Have you ever looked at the ingredients label on your sunscreen or face lotion and wondered what it all was? Over-the-counter (OTC) skincare products can often contain a surprising (even alarming) slew of confusingly named chemicals that you may never have heard of. This can make it hard to make informed choices about what you’re putting on your body every day.
And while you may not have a good understanding of the ingredients in your skincare products, the scary reality is that the FDA and the companies making these products might not have a good understanding either. Unfortunately, the U.S. has not historically invested much time or resources to researching and regulating the cosmetic industry — having not passed a major federal law governing the industry since 1938.
As far as that ingredient list goes, there are only 30 banned or restricted ingredients for personal care products in the U.S, and the FDA has very limited or controversial safety data on thousands of other ingredients. Furthermore, many ingredients have been “grandfathered in” from when cosmetics were not as strictly regulated. By comparison, the European Union has banned or restricted about 1,400 ingredients.
Given these facts, researchers from Northeastern’s Center for Research Innovation (CRI), Camille Martin, Ph.D., and Leila Deravi, Ph.D., are on a mission to disrupt the skincare industry and create new, safer products. In their academic research on cephalopods (squid, octopus, cuttlefish, etc.), they discovered the organic natural biomolecule, Xanthochrome® and found that this molecule outperforms commonly used materials in skincare products in both safety and performance. So, they decided to use it as the basis to pioneer new, safe, and effective skincare products.
Their discovery of molecules like Xanthochrome® was very timely, as the world began to look at how many OTC chemical sunscreens are toxic to humans and global marine life ecosystems.
“It is crazy what is in many OTC products for everyday wear,” said Dr. Deravi.
People were also hesitant to switch to safer mineral-based sunscreens because of things like the undesirable thick white films they leave on the skin. So, Dr. Martin and Dr. Deravi asked themselves a question in their research: How might we create a safe and effective sunscreen that not only protects the skin from UV-induced damage but is aesthetically desirable for consumers?
But getting started on finding a solution was no small task. “Starting an academic research lab is like starting a company in some ways. You are hiring like crazy, trying to fundraise, network, engage with your community, validate your findings — all while trying to change the world,” said Dr. Deravi.
Luckily, all that hard work paid off. Their research garnered interest from investors, and with the help of the CRI in 2019 they founded Seaspire Skincare, a technology-backed beauty company committed to designing sustainable products that are safe for all people and the environment. The CRI helped facilitate the initial invention disclosures and patent filings for the first iteration of Seaspire’s portfolio from the lab.
This Women’s History Month, we appreciate the important work of these great women in STEM and those who have mentored and inspired them. “I am lucky to have had three fantastic role models in my department at Northeastern: Heather Clark, Ph.D., Penny Beuning, Ph.D., and Carla Mattos. Each of these women is an amazing scientist who is passionate about what they do every day, and a genuinely good person,” said Dr. Deravi.