Flax goes by many names. As a cloth, it’s called linen. As a wood finish, it’s called linseed oil. And to botanists, it’s called Linum usitatissimum. That Latin suffix translates to “most useful,” an apt name for a plant that’s been farmed, refined, and consumed by humanity for millennia.
So perhaps it is no surprise that when the scientists at Colgate-Palmolive were tasked with improving Protex, one of the world’s most popular soaps, they turned to this versatile bit of flora.
“We believe an ingredient is not protecting unless it makes you stronger,” Panagiotis Tsourapas, Group President, Colgate-Latin America, Asia Pacific & Africa-Eurasia, said. “This is why we have added flaxseed oil to our new Protex bar soap, the biggest natural innovation in body care since the launch of Protex in 1985.”
For over 35 years, tens of millions of families have trusted Protex to keep clean and healthy, yet another way we reimagine a healthier future for all. But with that cleanliness came drier, sometimes rougher skin. When tasked with retaining the efficacy of Protex while making it gentler, Colgate researchers turned to the humble flaxseed for more than just inspiration.
Protex’s road to a stronger soap
In 2013, scientists and researchers at Colgate-Palmolive identified the challenge: develop a technology that can protect skin from microorganisms — including bacteria, fungi, and viruses — without using harsh chemicals like antibacterial agents.
“Gentle-to-skin but effective-on-bacteria has been a challenge since the traditional way of antibacterial products,” Joanna Wu, Associate Director at Colgate-Palmolive, said, adding that antibacterial agents are typically harsh on the skin and, in addition, may not be environmentally friendly. “To protect limited natural resources, we wanted to develop a product that has a less negative impact on nature,” Wu added.
To start, team members at Colgate-Palmolive tested and evaluated prototype formulas through an in-vitro tissue model to discern antimicrobial peptide (AMP) LL-37. “Antimicrobial peptides,” a research paper in the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine notes, “are one of the primary mechanisms used by the skin in the early stages of immune defense.”
Flaxseed oil, a superfood for skin due to its high content of Omega-3 fatty acids, can nourish skin and boost skin’s natural defense. As such, the research team had high hopes for how flaxseed could become a natural ingredient they could use in Protex.
Though other active formulas were tested in this exploratory phase, flaxseed rose to the top as the best performer. “We got 10 times more AMP production with the flaxseed oil soap compared to a regular soap without flaxseed oil,” Wu said.
From there, researchers had to deal with the challenge of stabilizing the formula and eventually moving it to a clinical study, where they would collaborate with other experts outside Colgate-Palmolive to ensure the formula’s efficacy.
“Our clinical study demonstrated that with regular soap, you simply remove AMPs,” Wu said. But with Protex soap with added flaxseed, researchers found that the soap not only boosts AMP production but ends up with more of what has been removed. “It was definitely a surprise,” Wu added.
Once clinical studies were complete, researchers developed a platform technology based on flaxseed oil that was backed by seven filed patent applications. With a technology in hand, they would need to collaborate with others within Colgate-Palmolive to communicate to consumers how the new Protex soap would change the way they would feel about hand-washing.
The power of collaborative innovation
When clinical studies were complete, the results were taken to a cross-functional group of employees from R&D, Marketing, Design, and other teams to brainstorm ideas on what forms the soap would take and how it would be presented to consumers.
Wu estimated that “hundreds” of brainstorms took place, eventually leading these team members to develop a flaxseed oil soap and a demo kit that was able to better illustrate and explain how the soap works to consumers.
“This process was all about thinking out of the box, being creative, and collaborating with team members,” Wu said.
Today, Protex with flaxseed oil is available in certain markets, with plans to expand elsewhere in the near future. But the precedence this process sets — a seven-year-long joint venture to produce a revolutionary product with natural ingredients — gives Wu and others at Colgate-Palmolive hope that they’ll be able to continue bringing new technology and innovation to the table.
“Innovation in developing new technology and discovering new pathways will help us develop more flaxseed oil soap-type products that reduce the usage of harsh chemicals and promote your skin’s natural process to protect consumers naturally,” Wu said.