Demystifying The Issues Around Sustainable & Natural Skincare

Yaso Shan is a registered member of the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy (CPP). A leading UK professional body for qualified and practising members of western herbal medicine. Yaso began her career as a Lecturer in the Health Sciences, specialising in the biomedical sciences, physiology, pathology, infection and the principles governing conventional medical treatments. She has created her own range of sustainable skincare Centella using her specialist knowledge and experience of herbs and plants.

She  has written the article below to help consumers demystify the issues surrounding natural and environmentally friendly toiletries and cosmetics…

With the effects of climate change being felt all over the world there is a real threat of devastating impacts on natural habitats and wildlife. Being close to the benefits of harnessing plant ingredients, perhaps botanical and natural skincare manufacturers and formulators have faced these threats and confronted the problems much sooner than most.This has perhaps given the industry the much-needed time to consider the way ahead and to implement strategies to mitigate the potential loss of natural and organic ingredients that appear to be increasing in number by the day.

With the recent popularity of natural skincare, the rise in veganism and plant-based products, the demand has never been greater. However, with this comes a concern for the environment although other industries should share the burden of being a responsible manufacturer given than 1 in 5 plant species are at risk of extinction. The three biggest factors threatening plant species are:

  1. deforestation of habitats (31%)
  2. deforestation of timber (21%)
  3. construction of buildings and infrastructure (13%)

It is, after all in the interests of these companies to be mindful of ensuring sustainability and protecting our most valuable ecosystems so that we can continue to enjoy the planets bounty for many more years to come. So how can we ensure this?

If both manufacturers and consumers want to enjoy making and using plant-based products, then a sustainable system must be established. This includes the supply of ingredients from source so all parts of that sustainable system must flourish in order to continue.

It is imperative therefore to promote biodiversity because at the heart of sustainability is the basis of stable and functioning ecosystems that ensure their ability to provide the economy and society with essential goods and services.

Many toiletry and make up products contain natural ingredients which are derived from plants and animals. Biodiversity is a rich source for inspiration and innovation in the development of new active ingredients. Among these are essential oils, pigments, surfactants and other substances of biological origin with useful properties in skincare products.

Rising consumer demand for natural ingredients and sustainable cosmetic products mean that biodiversity is increasingly becoming a strategic issue for the cosmetics industry. The most significant direct and indirect negative effects on biodiversity are generally related to the cultivation or collection of biological raw materials and sustainable companies are very much engaged in the protection of biodiversity.

The main environmental impacts are the (indirect) land usage for production, the destruction of natural habitats and ecosystems, pollution through the use of pesticides and fertilisers and cultivation methods which cause erosion.

It is tempting to feel virtuous about purchasing products made with natural skincare ingredients but whilst there are opportunities for stories to be told about ethical shopping or together with product and brand advertisement which can raise the awareness of consumers to biodiversity, it is important not to equate the use of natural ingredients with the protection of biodiversity.

Wild Harvesting

The trade in wild plants especially the value of medicinal and aromatic plants (MAP) has undoubtedly increased significantly (approx. 3-fold in 20 years) but traditional harvesting practices are being replaced by less sustainable alternatives. However it’s not just the cosmetics and natural skincare industries that utilise these valuable resources; the use of wild plants is common in many household products including herbal remedies, food and drink, health supplements and even furniture.

A recent analysis by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Medicinal Plant Specialist Group found that only 7% of MAP species with well-documented uses have been assessed for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ with 1 in 5 being found to be threatened with extinction. Over-harvested and resource management are two major contributors to species declines.

Of the roughly 30,000 plant species with well-documented MAP uses, approximately 3,000 are found in international trade. An estimated 60-90% of them are harvested from wild. International trade in such plants has tripled in value from 1999 to 2015 and is now worth over £50 million.

There is so much demand that traditional sustainable harvesting practices are being replaced by more intensive and destructive alternatives for example, using heavy machinery and destructive collecting practices. However, if managed well, sustainable wild harvesting and trade in plant ingredients could provide holistic management for other species and ecosystems as well as multiple benefits to wild harvesters and supply chains overall.

Collectors of wild plants often belong to the poorest social groups in the countries that they live. With the growing interest in MAP, new economic opportunities are opening up for rural populations with collection, gathering and sale of MAP, providing a complementary source of cash for extremely poor rural households. However, despite the high value of MAP at the shop-end, the collectors at the origin typically receive only a small share of the final price.


Ethical business practices must also include the principles of sustainable wage practices. This may well be limited by the market but the greater portion of the profits made can certainly be assigned to farmers/growers or harvesters of that plant.

Given that our demand for such highly desirable ingredients tend to come from some of the poorest regions and communities in the world, it is fair to redistribute some of the financial gains perhaps to those who are at the humble beginnings of the whole process.

Extended Sustainability

Sustainable Skincare also includes eco friendly packaging which is just as important especially if the company markets itself on this principle. Glass and aluminium containers are fully recyclable so are a great option along with zero waste solutions which include shampoo and conditioner bars wrapped in cardboard and some brands now offer refillable toiletries.

There are alternative choices to plastic that are not only eco-friendly but also high quality for both solid and liquid substances.  The use of these alternative materials is a great strategy to support the global agenda in decreasing plastic waste. Here are the contenders:

Green Polyethylene (PE)

This material is made by first taking ethanol from the sugarcane and dehydrating it so that it becomes ethylene. It is then converted into green polyethylene or PET at a polymerisation plant.

Post-Consumer Regrind (PCR)

These recycled plastic products help to save energy and reduce the use of materials. By manufacturing new plastics it becomes less necessary when existing plastics can be recycled and used again.

Biodegradable Products

Products that will naturally break down, in the same manner as a compostable material, can be useful sustainable alternatives to traditional plastics. The primary concern with plastics is that they take hundreds of years to break down, contaminating the environment. The biodegradable material can perform the same functions as traditional plastics but degrades over a much shorter time span.


Encouragingly, there are more ‘eco-friendly’ products on the market than ever before which gives consumers much choice. Although there are stringent guidelines and standards established by the relevant regulatory agencies for skincare products to be categorised as natural or organic; there isn’t much harmonisation between them.

Equally, formulating natural and organic skincare products is a significant challenge to guarantee stability, safety and efficiency. It therefore falls on individual manufacturers to adhere to the principles of sustainability. As much as it is for consumers to check their credentials and trust the logos emblazoned on their products.

To learn more about Yaso’s range of skincare you can visit her website here.