If you’ve never given much thought to the provenance of the ingredients within your favorite skin cream, that’s about to change—big time. Upcycling, one of 2021’s biggest food trends, is making big waves in beauty, thanks to increasingly conscientious consumers who are thinking about the environmental impact of their beauty routines. “Shrinkage, misfit, or leftover food trash is a beautiful starting point for effective skin- and hair-care ingredients,” says Tina Hedges, the founder of LOLI Beauty, a line of clean skin care that sources ingredients from organic food suppliers who would otherwise discard potent parts of the fruits, nuts, or vegetables.
Technically, upcycling—the practice of finding a new use for manufacturing waste or byproducts—has been part of beauty for hundreds of years. “When you think about it, the origins of the cosmetics industry began with making use of animal-derived byproducts such as lanolin, squalene, or tallow,” says Harry McIlwraith, a general manager at Upcycled Beauty Ltd., an English supplier of upcycled plant-based ingredients. “Although we have sensibly moved away from the animal origin, there is no reason why we cannot use other forms of ‘waste,’ such as plant-based byproducts.”
Technically, upcycling—the practice of finding a new use for manufacturing waste or byproducts—has been part of beauty for hundreds of years.
While the concept may be rooted in the past, the urgency of our present environmental crisis makes upcycling necessary for the future. Upcycling “rescues” material that would otherwise be burned or sent to a landfill, where it would then release methane emissions—which is a greenhouse gas that causes even more global heating than carbon dioxide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. “Environmentally, we’re in a different mindset than we were 10 years ago,” Jillian Wright, an expert esthetician and indie beauty expert, says of the movement toward sustainable beauty. “Now, you cannot turn on the TV anymore without somebody talking about climate change. We’re having to shift because we’re being forced to shift.”
From an environmental perspective, upcycling obviously checks the big boxes, and in addition, it’s also kinder to humanity. As global hunger is skyrocketing, upcycling leaves more food crops to be used as, well, food. “A lot of people don’t think about the impact on the global food supply when it comes to using natural ingredients,” says Connie Lo, the co-founder of Three Ships, a natural and vegan skin-care brand that uses five upcycled ingredients in its formulations (including upcycled bark extract in Dew Drops Mushroom Hyaluronic Acid + Vitamin C Serum). “When we see a ‘food-grade’ ingredient, we’d rather have it actually used for food, because that’s way more important than skin care,” she explains.
“When we see a ‘food-grade’ ingredient, we’d rather have it actually used for food, because that’s way more important than skin care” —Connie Lo, Three Ships
Okay, okay, you may be thinking. This is all lovely, but do these ingredients actually work? Do they ever. “Convincing an industry that revolves around glamour that there is treasure hidden in trash was one of the biggest challenges we faced,” says McIlwraith. “This has undoubtedly played a part in why upcycled ingredients aren’t the default, although that’s changing now; the reality is that upcycled ingredients can actually outperform their conventional counterparts, proving that plant-based waste is an incredibly undervalued resource.” Indeed, Kypris Beauty founder Chase Polan, who uses upcycled pomegranate pith enzyme in the brand’s best-selling Glow Philtre mask ($105), finds only benefits in upcycling. “A lot of the time, people think sustainability and regenerative practices are going to be ‘less-than’ or not as effective,” she says. “And I say, ‘No, it’s smarter; it’s better.”
What’s more, in utilizing otherwise-wasted materials, brands are actually creating a path forward for natural products to be used well into the future. Lo predicts that soon beauty retailers will call out upcycled ingredients with signs or other displays. For now, however, finding upcycled ingredients requires a little sleuthing, since labels usually don’t disclose the provenance of their ingredients.
Fortunately, there’s no shortage of products to get you started. Wright raves about Le Prunier Plum Beauty Oil ($72), a serum made with upcycled plum kernels; she’s also intrigued by Kadalys, a collection of skin care made from “ugly” bananas. Then there’s Circumference, whose cleanser ($48) is made from leftover olive leaves. Coffee grounds from London cafes get new life in UpCircle Coffee Body Scrub ($20), while the elderberry flower extract in REN Brightening Dark Circle Eye Cream ($49) is sourced from grains remaining after the flower’s scent molecules are captured. There are soap shavings incorporated into new Codex soaps; pumpkin flesh made into the BYBI skin-brightening mask ($23); blueberry oil in the Superzero hand balm bar. Or if fragrance is your thing, track down Ellis Brooklyn Salt eau de parfum ($110), which features cardamom essential oil made from cardamom pods deemed too homely to sell at market. And on and on.
Without a doubt, the environmental crisis will not be solved through beauty consumerism. But since most of us are going to need to wash our faces at some point, we might as well make choices that are better for the planet—and upcycling makes so much sense that it’s bound to become the default offering. “Due to the push towards sustainable beauty, coupled with the fact that consumers want to reduce waste, the demand for upcycled ingredients will naturally become more consumer-led,” McIlwraith says, “We know that upcycled ingredients are only one part of the solution, but it’s a huge leap in the right direction.” As the old saying goes: Waste not, want not.
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