Why the "Biotech Boom" Has Potential to Spur Real Change in the Beauty Industry

Here's how it'll affect your products.

pictures of palmless, revela, and bioeffect products

Palmless / Revela / Bioeffect / Design by Kaitlyn Collins

In an industry that adores trendy buzzwords, "biotech beauty" seems to be the phrase on everyone's glossy lips in 2023. Even if you don't quite understand what biotechnology does when it comes to skincare, hair care, or makeup, the fact of the matter is that brands are paying close attention to its potential. It makes complete sense, considering the beauty industry is due for a bit of a facelift (pardon my pun). 

Despite surging in sales, with $571.1 billion in expected revenue in 2023, the personal care behemoth is facing calls for more inclusive practices, strident safety regulations (which the recent passing of the Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act in December 2022 will help), and an overall greater commitment to practices that minimize its environmental impact. Customers are also wising up to the fact that "clean beauty" is a nebulous umbrella term with little oversight from the FDA, which means that this class of products might not be as safe or effective as we thought. 

That's arguably why biotechnology is becoming more than a flashy new term to woo shoppers—it's the next phase of beauty innovation and sustainability. If you need proof, even the White House is launching initiatives to advance biotech and biomanufacturing. Ahead, everything you need to know about biotechnology in beauty, from the science behind the latest developments to the brands harnessing it most successfully—and why it matters. 

Meet the Expert

  • Krupa Koestlin is a cosmetic chemist and founder of KKT Consultants.
  • Jasmina Aganovic is a chemical and biological engineer and CEO of beauty biotech startup Arcaea.
  • Shara Ticku is the co-founder and CEO of C16 Biosciences and Palmless.
  • David Zhang, Ph.D., is the co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Revela.
  • Björn Örvar, Ph.D., is the co-founder and chief scientific officer of Bioeffect.
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What Is Biotech Beauty?

If you didn't pursue a science or engineering degree, the idea of biotechnology in beauty might seem a bit hazy. Simply put, any technology that utilizes the principles of biology is considered biotechnology, according to cosmetic chemist and founder of KKT Consultants Krupa Koestline. For the beauty industry, this can mean formulating with techniques like fermentation, tissue culture, GMOs, cell cultures, and artificial intelligence, among other things.

"We are already employing living organisms and molecular biology to produce all kinds of products and therapeutics used in beauty products, [like] lactic acid, sodium hyaluronate, ceramides, peptides, bisabolol, and biosaccharides," Koestline says. She emphasizes that many of these ingredients have been around for decades and that they are only now being marketed as major biotech revolutions to turn a profit. "True innovation is using [processes] in a completely new format or even incorporating biotech in packaging or the final product in a unique way, not just at the raw material level."

Luckily, brands are heeding consumers' calls for more innovative formulas that deliver on their marketing promises and step up to the challenge of creating more sustainable products. 

True innovation is using [processes] in a completely new format or even incorporating biotech in packaging or the final product in a unique way, not just at the raw material level.

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Liz deSousa for Byrdie

Biotechnology and Sustainability

Human beings are masters at identifying biological components from our planet that could make our lives easier, and historically, rather than attempting to replicate what we see (like, for example, a wool fiber), we extract it (as in we shear the sheep to make a sweater). While this skill set is sometimes useful, animal-based sourcing is wholly unsustainable, as Jasmina Aganovic, chemical and biological engineer and CEO of beauty biotech startup Arcaea, explains in her TedTalk "Can Biotech Invent a Sustainable Future for the Beauty Industry?". That is why the beauty industry began to move away from this sourcing format to more plant-based alternatives. 

"Green" and "clean" beauty products with more plant-focused ingredients have seen a surge in popularity over the last few years— a recent poll by NPD Group showed that 68% of consumers seek out brands that use "clean" ingredients. But ultimately, this tactic is not the solution to our sustainability problem. "The truth is Earth could not grow enough plants to sustain [the beauty] industry," Aganovic says, citing the example that it takes roughly 200,000 rose petals to create a few millimeters of rose oil. That's where biotechnology comes into play. 

