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How are your skincare ingredients made?

From plant, to lab, to bottle - does it matter how your skincare ingredients are made?

You may have heard claims that natural extracts are more skin compatible, or lab-made ingredients more effective. Over simplifications like this usually aren't true. But different methods of production do come with their own strengths and issues, particularly when it comes to sustainability, and some of them might not be what you think.

To look at this, we can split ingredients up into those made directly from natural sources, synthesiszed in a lab, or made via the latest buzzword in skincare -  biotechnology.

Plant extracts

Naturally occurring chemicals in plants are made by enzymes.

In the book Natures Chemicals, the author Richard Firn describes this as the equivalent of a machine tool - precise and efficient, though not very flexible. He talks about how it's not always possible to re-create these chemicals through traditional chemistry - sometimes they're too delicate and wouldn't survive the process, or may require so many reactions as to become resource-intensive.

Sometimes we may prefer a plant extract because of its association with nature, and that's ok too!

Plant extracts may be powdered parts of the whole plant, or specific parts may be isolated through processes such as distillation, cold pressing, CO2 extraction, or the use of solvents. The extraction method used depends on which chemicals are being targeted.


Factors affecting the sustainability of a natural extract:

  • Whether it's a by-product or specially grown for the purpose
  • If it's a good use of land in this location. (Though with 77% of land used for agriculture is used for livestock grazing and feed, the land to produce cosmetic ingredients is relatively small.)
  • The impact on the local environment and community
  • The efficiency of extraction - is there a small output for lots of starting material, can the waste material be repurposed?


Certifications like COSMOS have some rules to protect endangered species of plants. But they don't typically look at the first four points. That's why even with certifications, brands have to put extra work in to seek less resource-heavy options and listen out for sustainability issues as they arise. 


'Lab-made' ingredients

Lab made, synthesised ingredients use chemical reactions to make new chemical structures. 

From fatty alcohols to fragrances, many of these chemicals exist in nature. Yet extracting them in large enough quantities often wouldn't be efficient or even sustainable. These lab-made ingredients use petrochemical or plant-based starting materials, like mineral oil, glycerine or coconut oil. Chemical reactions take these starting materials and make new ones out of them.

Because the reaction tends to be harsh, it's best suited to more resilient chemicals which can survive the process. And because material is wasted during each reaction stage, some ingredients may require too much input tojustify the output. So even though we can make many ingredients through chemical reactions, there are still some which may be better sourced through biotech or plant extraction.


Factors affecting sustainability of synthesised ingredients:

  • The number of reactions to make the final product
  • The energy consumed in each reaction
  • The materials (reagents) needed for each reaction
  • How much usable material is recovered in each step, and how much is wasted?
  • The safety of the by-products of each step. 


Green chemistry is the framework that seeks to encourage fewer reactions, less energy consumption and less harmful by-products. The COSMOS certification can be helpful for brand owners, as certified ingredients fit within the green chemistry framework.




Biotechnology uses living cells from yeasts, bacteria and/or plants as starting blocks to create materials, using microbes, enzymes and fermentation technology. 

Biotechnology is how many ingredients in the 'green' sector are made, from bio-identical antioxidants to your vegan hyaluronic acid. 

Sometimes the genes of microbes are edited to create a specific strain that can produce the right material. Sometimes this isn't necessary, as the right strain already exists, or iterative 'breeding' can create the right one. Biotechnology is a process that usually requires less energy than traditional chemical manufacturing and generates less and more easily degradable waste. It can also be more efficient than a plant extract, which is typically farmed, transported and processed. Compared to this, it's a relatively sustainable process.

But there are times when an alternative makes more sense. For example, Artemisinin, derived from the leaves of the Sweet Wormwood plant, is used to make a malaria medication. When a biotechnology company proposed to replace naturally derived Artemisinin with a biotech option, critics argued that the benefits of the biotech version were exaggerated. 

At the time an existing network of farmers could produce enough to meet demand. Critics argued the biotech version would offer little benefit while destroying the livelihoods of those farmers. Additionally, the efficiency of the biotech version was reportedly poor.

Sometimes the appeal in new technology may be driven by the desire to replace a diverse supply chain with a single, controllable source.


Factors affecting sustainability of biotech-made ingredients:

  • Whether it's replacing less efficient process, or one with with undesirable by-products
  • Whether it's lightening demand for a source with environmental issues?
  • Does it require a large or small input of something which has to be farmed for the purpose? (For example, biotech squalane requires sugar as a starting material)
  • Is it replacing a relatively sustainable farming economy?


    At Harborist use a combination of all these methods, with all of our materials derived from plant or biotechnology. All of the ingredients we use fit into the Green chemistry framework too. 

    Some examples you can find in our products are:

    Plant extract / oil
    Lab-made (plant-derived)
    Balm-Gel Cleanser
    Bisabolol, Camelia seed oil, Jojoba
    glycerine, sucrose stearate, sucrose palmitate
    Environmental Moisture Light

    Aloe, Meadowfoam seed oil, Squalane (from oilves), Raspberry seed CO2 oil

    Cetearyl alcohol, Cetyl palmitate

    Ectoin, Superoxide Dismutase, Sodium Hyaluronate



    Sources/ Further reading:

    Nature's Chemicals: The Natural Products that shaped our world - Richard Firn



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