Special Edition: Biotechnology for Natural Formulation

The surge of the decade? Reflecting on a ‘renaissance’ in plant cell culture tech for cosmetics

By Kacey Culliney

- Last updated on GMT

Use of plant cell cultures enable cosmetics to be manufactured with less energy, lower possible impacts on the environment, and independent of location and season (Getty Images)
Use of plant cell cultures enable cosmetics to be manufactured with less energy, lower possible impacts on the environment, and independent of location and season (Getty Images)

Related tags Biotechnology plant cell technology Plant Natural beauty market Sustainability Science

Consumer desire for sustainable and natural cosmetics continues to fuel the surge in interest around plant cell culture technology, with huge advances made in the past ten years, academics say.

A closer look at the scientific literature suggests plant cell technology has gained significant attention over the past decade – for use in cosmetics and food – with these ingredients offering high quality, natural products that tap into rising sustainability demands.

10 years of plant cell biotech interest

More than 50 products based on extracts from plant cell cultures have made their way into cosmetic products in this time – largely through use of plant cell suspension cultures, according to a Mini-Review​ ​published in 2018 by Swiss scientists. These ingredients on the market currently were typically supplement ingredients used to reduce hair loss and skin ageing, they said.

According to the researchers, plant cell cultures instead of whole plants allowed cosmetic products to be “manufactured with less energy, lower possible impacts on the environment, and independent of location and season”​ – aligning with consumer demands.

“Innovations and developments in the cosmetics industry, which introduces hundreds of new cosmetics products every year, are strongly driven by the consumer. The consumer wants to have not only effective, safe, and natural but also sustainable cosmetic products, whose manufacture does not negatively affect the environment,”​ they wrote.

Combined with the fact plant cell cultures could also be integrated in minimal concentrations as part of a synergistic blend, they said it was “hardly a surprise”​ there had been extensive use in cosmetics in recent years. “Indeed, it explains the renaissance in plant cell culture technology that has taken place.”

In another review​ published the same year, researchers from Bulgaria agreed the past decade had given rise to “an increasing interest to plant cell culture–derived active cosmetic ingredients”.

“We are witnesses of an exponentially growing number of commercialised plant cell-derived ingredients offered on the cosmetic industry market and the diversity of utilised plant species, used for their production, has continued to increase every year,” ​they wrote.

Plant cell biotechnology - techniques advancing

But, the Bulgarian researchers said that beyond “ever-growing”​ demands for high quality, natural ingredients of plant origin, important recent advances and commercialisation of cell culture technology and newly developed techniques of gene editing, metabolite engineering and synthetic biology were also responsible for the surge in plant cell biotech.

Researchers from the University of Dublin, Ireland, for example, outlined in a recent review​that use of ultrasound technology to extract biologically active molecules from plant, animal and marine sources had increased at industrial scale. Writing in the recently-published review​, they said ultrasound technology could “improve extraction yields​” and was suitable for “clean and green extraction”.

Microwave-assisted extraction (MAE) to obtain actives from polysaccharides had also been investigated by researchers from Iran in a recently-published review. ​The researchers said this technique ensured “great bio-functionalities”​ of the polysaccharides.

Giving rise to new plant cell biotech ingredients

Advances in biotech had also brought new ingredients to market. Moss, for example, had made its way into the cosmetics space as a biotech ingredient – with a bioactive ingredient and genetically engineered fragrant moss already on the market and available to manufacturers, according a soon-to-be published opinion article ​from German researchers.

Cyanobacteria had also been explored for use in cosmetics through biotechnology, with results showing promise due to its photo-protective, moisture and antioxidant potential and biotech production being “cost-effective and sustainable”,​ according to a review​ by researchers from Portugal and Namibia.

Future use has many ‘open questions’

However, whilst it was clear scientific advances and research and development efforts were surging ahead in the field of plant cell biotechnology, the group of researchers from Bulgaria in the second review said use of these “new generation” ​ingredients faced “many open questions”.

These questions, they said, largely revolved around regulatory standards and documentation; unification of claims; and the methodology for evaluating pharmaceutical effects – all of which “should be answered”​ in order to help consumers “make the right choice for their cosmeceutical products”, ​they wrote.

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