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The Innovative World of Clean Cosmetics

by Abbie Kozolchyk

From AI-optimized botanicals to biodegradable glitter, the new face of natural beauty will change the way you think about people- and planet-friendly products.

For much of human history, a trip to the beauty department would go something like this: You’d walk into a nice tract of rainforest and find, say, a Bixa Orellana (otherwise known as the lipstick tree). You’d pry open one of the fruits, rub its tiny red seeds, swipe your fingertip across your mouth, et voilà—a gorgeous crimson kisser. Or maybe you were a desert dweller in need of shampoo, in which case, you might scan the horizon for a good-looking yucca (alias: soap tree), peel and pound the root, add water, then lather to your scalp’s content.


To the delight of purists, many a beauty brand remains as faithful to this approach as possible in 2023, with minimal additions to the ingredient list, processing and packaging. Think: eyeshadow tins filled with nothing more than crushed minerals, or cardboard-wrapped blends of skin-softening shea butter, beeswax and almond oil. But another school of thought has been gaining ground: one that prizes natural ingredients, clean formulations and the lightest possible footprint— while also expecting serious results, innovation and even legitimate chicness.

“It’s always been my mission to settle the compromise,” says Valérie Grandury, a Parisian film industry pro turned California beauty entrepreneuse who switched from conventional to organic products after a cancer diagnosis in the early aughts. “At that time, the only natural skincare I could find was at the grocery store, but there was no pleasure in these formulas, no beauty in the packaging, no real performance,” she contends. “Why couldn’t natural skincare deliver the expertise and innovation I grew up with in France?”

With the 2009 launch of Odacité and a collection of pure plant serums, for starters, she sought to answer that question. Now, having turned the brand into a cult favorite, she’s pioneering the use of AI in clean beauty, one of several recent developments that suggest we’ve reached an inflection point in this corner of the cosmetics market.

The main reason we’ve gotten here? Unprecedented consumer demand, according to all 10 experts around the globe who weighed in for this report, from Australia’s Ere Perez, founder of the eponymous skincare and makeup  line, to the UK’s Lorna Mitchell, who leads innovation and product development for the organic body, skin and haircare powerhouse Grown Alchemist.

“Intense, specific consumer demand” paired with formulators’ evolving expertise and the public discourse around clean cosmetics, “has transformed the once staid eco-friendly niche into a dynamic, disruptive beauty product reckoning,” says Shel Pink, founder of the clean nail- and self-care staple Sparitual.

To understand what that disruption looks like—and means for you—read on. Over the next two pages, we’re diving into the most fascinating components.

“AI farming is the future of beauty formulation and I believe it will completely revolutionize the way we grow and source ingredients for skincare.”

– Valérie Grandury, California beauty entrepreneuse

Artificial Intelligence

For all the recent debate about the potential dangers of AI, one consistent source of optimism has been the healthcare possibilities—and as your largest organ, your skin stands to gain mightily. Or so the early adopters are betting, not least, Grandury: “AI farming is the future of beauty formulation and I believe it will completely revolutionize the way we grow and source ingredients for skincare,” she says.

Odacité’s case study is the just-launched Edelweiss Extrême Intense Repair Eye Cream, years in the making. “Ever since our inception, I have wanted to formulate an eye cream with edelweiss because of its impressive bioactive compounds,” she explains. (Imagine supercharged antioxidants that help this seemingly delicate flowering perennial survive Alpine extremes.)

“Rare and protected, edelweiss is almost impossible to  source from its endemic environment,” she says. “So we worked with AI engineers and molecular biologists, and after two years of research and development, we succeeded in replicating the optimal conditions for our edelweiss to grow with an enhanced concentration of leontopodic and chlorogenic acids, both known for exceptional anti- inflammatory and antiaging properties.” And there’s a bonus: This indoor AI-generated farming requires limited land use and irrigation—and no pesticides or fertilizers.

With AI already taking hold elsewhere in the beauty world—virtual try-on technologies; predictive skincare suggestions; immersive online boutiques with storytelling and gaming, to name a few applications—ingredient cultivation is a wide-open field. Indeed, according to the startup data platform Tracxn, the U.S. is already home to almost 240 AI-driven agriculture ventures, with some of the most exciting among them focused on plant bio-actives.

Bottom line: Watch this space.

Clean Chemistry

As even the casual observer of the beauty world knows, all kinds of formerly common ingredients have effectively been canceled—with parabens, phthalates and formaldehyde topping the list. Of course, every time something falls out of a formulation, something else needs to fill the void—and that’s when brands turn to the likes of Inolex. Though this Philadelphia-based ingredient manufacturer is nearly 150 years old, its modern mission is to use “safe, smart chemistry in harmony with renewable plant feedstocks” to create componentry for people- and planet-friendly beauty, health and wellness products.

A pivotal example: “We had an alternative to parabens in the late 1990s, when not very many people were looking for alternatives to parabens yet,” says Lisa Gandolfi, PhD, the company’s VP of Marketing. (Quick refresher: Parabens used to be go-to preservatives.) And while the esters that Inolex formulated instead were certainly green for that era—safe, biodegradable, with only water as a byproduct—“you do use heat to make esters, so we’re exploring new technology that will make the process less energy-intensive,” says Gandolfi.

