While the “to do the housework” beauty movement has been all about products that are good for humans, growth sustainable the beauty movement is about earth-friendly products. And while sustainable skincare is 2022’s hottest new beauty trend, its meaning can be as opaque as the thousands of plastic bottles lining store shelves. The rise of a new breed of conscious consumer demands more from brands, seeking products that align with their values.
When it comes to sustainability, there’s no doubt that the beauty industry has a lot of work to do (think packaging in particular), but what about the ingredients brands use to formulate their products? ? Lasting beauty has propagated a polarizing debate over natural versus synthetic ingredients, with the chemistry community at odds with the natural community. Natural brands claim to be sustainable because they use ingredients that come from the earth, while chemists claim natural ingredients are unsustainable because they deplete resources. This debate is particularly pervasive in the skincare category as it is the the largest share of the cosmetics marketand has a growing consumer base as more consumers (and younger consumers) invest in products.
A recent report showed a 71% increase in searches for sustainable products over the past five years, and companies in the cosmetics industry are responding. Shoppers are demanding greater transparency, from safety to ingredient sourcing, which has (thankfully) prompted many brands to get on board. A recent trend forecast from WGSN predicts that in 2023, “a brand that does not participate positively in being more sustainable, will not participate at all”, which means that if sustainability is not part of your brand ethos, you have problems.
It couldn’t come at a better time since experts warn that it is now or never to limit global warming, and that humanity is dangerously close to the tipping point of irreversible climate damage. And as one of the biggest plastic polluters on the planet, the beauty industry continues to come under scrutiny for its impact on the environment. Sustainability can no longer be a buzzword for beauty brands – it’s a necessity to avoid an environmental catastrophe.
So, is buying natural or synthetic skin products really more sustainable than the other? The answer isn’t so clear and dry – here’s why.
Opposing views on sustainable skincare
“On the one hand we have the chemistry community who are upset that their ingredients and methods are being vilified, and on the other we have the natural community who are wary of a chemistry-based industry. that has been using synthetic ingredients for over a century,” says Lorraine Dalmeierbiologist, certified ecologist and award-winning CEO of online organic cosmetics formulation school Botanical Formula. Both views lack nuance in his view and play on a culture of social media soundbites. “It is impossible to make such sweeping statements about an industry that uses vast amounts of resources; sometimes the natural ingredient will be longer lasting, sometimes the synthetic ingredient will be longer lasting. It entirely depends on what you are using and making.
There is no doubt that the chemophobia triggered by clean beauty movement continues to play a role in the debate. Are consumers more likely to reject a synthetic ingredient that may be more sustainable than its natural counterpart due to a lingering fear of chemicals? Tina Craig, Founder of U Beauty, finds the controversy surrounding natural versus synthetic ingredients almost ironic at its heart. “The water we drink, the air we breathe, and even our own bodies contain chemicals,” says Craig. “Although they often have a negative connotation, the words ‘chemical’ and ‘synthetic’ are not synonymous with danger. Likewise, an ingredient that comes directly from nature or harvested and purchased organically does not always guarantee safety.
Sustainable skincare and the environment
There’s a lot to be said for the environmental impact of the beauty industry, where populations of plants, flowers and trees are harvested and turned into ingredients to make products. Essential oils pose significant sustainability challenges because they require a lot of land and plant material for very little yield. Take the Boswellia tree, which is overexploited to meet the demand for frankincense, or Brazilian rosewood, which requires the felling of an entire tree for a nominal amount of oil.
“There are instances where synthetic ingredients can be more sustainable than natural ingredients, and instances where using a renewable natural resource is not sustainable,” says Dr Tracy Fanara, environmental engineer. A synthetic vanilla scent, for example, can be more sustainable than vanilla cultivation, and while palm oil can be renewable, that doesn’t mean it’s sustainable. (In fact, the controversial ecological issues surrounding palm oil are well established.)
Avoiding overexploitation and depletion of natural resources is one area where lab-synthesized ingredients can have the upper hand over their natural counterparts, but determining whether a lab-synthesized ingredient is overall more environmentally friendly requires looking closer under the hood.
