In 2018, the global personal care market was worth an estimated US$124 billion.
Synthetic biology – the discipline making biology easier to engineer – is disrupting that market, making it more sustainable and, well, more personal.
Many of the personal care products you are using today are likely made from petroleum-based chemicals. But growing consumer awareness around buying choices and their impact on the environment is driving the growth of sustainable personal care products. That awareness has made sustainable and bio-based products one of the fastest-growing areas of personal care.
Synthetic biology companies are already producing many of the ingredients found in personal care products using biosynthesis, the same basic process used to make beer. But instead of yeast converting sugar into alcohol, biosynthesis can be engineered to convert sugar into just about anything you want. These new bioengineered products are more environmentally friendly than traditionally sourced products.
Amyris, a pioneering synthetic biology company, uses biosynthesis to create squalene, an important moisturizer and antioxidant found in many personal care products and certain vaccines. Sharks, especially those found deep in the seas, are targeted for the high concentration of squalene found in their livers.
In 2015, Amyris took its expertise in creating sustainable personal care products ingredients directly to the consumer market. The company launched Biossance, a brand that creates clean ingredients through synthetic biology and uses tree-free, responsible outer packaging. Biossance has become a top-seller at Sephora stores in the United States.
Another company developing sustainable cosmetics using synthetic biology is Geltor. The company has developed animal-free collagen, one of the most plentiful proteins in mammals.
Most collagen used in personal care comes from the hides and connective tissues of cows (and fish, in the case of marine collagen). Because factory farming (and fishing) can’t keep up with the demand for collagen, Geltor’s product is important not only to meet demand, but to sustain the environment.
Perhaps more importantly for consumers, Geltor uses technology with its HumaColl21™ product specifically to make a rare type of collagen found in the human body that is critical for youthful-looking skin and outperforms animal-derived collagen.
Not only does synthetic biology produce things more environmentally friendly, it also enables the production of products that were previously impossible. This collagen product is better than its animal-derived counterparts. Geltor
Geltor is also developing a vegan gelatin. Widely used to give texture and stability to produce like gummy candy, yogurts, marshmallows and Jell-O pudding, traditional gelatin is extracted from collagen-rich animal products like bones, pigskins, and cattle hides.
Early in 2019, Bolt Threads launched Eighteen B, a direct-to-consumer beauty company that has developed a silk-protein-based moisturizer and cream. Bolt Threads brews spider silk proteins using biology and fermentation.
Eighteen B creates, produces, and isolates silk proteins in their unbroken form. That allows them to be used as a more protective barrier. Eighteen B’s products are non-toxic, free from sulfates, parabens, petrochemicals, and fragrance. Because they are brewed, the process to produce them can brag “no spiders or silkworms were injured in the creation of this product.”
Many personal care products include fragrances derived from botanical sources such as vanilla, patchouli, and rose oil. Those products can be resource-intensive. Moreover, supplies are not always dependable due to weather and other unpredictable events.
Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks produces fragrances by engineering yeast to produce the fragrances that would traditionally be synthesized by plants. The company has worked with perfumier Robertet and others to develop fragrances and make them at a commercial scale. In addition, Ginkgo Bioworks successfully created a perfume using the floral scents from several extinct flowers. (That perfume is currently on display at New York City’s Cooper Hewitt Museum until January 2020).
Small, innovative companies aren’t the only ones transforming personal care to make it more sustainable. Previously, I’ve written about Procter & Gamble’s embrace of bio-based materials. In the past few years, the company has introduced Tide purclean, PampersPure, Downy Nature Blends, and most recently EC30 – products that are sustainable and incorporate non-synthetic ingredients.
EC30 is a new product line from Procter & Gamble. Instead of a fluid, the product is a wafer that activates with water, reducing the emissions associated with shipping all that water around. Procter & Gamble
Scaling bio-based materials is one of the most significant challenges in the natural-products industry. When a company the size of P&G succeeds in mass-producing bio-based materials and incorporating them across their product line, the global impact will be significant.