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Rise of the Green Cosmeceuticals

by Nora Zelevansky

Photograph by Jenn Hoffman

“Growing old naturally” was once a euphemism for giving up—letting wrinkles, sags and sun spots gradually reclaim the skin. And combatting the aging process non-invasively meant using chemical-laden products, packed with toxic (or at least questionable) synthetic ingredients.

Give one up for progress: It’s no secret that eco-chic and organic beauty has transcended its once-granola reputation, thanks to delightful natural fragrances and wholesome ingredients, but efficacy has been less prioritized—until now. Thanks to tenacious botanical chemists, skincare innovators, suppliers in outlying countries and proponents of natural skincare science, a slew of green anti-aging cosmeceuticals has just hit the market. And they’re all about results.

The late arrival of these active, non-toxic products is no mystery.  “Challenges and rewards are in equal supply for the green chemist,” explains Marianne Griffeth, founding owner of Prima Fleur, a leading manufacturer of custom botanical personal-care products. “Sourcing from amazing suppliers in remote areas, we have experienced delivery delays due to hurricanes, earthquakes, revolutions and wars,” she says. “Also, formulating with essential oils, natural vegetable oils, natural preservative systems, stabilizers, thickeners, emulsifiers and fresh ingredients is difficult and expensive.” And Griffeth must know, intimately, about 1,200 natural ingredients.

Why has this sector of the industry suddenly come alive? Griffeth points to the certification of personal care, which—thanks to increased transparency during the vetting process—has made the public more aware of questionable chemical components to their mainstream products. “It was as if someone switched on the light,” she muses.  “Although not all ingredients and not all products are certified, a new standard was established.”  Worldwide regulation has also lubricated the import/export of safe ingredients.

And the more these natural products are tested and sampled, the more their efficacy is evidenced, answering detractors and cynics.  Of course, for longtime natural skincare devotees, their superiority is a no-brainer—especially when it comes to anti-aging. “Chemical ingredients can treat aging skin in a coercive rather than cooperative way, damaging the skin’s long-term longevity by weakening the support structure,” explains natural beauty creator Tata Harper, whose new anti-aging SuperNatural Collection—under the umbrella of her eponymous line—launches this summer with three targeted serums for loss of volume and shape and also discoloration.  “Natural ingredients of very high quality and the right molecular weight are highly effective, and have clinical claims to back them up.”

That may explain why medical professionals are turning to natural remedies for healing, and for boosting results, too. Facial plastic surgeon Jon B. Turk, M.D., swears by oral homeopathics such as arnica and bromiline to defend against swelling and bruising before and after procedures like nasal surgeries, as well as Swiss Rose Botanical Serum to help the skin fight aging and retain moisture. His practice also uses patients’ own cells and proteins, like Platelet Rich Plasma, to boost elastin levels and increase circulation under the eyes.

The doctor’s consciousness was raised to more organic solutions several years ago and he hasn’t looked back.  “A more mindful approach to my own life translated into tuning in to what patients were seeking: subtle, graduated changes that improved, but did not totally transform their looks and harnessing the body’s own power to rejuvenate the skin, avoiding dependence on invasive surgery or artificial fillers,” he explains.  “In cosmeceuticals, the most important work is coming from better understanding skin physiology and better quality products. The use of essential oils to maintain hydration and preserve the skin’s natural homeostatic barrier and the use of pure botanical stem cells to boost collagen health and protect against oxidative damage are two examples.”

Of course, a cosmeceutical’s superiority depends on its ingredients, and that’s where great discoveries—often rooted in ancient ethnobotanical remedies—are coming to the forefront. “Innovation in green chemistry doesn’t usually involve inventing a new chemical combination,” Griffeth explains.  “More often, it is a discovery of a benefit of something existing in nature.”

Woman Receiving Back Massage

Advances in green chemistry have expanded the range of natural remedies that offer real results.

For Griffeth, newly developed natural preservative systems are perhaps the biggest recent advance because without them, natural products would be unstable and without shelf life.  She also points to organically-farmed alfalfa that behaves like retinol (but without irritation) and meristem (plant) cell culture extract that repairs UV-induced damage, among others: “These ingredients benefit the consumer, [but also] the environment by replacing petrochemical solvents, synthetic carriers and genetically modified starting materials.”

