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The Hard Truth: Natural Ingredients Aren't Always the Most Sustainable

Since the dawn of the eco-friendly beauty movement, we’ve been taught that natural and organic ingredients are better for us and the planet than synthetic ones. But, as we learn more about the impact our beauty choices have on the environment, we’re also learning that that isn’t always the case. In fact, sometimes, the most environmentally responsible option are ones that come from a lab.

Whether they are synthetic compounds or green chemistry alternatives, science has been working overtime lately to try and devise new ways to enhance and replace those problematic natural ingredients that do more damage than good, like palm oil, vanilla, floral extracts, and more.

In an effort to be more eco-conscious beauty consumers, we talked to the experts about which plants and extracts are the most problematic, as well as what scientists and chemists are doing around the world to formulate new alternatives that are more sustainable with less environmental impact. From a terpene-derived replacement for silicones to a “couture” fragrance oil that comes from waste, here’s everything you need to know about science and sustainability.

First Things First: What Does Sustainable Even Mean?

Well, that’s the problem—it’s different for everyone. “There’s no true, objective, quantitative assessment of sustainability that’s really standardized or universally accepted,” explains Neil Burns, CEO of P2 Science, a renewable specialty chemicals producer. “There are folks working on things but we’re not there yet.” Adds Stephen Nilsen, a senior perfumer at flavors and fragrance house Givaudan, “People are trying to create their own definition of sustainability. It can mean supporting communities that are creating materials, it can mean having a renewable source of a starting material, it can mean protecting the environment, it can mean good stewardship of water. Lacking the definition of what sustainability is, people can go to many different things.” Defining sustainability comes down to identifying which aspects are most important to you and what kind of trade-offs you are willing to make.

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The (Sometimes) Problem With Natural

Nature, as wonderful as it is, only has a finite amount of resources to give us in terms of beauty ingredients—they aren’t sustainable, especially when you need large amounts of said plant in order to produce a product on an industrial scale. A perfect example of this issue is fragranced products. “Think about all of the scented laundry detergent,” says Nilsen. “If we wanted to create that perfume using natural fragrances, there is not enough land on the planet to grow enough perfume to scent all the laundry detergent that people use around the world. So, we have to look at synthetic alternatives to save those natural resources for the things that matter, like food.”

An IRL example comes from Zahir Dossa, Co-Founder and CEO of custom haircare brand Function of Beauty (and a Ph.D. in sustainability), who selects synthetic or natural fragrances for his products based on environmental impact: “Natural fragrances are not always more sustainable. For example, with our fragrance that launched earlier this year, Strike a (R)ose, we decided to go the synthetic route, while [with our newest scent] True L(o)vender, it made sense to create using natural essential oils. Producing a single pound of lavender essential oil can take roughly 250 pounds of lavender, while producing the same amount of rose can take roughly 10,000 pounds of rose petals."

Natural fragrances are not always more sustainable.

Lorna Sommerville, the brand’s CMO adds, “When you consider everything involved in getting those raw materials versus the ability to produce something like that in a synthetic way, the absolute impact is much less. We’re always weighing up the pros and cons relative to what it is we know our customers are looking for and finding what are the right trade-offs and what’s the right balance.”

Then, of course, are those ingredients that are natural, but the resources it takes to produce them can be absolutely devastating to the environment. “Palm oil is totally natural, it’s also safe and it could be sustainable, but usually isn’t because it’s grown on plantations where the rainforest has been clear cut,” explains Mia Davis, Director of Mission at clean beauty retailer Credo. “[This practice] has displaced thousands and thousands of species. They plant rows and rows of palm plants and when they are done with them, they just exploit that resource and burn it all down again. It takes a long time for the environment to recover, if it even can. So, while palm oil and its derivatives are safe and natural, they are not necessarily sustainable.”

Another not-so-awesome natural ingredient? Animal byproducts—things like ambergris, which comes from whales, and the sourcing of which resulted in untold numbers of these majestic creatures being hunted and killed in the past. But, thanks to scientists like those at Givaudan, there are now synthetic alternatives derived from plants available to formulators that give products the same features without hurting wildlife.

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Synthetic Shouldn’t Be A Dirty Word

For many people who prefer their products to be organic and green, ingredients concocted in a lab are to be avoided at all costs. The thought process is, the less an ingredient is manipulated, the better. But, as all our experts acknowledge, it’s not that simple. “The way we have been taught to think about synthetic chemicals or lab-made things is that they are somehow ok for medical devices, but for everything else it must be bad or suspicious,” says Davis. “But, a lot of lab-made products are inspired by nature and biomimicry.” 

Adds Nilsen, “We are inspired by nature—nature is beautiful and creates so many diverse things—and that guides science and it guides the scientific method. We look at things that are beautiful and say ‘why is that happening?’ It also allows us to say ‘how can we do that better?’ Then, a scientist can use the scientific method to create something better.”

He also stresses the point that organic chemistry is, in fact, based in the natural world. “Back in the 1850s, organic chemistry discovered that these natural materials are made up of molecules and so they synthesized those and were able to create molecules that didn’t just mimic nature, but were actually the exact same molecules that occurred in nature, just made in a laboratory.” The more you know.

