Biotech Beauty: Everything You Need To Know About Lab-Grown Skincare

It may sound like some kind of sci-fi script, but lab-grown ingredients have the potential to revolutionize product formulation as we know it.
Written by India Bottomley
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Biotech Beauty: Everything You Need To Know About Lab-Grown SkincareCDC/Unsplash

If the ‘clean’ beauty revolution of the last few years has taught us anything, it’s that consumer demand goes a long way towards inspiring change. As people demanded more insight into the products they were using on their skin, beauty brands responded with greater transparency. Perhaps this was no more evident than in the skincare space where efficacious, science-backed ingredients have become the standard.

In an effort to create even better products, cosmetic chemists have gotten creative with the way they are thinking about sourcing ingredients. In the past, the use of natural ingredients in skincare products tended to require (unsurprisingly) farming and harvesting, but there’s a new type of ingredient development cutting-edge skincare brands are adopting that bridges the gap between cosmetics, bioscience, and sustainability.

Biotechnology is allowing scientists to grow ingredients for your favorite skincare right in the laboratory (and, long term, the methods can extend far beyond the beauty aisle). It’s mind-blowing stuff, but there is a lot to unpack. Below, a primer on the ins and out of creating skincare with lab-grown ingredients with commentary from some of the leading thinkers in the space.

What Is a Lab-Grown Ingredient?

There is no one, industry-wide definition of ‘clean beauty’ — but the term tends to encompass everything from toxicity to environmentalism. As consumers sought more transparency and accountability, the concept of ‘clean’ migrated from a smaller, niche market to an industry-wide trend. In the process, product formulations stopped including certain ingredients and reassed how it sourced others.

This increased awareness, coupled with a rapid progress in biochemistry and biotech, has created the perfect storm for new green technologies to make their way into our skincare cabinet. Lab-grown ingredients come in several forms. Among the brands we’re speaking to, they run the gamut from cloned orchid stem cells to molecular technology that targets inflammaging (a.k.a. the relationship between how chronic low-grade inflammation accelerates the aging process).

These human-made ingredients are usually derived from natural products at the outset. Still, because they can be reproduced artificially, they don’t require the same quantity of natural resources as traditional ingredients. This means formulators aren’t beholden to how changes in climate or environment impact the quality of ingredients, manufacturers don’t have to burden natural resources, and brands are able to develop more sustainable products in the long term.

How Is Science Moving From Labs to Skincare?

While the environmental component of biotechnology and biochemistry has the potential to be, for lack of a better term, earth shattering in and of itself, the efficacy angle is similarly compelling. So, how did this lab-based research make it into the world of beauty and skincare?

Take the story of skincare brand Heraux. “While I was at UCLA, I got interested in the question of how stem cells regulate their age,” recalls co-founder Ben Van Handel, PhD. “How do they know when it’s time for us to be young, vibrant, happy and then, as we age, things start to slow down?” These questions helped Dr. Van Handel and his colleague, Amir Nobakht, MD, discover HX-1 — the lab-grown molecule that has the starring role in the Heraux Molecular Anti-Inflammaging Serum.

Initially, HX-1 was not intended for skincare. “At UCLA, we had weekly scientific meetings and someone from the building would get up on the whiteboard, start talking about their science, and other scientists would generally criticize their science, politely or perhaps not so politely,” Dr. Van Handel shares. After presenting data around the molecule, a researcher approached him and suggested he explore topical uses because, as he explains, “the skin is in this unfortunate position of being exposed to pro-inflammaging factors, like sun exposure, wind, and air pollution, but also factors from the inside, like what we eat, what we drink, and psychological stress.”

Needless to say, he took the advice. “We eventually ran a clinical study,” he says. “Then, when we got positive results, we thought, ‘right, it’s time to put a brand together, put a product together, and get going.’”

Are Lab-Grown Ingredients More Sustainable?

While some lab-grown ingredients offer groundbreaking benefits, others provide necessary alternatives to naturally derived actives.“Biotechnology is a beautiful intertwine of nature and science — taking the best of nature and advancing it using science to create superior ingredients that not only transform your skin but also give back to nature,” explains Sheila Chaiban, CEO of One Ocean Beauty.

While the conversations around ecofriendliness usually revolve around excess packaging and single-use plastics, the topic goes much deeper than that. “L.E.N.I. — or lab engineered natural ingredients — is our approach to being a more sustainable brand,” says Carrie Barber, founder of MAKE. “We leaned into biotech because we felt we could go one step further beyond packaging and focus on sustainability in ingredients and raw materials.”

The reality is that a single sample of an ingredient can be enough to make high-quality product for a long time. “Growing and harvesting natural ingredients is very taxing on the earth, takes a lot of energy, and also disrupts the biodiversity of our soil,” Barber explains. “By Utilizing L.E.N.I, we can harvest less natural material and use methods such as upcycling and cold-pressing.” Consider, for example, the botanicals needed to create one of MAKE’s skincare products. “Rather than harvesting an entire field of orchids, we take the stem cells from one stem and clone them in the lab, ultimately preserving more of our natural resources,” she shares.

Can Lab-Grown Formulas Be More Efficacious?

It’s not hard to see that lab-grown ingredients tend to be gentler on the environment and also allow brands to harness the power of elements that would otherwise be difficult to include in product formulations. “It is not just a better choice from a sustainability perspective, but it enables us to produce ingredients with better performance, better quality control, at higher reliability,” Chaiban says. “The process demands more rigorous testing, making these ingredients more effective and controlled than ever.”

Quality control is essential to the manufacturing process. “Subtle changes in growing conditions in harvested ingredients can cause issues since we only take one sample,” Chaiban notes. “We can produce a consistent product year after year with much less opportunity for variation and more consistent levels of active material.” As she sees it, biosynthetic ingredients allow for “the safest, most controlled supply chain” because “quality is guaranteed when ingredients are grown in a controlled environment.”

Take, for instance, one of the star marine ingredients in the One Ocean Beauty line. “It is sourced from a radiation-resistant microorganism discovered in a waterfall in the Pyrenees Mountains in Northern Spain,” she shares. “This organism has adapted to protect itself from extreme radiation.” When applied topically, it “actively stimulates the skin’s natural photosensors to prepare it for light exposure,” Chaiban says. Through bio-fermentation, the brand is able to reproduce these natural molecules in a lab setting.

The Takeaway

Lab-grown ingredients might sound kind of like they’ve come straight from a sci-fi script, but consumers are curious. “I have found through my conversations with editors or with customers that it still requires some education,” Barber says. The question she gets most often: Is a lab-engineered ingredient natural? “The answer to that is yes, the ingredients are biologically identical when made in a lab,” she says. But there is an important distinction. “You can make what you need, and the material stays consistent from batch to batch,” she adds. Long term, it’s not hard to imagine that this technology can not only revolutionize sustainability in the beauty industry but also overhaul the future of farming.

All products featured are independently selected by our editors, however, AEDIT may receive a commission on items purchased through our links.

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INDIA BOTTOMLEYis a contributing writer for AEDIT.

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