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Sustainable Ingredients and Innovation in Cosmetics

Contact Author Giorgio Dell’Acqua, PhD; and Giuseppe Calloni, PhD, Freedom Actives Corp.
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Due to the introduction in recent years of innovative products in the cosmetics and personal care market,1, 2 the awareness and demand for innovation, technology and science is growing among consumers.3 At the same time, products of natural origin that are eco-friendly and certified by a multitude of labels are increasingly entering the market,4,5 becoming more and more popular,6, 7 and forcing brands and ingredient suppliers to source into the natural supply chain. Until now, the demands for innovation and nature have experienced parallel growth for different reasons according to consumer perception; i.e., the need for efficacy and the need for purity.

In the cosmetics and personal care market, the distinction between scientific and natural products is notable. The technological consumer looks at the scientific claims and innovations proposed first; the origin of the ingredients or story behind them is secondary. Regardless of the ingredient source, the technological benefits must be there. This type of consumer shops for perceivable efficacy—i.e., color change, wrinkle reduction, increased detergency, reduced body odor, etc.

The nature-driven consumer looks at the origin of the product and ingredients first, with a strong belief that nature carries a guarantee for safety, purity and gentleness. In this case, the consumer is more concerned about product safety than perceivable benefits. He or she prefers “free-from” claims and seeks information about the origin of the ingredients. Eco-friendly concepts are desired, but also, and more recently, information on the communities involved in that particular product’s ingredient sourcing and their commercial involvement—including concepts linked to sustainability and fair trade. For these consumers, technology and innovation in the finished product would be a secondary benefit and not the first determinant in the purchase decision, although an influence while shopping.

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Considering these diverse views, how is it possible to create products that satisfy both, i.e., that bring the natural sourcing and sustainability linked to the ingredients, but also are innovative and scientifically proven? This article explores these concepts and a means to marry them: sustainability.


Technology and innovation are present in most consumer products, and cosmetic products are no exception. In the past, technology was more evident and strongly advertised in high-end products, but it has become transversal to the mass market and less exclusive. From body washes to sophisticated skin care creams, technological progress is evident to any consumer. Toiletries are offering milder and safer products by incorporating less aggressive surfactants and skin barrier replenishment ingredients,8 while skin care treatments contain increasingly potent actives,9 tested with the latest genomics technology.10 With this increased accessibility to technology, learning has increased, in turn raising consumer expectations and demand.

Further, the supply chain bringing technologies to the cosmetic consumer is stressed to provide the best possible innovations. Suppliers are challenged with requests for ingredient safety and efficacy testing, and testing laboratories are pushed to develop new tests. Brands, therefore, are moving into new terminologies that require them to recruit scientists and innovators to communicate these new discoveries—all while making the product and packaging affordable. As a result, the role of technical marketing to translate new scientific terminologies to consumers is also on the rise.

Technologies from the pharmaceutical and imaging industries are now flexible and affordable enough for application in cosmetics and personal care product development. Genomics, proteomics and metabolomics analysis, and devices that qualify and quantify skin profiles and wrinkles in a non-invasive ways are some examples. Both in vitro and in vivo testing protocols have been adapted for the needs of cosmetic formulators and scientists. The boundaries between cosmetic science and dermatological science are therefore thinner and push toward pharma-like products more than ever.

In response to this progress, however, it is possible that regulators will establish new rules and the industry will observe changes in worldwide cosmetic regulation more often than in recent years. Attention to cosmetic safety has grown dramatically, as well as cosmetic claims vigilance, varying according to country. Still, it is a particularly exciting time for cosmetic science to run a very competitive race in research and to explore new boundaries. Thanks to such innovation, today’s cosmetic products are bringing more efficacy than in the past, and to a larger consumer base.


As noted, market demand for natural products has risen in recent years since natural products are identified with health and well-being. Biological products, i.e., those derived from biological agriculture, have experienced tremendous growth in the food and nutraceuticals supply chain in the last 10 years,11 and consumers eagerly seek the latest plants having health claims. Plant extracts like maca root; camu camu fruit; cat’s claw bark from South America; or baobab fruit from Africa are finding their way as supplements into the superfood category, containing high levels of vitamins, minerals or other active molecules. These are marketed as energy boosters but also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties due to their outstanding ORAC values. The capacity of suppliers from developing countries to commercialize and provide novel products with new stories and health benefits to the Western market has exposed many consumers to a variety of natural products, representing a huge biodiversity with infinite possibilities. Certifications of biological agriculture, organic origin, fair trade, etc., are common means to inform consumers on the origin and supply chain behind products, but also to bring added value and justify market positioning and cost.

