We caught up with Sustainability Corner keynote speaker, Dr Francesca Sansone, from the University of Salerno about the science behind upcycling food waste into beauty products and botanical extracts.
Dr Francesca Sansone, PhD in Pharmacy, is researcher and teacher from the pharmacy department at the University of Salerno, Italy. She is part of a team researching food waste to find further applications in nutrition and cosmetics.
Dr Sansone, can you tell us the story of why and how you and your team started this journey on this now trendy topic?
Extracts with antioxidant properties can be produced from a variety of food and medicinal plants, biowastes and novel sources. However, they present several challenges, from poor solubility to stickiness, bad smells and unpleasant tastes, and this makes them unsuitable for cosmetic and nutritional applications.
In 2010, myself and my colleague, Professor Teresa Mencherini, looked at the application of microencapsulation techniques to the problem. Up until then these techniques were almost exclusively used by the pharmaceutical industry to deliver natural extracts for topical and nutraceutical use.
We, therefore, pioneered the use of microencapsulation in cosmetic plant extracts and started to publish our research work. We have been collaborating with cosmetic companies since 2011. Our publications have also stimulated further projects within the Pharmacy department at the University of Salerno. For example in 2012 the Head of the Department, Professor Rita P. Aquino, joined in with the project “Hi-life” Health products from the industry of foods “.
A key project objective was the valorisation of products from the agro-industry sector, through recovery and reuse of active principles from the waste material of the processes, to use technological models and processes for obtaining health products.
As a result of this project, we started working with waste by-products from local supply chains, such as citrus fruit and dairy products, and successfully developed very interesting extracts.
The project came to an end in 2015, and since then we have been working on food waste materials from hazelnut and chestnuts. We are really pleased to see that all the food waste extracts we have been working on are versatile and have multiple applications in various industries, from cosmetic to nutrition, and much more.
What challenges have you faced that led to innovation and technological improvement?
The plant matrices are complex both to study and to characterize and have a variable phytocomplex that shows different active substance contents in different collection periods. This variability increases when it comes to by-products, because of the additional parameters that the process in the matrix have undergone in the processing phases.
In addition, the presence of multi-components makes it difficult to stabilize the extract. One of the greatest technological challenges in plant extract delivery is the production of a stable ingredient over time while maintaining the improved technological characteristics obtained. In cosmetics, the use of delivery systems may improve the penetration of the active ingredients with antioxidant activity and sometimes delivery is essential for effective cosmetic activity. I’m pleased to say that the delivery technology we use helped us solve these challenges, from stabilising compounds to easing their incorporation in production, to increasing delivery of the active agents, and even dramatically improve the sensorial properties of the extracts.
What is your favourite upcycled extract and why?
One of the wastes products that we are most fond of is chestnut “spiny burs”. These were studied by Professor Teresa Mencherini and Dr Esposito Tiziana (for her PhD researches). This focused on the use of various technologies to transform by-products and wastes into new stable and bioavailable materials and products. The spiny burs were recovered from a company in Montella, where chestnuts are protected and designated as a “protected geographical indication” (PGI). The extract obtained has shown several beneficial properties, from antioxidant to antimicrobial, allowing it to be used in a range of different applications. Thanks to its multiple properties, we have been using it in several applications over the years. Two of the most interesting applications are as an antimicrobial additive in food packaging, and as an antifungal sprayable powder that is an alternative to synthetic fungicides, and that prevents phytopathogenic moulds.
Yet another interesting application of this extract relates to its antioxidant properties, especially in cosmetic applications. Thanks to a new collaboration of our researchers with dermatologists at the San Giuseppe Moscati Hospital we are due to start an evaluation of cosmetic products containing this extract on volunteers, looking at skin hydration, elasticity, sebum production, TEWL and the antiwrinkle effect. We are really looking forward to seeing the results of this study.
What insights can you share with people in the cosmetic industry that are interested in finding new “waste” to upcycle for cosmetic application?
Extensive farming production has led to excessive waste disposal in the environment and in particular, in water systems. This has negatively affected the quality of the water, polluted the environment and has created the need for sustainable and low-impact environmental purification methods. In nature, microalgae – the constituents of phytoplankton – have long been recognized as a biological resource of considerable potential in various sectors, and many studies are underway that are aimed at using of this biomasses in phytoremediation.
In fact, the purification of waste-water, based on the production of biomass from microalgae, has several advantages. As it feeds on nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon dioxide, it limits spillage in soils and water bodies and absorbs polluting metals at the same time. These advantages make it a valuable renewable crop for sourcing functional substances, nutrients and biopolymers.
Microalgal biomass can also supply various types of bio-commodities, such as carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, as well as specific metabolites. There are microalgae products currently on the market that have applications in multiple sectors, such as pharmaceutical, cosmetic, energy, food and even animal feed.
Microalgae biomasses can generally be used in some of the sectors mentioned above. However, in the context of phytoremediation where they are used to absorb pollutants, they need to be decontaminated first before bio-commodities are extracted. This means they can be used twice, ie for absorbing pollutants and for bio-based ingredients production. As well as responding to a growing need of consumers, functional extracts from microalgal biomasses also meet the industrial needs of new sources of raw materials and environmentally compatible products, as well as being a very rich source of active substances that are well suited to technological intervention.
Their isolated extracts and/or bioactive ingredients can be enhanced by the application of a series of technologies (such as micro/nano-particles) that are capable of transforming them into functional powders, which are readily usable as raw material/ingredients for the production of innovative cosmetics and health products.
How do you see this trend evolving over time?
With a view to the reuse of resources, technological innovation could act for the cosmetic industry as a sort of catalyst for improving a product’s quality, and it’s business model fits with the concept of the circular economy. This also enhances the use of environmental resources, reduces waste, and provides social benefits through local supply chains.
Furthermore, I believe that any innovation must be carefully thought through and planned with a consideration of the needs of individual consumers, science and society as a whole. Thanks to these innovative technologies, science can actively help the cosmetic industry access new upcycled plant extracts that the industry could not otherwise access, due to the poor sensoriality qualities or difficulty of use. It can also help the cosmetic industry achieve the great sustainability profiles that consumers value, indeed increasingly demand.
Want to meet the rest of the Sustainability Corner? Read our interview with Expanscience and learn how they’re championing zero waste.