The future is fermented. Just ask Brooklyn-based skincare company Biophile. Since its launch in late 2019, Biophile has been revitalizing the beauty industry with its focus on bio-fermentation to create microbiome-supporting skincare. Sustainable and cruelty-free, its products are made with a combination of probiotic bacteria, fungi, and superfoods. Behind these formulas is award-winning scientist, microbe enthusiast, and co-founder of Biophile, Alison Cutlan.
With more than 20 years of experience in the skincare industry, Alison Cutlan started Biophile alongside seasoned businesswoman and fellow co-founder Grace Fooden. Together they have created a visionary brand that champions nature, science, and sustainability.
The backdrop? The Gowanus Canal – a neighboring superfund site in Brooklyn where Cutlan makes the company’s products in small batches to retain freshness and purity. “The canal is a great motivator to drive transformative clean technology,” she shares. “I moved my lab here in 2008 because it was a thriving creative area due to the cheaper rents and industrial studio spaces. Most of the industrial polluters are gone (there are a couple left) and what was left is a vibrant community dedicated to investing its clean-up for wellness.”
For Cutlan, wellness begins with nature, literally. As Biophile’s head scientist, Cutlan creates her formulas using a sustainable biotech process referred to as bio-fermentation. She explains, “Bio-fermentation is a natural sustainable process that uses microbes to transform materials into more nutritious substances for our health and/or to manufacture entirely new substances.” Through using four species of probiotic bacteria, Cutlan is able to bio-ferment medicinal plant extracts to create their patented Biotic BrothsTM, which make up the foundation of all their products. “During the fermentation process, these bacteria not only make the plant actives more bio-available,” Cutlan said, “they create specific peptides and polysaccharides that have a positive impact on the health of our skin microbiome.”
The brand’s current lineup of award-winning products include Bio Barrier Nourishing Oil, Root Bionic Refining Essence, and their famous Bio-Shroom Rejuvenating Serum. With ingredients like mushrooms, willow bark extract, and Schizandra berry extract, Biophile’s modest ensemble packs quite the punch. “Our products average around 90% Bio Made ingredients and the remaining ingredients are natural, plant-based and sustainably sourced,” Cutlan revealed. Naturally self-preserving, Biophile’s formulas are free of unwanted preservatives. Additionally, they are cold-processed to save energy and preserve ingredient potency. “I view formulations as little bio-systems, not recipes. Everything is connected, and everything must have a positive role for the skin and on our resources.”
Biophile’s dedication to sustainability is a much-needed breath of fresh air in an industry not known for its environmental stewardship. As a veteran of the skincare business, Cutlan is well-versed in her industry’s shortfalls. “The beauty industry has a long way to go in terms of sustainability. [It] is still far too reliant on petrochemicals and environmentally toxic ingredients (i.e., microplastics, chemical toxins) as the ‘workhorse chemicals’ that make up the majority of the personal care products still on the market.”
Plastic pollution in particular has been a central issue for beauty brands. 2018 alone saw more than 120 billion units of cosmetics packaging produced globally. “Plastic is everywhere and we cannot get around it yet. We have the hardest time with finding sustainable alternatives (especially in pumps). They just don’t exist,” Cutlan said. Despite this lack of eco-friendly options, Biophile still packages its products in recyclable glass bottles. The transparent vessels reveal each serum’s unique natural color – a symbol of the brand’s efforts to be transparent with its clients.
Today, consumers are more aware than ever before of the environmental consequences of their purchases. Though many companies have been reluctant to adapt to this new wave of conscious consumerism, some beauty brands are listening. “Historically, this industry prioritizes its interest in commerce over true skin wellness or environmental stewardship – in other words, this self-regulating industry has favored the use of wasteful and often toxic chemicals over ones with higher safety because they are cheaper. Indie beauty has changed all of that and brought much more integrity, transparency and consciousness to beauty,” Cutlan explains.
Given the personal care industry’s reputation for using harmful chemicals and a myriad of bad skincare trends, Biophile’s ethically driven, sustainably-minded ethos is especially resonant. As a pioneer of the clean living beauty movement, Biophile serves as a beacon of inspiration, reminding others in the industry that beauty and sustainability do not always have to be at odds with one another. “We create products from the perspective of nature. We hope to inspire others to do the same.”
Your lab is located near the polluted Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, which was declared a superfund site in 2010. What inspired you to choose this location specifically?
Yes, the Gowanus Canal is one of the most polluted bodies of water in the US due to centuries of industrial use, pollution, and mismanagement. This is an oxygen-poor body of water that contains high levels of hydrocarbons, heavy metals, and raw sewage contaminants. Needless to say, it doesn’t sustain a lot of life and is a constant reminder of how human industrialization can poison an ecosystem. The canal is a great motivator to drive transformative clean technology. We can never go back to treating nature like this.
I moved my lab here in 2008 because it was a thriving creative area due to the cheaper rents and industrial studio spaces. Most of the industrial polluters are gone (there are a couple left) and what was left is a vibrant community dedicated to investing its clean-up for wellness.
Biophile uses a process known as bio-fermentation to create its proprietary Biotic Broths™. What is bio-fermentation and how does it support a healthy microbiome?