Cosmetics and personal care products are no exception, and have been flooded with many certified natural extracts or oils and their blends, claiming to address various cosmetic applications, mostly positioned in the antioxidant, soothing and regenerative categories. However, interesting to note is the fact that brands specifically focused on natural products often advertise the absence of synthetic ingredients more than the added value of natural ingredients. It is, therefore, a concept of purity and safety that is evidenced more so than scientific claims.

Sustainability and Challenges

The term sustainable development was introduced in Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland report, published by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in 1987.12 The definition reads: “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It is generally accepted that sustainable development is a convergence between the three pillars: economic development, social equity and environmental protection. These three pillars, also called the triple bottom line, extend the concept of sustainability beyond environmental protection. Sustainability becomes a new dimension related to human beings as part of a society, and putting a different business model into place. The environment would be a fundamental part of it, but not the only or main driver.

In industry, including the cosmetics industry, sustainable development or sustainability is generally accepted as an unavoidable path for future product development. However, several constrains limit its implementation and applicability as a business model. For instance, an increasing number of individuals appointed to corporate social responsibility (CSR) manager positions in multinational companies suggests a structure and framework would need to be established and implemented at the industry level, but with the support of all actors and stakeholders in the process including suppliers, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government, etc., to help realize the sustainability model.

Further, dissecting the supply chain to calculate its sustainability is complicated. Various factors involved would require analysis—i.e., from sourcing and production, to shipping. The challenge is even greater when considering that some ingredients would enter the commodity supply chain as soon as demand increased and they became popular. This situation would rapidly deplete ingredients that were originally sustainable but are no longer, due to demand. The industry’s capacity to support the supply chain in a sustainable manner would, therefore, require a different business model, price structure, return to market, reduced demand, regulations, etc. This process would take time, but signs from emerging countries in their systems of trade are encouraging. Sustainable agriculture and farming, for example, is growing with the support of trade organizations, foundations, local NGOs and rural banks, although more needs to be done.

Sustainability in Cosmetics

Several suppliers and brands in the cosmetics industry that are focused on natural ingredients have put efforts toward, and developed marketing to promote, the sustainability of their ingredients or finished products. In doing so, they advertise the communities or organizations that sustain the development of their products, as well as their commitment to the environment and to protecting biodiversity. Sustainability programs are becoming common in communications from mid- to large-size corporations, and are highlighted on their web sites and in annual reports. Still, the approach is fragmented due to the lack of fully sustainable models. They often are influenced by requests for certifications and audits, which in fact are difficult to sustain, especially for small- and medium-sized companies due to extensive costs and organizational requirements.

Another difficulty lies in the fact that most of the sustainable supply chain has not been exposed to the cosmetics market and has primarily targeted the food and nutraceutical industries, as is well-evidenced by the Flo-Cert listing of suppliers that are fair trade-certified. Variations between industries including ingredient compositions, and chemical and physical characteristics; regulatory and documentary approaches; specific market approaches—i.e., commodity-like vs. specialty; and finally, lack of networks have severely limited the entry of these suppliers into the cosmetics and personal care market. Several personal care traders and distributors have tried to fill the gap to promote such ingredients for the personal care market, but the dedication and the investment necessary is discouraging considering the initial small economical return in markets dominated by commodities, where price is the major determinant and sustainable products would grow slower.

It is clear that the vision and mission a dedicated brand or a supplier must put into place to support this model are different from most that currently exist. The main drivers would require a new concept for conducting business that would take into consideration the different parameters linked to the administration of a sustainable supply chain, compared with the existing supply chain, and a different idea of the time by which one expects to see a return on their investment. Further, this change of pace and attitude must be put in place soon, as consumers are driving increased market demand for natural, sustainable and ethical sourcing, as several recent years market reports and indicators suggest.5-7

Considering these overall market and business trends, it is not surprising that although there are difficulties, companies are slowly moving away from non-sustainable or petroleum-based commodities to embrace, with some hesitation, natural alternatives. They also are therefore willing to negotiate higher prices and adapt novel business models associated with natural products, as well as engage in different approaches to the supply chain. By supporting a sustainable and ethical supply chain, ingredient suppliers embrace natural product sourcing and promote ethical business by bringing benefits to producers and their communities. This is accomplished by fair trade and sustainability.

