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In Beauty, the Opposite of Clean Is Not Dirty. It’s Science.

Published January 25, 2024
Published January 25, 2024
Troy Ayala

The cracks in the clean beauty movement have been in the making since the beginning. The absence of a universally accepted definition of clean beauty. The lack of regulation and certification. The opportunistic marketing. The scaremongering (“no nasties!”). The subjectivity of what constitutes “toxic.” The proliferation of “free from” ingredient lists that contradict each other. The demonization of certain ingredients that dermatologists deem benign and sometimes even necessary. The danger of preservative-free products due to microbial contamination. The focus on “natural” at all costs. (News flash: poison ivy is natural too). The consumer confusion around labeling. The inevitable cleanwashing claims. The only surprise is that clean beauty has lasted as long as it has.

When clean beauty first surfaced in the 1990s, it followed the clean eating movement’s growing scrutiny of consumer product labeling. The lack of ingredient transparency and education caused consumer alarm, especially regarding possible carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. Clean beauty was heralded as the antidote to the greenwashing that abounded a decade earlier. But that was then. “There seems to be discordance between what dermatologists know about the science of the skin and what is being disseminated to consumers through the clean beauty movement.” So said JAMA Network, the medical journal published by the American Medical Association, in elegantly understated style four years ago. And yet the clean beauty train kept running, fueled by the rise of conscious consumers seeking safe, ethical, and environmentally friendly products.

Of course, some brands made strides in bringing greater safety to the industry. Beautycounter (thus named because it countered the status quo) advocated for federal cosmetics law reform, culminating in the Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act of 2022 (MoCRA), the most significant expansion of the Food and Drug Administration’s authority to regulate cosmetics since 1938. But as Beautycounter founder, Gregg Renfrew, pointed out last year, much more work needs to be done.

You can say that again.

Beauty might be in the eye of the beholder, but when it comes to our beauty products, there is a common denominator that all credible products, regardless of their sticker price, must attain: ingredient safety and traceability, quality, consistency, performance, and sustainability. Biotechnology has them all covered, and then some. Whatever the question, biotechnology is the answer.

Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat: There can be no “biotechwashing” in beauty. Biotechnology is underpinned by science, rigorous clinical-testing, and manufacturing standards that have pharma-like precision and data credibility. There is zero margin for subjectivity, marketing interpretation, or spin. In our post-pandemic world, we are craving hardcore science and breakthrough innovation. Namby-pamby clean beauty claims just don’t cut it anymore (if they ever did).

As an industry, biotechnology welcomes regulation, even gets excited about it, because safety, purity, consistency, and quality are hardwired in the way we manufacture ingredients. The regulatory landscape will always favor biotech over cultivation or petroleum-based methods. We don’t need pesticides or toxic solvents; we produce less carbon dioxide, use less water, and  can conduct the entire biomanufacturing process in a controlled and clean, end-to-end solution.

Biotechnology also scores a major win when it comes to the sustainable sourcing of ingredients. In a Venn diagram consisting of nature and technology, biotechnology sits in the sweet spot right in the middle. Biotech ingredients are natural, but they have been developed in a lab. The development process is lengthy and costly, involving a great deal of investment in R&D, optimization, production, formulation, equipment, and facilities—not to mention a highly specialized headcount. But the upside is tremendous. What science allows us to do is understand how nature makes ingredients, and then translate it to an industrially scalable system, resulting in the exact same molecules that are found in trace amounts in nature using synthetic biology. Just as with any cutting-edge innovation, there are the early adopters, including companies such as L’Oréal, that are already firmly onboard. The rest will soon be brought over the line, thanks to clear and accessible education.

But the true beauty of biotechnology lies in its ability to access an untapped world of rare and potent plant-derived ingredients—without ever extracting our planet’s limited natural riches. Instead of stripping product formulations to make a plaintive “free from” claim, biotechnology enables us to infuse the next generation of beauty products with true novelty—addressing unmet needs and delighting and surprising consumers.

The best part? We are just at the start of what beauty and biotechnology can do together.

The views expressed in opinion pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BeautyMatter.


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