Clean beauty: How biotech plays a critical role

Biotechnology can produce sustainable, traceable ingredients for the clean beauty market.

Consumers are flocking to clean beauty products, seeking better standards for their products—a trend only accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent survey found that 22% of U.S. women changed their skincare products and routines during the pandemic, and that 43% of women wanted clean skincare products during the pandemic.

But what does “clean beauty” really mean? And how can we ensure that clean ingredients are safe and sustainably sourced?

Some companies, like ours, go beyond defining clean as simply products that are free from certain ingredients, like parabens; instead, we define clean based on our consumers’ top values and develop products that are safe, nontoxic, and ethically and sustainably sourced.

The challenge for consumers is understanding the difference between natural and clean—both commonly used terms in the beauty market today. Differentiating between the two can be overwhelming when consumers are staring at shelves of beauty products at the store or browsing digital brands that all make various health claims.

Consumers have long equated “natural” with “good,” but many do not differentiate between “natural” and “clean” products—and the distinction matters. For example, poison ivy is a natural plant, but that doesn’t mean you’d want to use it as an ingredient in a skincare product. Natural also doesn’t guarantee sustainable sourcing.

Sourcing Clean Ingredients: A Role for Biotech

With a new push toward clean beauty, the biggest obstacle isn’t consumer demand; it’s that beauty brands need to figure out how to source, manufacture, and scale clean products.

Producing a truly clean product is especially challenging under traditional manufacturing methods because it requires visibility into the entire development process to make sure every ingredient is safe and sustainably sourced. In addition, producing a clean product from nature may deplete natural resources or require purification processes to compensate for variability in quality.

Biotechnology addresses these challenges and is enabling a clean beauty transformation that benefits consumers and the planet.

Biotech can be used to effectively develop ingredients for clean products. Practically any molecule can be made sustainably using a unique fermentation process that leverages just yeast and sugarcane. Sugarcane, in particular, is an incredible feedstock. It requires no water irrigation, uses significantly less land than traditional sources, and is one of the most regenerative plants in the world. Biotech has proven that lab-made ingredients can be more sustainable and cost-effective than ingredients procured through traditional sourcing.

There are basic differences in environmental impact when comparing ingredients sourced from nature versus natural ingredients produced through sugarcane fermentation. Rare plants and animals may provide valuable extracts and active ingredients—such as squalane, which is used in cosmetics and derived from shark livers. Increased demand for those highly effective ingredients needlessly kills animals and puts biodiversity at risk. Additionally, ingredients sourced from nature may contain impurities that could negate the positive effects of the products. Biotech can produce these sought-after ingredients with equal, if not higher, purity and efficacy, without destroying nature.

Another example is the cannabinoid skincare market, which has grown in popularity and changed popular perception of the cannabis plant. Supply chain transparency and purity are real concerns in this market. A recent study found that over 70% of cannabidiol (CBD) samples contained tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or excessive levels of contamination. By contrast, biotech enables cannabinoid production through fermentation that guarantees no THC because it uses sugarcane fermentation to produce only the specific desired cannabinoid, instead of extracting from hemp plants, which may contain THC. Importantly, this fermentation process offers full supply chain transparency.

Vetting Clean Claims

Companies can claim products are clean without backing it up. Thankfully, there are ways consumers can be sure they don’t fall for greenwashing spin from brands. One of the issues facing the personal care industry is that it’s largely self-regulated, especially in the United States where only 11 harmful ingredients are banned compared to over 1,000 in most European countries.

Consumers can take a few steps to protect themselves. First, they can and should proactively ask brands about their sustainability practices and how clean ingredients are sourced. Transparency is the new currency for consumer brands—94% of U.S. consumers are likely to be loyal to brands that offer complete transparency, and 73% are willing to pay more for a product that offers transparency in all attributes, including ingredient sourcing. While product labeling can be confusing or misleading, starting a conversation with a brand is a great first step in understanding how they approach and prioritize sustainability, and how they define clean.

Second, consumers can look for validations and certifications from trusted third-party sources. For example, EWG (Environmental Working Group) provides verification for clean products by confirming all ingredients in a product are made with safe and ethical manufacturing practices. When consumers see “EWG Verified” on a product, they have the confidence that they are making a truly clean choice.

Growing Demand

Armed with the resources to make informed choices, consumers are primed to continue their interest in a clean beauty market that is expected to grow at a CAGR of over 12% through 2027. As more consumers seek out clean products, they will expect products that only use effective, sustainable, safe, and transparently sourced ingredients.

Biotech provides a clear tool for meeting this consumer demand without compromising on sustainability or performance, leading to a future where the clean beauty industry is the only beauty industry.

Caroline Hadfield is CEO at Rose Inc., an Amyris clean beauty brand. Caroline has led the company’s work in clean beauty, pioneered the movement to ban toxic ingredients, and introduced sustainable packaging and clinically tested formulations for maximum efficacy.