A Green Movement in The Cosmetic Industry: A Shift From Petrochemical-Based To Bio-Based Products

By Margaret Zhang, a graduate student in the Winnik Group at the University of Toronto and the Secretary for the GCI

The Cosmetic Industry

Cosmetics are products that can be applied to the human body to beautify, cleanse, and target certain topical concerns.1 The global revenue of the industry was 380 billion USD in 2019 and is expected to reach 463 billion USD in 2027.2 You can find a variety of cosmetic products in drugstores ranging from lipsticks and eyeshadows to moisturizers and anti-aging creams.

Figure 1. Cosmetic products.3

Current Problems in The Cosmetic Industry

A long-term problem in the industry is the usage of petrochemical-derived materials in cosmetic formulations.4 These chemicals are obtained from crude oil and natural gas.5 They can be toxic, irritating, and allergen-inducing.4 For example, carcinogenic benzophenone can be found in sunscreen formulations.6 Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is often used in cleansers despite it can cause skin irritations.4 Synthetic colors were evidenced to induce allergies.4

Moreover, petrochemicals are non-renewable, non-sustainable, and exert negative impacts on the environment.4 Most cosmetic products contain organic solvents which release volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are precursors to ozone and secondary aerosols that can lead to global pollution.7 Considering these negative health and environmental effects, it is essential to develop a more sustainable alternative to circumvent such deleterious effects.  

Bio-based Alternatives for Petrochemicals in The Cosmetic Industry

An emerging trend in the cosmetic industry is to replace petroleum-based ingredients with more abundant bio-based ingredients (e.g., plant-sourced), producing so-called “biocosmetics”.4

Green Biotechnology in The Cosmetic Industry

There are many biotechnological advancements in synthesizing biocosmetics. One classical method is fermentation processes. Such processes involve the usage of microorganisms (e.g., bacteria, enzymes) to produce the desired products (e.g., organic acids, antibiotics).8 In industry, these processes are usually carried out in bioreactors, which are containers that can provide the optimal temperature and pH for these reactions (Figure 2).9 One example of using fermentation is the production of butylene glycol, which is used in cosmetic products to provide moisturizing effects.8 Traditionally, butylene glycol is synthesized via dehydrogenation of carcinogenic acetaldehyde.10 Instead, fermentation can be employed as a safer and simpler method.6 In addition to butylene glycol, fermentation can be used to produce many other useful ingredients in cosmetics such as hyaluronic acid (anti-aging) and Kojic acid (depigmenting).11,12

Figure 2. Industry scale bioreactors used to carry out fermentation processes.13

A more recent approach for specific bio-based reagents is using genetic editing via recombinant DNA technology (Figure 3). This method involves the insertion of exogenous genes of interest (i.e., DNA) into a bacterial plasmid to produce recombinant DNA vectors, which can be used to transduce cells, forcing them to generate desirable products.14 In the field of cosmetics, this technology can be used to produce enzymes such as superoxide dismutase (SOD) and proteases. SOD is often formulated into sunscreen to regulate the number of reactive oxygen species and reactive nitrogen species formed upon UV exposure.15 Proteases are usually formulated in exfoliators because they can break down peptides into amino acids.8 Recombinant DNA technology can also be used to produce proteins by using microalgae.8 Some notable examples include Spirulina and Chlorella; both of which were evidenced to have anti-aging effects.16,17

Figure 3. Recombinant DNA technology.18

Challenges in The Green Movement

Although biocosmetics hold many advantages as discussed in previous paragraphs, there are many challenges in the green movement. Biocosmetics are heavily dependent on production of plants which also vary with seasonal changes.4 Maintaining constant plant supply throughout the year is therefore challenging. Green movement would also limit the vibrance of many make-up products.4 Furthermore, there is a lack of global standards regarding the ingredients of biocosmetics. Continued efforts in this field can lead to substantial progress in transforming the cosmetic industries towards more renewable, safe, and potentially more cost-effective solutions.


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