Amyris CEO John Melo’s Views On Why “Everything Is Chemicals” Is An Oversimplification And Clean Beauty Is The Future

The critique of clean beauty vocalized by an outspoken group of cosmetic chemists, influencers and beauty brands often pits clean beauty against science. In a descriptor of its “Everything is Chemicals” campaign, for example, The Ordinary owner Deciem decries that “the marketing concept of clean” is “disregarding the important work of scientists.” As a clean beauty advocate leading a synthetic biotechnology firm, John Melo, CEO of Amyris Inc., which supplies sugarcane-derived squalane to beauty companies and owns clean beauty brands, including Biossance, Pipette, Costa Brazil, Terasana and EcoFabulous, defies and challenges the conventional clean beauty-versus-science categorization. He argues clean beauty reliant on science improves the beauty industry and the world. “I think of clean as simplifying. I think of clean as less is more. I think of clean as no harm,” he says. “I think of clean as a way of working and a way of living, not a yes list and a no list, not a five-statement paragraph that defines clean. It’s a much deeper thing.” Of course, Melo has a lot riding on clean beauty. Amyris’s consumer brands are projected to increase from $50 million in sales last year to $150 million this year and $300 million in 2022. But there are plenty of clean beauty opponents that stand to profit from their positions, too. To get his take on the controversy over clean beauty and the category’s future, Beauty Independent talked to Melo about Deciem’s campaign, the global resonance of clean beauty, the power of consumers and why brands should come together for educational efforts.

When did you start hearing about this whole clean beauty debate, and what do you make of it?

I’ve been in sustainability for 30 years of my life, so this is not my first rodeo, and I started picking up this noise probably 18 months ago or so, and I really have not focused on it a lot, except recently seeing the [“Everything Is Chemicals”] campaign, and I think that’s the most ignorant campaign I’ve seen in a very long time because anybody that’s in chemistry in a very deep way knows that, yes, it is all chemistry, but not all chemistry is the same, and that’s actually the deep issue. There’s two issues, the chemistry itself, but, then even more importantly, the impurity profile of the chemistry and, therefore, how it impacts the formulation and how that formulation performs, not only on us, but our planet.

I just think it’s naive to go out and make statements like that and, therefore, I have to draw the conclusion that the way most people are talking about it is a bunch of marketing, which is the disappointing piece of beauty as a whole. We just kind of throw the stuff around—it’s all about marketing— and [beauty companies] hope like, “Oh, we win the war of the mindshare for the consumer,” rather than really being authentic, committed and passionate about doing great by our planet. That’s my point of view and, then, [I’m] really thinking through, how do we respond to this without actually just being another voice?

What do you want to do about it?

I want to engage in education, and we’re working through this right now. I want to bring the best minds and the biggest, most critical voices into our labs and teach them chemistry and teach them sustainability, and I don’t mean teach them in a talking-to. Let’s actually formulate. I want you to experience it so that you understand that clean and sustainability is for real. We all ought to be doing a better job of educating the consumer and, then, delivering on it.

By the way, it’s not easy. It’s actually really expensive to do it well. In the short term, it may affect margins of certain brands. That’s OK because, at the end, everybody wins because, when you do it well, you end up using less ingredients, you end up having greater efficacy, you end up being able to make much more effective formulas that don’t damage our planet and perform so much better for the skin. The consumer may end up buying less of your product because less goes a long way when you’re actually dealing with great chemistry and sustainability. Again, in the short term, a brand may take a hit, but it’s in service of the long term. I think by educating the consumer, you put it in the consumers’ hands to make the best choice, but we should educate, not confuse.

Amyris Inc. CEO John Melo

We hear from clean beauty critics that there are certain ingredients—parabens, sulfates and phthalates—that have been set aside by no-no lists that shouldn’t be. What do you think?

Lists in general are shorthand. They’re shorthand to simplify a message that, in some ways, has been helpful and, in other ways. I don’t think is really helpful. There’s no one side or the other. There is real chemistry and real sustainability period. For me, it’s about, what is the chemical? What is its functional value? What are the impurities in it? How do you simplify a formula to deliver the efficacy that you expect? I don’t think it’s about a list because I don’t want to use any product that has impurities that are harmful, I don’t want to use any product that in itself is harmful, and I don’t want to use any product that affects skin health in a negative way or the planet when it gets dumped into the water system. I don’t really give a shit what you call the ingredient. If it does any harm, I don’t want to use it.

Think about the harm silicones do and yet how prevalent silicones are in so many formulations, especially in hair products right. So, you can sit there and say, “Well, not all silicones are bad.” Well, maybe they are and, actually, what I really care about is, how do you best treat hair, and how do you do that without damage to the planet? Well, you don’t use silicones. You actually go to the base of the shaft and you treat the root, and you treat the hair from the inside out through the shaft, not applying actives on silicones to the shaft, and hoping like hell some of them stick and, then, not worry so much about the damage you do to the water system.

