Bioethics Blogs

New in Skin Care: Natural and GMO

At the end of April, the biotech firm Amyris announced that it was launching its own line of skin emollient under the brand name Biossance. The product is based on a hycrocarbon known as squalane that Amyris produces from sugarcane using genetically modified microorganisms and has sold to cosmetics manufacturers such as L’Oreal and Unilever. Amyris’s decision to sell directly to the public is an interesting moment in the debate about the relationship between genetic science and the idea of the “natural.”

Genetic science is typically assumed to be at odds with nature, but maybe that’s not necessarily true. Biossance is being presented as both. Although the product literature does not call attention to the product’s GMO provenance, Amyris’s decision to sell it to the public directly brings the GMO aspect more into the open, since Amyris is all about genetic modification of microbes. At the same time, the imagery and language aim to convey that it is a natural product: the squalane in it is, according to Amyris website, “plant-derived, renewably-sourced, and ECOCERT-approved,” and “naturally present” in the skin. Ecocert approval means that it is “a natural and organic cosmetic”—and also that it is GMO-free, which is true, for what it’s worth, since the product is GMO-free even if its production is not.

Even the product names suggest a soup of themes. Biossance sounds like fragrance or essence yet also like bioscience. The prefix “bio-” denotes life, of course, yet nowadays tends to be associated with biological research and biotechnology. And the squalane in Biossance has the brand name Neossance, bringing to mind naissance (birth) and therefore also Renaissance (age of science and reason).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.