Could natural ingredients biosynthetically grown in a lab be the future of sustainable skincare?
Disrupting the perception of eco-friendly skincare.
Since the beginning of the “green” eco-friendly skincare movement, many people have been convinced that skincare containing “natural” and “organic” plant-based ingredients are automatically better for us and the environment. However, as the effects of climate change and environmental destruction become ever more apparent, we are learning that “natural” is not always the best option.
The quest for plant-derived ingredients has led to skincare ingredients that have outsize environmental impact and carbon footprint, a cost that has been hidden by the marketing terms “natural” and “organic”.
Because the idea of eco-friendly skincare being good for us and the planet is so persuasive, the demand for plant-derived ingredients has increased to the point that it has become unsustainable. In many cases, forests and other wilderness areas are being cleared to obtain more land for farming. This is particularly the case for plant-derived ingredients that are ultimately derived from palm oil. Rainforests throughout South East Asia, South America and Africa have been burned or clear cut to make way for palm oil plantations. In doing so, enormous amounts of greenhouse gases have been released and some of the planet’s most biodiverse ecosystems have been destroyed.
Finally, the industrial-scale processing and refining of plant material to convert into ingredients that can be used in skincare products consumes energy, water and other resources, and the refining process itself produces pollutants. Overall, the quest for plant-derived ingredients has led to skincare ingredients that have outsize environmental impact and carbon footprint, a cost that has been hidden by the marketing terms “natural” and “organic”.
On the other hand, skincare products made with synthetic chemicals have been successfully portrayed as “dirty” and filled with toxins.
On the other hand, skincare products made with synthetic chemicals have been successfully portrayed as “dirty” and filled with toxins. The reality is that synthetic ingredients, as employed in conventional skincare, are pharmaceutical grade, i.e. nearly 100% pure. Meanwhile, “natural” plant extracts are marketed as “clean” and “pure”, when the opposite can be said: plant extracts are composed of many different chemicals which often include potential irritants and/or allergens. Indeed, the higher the amount of plant extracts that are present in a skincare product, the more likely the product is to cause irritation or an allergic reaction. Plant extracts may actually contain active ingredients that are beneficial to skin health but often such ingredients are present in such vanishingly small amounts that they have little to no effect.
The fact remains that many synthetic skincare ingredients are ultimately derived from fossil fuels and the petroleum industry. Although the petroleum refining process allows these ingredients to be obtained at a high level of purity, there is still a carbon footprint and environmental impact associated with these ingredients.
Biotechnology will disrupt the skincare industry, providing new methods for creating ingredients in a sustainable manner.
The tools of biotechnology can be used to create skincare ingredients that are chemically identical to those sourced from either plants or fossil fuels. Microorganisms such as bacteria and yeast are ideal for producing needed ingredients, as they are easy to grow quickly in large quantities. One example involves growing cultures of microorganisms or plant cells that have been modified to produce a specific ingredient. This allows scientists to make ingredients inside the lab that are identical to what is found in nature. Biotechnology allows us to source nature-identical ingredients without having to resort to unsustainable harvesting from nature.
Oftentimes, skin-beneficial active ingredients are identified in plant extracts but are only present in tiny amounts. These ingredients can be produced using the techniques described above, to produce the desired ingredient in large enough quantities so that they may be used to prepare effective skincare formulations.
These microorganisms are “biofactories” that can be harnessed to produce ingredients in large amounts that may be readily purified, thus reducing the amounts of energy, water and other resources it takes to obtain the pure ingredient.
The use of microorganisms allows the industrial-scale production of skincare ingredients with a much lower environmental impact than obtaining the same ingredients from plants or from the petroleum industry. In essence, these microorganisms are “biofactories” that can be harnessed to produce ingredients in large amounts that may be readily purified, thus reducing the amounts of energy, water and other resources it takes to obtain the pure ingredient.6 In particular, it means avoiding plant-derived ingredients that are not necessarily pure and have a high environmental impact in terms of land usage, fertilizers, pesticides, energy and other resources.
One such ingredient is bisabolol, created using the fermentation of certain plant sugars. Bisabolol is a highly useful skin conditioning ingredient. Bisabolol is normally obtained by steam distillation of the essential oil extracted from Brazilian Candeia trees. This process carries a significant environmental impact as it requires 1 tonne of wood from mature trees to produce 7 kg of essential oil, which must then be further processed to obtain pure bisabolol. The fermentation process allows us to avoid deforestation, the harvesting of mature trees, and the large amount of energy and resources used in the extraction and purification process. Using fermentation biotechnology allows the production of this valuable skincare ingredient in sustainable manner that has a much lower impact on the environment.
Using biotechnology, we can make skincare ingredients that are identical to those that occur in nature, with a lower environmental impact.
People are becoming more aware of the environmental impact and the hidden cost of beauty products, and demanding more transparency on the part of beauty companies.
Using biotechnology, we can make skincare ingredients that are identical to those that occur in nature, with a lower environmental impact. This same technology is driving innovation not just in the beauty industry but also other industries. Due to the continued need for innovative ingredients, the beauty industry is an ideal place to take advantage of the tools of biotechnology. Biosynthetically made ingredients are highly pure, thus greatly reducing the risks of potential irritation or allergic reactions that come from using plant extracts. In this way, we can meet the demand for sustainably sourced, highly pure ingredients that may be used to create effective skincare formulations.
1. Rubin CB, Brod B. Natural Does Not Mean Safe—The Dirt on Clean Beauty Products. JAMA Dermatology. 2019;155(12):1344. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2019.2724.
2. Bernal R, Torres C, García N, et al.. Palm Management in South America. The Botanical Review. 2011;77(4):607-646. doi:10.1007/s12229-011-9088-6.
3. Meijaard, E. et al. (eds.) (2018). Oil palm and biodiversity. A situation analysis by the IUCN Oil Palm Task Force. IUCN Oil Palm Task Force Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/palm-oil-and-biodiversity
4. Skotnicki S, Shulgan C. Beyond Soap. Penguin Random House Canada Ltd; 2018.
5. Gomes C, Silva AC, Marques AC, Sousa Lobo J, Amaral MH. Biotechnology Applied to Cosmetics and Aesthetic Medicines. Cosmetics. 2020;7(2):33. doi:10.3390/cosmetics7020033.
6. Zappelli C, Barbulova A, Apone F, Colucci G. Effective Active Ingredients Obtained through Biotechnology. Cosmetics. 2016;3(4):39. doi:10.3390/cosmetics3040039.
This article is the point of view of Tiny Associates Skincare – a new skincare venture launched in Q1 22. Tiny Associates is what the future of skincare could be.Follow us on Instagram for first-hand news