Such improvements are no small thing, but an arguably bigger thing at the moment is a replacement for quats “which are popping up right now like crazy,” notes Gandolfi. Officially known as quaternary ammonium compounds, these common hair conditioning agents have recently been deemed unsafe for fish and waterways by the EU’s European Chemicals Agency.

Though Inolex had been formulating a succession of replacements for years, “in the spring of 2023, we were finally able to meet the performance of the number-one quat that’s used in haircare around the world,” says Gandolfi. “That was a huge breakthrough.” It’s an amino lipid technology called AminoSensyl Ultra MB (aka Cetearyl Alcohol or Brassicyl Valinate Esylate on product labels) and it’s an all-natural, biodegradable and sustainable stand-in for behentrimonium chloride (BTAC).

Elsewhere in the green formulation world, other developments are picking up steam—and losing water: “One significant leap that I am enthusiastic about is the removal of water from formulations,” says the Bondi Beach-based Ere Perez. “This allows us to eliminate certain preservatives and create more comfortable skincare options—for example, we’re exploring dense formulas that can be reconstructed with water.” As any fan of Everist’s hyper- concentrated hair and skincare would say, amen.

Meanwhile, notes green skincare magnate Tata Harper from her headquarters in Vermont: “innovative methods have allowed for the extraction of potent plant actives without the use of harsh solvents or chemicals.”

“One significant leap that I am enthusiastic about is the removal of water from formulations. This allows us to eliminate certain preservatives and create more comfortable skincare options.”

– Bondi Beach-based Ere Perez

Supercritical CO2, which—for those who’ve forgotten all their high school chem—is carbon dioxide in a phase that’s neither liquid nor gas, powers one such extraction method.

“For instance, when extracting the powerful antioxidant properties of our rosehip seed oil, we employ supercritical CO2 extraction to ensure that we capture the full spectrum of beneficial compounds, such as vitamin C, linoleic acid, and beta-carotene, without compromising their effectiveness.”

For her part, Rose-Marie Swift—the Savannah-based celebrity makeup artist who became a clean beauty icon with her RMS line—has seen “a lot of innovation in plant-based materials that can replace the performance of silicones for elegant feel and volatile hydrocarbons for long wear.” One key example: “Alkane sourced from vegetable- based ingredients,” which is an important part of the SuperNatural Radiance Serum Broad Spectrum SPF 30 she launched this summer (already a bestseller at Credo).

Point is: There’s almost no aspect of conventional cosmetic chemistry that isn’t up for debate right now. And the resulting changes can be as beautiful as they are healthy and sustainable.

Ingredient Consultants

Even the most innovative of labs couldn’t get far without the right building blocks, so cosmetic formulators have come to depend on an ever-better supply. “The availability of high-quality, sustainable, and ethically sourced ingredients has improved over the years,” says Harper. “Suppliers have recognized the growing demand for clean beauty and have responded by offering a wider range of natural and organic alternatives.”

Adds Grown Alchemist’s Lorna Mitchell: “There has been significant investment in new and innovative raw materials from right at the beginning of the formulation supply chain, which has led to greater access and availability of raw materials, greater ingredient choices to include in formulas, and better prices.”

But perhaps just as exciting is a professional specialty that has evolved alongside the supply chain. “There are so many more options available to help discover all of this innovation,” says Christina Uzzardi, founder of Pasadena’s Cheeks + Co. “There are consultants like The Ingredientist, whom we work with, and who really focus on what’s new and innovative in the clean skincare industry to help brands integrate ingredient technology into their formulas—something you couldn’t find as easily even a few years ago.”

Variations on the theme include Quantis—a global environmental sustainability consultancy that helped guide Stella McCartney in the creation of her new Stella Skincare line—and the London-based Ecovia Intelligence, whose Sustainable Cosmetics Summits include workshops on the latest in green materials and ethical sourcing.

The takeaway: With enough happening along the green supply chain to warrant a whole new stream of consultancy, your skin, hair and nails are better served by the day. Factor in all the other innovation, and the beauty aisles of 2023 bear little resemblance to their ancestors.

That said, there’s always the health food store if you’re feeling nostalgic—or just the right yucca somewhere out in the desert if you’re feeling ambitious. 

5 Pioneers with Clean Perspectives

“Ten years ago, clean beauty seemed relegated to natural tones for the no-makeup makeup person.”

–Sharareh Siadat, founder of TooD and biodegradable glitter pioneer

“The crunchy, homegrown feel of the past has definitely evolved. The new wave of clean and environmentally friendly brands look just as sleek and elegant as the traditional luxury brands.”

–Shannon Davenport, founder of Esker

“People have become more open to the idea that natural is powerful, and natural formulations can be just as effective as synthetic chemicals.”

– Tata Harper, founder of the eponymous brand

“‘Clean’ and ‘safe’ are now expected to be built into all products. It’s not a special one-off anymore; it’s a requirement.”

–Christina Uzzardi, founder of Cheeks + Co

“The holy grail is an ingredient that’s 100 percent natural, biodegradable, animal-friendly, people-friendly and high-performing.”

–Lisa Gandolfi, PhD, VP of marketing at Inolex

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