Fair trade involves purchasing raw materials or ingredients that provide stable revenue and support local businesses. Sustainability refers to helping local companies maintain their social and environmental commitment in the supply chain by monitoring and auditing their activity, to ensure standards are met to market success. Note that although sustainable supply chains are often identified in emerging and developing countries, this model can also be translated to rural areas of the Western world, where local farmers are suffering from global competition, to sustain their products and business.

Sustainability Science

In the late 1990s, natural extracts drove marketing claims based on the properties of their plant origins, often linked to the plant’s antioxidant profile or wound-healing capacity, but with little tested or proven efficacy.13 These claims were mainly anecdotal, derived from ethnobotanical literature or based on personal observations, and often difficult to validate. Basically, the lack of well-designed scientific studies on skin for these extracts limited understanding their real scientific value. Furthermore, research was often confined to universities or research centers with little experience in technology transfer, requiring excessive time and costs to deliver results, and lacking standardized protocols to research skin applications. This setting tremendously limited the ability to evaluate, qualitatively and quantitatively, the in vitro and clinical efficacy of natural extracts.

Things began to change in the early 2000s when technology and science became available for both developing the extracts further and for testing them.14, 15 As previously described, technologies were derived both from the pharmaceuticals industry, such as genomics, proteomics and metabolomics; and from the imaging industry,16 including devices to qualify and quantify skin profiles and wrinkles, or measure skin color intensity. These became more readily available at a reasonable cost and with usage flexibility to the cosmetic scientist. It became possible to build technologies and efficacies from naturally-derived products while increasing their safety—while still maintaining their positive image of purity, eco-friendliness and, more recently, sustainability.

Several companies are embracing the idea of bridging nature and science, not only to improve the quality of the supply chain, but also to control variables in product development and optimize natural ingredients for successful final applications. Such tasks require a rigorous approach; a possible work flow for which is shown in Table 1. For example, a natural extract with desired activity in the targeted application but requiring reductions in color and scent would need to be optimized in order to “clean” it while avoiding activity loss. To achieve this, several assays followed by analytical and stability tests would be required. With specific extractions, chosen active molecules or families can be isolated as fractions and, if stable, can bring efficacy at lower concentrations compared to the crude extract, while preventing the cytotoxicity associated to other molecules present in the extract. Examples are extract fractions rich in polyphenols that show superior antioxidant activity compared with the crude extract at the same concentration;17 or, specific fractions obtained with different solvents that provide different activities than the original extract.18

Following these skills are those to “concentrate” the extract for efficacy while obtaining a balanced and stable product. Efficacy testing can be conducted at physiological concentrations of the extract and applied on screening models in vitro; when extracts are screened successful in vitro using very low concentrations, the chances of succeeding in a following clinical trial are generally increased. Careful genomics and proteomic testing of the resulting product, followed by clinical trials for specific claims, would then add further to the science and credibility.

Furthermore, an improved extract is an easier ingredient with which to formulate. Reducing its color and scent—together with increasing the relative concentration of selected molecules or family of molecules, and reducing any unwanted molecules—allows the formulator to use low concentrations in formulas. In turn, this reduces the risk of incompatibilities with other ingredients and improves formula stability overall. These concentrations, having previously been tested and should, therefore, correspond to a real benefit for the targeted application. Increased purity of the extracts would also reduce solubility issues and avoid unwanted insoluble material sedimentation over time, and make analytical identification of the major and minor components in the extract easier, with a better understanding of safety and any potential toxicity.

Case Studies: Dragon’s Blood, Cat’s Claw and Kakadu Plum

Following the model of sustainable production outlined in Table 1, the development of three cosmetic actives is described here, including: dragon’s blood (INCI: Croton Lechleri Resin Extract), cat’s claw (INCI: Uncaria Tomentosa Bark Extract) and Kakadu plum (INCI: Terminalia Ferdinandiana Fruit Extract). These were produced using a proprietary methodology consisting in selecting specific solvents to concentrate active fractions, followed by precipitation to remove unsoluble materials. The plants were sourced from Peru and Australia from producers working with a sustainable development strategy. These producers were identified in the United Nations Eora MRIO database19 and by the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO).20 Institutional sourcing provided an audited framework with market exposure, and selection was further tuned by personal contact, evaluation, sampling, etc. Samples were obtained in powder form and further processed as previously described.

