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The evolution of cosmetic grade botanical extracts.

November 12, 2013

The cosmetics industry thrives on stories and nothing captures our imagination more than the thought that some intrepid explorer has scaled the highest mountain, dived down into the deepest sea or crawled through man-eating jungle to discover the magic, mystery and power that is the Elixir of eternal youth.

Recognise these:

  • The Swiss Apple that lives for one thousand years under a harsh climate of cold, wind, rain and intense UV.  Now if we can just put that in a bottle we would all be rich……
  • Edelweiss – another lofty mountain dweller with anti-inflammatory powers again brought about by the plants need to withstand extremes in UV radiation and temperature.
  • Australia’s much-loved Kakadu Plumb and its super high vitamin C levels that are guaranteed to keep you looking young and sprightly well into retirement.
  • The classic Sandalwood with its soft, soothing and elegant base note aroma paired with its powerful healing qualities.

All of the above tell a story and live up (to one degree or another) to their lofty promises but at what environmental cost? Each of the four botanicals listed above have their own not-always-happy story to tell.  Be it one of demand exceeding supply,  disturbance of native environment,  intellectual property ownership or greed and deception going ‘au naturel’ isn’t all sweetness and light!


Looking at the market and how it has developed over the last fifteen years shows that rather than experiencing ‘exotic plant fatigue’ our skin potion buying friends are hungry for more and that is why we need to start to stop and think about how we farm these things in order to avoid doing more harm to these species than good.

So, let’s have a look at the evolution of the cosmetic grade botanical extract to see where we have been and where we are heading to!

  1. Wild Harvest.   Before there was the organised chaos that is the cosmetics industry there were real people doing real things.  This still goes on today and wild harvesting remains the key way of sourcing rare or pre-commercialised botanicals.  Wild harvest  is perhaps the only ‘natural’ way to go as the plant just does what it does, growing wherever the wind takes it only to be spied and harvested by your budding cosmetic creator or healer to add to their potion.  However, once this ‘best kept secret’ gets out and the quiet and delicate footsteps of one become a thunderous stamped the wild harvest concept morphs from one of ‘hippy love fest’ to ‘big foot’s 4 wheel drive adventures’ and suddenly it doesn’t seem like such a great idea any more.
  2. Organic Farming.   Far from being a new ‘greenwashing’ concept organic farming was once just plain old farming and remains that way for many the world over.  So, once your new exotic botanical has been spied and captured attempts can then be made to cultivate the crop organically to produce a cash crop that can be used for cosmetic and other markets.  This is what I would class as ‘almost natural’ as the plants do grow without the chemical enhancements but they are still being ‘farmed’ and as such are still part of a contrived and controlled environment with its own challenges.
  3. Factory farming.  As above but with extra chemicals and mechanics (but this does depend on the crop and the scale of production).  For those botanicals such as say the kakadu plum or Sandalwood that have reached international fame and volume requirements the idea of sustainability becomes as much about income as it is about biodiversity.  Security in the supply chain is a must for larger cosmetic brands – no good launching your wonder cream laced with exotic green mango star flower if you can only get hold of it when the moon is rising in Jupiter’s seventh heaven.  So, we try to cultivate the botanical and grow it in the equivalent of an open air factory where (fingers crossed) the crop will give a high yield of extract with almost uniform chemistry.   Depending on the type and amount of chemicals used and the work that goes in at the start of the process to create a useful cultivar this could either pass as natural or fail to make the grade (Genetic Modification? Chemical use? Land management?
  4. ?

The problem with all three of the above is the need for all of the things that a planet heaving with bodies and thirsty for more goodies is running short of namely soil and water.  This problem is not just one for the cosmetic chemist to ponder. It also befalls the medical herbalist,  pharmaceutical industry and the pallets of the global foodie and as such it is a big deal.


So we move to option 4 and that takes place in the laboratory.

Botanical wizards IRB (who were purchased by the UK ingredient manufacturer Croda recently)  have been winning awards for their eco-sustainable biotechnological processes (their words).   Basically they are growing rare and interesting plants and their actives in a laboratory setting and reducing the need for water and land by impressive amounts in the process.

Their website tells of a 99% reduction in water and land for the production of 1Kg of active substance which sounds absolutely awesome but not only that, the extracts are free from contaminants (a recent ‘bring your own soil sample’ project looking at contaminants in backyard soil around NSW to be up to 1300ppm which is well in excess of the 40ppm max limit for cosmetic ingredients) .

The company have won awards for their clean technology and won legions of customers through their highly potent actives which include Buddleja stem cells which target photo ageing,  Echinacea for dark circle reduction and Gardenia for Collagen restructuring.  But do these cells still tick the ‘I’m natural’ box?

According to certifying body Ecocert the answer (for most of their range at least) is yes. However, I’m sure there will be readers out there that find this ‘playing God’ or ‘botanical jiggery pokery’ far too contrived to be pure and natural.

Whatever your initial reaction I’d encourage you to take a closer look as  stem cell cultures grown in a laboratory environment seem like a logical next step and it may even be the only way to keep us in nature-derived goodies going forward. I don’t for one minute expect every problem can be solved by a lab-grown solution but do feel that this type of innovation has its place in our green and beautiful future.

It is good to see some hands-on science baring fruit so to speak and I have to say, I look forward to getting my hands on some of these beauties!

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