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Clean Beauty: Patenting Natural Products in the Cosmetics Industry

By Alice Wilson
Clean Beauty: Patenting Natural Products in the Cosmetics Industry

In a society that is becoming increasingly focused on wellness and sustainability, consumers are becoming ever more conscious of what’s actually in the beauty products and cosmetics that they are putting on their bodies and how those ingredients can impact their health and well-being. In recent years, this has led to the emergence of the “clean beauty” movement. It’s now common to see beauty brands marketing themselves as “clean” and selling products containing naturally-derived, non-toxic and environmentally-friendly ingredients.

Innovation in this area is thriving, with sales of organic and natural beauty products increasing exponentially over the past decade. In 2021, the value of sales of these products in the UK alone exceeded £138 million, a 15% increase compared to the previous year.

A huge range of natural ingredients have attracted interest in this field. Some products that are the subject of current focus are described below.

  • Algal extracts have recently been shown to be an effective, sustainable replacement for potentially harmful chemicals and non-vegan ingredients used in traditional skincare products. There are an estimated 30,000 to 1 million species of algae around the world, many of which provide a variety of health benefits, so there is plenty of scope for innovative findings in this area. Algae are a source of polysaccharides, polyphenols and essential fatty acids, which provide a plethora of skincare benefits such as moisturising, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Some algae are even said to possess anti-aging properties by replenishing natural collagen levels.
  • Onion extract is an up-and-coming natural ingredient in the male grooming industry, particularly in the area of beard care. Onion extract contains several key vitamins and minerals that are beneficial for overall hair health, such as vitamin C (which aids collagen production) and biotin (which is often referred to as the “hair vitamin”). This natural extract helps to strengthen hair follicles, promote scalp health and reduce hair loss, whilst also possessing antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Oleic acid is a component of olive oil that is becoming increasingly used in cosmetic formulations, due to the plethora of skincare and haircare benefits it provides. The essential fatty acids present in oleic acid make this ingredient a powerful emollient agent, helping to restore the skin’s barrier function by preventing water loss through the epidermis. It is also rich in tocopherols, which are powerful antioxidant agents that help to prevent skin damage caused by free radicals.

As interest in natural and organic beauty products continues to grow, cosmetic chemists are increasingly looking to the natural world for ingredients that can replace synthetic components in cosmetic formulations. But once a natural product has been identified as having beneficial cosmetic properties, is it possible to obtain patent protection for it?

For an invention to be patentable, it must be new and inventive. By definition, a natural product must have already existed previously in nature. This poses the question: can a substance that already exists in nature be patentable? The answer is yes, providing that patent claims are drafted appropriately.

  • In some cases, it is possible to claim the natural product itself, provided that the product has not been isolated from its natural environment before and has an advantageous technical effect. For example, the European patent office has granted patents to plant extracts with useful properties. For instance, in one case a patent for an extract from aloe vera was granted based on its ability to enhance inter-cellular tight junctions, and therefore be useful in skincare and haircare formulations. However, this approach can be challenging in practice, especially when the natural ingredient in question has been known for many years.
  • In other cases, claims can focus on a new use of the natural product. Such claims can be useful in cases where the natural product in question is already known and isolated, but has been found to have a new application. While the exact claim language needs to be carefully considered, patent protection can be achieved in principle for new uses of natural products in both cosmetic and therapeutic contexts.
  • An alternative strategy is to claim a composition comprising the natural product. This is a useful approach in cases where the natural product per se is already known, but a novel formulation containing the natural product has been developed. This approach can be particularly valuable, since protection will be afforded to the product itself and is not limited to its specific use, which can be advantageous when it comes to proving infringement.

In conclusion, an increased emphasis on health and well-being has motivated consumers to look more closely at the ingredients of the products that they are applying to their bodies. Clean beauty is no longer just a fashion trend and is becoming a lifestyle choice for many sustainability-focused consumers. We should expect to see plenty of organic and natural beauty products on pharmacy shelves for the foreseeable future.

J A Kemp patent attorneys have extensive experience in advising on innovations in the healthcare and beauty industries, including those involving the use of natural products. Our trademark and design attorneys work with many brands in these sectors, and are always happy to advise on IP issues in this area.