Experimental Model

The following study was carried out in collaboration with Genemarkersa using 3D full-thickness skin equivalentsb as the experimental model. This model contains epidermal cells, i.e., keratinocytes; dermal cells, i.e., fibroblasts; stratum corneum; and dermal/epidermal junctions (DEJ). Such genomic screening on a 3D skin model gives the cosmetic scientist a general picture of the plant extract’s potential mechanism of action in a real skin setting. Therefore, the real scientific value of a given developed plant extract can be supported (or not) and can confirm (or not) the initial literature observation. The best skin application may also be suggested from these findings, as the test will also allow same-condition comparisons between different extracts to evidence those that are the most potent for specific targets. The concentrated plant extracts were diluted to 0.02% and 0.002% in water for final testing. These concentrations were chosen as the most biologically relevant for the skin model, considering a factor of five in terms of skin penetration. A 0.1–mL sample of each concentration was then applied and incubated with the skin equivalents for 24 hr under standard incubation procedure. This process was repeated four times per treatment. Incubation was followed by RNA extraction, cDNA synthesis and quantitative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) normalized against an endogenous control gene, beta-glucuronidase, for comparison. A validated low density gene expression assayc was used.

A panel was assembled of 107 genes that play essential roles in skin biology and are markers for mechanisms including skin differentiation, wound healing, inflammation, skin barrier formation, antioxidation, melanogenesis, etc. This assay was used to screen for baseline gene activations induced by the concentrated plant extracts. Results were processed through softwared and statistical analyses were performed using unpaired t-tests, n = 4; only statistically significant data was considered for interpretation.


Treatment of the skin equivalents with the extracts induced statistically significant changes in the expression of several genes. In particular, Kakadu plum significantly either up-regulated or down-regulated 27 genes. Cat’s claw modified 18 genes, and dragon’s blood, 16 genes. Table 2 shows the results of gene modifications with greater than two-fold increase or decrease, as such levels of modification would be necessary to induce biological changes. All extracts appeared capable of down-regulating or up-regulating important genes involved in the inflammation pathway, including advanced glycation end-products, mitogen-activated protein kinase 7, matrix metallopeptidase 9, tumor necrosis factor and melanocortin 1 receptor. In contrast, the Sutherlandia extract tested did not show consistent anti-inflammatory activity in this model, affecting only one marker (RAGE, -52%) (data not shown).


Today, it is possible to bridge the purest and most ethical natural ingredients with real scientific claims. Cosmetic scientists have access to technologies that bring value to natural ingredients and optimize their use in modern formulation. Extracts can be developed to bring safety and efficacy to the final application and validate, from a scientific view, claims by traditional users that previously lacked scientific evidence.

Clinical studies based on genomics and proteomics screening add scientific value to traditional extracts sourced from sustainable development protocols. For instance, the baseline data presented in this paper indicates the potential of three plant extracts derived from a sustainable supply chain. These extracts were further developed and concentrated to optimize their value, which the data suggests made it possible—at relatively low concentrations when tested on a skin full thickness model—to hit specific gene targets representing proteins involved in specific physiological mechanisms. Although the data was derived from a baseline model where no pro-inflammatory challenge was applied, the overall observation seems to confirm the original claims for these extracts, i.e., a strong anti-inflammatory pattern.21–23

For the first time, it is possible to understand the scientific mechanisms behind the traditional claims. Further data will be necessary to characterize these mechanisms and the genes involved, in particular in challenging conditions such as induced inflammation, wounds, pigmentation, etc., but the industry is moving the basis for using plant extracts from being identified as pure and natural, or ethno-botanically inspired, to a validated and scientific one. This translation from being just natural and socially driven to also being scientifically sound is a good example of the scientific sustainable ingredient approach described in Table 1, where supply chain meets science.

Send e-mail to giorgio.dellacqua@freedomactives.com.
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Related Content



Table 1. Possible work flow for developing an active ingredient from sustainable sources

Table 1. Possible work flow for developing an active ingredient from sustainable sources

Such tasks require a rigorous approach; a possible work flow for which is shown in Table 1.

Table 2. Gene activation treatment with 0.002% and 0.02% plant extracts

Table 2. Gene activation treatment with 0.002% and 0.02% plant extracts

Table 2 shows the results of gene modifications with greater than two-fold increase or decrease, as such levels of modification would be necessary to induce biological changes.

Footnotes (CT1308 Dell'Acqua)

a Genemarkers collaborated on the described work, www.genemarkersllc.com.
Epiderm FT 3D full-thickness skin equivalents by MatTek were used, www.mattek.com.
The TaqMan Low Density Array (TLDA) is a product of Invitrogen, www.invitrogen.com.
StatMiner software v4.2 is a product of Integromics Inc., www.integromics.com.

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