FAQ - Answered by OPTIBIOCAT's coordinator Prof. Vincenza Faraco

Coordinator Professor Vincenza Faraco explains how OPTIBIOCAT, an international, interdisciplinary project focused on the eco-friendly production of cosmetics, will help move industrial activities in a greener, cleaner and more sustainable direction.

Could you begin with a brief introduction to the OPTIBIOCAT project?

OPTIBIOCAT is a four-year Eu-funded project, which builds upon a highly interdisciplinary consortium of 16 partners from eight European countries. Our goal is to replace the chemical processes currently used in the production of cosmetics through discovering and optimising novel enzymatic biocatalysts. Enzymes are cellular catalysts responsible for controlling thousands of reactions in organisms and increase the rate at which reactions occur. The OPTIBIOCAT researchers will develop highly effective biocatalysts, requiring fewer steps in the production of components as well as lower-temperatures (50-60°C) compared to those of chemical processes (up to 160°C). High temperatures in current chemical techniques need a large amount of making the process expensive as well as environmentally unsound. By developing biocatalysts for the cosmetics industry, OPTIBIOCAT will contribute to the aim of moving the cosmetic industry towards more sustainable, eco-friendly and cost-effective technologies and higher quality products. The newly developed compounds will enable easier emulsification, stabilisation and conservation of cosmetic products. Furthermore, animal testing will be avoided and endconsumers can be assured they are receiving eco-friendly processed products. Project implementation requires the concerted action of a selection of unique research teams, each providing profound knowledge and experience. The coordinating institution – the Department of Chemical Sciences of the University of Naples Federico II – has extensive experience in coordinating research programmes, a deep interest in cooperative research, and consolidated expertise both in basic scientific research and studies aimed at developing biotechnological industrial processes.

What qualifies a cosmetic product to use terms like ‘natural’, ‘organic’ or ‘bio’ in its marketing?

A cosmetic can be defined as natural if 95-100 per cent of the total ingredients come from natural origins. In particular, the product must not be tested on animals or contain synthetic fragrances and colours, petroleum-derived products (paraffin, polyethylene glycol, -propyl, -alkyl, etc.), silicone oils and derivatives, genetically modified ingredients (complying with EU organic regulations), or irradiation of botanical ingredients and end products. To be defined as organic, 95-100 per cent of a cosmetic’s plant ingredients must be organically farmed. Organic ingredients are those grown and produced in accordance with strict government-controlled standards – the same organic standards that apply to food with third-party verification. These prohibit use of synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilisers, sewage sludge or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Strict rules also apply to the treatment of animals and the environment. 

Do you think these definitions are clear to consumers?

Since 2010, and with the trend towards natural cosmetics flaring across the world, there has been a strong consensus among natural cosmetics manufacturers for a need to harmonise the definitions for natural, organic or other such claims on cosmetics products. Several years later, this harmonisation is not complete, and manufacturers have the choice of complying their products to requirements according to a number of bodies that audit and certify cosmetics, such as Ecocert, the Soil Association, Cosmos and BDIH, among others. The cosmetics industry participants in the OPTIBIOCAT project, KORRES in particular, ensure raw materials are natural or of natural origin, but their formulations also use a small percentage of non-natural raw materials for reasons of texture, preservation and stability. On-package information allows consumers to understand the actual percentage of naturality of the product and decide if they want to use it or not. This information, known as formula facts, has had particular impact in one of their major retailers in the US, who has enforced this on-package information to other brands that claim to be natural. 

Will OBTIBIOCAT’s reach extend beyond the cosmetics sector?

Other industrial sectors beyond those strictly connected to OPTIBIOCAT that can benefit from our project results are: the biofuel industry – since the addition of the project’s new biocatalysts to the enzymatic cocktail for pretreated lignocellulose conversion can improve the efficiency of hydrolysis; the pharmaceutical industry – since biocatalysts can be involved in tailor-made conversions for the production of pharmaceuticals associated with the production of several phenolic compounds that have so far demonstrated inhibition activity towards several infective microorganisms; and the food industry – since the new biocatalysts also find applications in the agro-food industries, mainly in the production of ferulic acid, which is generally used as a food preservative.

How would you like to see OPTIBIOCAT develop this year?

The main steps to be achieved in the next year are: selection of new fungal enzymes endowed with new properties in comparison with the enzymes already available within the consortium; expression and characterisation of 500 bacterial enzymes; creation of libraries of at least 150,000 evolved mutants of esterases and four immobilised esterases; and formation of a library containing hundreds of synthesised compounds. Overall, the expected project outcomes will be extremely industry-driven, and exploitation of the results will be in line with partners’ own development strategies.