Pomegranate, delivery systems and amino acids. In her new line, Harper employs some of the newest and most exciting anti-aging developments too. Atop the collagen-boosting base of her beloved Rejuvenating Serum, each new serum has a set of 35 to 37 active components, both preventive and corrective. The Boosted Contouring Serum features an amino acid extracted from vegetable starch and encapsulated in an iosome delivery system (for deep penetration) and Pomegranate Hydrospheres, both of which tighten and lift. The Concentrated Brightening Serum, with marine ingredients like Sea Daffodil extract, reduces dark spots and stem cells from France’s Madonna Lily also interfere with the transfer of melanin to fight darkening spots.

Lastly, Harper’s super potent Elixir Vitae battles wrinkles with Sweet Iris Leaf stem cells and natural African vitamin C that stimulate collagen growth. Extract from the Spring Snowflake bulb inhibits muscle contraction, like a natural topical Botox for the folds between the nose, cheek and mouth.

Vitamin C, omega 3s and omega 6s. Valérie Grandury, creator of the beauty line Odacite, and co-owner of pop-up collaborative eco-wellness shop, The Detox Market, has a new serum with high-concentration vitamin C, considered five times more potent than the norm because it is oil soluble like the skin’s barrier.  “In 10 years, this will be the norm not the exception,” she says of natural cosmeceuticals. In Grandury’s private collection of precious oils, she relies on buriti, moringa, wild carrot, baobab and marula as radiance boosters.

“When we age, the skin barrier functions decrease, creating dryness—skin loses its ability to repair itself and thins, causing wrinkles,” says Grandury.  “Omega 3s and 6s are essential fatty acids that the body cannot produce, but are vital to healthy skin.  Applied topically, they dramatically improve the texture and quality of skin, allowing for cells to hold onto water.”  According to green beauty experts, Omega 3s and 6s help plump and hydrate and decrease UV skin damage.

Algae, Narcissus and other plant (specifically bulb) extracts. The Narcissus flower and bulb, with antioxidant extracts and the ability to slow melanin synthesis, is the “hero ingredient” in the Amala Brighten Collection. The new Amala Rejuvenate Advanced Firming Complex uses Brown Algae with Soy, Hibiscus and Inca Inchi to improve skin texture and tone. According to Terese Linke, the company’s Global Spa Training and Education Director, the extraction process makes a big difference in terms of efficacy: “If you use harsh chemicals to extract the plant content, or use irradiation to kill all living enzymes in the natural ingredients, you end up with dead natural gunk,” she explains. “If you respect the plant and work with it to preserve the life-force of nature, you will have a highly effective product.”

Plant Stem Cells. Dr. Turk believes that stem cells will be central over the next 20 years in the world of aesthetic and reconstructive surgery. The plant versions have two distinctive properties: the ability to self-renew and the ability to create all differentiated cell types, according to Szilvia Hickman, SVP of Szep Elet, distributor of ilike Organic Skincare, which just launched Grape Stem Cell Solutions. Hickman also considers these the future of medicine. “This revolutionary biotechnology enables our bodies to regenerate tissue and slow the aging process,” she asserts.  “Red grape stem cells super-charge the skin with powerful antioxidants resveratrol and OPCs (lligomeric proanthocyanidins), providing natural UV protection by neutralizing free radicals created by UV damage.”

Probiotics and Inflammation. In recent years, the skincare world has often relied on causing “false alarm” responses (a simulation of damage to spark regeneration), but the inflammation that comes with that can actually accelerate aging, according to the creators of probiotic skincare line MyBody.  Instead, they rely on “biomimicry”: modifying topical probiotics to stimulate the skin without irritating it.  “Topical probiotics stimulate a wound-healing response, proven to help increase hydration, elasticity, collagen production, oxygen uptake and antimicrobial activity, while also interrupting the inflammation pathway,” explains MyBody co-founder, Therese Clark.  “In simpler terms, maximum stimulation with minimal inflammation brings the skin back to a more balanced, youthful state.”

Clearly the green cosmeceutical landscape is flourishing. Says Marianne Griffeth: “I’ve seen tremendous changes. I doubt there is an industry other than the high-tech [world] that has changed so dramatically.”

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