

Burns is a long-time thought leader in the surfactant space. He’s organizing the 12th World Surfactants Congress, which will take place in May 2022. Biosurfactants are certain to be a topic of conversation at the Congress. He applauded biosurfactant innovation from new companies like Holiferm and Locus, as well as established companies like Evonik and Stepan.

“It’s not only product innovation, though. I think the recent partnership between Arzeda and Unilever around protein technology is cutting edge,” Burns asserted. “Then of course, there is the continuing innovation in applications in areas like emulsion polymerization from Pilot Chemical, agriculture from Oxiteno and overall sustainability. Many companies, including Arkema with their castor oil derived secondary alcohol ethoxyaltes; Stepan with their Soleil, plant based esterquats and the German coming, LoveNature Gmbh with refillable detergent stands in supermarkets.”

In February 2021, Stepan closed on an acquisition of a fermentation plant located in Lake Providence, LA.

“Fermentation is a new platform technology for Stepan Company as we look to commercialize next generation surfactants,” said Keiper. “Biosurfactants, produced via fermentation, are attractive due to their favorable biodegradability, low toxicity, and in some cases, unique antimicrobial properties.”

The acquisition of an industrial scale fermentation plant represents the latest step in Stepan’s biosurfactant commercialization efforts. Stepan expects to be able to produce 20,000 metric tons per year of bio-surfactants from the site, and looks forward to working with its customers to bring these next generation surfactants to the market.

Not all companies are bullish on surfactants. Last month, Ultra Group exited the category when it sold Oxiteno to Indorama Ventures for $1.3 billion. Ultra made the move to concentrate on its oil and gas business.

In a personnel move, earlier in 2021, Evonik onboarded Derya Bakyal as its EMEA business director for the cleaning solutions business in Essen, Germany.  In this role, she is responsible for driving results of the business in the EMEA region.

The pandemic has been devasting to consumers and economies. But taking the long-term view, sustainability issues will have the most impact on surfactant manufacturers.  

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