Recap How to Biodesign #26: Natural Cosmetic: Let’s face it… Do we really know what we’re putting on our face these days?


By Chloe Tan

On the 20th of September, we welcomed our online audience at How to Biodesign #26. The theme of this edition was Natural Cosmetics, discussed the challenges and possibilities within the natural cosmetics industry. Listen to the podcast episode or read this recap to know what was discussed in this 26th edition of How to Biodesign! 


Jeliz Mert is a social designer, experienced in ecosystem building and previously had a startup for natural cosmetics. Karin Berkhoudt who has a circular company Kusala which creates soaps and shampoos from waste streams, based in BlueCity. Shara Ticku – started C16 Biosciences in New York, that uses innovative processes found in nature to brew sustainable alternatives to palm oil. 

What does natural cosmetics mean?

They are cosmetics free from synthetic chemicals, with all raw ingredients coming directly from nature. (Jeliz)

However, the term ‘natural’ often does not fully apply to soaps, as most soaps require a synthetic ingredient called Lye (sodium hydroxide) which is a substance that transforms fats into soap. Although it is possible, though uncommon, to make 100% natural soap with ash from wood like the African black soap. (Karin)

What is the process of making your own natural cosmetics like?

Natural cosmetics is not so much about altering the raw ingredients, but creating the right ‘sauce’ that we can use for the skin. The process of making natural cosmetics is akin to creating food – as long as you respect the regular practices and format such as melting and combining, consistency and texture. You are essentially creating recipes or “formulations” that are applicable to the skin and able to address certain functions required of the product (such as a deodorant). The process of making these cosmetics are not very complicated except for lotions. Basically, it includes: melt – combine – cool – set – use. (Jeliz)

What are some common ingredients within natural cosmetics?

(Jeliz) For deodorants, the main ingredients include:

  1. a) Carrier oils (e.g. olive, argan, coconut etc) – which can also be infused with herbs. 
  2. b) Beeswax or plant based waxes – to create the right consistency.
  3. c) Optional: Water liquid element (e.g. hydrosol) if you want a lotion.

As these are all natural ingredients, one needs to be mindful about the usage period. Since deodorants and body butters are completely oil-based, they are not as vulnerable against contamination and can be used for up to one year if kept properly and used with clean hands, although efficacy may deteriorate with time. However, for water-based products like lotions, the lifespan is about three months and will have to be kept in the fridge. 

For the soaps of Kusala, the initial circular ingredients used came from olive oil traders that had expired organic extra virgin olive oil that wasn’t able to be consumed anymore, but could still be used in soaps. Hence, instead of them being disposed of, Kusala incorporated them into their soap ingredients. Not long after, further collaborations with other start-ups in BlueCity were established to make beer and coffee soaps. They have since begun to incorporate circular main ingredients (not just additives), that included oil from rejected avocados and mango butter from mango seeds.

Where does palm oil fit in the space of natural cosmetics?

(Shara) C16 aims to produce next generation ingredients through biotech, to decarbonise our consumer product system – focusing on palm oil. This ingredient is found in many coloured cosmetics, skin, hair, shampoo and soap products. Despite its usefulness, the production and extraction technique is outrageous – monocultures and burning forests down to get this natural ingredient. 

Hence, the idea of ‘natural’, although getting very popular, may not necessarily be green for natural earth. We need to consider and change our relationship with the plant and consumption. ‘Natural’ still has a purpose, but we have to change the way we produce it. We need a shift from animals and plants to the fungal kingdom including yeast, algae and bacteria that have been historically untapped and underutilized, yet still natural and amazing with its production capacities. The process of precision fermentation has been used for centuries to make food and beauty products, and together with biotech advances, this can bring natural products to the world at scale at an affordable cost. As we have very ambitious climate targets to meet by 2050, so do we need every solution possible to achieve them. Hence, we need to start moving away from highly extractive practices towards resourcefulness and radical innovations.

How do we make an impact? 

Although the assumption is that you have to upscale, we need to also have decentralization of knowledge and production methods, while appreciating artisanship and diversity in production methods. Depending on big industries, although highly efficient, can also be very vulnerable, whilst being decentralized allows for more flexibility to changes. Moreover, legislative changes are needed to incorporate the cost of environmental damages into the price of products, so that unsustainable ingredients will be more fairly priced alongside sustainable alternatives. (Check out the work of True Price that calculates the hidden costs of ingredients). (Karin) 

Producers can also encourage diversity in the supply chain, which supports regenerative agriculture through polyculture instead of monoculture. (Jeliz)

What are some important tips for us all to realize?


  1. Think long term about ingredients that we choose to put into our products and into our bodies.
  2. How can we reimagine our relationship with nature?
  3. Challenge standards, and hold yourself, producers and suppliers to higher standards. 


  1. Do we really need this stuff? (even as producers who often create needs that are not essential)
  2. Do your own research and don’t follow every advice you see on Pinterest (e.g. essential oil uses)


  1. Importance of diversity for solutions and decentralization of knowledge.

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