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What happens when science unlocks the secrets to natural cosmetics…

By Simon Pitman

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Natural ingredients Chemistry

What happens when science unlocks the secrets to natural cosmetics…
The industry has been both developing, enhancing and replicating natural ingredients for years, but what technologies are driving this area now, will it ever be possible to tinker with organic ingredients and what do consumers make of it all? We spoke to expert Judi Beerling to find out.

Beerling is the technical research manager at market research provider Organic Monitor and is an educator in the field of cosmetics chemistry, with many years of hands on industry experience.

Cosmetics Design also asked how these technologies are helping to expand the naturals category in a sustainable and cost-efficient way, while also enhancing the efficacy of many ingredients. 

Although there are plenty of benefits to the synthesis of natural materials and ingredients, the jury is probably out on whether or not it is cheating, but as Beerling points out, few consumers are aware of this type of technology.

What are the primary technologies that are being used to synthesize natural ingredients?

Synthesize is probably not the best word as people then relate this to synthetic chemistry and sticking molecules together - which may be done using green chemistry. I would probably say ‘production’ or ‘development’ of instead.  The more natural processes of biotechnology / fermentation and production of ingredients by micro-algae are the most game changing technologies being seen today. This has also gone alongside the production of active ingredients by cell culture techniques – the so-called vegetable stem cell technology - and the use of extremophile bacteria that thrive in harsh environments a the organisms used in the fermentation process.

How is synthesizing natural ingredients impacting the natural cosmetics category?

Judi Beerling, technical research manager, Organic Monitor

It is broadening the range of raw materials available to the natural (and conventional) formulator with some very potent active ingredients being developed along with increasing natural/bio-based content for functional ingredients, such as BASF’s  recently launched surfactant cocoamidopropyl betaine, made using algal oil. It also relieves pressure on the supply chain since agricultural land is not required along with all the issues of potential crop failures, shortages, price fluctuations etc.

Can an organic certified ingredient still be synthesized?

It hasn’t happened yet. Since organic is based on an agricultural system I don’t see it really being feasible to call a material organic that has been made in a bioreactor although maybe a plant stem cell active from an organic source may be able to be referred to as being derived from an organic source.

What are the primary benefits of using synthesized naturals?

As I have already mentioned, it is the more sustainable nature of the raw materials and the lack of competition with food particularly important in developing parts of the world. Companies can usually quantify the reduction in things like carbon footprint, water footprint, energy and land usage to show the sustainability benefits. However, it is also the case that very specific & active ingredients can be produced that probably wouldn’t be able to be extracted from plants at a commercial cost.

Are there any negative sides to these types of technologies?

The only downside I am aware of is that some processes may generate quite a lot of waste biomass once the material of interest has been removed. However, smart companies will make use of this to either sell for other purposes (e.g. for animal feed or manure) or to burn for energy production to power their plant.

Does the synthesis of natural ingredients define the future for the category?

Yes, I think there is a revolution going on in the cosmetic industry right now, but of course it will take time for the economies of scale to kick in and for prices to fall closer to the levels of conventional or agricultural ingredients.

How do consumers react to these types of technologies?

I am not sure consumers are really aware of these types of technologies yet. I think they just look at the natural content of products, if this is what concerns them,  and maybe the fact that there is some interesting performance claims based on more unusual sounding actives. However, there is a concern by the more aware green consumer about getting into “synthetic biology”.

Mibelle apple stem cell technology

And how do cosmetics manufacturers best explain the use of these formulation technologies to consumers?

I think that the major players involved have made a good job of explaining plant stem cell technology over the last few years. Mibelle Biochemistry for example even has a whole website dedicated to Snow Algae that is quite consumer facing . The cosmetic manufacturers maybe don’t feel the need yet to talk about the other remerging technologies but I’m sure we will start to see companies talking about a point of difference being, for example their incorporation of micro-algae derived ingredients. In fact, some of the premium skin care companies e.g. Estee Lauder are already starting to do so, with the Re-Nutrive skin care line from Estée Lauder being a good example.

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