Dallmeier points out that a life cycle assessment must be undertaken to compare apples to apples and assess the footprint of each ingredient. Dr Fanara adds that the process involves comparing ingredients at every stage, from cradle to grave, to determine water and energy costs, as well as the impact on natural environments as well as the waste produced. during the sourcing, manufacturing and packaging processes. “It would create work at first, but give a business and consumer a clear understanding of the real efforts being made towards sustainability,” says Dr. Fanara.
Sustainable Skincare and Economical Livelihoods
Sustainability should be viewed in terms of what Dallmeier calls the “three-legged stool” of people, planet and profit – if one leg is missing, the stool falls. If two legs are missing because you are only focused on profit, there is no stool. “Sustainability should be seen as a balance between environmental justice, social responsibility and economic viability, where beauty products are consumed in ways that do not compromise the needs of future generations,” says Dallmeier.
The sustainability of an ingredient depends not only on ecological sustainability, but also on the capacity of the communities around this ingredient to perpetuate their traditions and cultures. Consider ingredients like shea butter, seaweed, coconut oil, moringa oil, and other co-ops where people’s livelihoods depend on the production of these plant-based ingredients. According to Dallmeier, ensuring a sustainable trade in these plants can actually lead to further protecting them for generations, enhancing biodiversity and supporting environmental conservation.
Sustainable skincare and biotechnology
Biotechnology ushers in a new future for beauty, providing opportunities to create active ingredients that are effective and safe for humans and the environment. In case you are unfamiliar, the process reproduces natural molecules obtained from microorganisms in a laboratory through bio-fermentation and genetic engineering techniques. Bacteria, yeasts and algae are commonly used in biotechnology to create skincare ingredients.
A beauty of the ocean is one of those beauty brands that embraces biotechnology, formulating its marine-inspired skincare with the conservation of the ocean’s precious resources in mind, using what they call blue biotechnology. Thanks to this method, they reproduce in the laboratory molecules obtained from living marine micro-organisms without negative impact on the marine environment and its biodiversity. Biosance uses a similar innovation to produce bio-identical squalene derived 100% from sugar cane without the environmental impact of harvesting shark liver.
“Biotechnology certainly has great potential for the beauty industry and I’m very excited about the possibilities of using this ingredient synthesis technique to create ingredients in a sustainable way,” says Dallmeier. However, she cautions that you simply cannot say that just because an ingredient was synthesized using biotechnology, it is therefore automatically more sustainable than its natural counterpart. “It depends on how the ingredients are synthesized, manufactured, processed and shipped,” she adds.
Determine which ingredients are the most sustainable
“It’s hard to take sides in the debate when looking at the high-level category of natural versus synthetic,” says Kimberly Shenk, co-founder and CEO of Novi Connect. “But when you peel the onion and look at the data on each individual raw material, brands can start incorporating nuance into their ingredient selection.” Novi’s data-driven sourcing platform of over 50,000 sustainable raw materials helps make the product development cycle transparent, fair and sustainable; leverage data that evaluates ingredients back to their source.
Novi’s assessments focus on responsible sourcing and recycling; end-of-life impact; materials produced with renewable energy and limited water consumption; society and ethics, including fair trade, and more. Products developed using the platform help increase the volume of sustainable products on store shelves and give consumers peace of mind knowing that the ingredients in the bottle (natural or synthetic) meet standards. of sustainability that interest them.
The Bottom Line on Natural Vs. Synthetic Ingredients
In Dallmeier’s view, the conversation about sustainable beauty makes sustainability far too simplistic, necessitating the need for more informed nuance in the debate.
Assessing an ingredient’s sustainability isn’t as simple as looking at its natural or synthetic origins – it involves investigating each ingredient on a case-by-case basis, digging into the story behind that ingredient and backing it up. with concrete data. There are times when a natural ingredient will last longer and there are times when a synthetic ingredient will last longer. This requires examining an ingredient at each stage of its life cycle.
Dr. Fanara urges consumers to do their research, paying attention to product ingredients. Look for brands that put sustainability at the heart of their mission and values, and are transparent about where and how they source their ingredients. The best thing consumers can do is align themselves with brands that strive to be eco-friendly and to be open and transparent in their efforts to develop sustainable products.