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Lab Made Solutions

So, what have scientists been working on to solve the most pressing sustainability issues in beauty? Turns out, some really futuristic stuff. Here are just a few of those problems that have seen eco-friendly solutions recently, courtesy of science.

Palm Oil Deforestation

As we’ve become more aware of the harm that industrial farming of palm plants is doing to areas like Malaysia and Indonesia, ethically sourced palm oil is slowly becoming a priority for many companies. However, tracing where their palm oil is coming from and if it is truly ethical has been a challenge for many companies. Enter C16 Biosciences, a New England-based company using fermentation to help brew a palm-free alternative to palm oil. “It mimics palm oil and palm oil derivatives in a way that would be inherently sustainable and very safe and very controllable,” notes Davis. 

Ingredient Waste 

While the beauty industry likes to talk about all those natural and organic ingredients it uses, the reality is that whole plant formulation—as in, using the entire plant in a product—is still very much a niche practice. Usually, companies will take a part of the plant, like the root or seed or fruit, use that in their formulas, and leave the rest behind as waste. According to Nilsen, Givaudan is looking into ways to re-purpose that waste into covetable ingredients through a process called upcycling. “We’re taking a waste stream from one process and doing something to that waste stream to create a molecule with high value by using green chemistry," says Nilsen. The company has something he jokingly calls a “couture line” of upcycled materials, one of which is apple oil. “We use the pulp waste that comes from juice processing and do further processing to get apple oil—it’s one of the first fruit oils with an actual aroma component .” And, the upcycling doesn’t stop there—after the oil is extracted, the waste from that process is sent off to become cattle feed.

Resource Scarcity

As Nilsen mentioned, there is only so much usable land to grow plants, meaning a lot of the ingredients that are great for our beauty routines are very difficult to farm at an industrial level. Things like vanilla, one of the most popular flavors and fragrances in the world, would be devastating to the environment if we tried to use vanilla beans for everything that tasted or smelled like vanilla. So, artificial alternatives like vanillin were synthesized way back in the 19th century to feed our obsession with vanilla in all of the things. On the more modern-day side, there’s ambergris—the intestinal waste that comes from whales and is prized by perfumers for its rich and unique aroma. It’s also extremely rare and extremely expensive. While synthetic and plant-based alternatives exist, last year Givaudan went one step further to create an ambergris alternative made from a highly renewable resource—sugarcane. Givaudan’s version, called Ambrofix, uses a fermentation of sugarcane that re-creates the warm and alluring scent of ambergris. “We can now make this incredibly complex molecule through understanding enzymes, fermentation, and biotransformation,” says Nilsen. “We use 100 times less land to create it and we have a 100% renewable resource that we source as the starting material for making this molecule.”

Silicone 

The debate around silicone has raged for decades, from the potential pore-clogging effects and health risks (for the record, there’s no scientific proof to back either of those up) to the negative impacts it can have on our water supply and wildlife due to bioaccumulation (that one is unfortunately true). P2, in an effort to find plant-based alternatives to common chemical ingredients, discovered that a class of terpenes derived from pine trees had some potential as a clean, biodegradable replacement for silicones. Named Citropol 1A, this new liquid polymer is already causing major buzz in the beauty industry and is part of a wider class of ingredients the company is developing. “Citropols are created by joining together these various terpenes to make liquids of varying thicknesses and flow characteristics,” he says. “These so-called liquid polymers occur in very tiny amounts in nature, but have never been man-made before.” He notes that Citropol 1A, the first in the company’s Citropol line, is not yet in any products on shelves, but that a major beauty company is already in talks with them about incorporating it into its products by 2021. P2 is also exploring other uses for Citropols, with three new variations already in the works. Sadly, no hints from Burns on what they might be possible green replacements for, but he does note that they are looking closely at natural ingredients that are not meant to be harvested on an industrial scale.

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How To Make Better Beauty Choices

Sustainability in all forms is crucial for both consumers and companies to practice if we want to stave off the environmental havoc wreaked in centuries past. But, as our experts mentioned, it’s not easy for us to look at a label and know that a company is using sustainable methods. So, how do you make sure you are being responsible? Unfortunately, it’s not a full-proof practice as most often it requires companies to be transparent about how their products are sourced and made—something that isn’t required or regulated at the moment. The best thing you can do right now, says Davis, is ask questions of the brands and retailers you buy from. 

“We need more education and attention in this gray area of ‘clean’ beauty," she explains. "If we care about sustainability—and we should—we have to ask a lot of hard questions about the supply chain. There are going to be gaps [of information], but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be asking. We need more honesty and transparency on how things are grown and harvested or made in a lab.” For its part, Credo has guidance for all 130 of the brands they stock to help them ask those questions so that consumers know the fundamentals of how a product is sourced, manufactured, and created.

“There is a line between natural, naturally derived, and synthetic — and I think each of them have their pros and cons,” adds Dossa. “It’s dangerous to draw a hard and fast line that you only want natural. Each one of those can sometimes contribute to improving sustainability, or it can be a detriment. I think it really has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.”

In other words, if you really want to adapt a more sustainable beauty routine, do your homework and remember that sometimes the best option for the environment might not be the one that comes from the earth, but rather is created or improved on by scientists in a lab.

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