In Borneo, the balmy forests of the Malay Archipelago are home to some of the richest biodiversity on Earth. The ecosystems of this island nation, the third-largest in the world, and the largest in Asia, support more than 15,000 plant species and 1,400 amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, reptiles and insects. But since 2000, Borneo's wildlife has faced critical endangerment. Because in just the last two decades, the island has experienced a forest loss that rounds out to at least 39%.
The culprit? Palm oil, a productive vegetable oil derived from the tropic-friendly oil palm tree. The edible oil is a cost-effective alternative to more production-heavy vegetable oils like coconut or olive, and so has become a staple ingredient across food products, detergents and biofuel, as well as in cosmetics. Yet its insatiable demand has quickly outgrown supply: Oil palm plantations now cover more than 66 million acres of the Earth's surface, according to environmental advocacy group Rainforest Rescue, depleting crucial ecosystems and displacing Indigenous peoples in the process. Today, the United Nations reports that only half of Borneo's original forest cover remains.
While palm oil is a particularly devastating case study, it's far from the only example of humans taking undue advantage of the planet's natural resources for industrial gain. In the beauty industry alone, crops, animal byproducts and oils — yes, including palm — are big for business; palm oil, for one, produces moisturizing fatty acids and texturizing alcohols, an A-plus skin-care combo.
So what if we could safely and sustainably recreate the world's most threatened ingredients, while also making them even more effective? That's a question scientists have been asking since the '60s, when biotechnology first began cropping up to study genetic engineering. Today, biotechnology can be defined as an area of applied science that harnesses living organisms and their derivatives to produce better products and processes. And the beauty industry is leading the charge.
"Biotechnology is essentially technology that's used in the lab to recreate endangered ingredients that ultimately improve people's lives — or in the case of beauty, skin — or to help solve an old problem," says Catherine Gore, president of vegan skin-care brand Biossance. "There are only a certain number of resources available to us, and biotechnology provides that perfect answer to still build brands through incredible ingredients and not make a negative imprint on the planet, or on your skin, for that matter."
Biossance launched in 2017 with squalane as its "hero ingredient." Developed via biotechnology, the brand's 100% plant-based, shelf-stable version of the moisturizer is touted as a more eco-friendly substitute for squalene, an organic compound primarily obtained from shark liver oil. Biossance derives its squalane from small-batch renewable Brazilian sugarcane that's then bio-fermented using its own yeast.
"Biotechnology uses bacteria and yeast as nano factories to produce active ingredients, minimizing the impact on the environment," says Dr. Hadley King, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. "By using only tiny amounts of botanicals, biotechnology is a highly sustainable process. Active ingredients derived from plants and animals are sometimes criticized for the amount of land, water and energy they require, and with animal-derived ingredients, there are also issues of not being cruelty-free."
Squalene was first described and identified in 1916, and though shark harvesting — more euphemistically known as "squalene fishing" — has since fallen out of favor, sharks have taken a hit nonetheless. In 2006, the European Union banned targeted fisheries, noting a steep decline in certain shark populations, but according to global non-profit coalition Shark Allies, 2.7 million sharks are still harvested each year for their livers. According to Gore, Biossance's squalane isn't only a more ethical alternative to the shark-based substance, but chemically, it also reportedly works better, too.
"If you look at squalene in a vial, you'll see it's pretty cloudy and compromised in terms of quality, so it tends to oxidize on the skin," she says. Compare that to "totally clear and weightless" squalane, which also causes no oxidation — science speak for "going bad" after having been exposed to air. "It's an identical counterpart, and we can make as much as the world needs without having a single negative imprint on the planet," claims Gore.
Ingredients formulated through biotechnology can also be far less expensive to manufacture than so-called "naturally derived" ones. While it takes a pretty penny to develop a new biotechnology product (roughly $1.2 billion, to be exact, according to the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development), companies may see a drastic dip in long-term operational costs. And with open sourcing, beauty brands can even work together to share technological breakthroughs across the industry at a rate more affordable than it may take for a company to develop its own technology. It's why Biossance sells its squalane to other prestige cosmetics brands.
Beauty (skin care, especially) is so reliant on pioneering formulations that biotechnology is kind of a no-brainer. In 2019, Swiss fragrance company Givaudan developed a biotechnologically-produced version of ambroxide, an organic chemical and one of the key constituents responsible for the woody scent of ambergris. Ambroxie is naturally produced in the digestive system of sperm whales, but Givaudan's renewable version, Ambrofix, is made from fermenting sustainably-sourced sugar cane.
Elsewhere in Switzerland, cosmetic supplier Mibelle uses IceAwake, a trademarked ingredient that helps "rejuvenate" aging, sleep-deprived skin. Mibelle developed its technology from just a few samples of glacial ice melt from the Swiss Alps, taking advantage of the nearby water's high levels of microbial content.
As for palm oil? New York City-based C16 Bioscience has developed its own lab-grown alternative to the ingredient via a fermentation process that uses microbes to brew palm oil like beer — and to do it to scale. The biotechnology firm closed a $20 million Series A round last March led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a $1 billion fund led by Bill Gates to accelerate innovations in sustainable energy.
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With almost no environmental impact in the product formulation itself, it's understandable that biotechnology alternatives can be considered the most "sustainable" option for eco-conscious consumers. But unlike the food sector that offers a number of third-party certification programs, beauty is less stringent, at least as far as governmental agencies are concerned.
The Food and Drug Administration regulates cosmetics, sure, but the term "organic" is not actually defined in any of its standards. Neither is "sustainable," or "clean," or even "natural," and there's no assurance that products that fall into those buckets are necessarily better for your skin overall. (Which is why it's so problematic that these products are also rarely accessible to those with lower incomes, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color.) And all that continues to mislead shoppers, now tasked with pilfering through ingredient lists and research findings on their own time.
"There's the potential for greenwashing [in biotechnology]," says Dr. King. "We need transparency and helpful labeling standards to help us understand and navigate the options. And ultimately, we need excellent safety and efficacy data to be able to evaluate these ingredients."
At Biossance, Gore assures that her team is committed to educating curious shoppers not just about biotechnology, but the company's internal processes as a whole. ("The word biotechnology can be rather abstract," she says. "So it naturally leads to more questions, and potentially more confusion, and that's what has to be targeted.") Transparency may be the most effective solution, then, at least until industry-wide accreditation services become available for beauty brands and their customers. Biotechnology is not waiting around, though.
"We're going to see new types of biotechnology ingredients emerge that are beyond just identical to their natural counterpart, but exceed them in quality and performance," says cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson, founder and CEO of BeautyStat, a beauty-influencer agency and blog that launched its own skin-care line in 2019. Robinson hints that BeautyStat is working on "something big" in the biotechnology world, but can't disclose details just yet.
The possibilities are endless, and not limited to the planet's most endangered flora and fauna, though they certainly take precedence. Gore suggests that consumers look out for biotechnologically-developed sandalwood, an officially "vulnerable" plant species that supplies an oil now frequently used in aromatherapy and perfumery. Biossance's parent corporation Amyris, a synthetic chemical company headquartered outside Oakland, recreated sandalwood using yeast fermentation.
If biotechnology feels rather futuristic, like something out of a flashy, 1960s sci-fi movie, that's because, well, it kind of is. As cross-industry climate action becomes increasingly necessary, Gore is hopeful that scientific innovation will, hopefully, only continue to rise to the occasion.
"The ultimate goal is to ask the questions across the board," she says. "How are ingredients being processed and harvested now? And is there a better solution?"