That is at the architectural level of thinking about chemistry and formulations to really impact both the consumer and the planet in a positive way. It’s not about a list, this chemistry is good, this chemistry is bad. I think that is shorthand for trying to simplify something that’s actually a little more complicated. So, I don’t dismiss one chemical or the other. I try to go to the root. I care a lot about source.

If you identify squalene as an example, I can get squalene from sharks, I can get it from olive oil, and I can get it from sugarcane through fermentation. You realize that the impurity profile of those three sources of squalene makes performance of the squalene completely different, yet it’s the same exact chemical. You could say, “Oh, it’s all chemistry,” but, no, actually source matters. Impurity profile matters a lot. The formulation and what you stick with it, and how you treat it and, then, once you are trying to treat an impact and how it actually works, all of that is critical.

What impact do you think this discussion will have on the clean beauty segment?

I don’t think of clean beauty as a segment. I think all of beauty will become clean because it won’t be an option. Why would you choose to formulate a product with a bunch of crap chemicals that add to your ingredient list when you can do it with half the ingredients? I read some of these ingredient lists on a product, and there’s 20 or 30 ingredients. Do we actually think every one of those makes a huge difference in the product? I can’t believe that beauty, as an industry, will sustain itself doing things the same way they’ve been doing it before when there’s a better way. I believe that the industry itself will make better choices in how they’re formulating.

People used to ask me, “You think clean is better than natural?” I don’t understand the question. “Well, you know, there’s the natural category, there’s the clinical category, and there’s the clean category, which do you think is better?” Well, I would never do clean without clinicals, so I guess clean and clinicals have to go together, and some natural is clean, but not all. So, I wouldn’t bucket natural as a category in itself because, if I’m really committed to sustainability and clean, I may not use a lot of products that are natural because it may not be sustainable. Can we stop this shorthand crap that’s about messaging and really get to doing the right thing for the planet and the health for our consumers?

You have The Clean Academy. Can you use that as an education vehicle?

That’s a great question. It’s been on my mind because I want to democratize clean. It’s not for us, it’s actually for everybody. Therefore, I want brands involved. I have a lot of discussions with a lot of the industry leaders, and I’m completely an open book about, how do I think about it? What do we do? We’ve invested more in the science of making naturals clean than anyone on the planet. I have over $2 billion invested. So, I don’t I don’t take this lightly.

I think The Clean Academy could be a vehicle. I’m open to other vehicles, and I’m also open to, again, the biggest voices of the world. I want a mix of ambassadors and voices that we can educate and have them lead the messages so that we can really influence the consumer to understand and seek a better choice. I believe in the power of the consumer. The consumer really understands. The consumer has such little time for us and is so busy with many things, but, if we can capture their attention and help educate them just a little, I think we’ll move the industry, and I think the consumer has a higher probability of moving the industry than any one company in the industry does.

Amyris is the parent company of clean beauty brands like Biossance and supplier of ingredients such as sugarcane-derived squalane to beauty companies. The sales generated by its consumer brands are projected to increase from $50 million last year to $150 million this year and $300 million in 2022.

There’s been continued investment in clean beauty. Beautycounter has been acquired, smaller brands like OSEA Malibu have received funding, and Amyris has purchased several brands. Outside of the clean beauty debate, where do you think clean beauty stands?

There’s a lot of money chasing clean beauty brands. By the way, there’s a lot of money chasing the science behind clean beauty, and I’m in the science behind clean beauty, and I am buying brands that I can actually believe in their position and transform their formulations to make clean formulations. Don’t confuse clean beauty brands with the science of beauty. I think a lot of investor money is chasing clean beauty brands, which is fine. If you listen to investors go after beauty brands, they go after beauty brands because they think it’s a very liquid market, and they can flip them pretty quickly and make a lot of money.

I’m not building brands to flip them. I’m building brands to engage the consumer in a deep way because I believe every household will shift the use of products to clean and sustainable, and I want to do that in the most effective and fastest way possible, which I believe is through the power of the consumer and brands, but I’m not hoping to make a quick buck. I am hoping to get every household to be clean and sustainable for better living. I’ve been very fortunate to have investors that are really passionate about making our planet more sustainable. This is about deep science with clinicals that really shift the health of our industry and the consumer, not about a branding proposition called clean beauty.

The clean beauty movement has moved beyond the coasts in the United States. Why do you think it’s resonated so much with consumers across the country?

Not only across the country, across the world. I could give you great stories from China, great stories from Brazil, great stories from France. I hosted an evening party and did a talk on clean beauty at In-Cosmetics in 2019 in Paris. I remember a couple of the big French brands coming up to me at the end and saying, “John, do you think this clean thing is really for real?” I had fascinating conversations. Now, I’m listening to the French consumer seeking out clean like no other consumer I’ve seen before. It’s moving everywhere. Do you realize my fastest growing market in the world for squalane as an ingredient is China? We’re sitting with Chinese brands educating them on how to create a clean formula. That is exciting. That is moving the world.

