Saving Sharks One Sugarcane Skincare Line At A Time
Our beauty no longer needs to come at the price of our oceans
Four mass extinctions have failed to do what our craving for cosmetic products just might: wipe out sharks. Despite spreading their biological blueprint across 512 species, and occupying the planet far longer than trees, sharks are being killed off at a rate of up to eight percent per year—in large part for the curative organic compounds found in their livers. Used in cosmetics and vaccines, squalene is a natural moisturizer we start to lose in our 20s, and that, to the detriment of our scaly friends, is found in bulk within their organs. In hopes of foiling their demise, cosmetics company Biossance has launched a skincare line that derives its squalene from sugarcane.
Though other sources for plant-derived squalene exist, Caroline Hadfield, SVP of Personal Care at Biossance, and its parent company Amyris, tells PSFK why sugarcane won out as the non-shark-derived squalene substitute: “The other plant-derived squalene that exists is made from olives, but olives are a more volatile and climate-dependent crop, therefore, less sustainable than sugarcane. The sugarcane squalene is also more pure, higher quality and a better ingredient for the consumer. It is easy to formulate with, readily biodegradable and has a very stable supply.”
For Biossance, sustainability isn’t just a market approach but rather a vested mission. Apart from being in the business of making the ‘scarce abundant, the rarified accessible, and the natural sustainable,’ the brand is calling on the beauty industry to help standardize sustainable and safe-to-use products. Through its Earth Week-launched Blacklist, the beauty brand calls attention to the severely lacking U.S. cosmetic regulations, which have not seen an update since 1938 and feature only 11 banned ingredients (here’s looking at you, U.S. Food and Drug Administration). But also, the list builds upon Europe’s sizable 1,300-plus tally with a no-compromise index of more than 2,000 ingredients that include conflict minerals, pesticides, and oxybenzone. (Though oxybenzone is used in products like sunscreen, its use has been linked to mass die-offs of coral, an even more integral component of ocean biodiversity than even sharks).
Sourcing its sugarcane from Brazil, Biossance works with local workers who oversee the processing of their squalene-rich sugarcane at a facility that happens to be a sustainable zero-waste plant. The plant, on top of readying the cane for cosmetic use, also happens to power a nearby town. Hadfield explains, “the sugarcane field is next to the production facility where the bagasse from the sugarcane stock is used for energy co-generation and the excess energy is released back to the power grid.”
Considering that sugarcane sometimes gets a bad rap for being a water-intensive crop, when asked how Biossance reconciles the crop’s major thirst with their focus on sustainability, Biossance responded by stating that the region’s rainfall allows for no additional watering to be necessary, resulting in crop growth that flourishes through natural processes in a water-heavy Brazil (though, it should be noted, that the nation has been highly susceptible to drought in the last few years).
Considering that squalene is used beyond cosmetics—drug companies rely heavily on shark liver when creating vaccines, for instance—there could be room for the company to expand upon its current offerings. To this end, Amyris is researching sugarcane-derived replacements for petroleum, which will add to its ample range of cosmetic emollients (with Biossance’s The Revitalizer being one of them), fragrances, and biopharmaceuticals.
Having worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a leading anti-malarial treatment in the past, Amyris is sure that its renewable, sustainable, and safe beauty products will allow a growing world to pursue its cosmetic interests while minding those belonging to nature as well. Most importantly, as Hadfield puts it, “the cosmetics industry has not only has been subject to substantial waste historically, but it also has the biggest potential for positive ecological impact at the consumer level.” So, it bears repeating that any cosmetic lunge taken in the name of sustainability carriers with it immense implications.
Given the breadth of the Blacklist, it becomes resoundingly clear that companies’ current use of cosmetic ingredients that are harmful in untold ways isn’t a market choice but a moral one.