Natural Beauty Ingredients: The quest for beauty and ethics in a single bottle

Natural Beauty Ingredients: The quest for beauty and ethics in a single bottle

In today's beauty-conscious world, the word "natural" has become a buzzword in the beauty product industry. It's plastered on bottles, tubes, and jars, giving consumers the assurance that they are making a healthier, safer choice for their skin and overall well-being. But is "natural" always synonymous with "better"?

In this blog post, we'll delve into the complex world of beauty product ingredients, exploring the concept of natural beauty products, their ethical implications, and the quest for cruelty-free and sustainable alternatives. We'll also shed light on plant-based solutions through expression technology, where science meets ethics to create non-animal derived proteins, changing the face of the beauty industry.

The Allure of Collagen:

Collagen, the golden child of the beauty industry, is a protein that everyone desires for youthful, supple skin. It forms the backbone of connective tissues throughout the body, constituting up to 35% of whole body protein. As we age, collagen depletion leads to sagging skin, making it a prized ingredient in anti-ageing creams and sera. However, here's the catch: collagen is predominantly animal-derived, with no natural plant-based version yet on the shelves. There have been substantiated concerns raised regarding the quality and safety of animal tissue-extracted collagen, particularly in relation to its immunogenicity, risk of disease transmission and overall quality and consistency. Vegan collagen supplements do not actually contain collagen, typically they are marketed as collagen promoting i.e. containing plant-derived amino acids in the same ratio as found in natural collagen.

Scientists have demonstrated that it is possible to produce human collagen in plants by using recombinant DNA technology. This plant-produced version has similar mechanical properties to that of native collagen and holds promise for the fields of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine if it can be scaled appropriately to meet demand.

Elastin: The Elasticity of Youth:

Elastin, a close companion to collagen, is responsible for the elasticity and plumpness of skin. As the fibres break down and the body's production slows over time, the skin begins to display fine lines and wrinkles. Just like collagen, elastin is sourced primarily from animals, often extracted from cattle's aorta or vertebrae. This raises ethical concerns for those looking for cruelty-free options. Many of the non-animal-derived alternatives are oligopeptide mimics containing a repeating pentapeptide sequence that copies the native protein and shares many of its functional properties. Currently these biocompatible pentapeptide oligomers are predominantly produced by chemical synthesis, but several companies have demonstrated the potential for production of peptides using more sustainable approaches by harnessing the power of microorganisms and plant-based fermentation.

The Quest for Plant-Based Keratin:

Keratin, the building block of hair, nails, and the skin's outer epidermis is a favourite in hair care products. Keratin works to create a sleek surface by smoothing the cells that interlock to compose hair strands, resulting in hair that is easier to manage and less prone to frizz. Additionally, Keratin has the capacity to temporarily mend split ends by binding the hair fibres together.

Due to high demand, researchers are eagerly exploring plant-based alternatives to traditional animal-derived keratin which comes from a number of sources including wool, hooves, horns and feathers. These developments could offer conscious consumers a sustainable and ethical choice. Because of its complex nature, this cysteine-rich protein is difficult to produce recombinantly in a form that accurately mimics the intricate structural properties of the native protein and in quantities that would satisfy future market requirements. As such the current vegan keratin solutions come from hydrolysed plant proteins that mimic some of the properties of keratin, but these can never repair the native keratin that is lost or damaged in our quest for the perfect 'do'. At Leaf, we’re working on a process to make plant-based keratin a reality with our current R&D programme.

Hyaluronic Acid: The Skin's Nourishing Friend:

Hyaluronic acid has taken over the beauty aisles with its super nourishing qualities. It is a key ingredient in moisturisers, lotions, ointments, and sera helping the skin to retain moisture and thus maintain flexibility and reduce wrinkles and lines. Originally sourced from chicken combs, the production of hyaluronic acid has evolved to more ethical, cruelty-free methods like bacterial fermentation. Yet, there is no true plant-based alternative. Whilst there may be plant-derived products that claim to have similar functional properties to hyaluronic acid, such as senna polysaccharides, native plants lack the enzymes required to assemble this intricate molecule. As has been achieved with engineered bacteria, it may be possible to introduce the genes required to produce hyaluronic acid into plants. A plant-based system is directly scaleable, allowing for the quick calculation of costs and yields based on a small-scale feasibility study.

Squalene and Squalane: From Sharks to Sustainability:

Squalene, a natural moisturiser and antioxidant found in human skin was once solely sourced from shark livers due to its high concentration. Fortunately, today's beauty industry primarily uses plant-based squalane extracted from olives, rice bran, and sugar cane. This shift marks a triumph for sustainability and ethical sourcing. Furthermore, a number of companies have started to produce pharmaceutical grade squalene using non-food crops such as duckweed and N. benthamiana, where the plants can be grown under controlled conditions to maximise the quality and quantity of the product.

The draw of natural beauty products is undeniable, but their ingredients might trip you up and come with ethical and sustainability concerns, particularly for conscious consumers seeking cruelty-free alternatives. While some plant-based alternatives are emerging, the beauty industry is also turning to science to create cosmetic proteins through plant-based expression systems. These innovations hold the promise of a brighter, more ethical future for the beauty industry, where you can have both beauty and ethics in a single bottle. As you navigate the complex world of beauty products, consider not just the label but also the science behind the ingredients, and make choices that align with your values and beliefs.

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