Biotechnology sounds very sci-fi – and it is. But it also holds great promise for sustainable skincare ingredients
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Here’s a revolutionary idea: natural isn’t always best. A dog-eared approach to natural beauty is to buy a plot of land for farming; plant flowers or herbs on an industrial scale; use water, energy and other resources to encourage them to grow – and then produce pollution while extracting the natural oils.
This is where biotechnology is offering an alternative solution – one that steers sustainability away from the predictable focus on packaging to the carbon footprint created to produce ingredients, first and foremost.
The simple fact is that demand for natural ingredients is outstripping supply. With the global natural cosmetics market expected to be worth £48 billion by 2025, it has given biotechnology a new purpose: to minimise the impact on the environment needed to produce these products.
Biotechnology combines biology (bio) with chemistry (tech) to create skincare ingredients that are grown in a lab, but are, crucially, identical to what is found in nature and with a lower environmental impact. In simple terms, scientists grow cultures of plant cells that have been tweaked to produce a specific ingredient in petri dishes of bacteria, yeast and algae.
To date one of the most notable skincare brands to lean on biotechnology is Biossance. Across all its serums and creams, the brand uses botanical squalane from sugarcane, to avoid using ‘squalene’, which is sourced from shark’s liver. “We design the perfect yeast strain and then mix it with sugarcane syrup,” explains president Catherine Gore. “Through the fermentation process, the yeast converts the sugar into a synthetic squalane molecule.”
Now two Scandinavian brands are making their mark with biotechnology and ingredients that shuttle goodness into the skin.
L:A Bruket, the brainchild of married couple Mats Johansson and Monica Kylén, recently launched a new face care line, which combines ingredients grown in a laboratory with those from the Swedish coastline and forests. "We do not see 'natural' and 'lab-grown' as opposed," says Johansson. "We believe biotech is the progressive continuity of innovation within natural beauty."
The main advantage of this approach is to cultivate ingredients while, at the same time, reducing water consumption and land space for farming. "Biotechnology is a valuable tool for us," says Kylén. "It boosts the output of our raw ingredients, while recreating specific properties found in living organisms (such as coastal plants, algae, trees) that are ultimately beneficial for skin health. Natural resources are limited so biotechnology offers infinite possibilities, preserves biodiversity and creates circular production processes to avoid diluting nature of its treasures. Science, and biotech as part of it, should serve an ultimate goal: the restoration of resources with a climate positive impact."
We believe biotech is the progressive continuity of innovation within natural beauty
Mats Johansson, co-founder of L:A Bruket
This idea of circular beauty is most evident in L:A Bruket's use of bioengineered ingredient Algica® in products including the 278 Hydra-Firming Sea Mist and 281 Protective Fluid. "On its own, Algica has moisturising, anti-pollution and balancing properties as its porous structure effectively absorbs oil, bacteria and impurities," says Johansson.
"It is grown in greenhouses, absorbs carbon dioxide, cleans water, and produces a valuable organic by-product," he continues. "Nutrient-rich wastewater from a nearby fish farming constitutes food for the algae. When they grow, microalgae consume the nutrients, and the water is cleaned. The clean water is then transferred back to the food industry while the by-product remaining after Algica extraction – organic algae biomass – is used as soil fertilisers and feed."
Likewise, Tiny Associates, founded by David Koo in Stockholm, is a skincare line made of sustainably brewed natural molecules. Koo is frustrated by how synthetic ingredients are portrayed as 'dirty' and natural as 'clean'.
“I think we have painted ourselves in a corner with terminologies that hamper more sustainable solutions," he says.
"Synthetic really just means that two or more components have been combined to create a man-made whole," Koo continues. "If we look at recent research around the skin microbiome, it is clear that what ingredients are made of is a poor predictor of whether they are respectful of the skin microbiome. Naturally-derived essential oils, for example, can very irritating. Natural and synthetic ingredients have to co-exist as both can be good to our skin and planet."
One such ingredient is bisabolol, which can be found in The Face Cream and Boosting Molecules 01 The Face Serum. Created using the fermentation of plant sugars, it 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 processed to obtain pure bisabolol," says Koo. "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."
Controlled lab conditions also ensure safety and the same quality of ingredient. “It is difficult to control the whole supply chain of natural ingredients," Koo adds. "Traceability is problematic, too, and quality of ingredients may vary from batch to batch, season to season. Sustainably brewed natural molecules are highly pure and the answer to the new natural that we need for our skincare."