When I went to Brazil back four or five years ago when we first launched Biossance in Brazil, I was told Brazilians don’t care about clean. Do you realize we are the No. 1 selling brand in Sephora right now in Brazil? Consumers love clean. Why do they love clean? Why is it is moving as a wave across the U.S.? It’s not about clean. It’s about greater efficacy. Clean formulas perform better, and I can show you because we do clinicals. I compare our products against others. I know what our Squalane + Vitamin C Rose Oil product does compared to other rose oil vitamin C products. I understand how much more efficacy we deliver. For me, it’s about better products that don’t do harm to the skin or our planet. And when the consumer feels better, the consumer buys more.

What do you make of the discussion that’s starting to happen now about petrochemicals in beauty formulations?

Having been an oil guy prior to coming into beauty, you can imagine how I think about that question. [Melo was previously president of BP’s U.S. fuel operations]. Look, I think anytime you could make a chemical from nature versus a petroleum source, you should period. I don’t want to lose the message there. The message is that it is about amazing chemistry. Then, you have to go to the secondary question, what’s the source of that chemistry? You realize that a lot of what you get from petroleum, you could get from a natural source and the question is, can you make it sustainably? Petroleum for me is a real problem because it’s dirty, you can’t make it sustainably, and the impurity profile is usually not that great for your skin. So, how do I feel about petrochemicals? Not that great.

You got to think about the history. Why do you think the petrochemical industry sells ingredients into the beauty industry? They’ve been doing it for a long time. They do it because it’s the most profitable part of the barrel. When you’re cracking a barrel of crude, you get a lot of different chemicals. When you get those chemicals, you ask yourself, “How can I maximize my yield on cracking a barrel of oil?” The most profitable ounces or kilos of product that you get are the ones that go to the beauty industry. What does the petrochemical industry want to do? What they can for the beauty industry. And what does the beauty industry do? It’s easy, accessible and lower cost. So, they buy this crap, put it in products, then they go out and sell it to the consumer hoping the consumer doesn’t ask any hard questions.

It’s not easy making some of these products that come from petrochemicals using fermentation. In many cases, it’s actually pretty darn hard and may cost more. And I want to be careful because there are petrochemicals that have a role, but the role should be diminished over time as reasonably as we can. I’m not a fan of one day it’s good and another day it’s bad. I’m a fan of being pragmatic. There’s a lot of stuff we shouldn’t be using, and we should be transitioning out of as fast as pragmatically possible, and we ought to be having an open conversation with a consumer about that transition. We are living at a time in our world where the transition to sustainable living is going to be critical.

What’s selfish about us as humans is I may live the rest of my life and not have to sacrifice much, but, frankly, if I don’t do the right thing, my grandkids are not going to have the choices I’ve had, and that is so sad. The petrochemical argument for me is at the heart of that. We ought to be making every right choice that we can for every formula we put together. Never choose profit over planet and people ever, and that is a hard decision for brands to make. I love the power and the ethics of a company like L’Oréal, who really takes sustainability seriously. We supply them a few ingredients and, before they would lock into a long-term supply agreement, the global head of procurement personally has to go down to the cane fields to make sure that the cane we were raising was sustainable and ethically grown. That is responsibility at a level I’ve never seen before. That’s why I don’t want to talk about clean as a marketing thing. I want to talk about how we can move the industry to a clean, sustainable industry that prioritizes people and planet before profits.

Amyris has been incubating and acquiring brands. Among the brands it has acquired are Olika, Costa Brazil, Terasana and EcoFabulous. Developed in-house, it will soon release brands affiliated with model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and television personality Jonathan Van Ness.

What good do you think can come out of the clean beauty debate?

I’m a big believer that dialogue is the greatest path to breakthrough, so I think the good that could come from this discussion is all of us embracing a dialogue in a way that moves the industry to a better place. That would be awesome. I’ll host anyone. I’ll open up our labs to anyone who wants to come in and learn about the purity of chemistry and how to get impurities out, and how to formulate amazing products. I will share formulas. I want people to have access.

I challenge any brand who takes a position against clean to demonstrate to me what is it about dirty chemistry that makes it’s better than clean. I want to understand because I’m obviously missing something. I’d love for you to teach me how dirty chemistry is better than clean chemistry in a way that would compel me to give the consumer a formulation with dirty chemistry because the thing that’s right about Deciem is that it is all chemistry. Unfortunately, all chemistry is not the same. So, explain to me, how does dirty chemistry perform better than clean chemistry?

This interview has been condensed slightly for clarity.