Bio-fermentation is a natural sustainable process that uses microbes to transform materials into more nutritious substances for our health and/or to manufacture entirely new substances. We use 4 species of probiotic bacteria (Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria sp.) to bio-ferment medicinal plant extracts to create our Biotic BrothsTM. During the fermentation process, these bacteria not only make the plant actives more bio-available, they create specific peptides and polysaccharides that have a positive impact on the health of our skin microbiome.
Biophile develops its formulas using a sustainable process known as “green chemistry.” What does this process look like in the lab?
Our primary sustainable process is through bio-fermentation, which is considered more of a biotech process and is actually referred to as ‘white chemistry.’ We call ingredients made this way as ‘Bio Made’ and each formula is given a % rating. Our products average around 90% Bio Made ingredients and the remaining ingredients are natural, plant-based, and sustainably sourced. Our formulas are built around our proprietary Biotic BrothsTM (made with organic plant extracts), which is our water phase; to this we add unique bio-derived actives, prebiotics, and other ingredients to make a synergistic formula that is biome friendly (skin and environmental biomes). Our formulas are cold-processed to reduce energy input and preserve ingredient potency, and they are naturally self-preserving so there is no need for added preservatives. I view formulations as little bio-systems, not recipes; everything is connected, and everything must have a positive role for the skin and on our resources.
Your formulas include ingredients like mushrooms, willow bark extract, and Schizandra berry extract in your products. What other natural ingredients do you plan to incorporate in your formulas in the future?
I was a medicinal plant researcher in grad school, so there is a deep love and respect for the plant world, and I will always use them. Right now, however, I am most interested in what we can learn from the microbial world and the myriad of ingredients that can come from bacteria, yeast, and algae. These little bio factories are where innovation is going. Microbes naturally manufacture their own soaps (bio-surfactants), their own SPF (cyanobacteria), their own hydration (bio-saccharides), own protection (bacteriocins), and can remediate environmental toxins. I plan to incorporate more microbial-based ingredients, because not only are they more sustainable, they are safer and more effective for our skin.
What is something you wish more people understood about personal skincare and the industry as a whole?
Historically, this industry prioritizes its interest in commerce over true skin wellness or environmental stewardship – in other words, this is a self-regulating industry that has favored the use of wasteful and often toxic chemicals over ones with higher safety because they are cheaper. Indie beauty has changed all of that and brought much more integrity, transparency, and consciousness to beauty.
What is a skincare trend you wish you could stop seeing?
Harsh facial exfoliants. This includes physical exfoliants like the facial coffee scrubs (which cause damaging micro tears at the skin’s surface) or the overuse of harsh acids in chemical exfoliants. These treatments cause barrier distress and jumpstart a cascade of inflammation that leads to dry, sensitive, and problematic skin.
Using products or treatments with high pH. Main culprits: Natural soaps (pH=9-10), baking soda (pH 8-9) treatments. Using products with high pH disrupts the natural acid mantle of the skin, which creates a hostile environment for your protective bacteria and results in a myriad of inflammatory-related skin conditions, barrier disruption, dryness, and premature aging.
Slogging is another one. Slogging is where one adds a thick (occlusive) layer of petroleum jelly on the skin before bed. Not only does this feature an unsustainable material (petroleum jelly), but this level of occlusion is likely not good for the skin on a regular basis. Some interesting microbiome research on wound healing has shown that under a highly occlusive and moist environment, the skin’s pH tends to rise, leading to a dysbiosis in the skin’s microbiome where pathogenic species thrive.
Sustainability has become a large factor for many when making a purchase. As seasoned beauty and business professionals, what changes have you noticed on the industry side?
It used to be a lot harder to address sustainability in the personal care industry, but thanks to increased consumer education and demand, new innovations and sustainable resources are available, are making sustainability easier to achieve. On the ingredient side, information on a raw material’s full life cycle (i.e., where a material comes from and how it is processed) is now accessible, in addition to implementing more sustainable processing. Waterless and solid-formulation innovation is widespread, which is great to see along with packaging innovation with bio-based plastics. The industry has a long way to go and we need to go faster, but it is finally responding to the call to action around sustainability.
What role does diversity play in the success of your company and its mission?
In nature, the health and strength of an ecosystem is directly related to its diversity – and we believe that wholeheartedly here at Biophile. My co-founder and I come from very different backgrounds and experiences – we celebrate that and use it to create products that help people and their skin thrive.
The Biophile philosophy is largely centered around being stewards of the environment. In what areas do you feel the beauty industry as a whole could improve its sustainability efforts?
The beauty industry has a long way to go in terms of sustainability. The beauty industry is still far too reliant on petrochemicals and environmentally toxic ingredients (i.e., microplastics, chemical toxins) as the ‘workhorse chemicals’ that make up the majority of the personal care products still on the market. Because these chemicals are so cheap to purchase (but so expensive in the damage they create), the usage rates will remain high unless there are financial disincentives to do so. One of the weakest areas in innovation is packaging. Plastic is everywhere are we cannot get around it yet. We have the hardest time with finding sustainable alternatives (especially in pumps), they just don’t exist.
How do you see your company driving positive change in the skincare industry?
We are driving positive change in the skincare industry by educating around the skin’s microbiome and how ingredients and the products we use every day affect this essential skin ecology. Our innovative, pro-biome products target skin health and wellness at this essential source. We are using sustainable biological systems; we are redefining how products can be made to be safer, more sustainable and more effective for the skin. Biophile is championing the use of bio-design to create new sustainable materials of the future.