Developing comparable ingredients in a laboratory setting, rather than harvesting them from the Earth—which often requires massive amounts of water and land, among other biological resources—can help stave off the type of environmental catastrophe climate experts have warned us about for years. This is especially true in the case of palm oil, a widely used ingredient in the personal care industry that can be found in everything from surfactants (which creates a lather in soap and shampoos) to emulsifiers (which maintain the texture of certain lotions and creams). Harvesting palm oil, however, involves a wide range of issues. For example, the plant palm oil is derived from only grows within ten degrees of the equator. Additionally, palm oil production (along with beef and soy) is responsible for over 60% of today's deforestation, and its agricultural supply chain is riddled with child and slave labor. 

"This area around the equator is home to some of the most precious land on Earth—carbon-dense, biodiversity-rich tropical rainforest, and peatland," says Shara Ticku, co-founder and CEO of C16 Biosciences and Palmless, companies that develop sustainable alternatives to popular products, including those that use palm oil. "Preserving these carbon stores is essential for mitigating climate change, yet we've allowed palm oil producers to slash and burn these forests for decades, replacing them with industrial oil palm plantations." 

Ticku, who in her research found that palm oil is present in over 50% of products on supermarket shelves, began to question why many beauty and food manufacturers were trying and failing to remove "conflict palm oil" from their supply chains. This eventually led her team to develop C16 Biosciences' biotechnology, which utilizes yeast instead of trees (a process they've labeled "precise fermentation") to create a comparable oil, as well as a biomanufacturing process that allows for scaled production to support the consumer products industry, in the hopes of replacing the traditional palm oil industry. "We've seen biotech drive massive breakthroughs in medicine, and recently it's spurred numerous innovations to support animal-free protein options," says Ticku. "There's an opportunity to use precision fermentation to solve the massive problem of agricultural palm oil and to support the consumer products industry." 

Some beauty brands, like Icelandic skincare powerhouse Bioeffect, are utilizing biotechnology to cultivate genetically modified plants that can create more sustainable ingredients. Björn Örvar, Ph.D., Bioeffect's co-founder and chief scientific officer, explains that the brand's greenhouse outside of Reykjavik contains the genetically modified barley plants that produce epidermal growth factor (EGF)—a powerful skincare ingredient that is often derived from animals—which is then processed in the company's headquarters just a half hour drive away. The closed production loop minimizes the brand's environmental impact, and the barley plants' EGF is highly efficacious. Case in point: Bioeffect conducted a two-month, double-blind study, which found that participants' skin thickness increased by more than 60% and skin density increased by more than 30%.

While an EGF serum is a particularly potent addition to any skincare routine, Bioeffect’s latest release, the EGF Power Serum, manages to stand out by harnessing the brand’s signature biotechnology for an even more powerful formula. Using only 12 ingredients—including both barley EGF and KGF, as well as proteins to promote skin barrier heath—Bioeffect’s team has formulated a serum that can arguably replace much of your anti-aging regimen. The laundry list of benefits include a significant reduction in wrinkles, improved skin elasticity, minimized appearance of hyperpigmentation, smoothed skin texture, and boosted skin hydration. With its newest launch, the Icelandic brand is proof that biotechnology will likely revamp the entire anti-aging industry as we know it.

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Biotechnology and Better Ingredients

Biotechnology also has potential beyond creating alternatives to animal- and plant-derived ingredients. It will likely make many of the beauty industry's most requested products more effective, minus any environmental impact. 

Beauty consumers are constantly searching for products that deliver on their marketing promises. But for all the advances beauty innovation is capable of from a formulation perspective, there are some limits to what is possible by cosmetic chemists in a lab.

"There are billions of ingredients out there that could potentially benefit your hair or your skin—whatever problem you're trying to solve," says David Zhang, Ph.D., co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Revela, a hair loss and skincare brand that utilizes biotechnology to develop new molecules for their product formulas. "The challenge [is] how do you find the right fit?"

Zhang and his team applied the bioengineering and advanced AI techniques they were initially using for cancer research to develop the brand's patented ingredients: Procelinyl, which stimulates dormant hair follicles to combat hair loss, and Fibroquin, which promotes an active collagen pathway so skin remains toned throughout the aging process.

