How biotech is changing our ideas about green beauty


Recently, clean, eco-friendly beauty has become much easier to find (which we love!). But a perennial concern — voiced everywhere, from the social media comment section to beauty brand boardrooms — is: what’s really green? And what about the caveats, like all-natural ingredients that deplete the environment?

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Like many game-changing ideas, the answer may lie in a surprising place: biotechnology. Bay Area innovator Amyris has devised a method to mass-produce a life-saving treatment for malaria using molecules derived from sugar cane and a genetically engineered fermentation process. Its first brand, Biosanceuses this patented fermentation process to make an ingredient called squalane, an emollient previously derived from unsustainable sources like shark livers.

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Squalane is a very effective moisturizer that our skin naturally contains. We are literally born with a layer on our bodies, but we lose it over time,” says Ramya Viswanathan, director of new product development for Biossance, which has an all-female-led team. “Squalane also enhances the effectiveness of other ingredients it’s paired with, which makes it amazing in skincare.” At launch, Biossance became an instant favorite at Sephora and today has Reese Witherspoon as a fan and spokesperson. (Its Biossance kit, The Sunshine Set, launches this month.) Since engineering squalane, Biossance says 2 million sharks a year have been spared liver harvesting for cosmetics.

“By harnessing the power of biotechnology, we are able to offer high-performance products that reveal your best skin, without negative impact on the environment”, explains Catherine Gore, president of Biossance. All the sugar cane used in this process is Bonsucro certified, which means it is produced responsibly. “It’s possible to have it all: a beautiful, effective product that’s driven by science and sustainability,” says Gore. “At Biossance, we believe that the nerdy side of science and the charming side of beauty can coexist.”

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In fact, that’s what drew Witherspoon to the brand. “I was so impressed with the formulas and how they felt on my skin,” she says, who has visited the labs herself. “I loved that it’s female-led and they’re recreating effective ingredients to be more sustainable.”

This biotech fermentation process honed at Amyris is what the industry often calls “clean chemistry”: where advanced technology meets Mother Nature for a greatly reduced footprint without compromising efficiency or safety. Since its launch, Biossance has won multiple awards for its formulas, several of which have become cults, such as Squalane + Omega Repairing Cream and Squalane + Seaweed Eye Contour Cream. Today Biossance sells a product every 15 seconds. “When you invent something these days, it’s usually a reinvention, but it’s really a breakthrough,” Viswanathan says. “We are so proud that Biossance is truly creating a more sustainable future for the beauty industry.”

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