While there are established ingredients that can deliver similar hair growth and collagen-producing benefits—such as Minoxidil (the active ingredient in Rogaine) and retinol— there is something to be said for beauty breakthroughs that are made possible with advanced biotechnology. Zhang explains, "AI is good at finding patterns between specific ingredients and what you're looking for [such as a solution to hair loss]. Every ingredient is like a puzzle piece; the AI is a puzzle solver. [A human] can maybe solve a 1000-piece puzzle, but for a computer, [it becomes possible] to find these patterns and this specific output you're looking for." 

Biotechnology will likely make many of the beauty industry's most requested products more effective, minus any environmental impact. 

Biotechnology and Safer Formulas

More effective ingredients mean consumers can feel more confident in their beauty purchases, and even better, they might pose less of a risk to your health. Unfortunately, beauty products with potentially harmful chemicals have spurred numerous recalls in recent years—one of the largest being Johnson & Johnson's 2021 aerosol SPF recall due to the presence of benzene in some products, a known carcinogen. 

Biotech offers a chance to formulate without using questionable ingredients. For example, Evolved by Nature, a biotech brand backed by Chanel that raised $120 million in series C funding in June 2022, has developed Activated Silk biotechnology, which will reportedly replace 560,000 metric tons of acrylic acid, a potential skin irritant used in hygiene products, and 1,056,000 metric tons of sodium laureth sulfate, a surfactant used in many personal care products. These ingredients are nearly unavoidable in some industry sectors, which is why investors and heritage beauty brands are taking notice of biotech's potential.

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Big Beauty Is Joining the Biotech Party

In addition to offering innovative solutions to glaring industry problems, proprietary molecules are an attractive means of standing out in a crowded beauty marketplace for established and fledgling brands. It's why a multi-million dollar round of funding isn't abnormal in 2023—biotech beauty is becoming a big business for investors, who are banking on the allure of increasingly sophisticated formulations to entice new customers. 

Among the many new brands and development firms staking a claim in biotechnology, Aganovic's company Arcaea raised $78 million in series A funding in 2021 and is primed to launch a line of products that utilize the UV-protective properties of marine plants and animals. Currently, they offer odor-preventative technology, SccentARC, which was "developed via high throughput screening and machine learning, [and] is a precise nutrient blend that impacts underarm microbes, shifting odor profile by selectively preventing the body's production of odorous compounds," according to the brand's website.

Arcaea is not the only biotech brand looking to marine life for inspiration. Skincare company Seaspire incorporates lab-derived marine ingredients into its forthcoming trio of products formulated for women of color, including a cleanser, serum, and moisturizer. The brand raised $3 million in 2022 to develop its proprietary ingredient, which mirrors the compound responsible for cephalopods' (like octopi) changing color.

Not all biotechnology brands look specifically to nature, however. Buzzy skincare brand Ourself boasts a collection of 24 products that utilize the brand's patent-pending peptides—called Intides— as well as Subtopical Firming Technology to deliver ingredients deeper into the skin for clinically-verified results (including hydration, minimizing fine lines, and boosting volume). The merging of aesthetic procedures and skincare is just the latest avenue for biotechnology as customers crave better results without resorting to in-office options. 

Most recently, fragrance powerhouse Givaudan (which has also invested in biotech brands like Arcaea) acquired a portfolio of cosmetic ingredients from biotech firm Amyris, which has launched brands like Biossance, JVN Hair, Rose Inc., Costa Brazil, and Pipette. The company uses sugarcane fermentation to convert plant sugars into bioidentical molecules—squalane most famously. As a result, Amyris will manufacture three of its patented biotech ingredients, Neossance Squalane, Neossance Hemisqualane, and CleanScreen, for Givaudan to use in cosmetics, proving that even heritage brands want in on the biotech craze. 

Biotechnology Is the Future of Beauty

Ultimately, biotechnology isn't just a fad for the beauty industry—it's arguably the future of sustainability, product safety, and innovation. And for a sector that has long prized the new and noteworthy, biotech advancements feel like they have the data to support the hype, especially compared to some of the hazier trends over the passing years, like "clean" beauty. 

Considering that consumer demand for efficacy and naturally derived ingredients isn't going anywhere, biotech appears to be the solution to delivering those types of products without harming the planet in the process. As Ticku says, "Biotechnology in beauty holds the power to enable fact-based claims around performance, benefits, and sustainability. Fact-based claims empower consumers to make better decisions—what could be better for the beauty industry?"

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