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Businesses cooperating with universities: Estonian natural cosmetics are full of science

Algae, various oils, turf, healing mud – natural cosmetics these days are about so much more than a fruity body scrub or a basic spa product. Mixed together with help from top-level scientific research, natural components are triumphing over the oil-based chemical products that dominated the market until now.

A couple of decades ago when Rando Tuvikene, senior researcher at Tallinn University, set out to study algae and dedicated himself to the understanding of its chemical components, he could never have imagined that one day his discoveries would end up in a tub of cream in a store. By now, Tuvikene and his colleagues at the Institute of Natural and Health Sciences have collaborated with several popular Estonian natural cosmetics producers. The producers really do want to know that their product is good and effective, he says. Their first collaboration in the cosmetics sector led to the birth of the brand Berrichi, which created a cream on the basis of two years of research into seaweed and its so-called super oils.

The components and active ingredients of Berrichi’s day-, night- and eye creams have been thoroughly researched and tested. It was Rando Tuvikene who suggested to the producers that one of the active ingredients, which would help slow down the aging process, could be astaxanthin – a very strong antioxidant derived from certain micro algae and is widely cultivated and used in Asia, but not Europe. It is claimed that astaxanthin is like natural doping for the skin: 500 times more powerful than vitamin E and 800 times more powerful than the coenzyme Q10, which has been called fuel for the cells.

‘They took up my idea, ordered the components and everything proceeded surprisingly smoothly – a product was made, the texture of which is derived from a thickener from a Baltic Sea red algae, and the colour and significant effect comes from the same active ingredient – astaxanthin,’ explains the scientist. The algae itself produces this ingredient in order to protect itself from the damaging impact of UV-rays. In cosmetics, the ingredient helps to protect from the damaging impact of free radicals. Hence, the cream uses the fact that a certain type of algae is able to protect itself from damaging environmental impact.

‘The first contact with the producers of Berrichi, before the brand was born, was in 2014. Back in those days at Tallinn University we did not have the idea to start developing cosmetic products, even though we had long-standing experience in researching algae dating back to 1999. The creators of the Berrichi brand wanted to use components of algae in their products, primarily the firming agents derived from algae as thickeners in the creams. At that time, sea resources were beginning to be used more in Europe generally and hence, there was growing value placed on related challenges.’

Tuvikene had just returned from his post-doctorate in Japan and he was well-acquainted with the Asian world of algae and therefore immediately able to recommend astaxanthin.

Seaweed has an honourable place in Japanese culture. It can be said that seaweed is part of the local culture and even children are taught to value sea resources including algae. Seaweed is used in all possible ways in Japan – it is used to make glue, drinks, all sorts of foods, additives, cosmetics and, of course, sushi.

‘Seaweed and everything related to it was already something I was really interested in before going to Japan. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have done my post-doctorate there. But just like Japan, Estonia is also a seaweed country,’ claims Tuvikene.

A unique factory is situated in Estonia

There is an interesting aspect of using red algae in Japanese cosmetics and in Asian cosmetics more generally. Namely, in this region, the pigment derived from algae is used in cosmetics, the same ingredients that give red algae their colour. In addition to colouring properties, those red pigments are also antioxidants. In Asia, those pigments are used as an ingredient of lipstick. In recent years, the pigment properties of algae have also been researched at Tallinn University. Estonia is a special case because we have large, even industrial amounts, of the red seaweed Furcellaria lumbricalis. In the Väinameri Sea (a strait and sub-bay of the Baltic Sea) between the Estonian archipelago and mainland, there are such massive amounts of red seaweed that the only factory in the world that produces the firming agent derived from this algae (furcellaran) is situated in Estonia.

All this long-lasting scientific research and product development would be worth nothing if it didn’t reach consumers. The main question is how to break through the endless row of cream tubs on the Estonian market, not to mention the huge Asian market, or even only in Japan?

‘Indeed, a super product is not enough to break into the Asian market. The reason is that there are many great products there already and consumers will not easily find this specific great thing,’ admits the scientist, but he adds that Estonian producers might have a trick up their sleeve. ‘The Japanese view Estonia as a small exotic country – they know something of Estonia thanks to our sumo-wrestler Baruto and his great conquests in Japan. Also, the Japanese consider Estonia something untouched – a green country that is not densely populated, with an image of pure nature. In addition, there is the link between the two countries through seaweed.’

Up to two years from zero to product

At the same time that natural cosmetics are triumphing, shops are still stocked with “ordinary” products – are those really damaging to health? According to the scientist, the main problem is that what is promised on the label does not correspond to reality – often the products are “beautified” with catchy marketing phrases but the product itself does not deliver the stated effects (products with ordinary properties are said to do wonders).

Truth be told, consumers often make their choices on the basis of whose advertising pitch reaches them or whose packaging looks more professional or has a prettier design. But advertising and design money does not necessarily go hand in hand with product development.

Products with components that are really damaging to health do not reach stores – existing regulations do not allow them to enter the market. Some ingredients may cause irritation for people with sensitive skin. ‘We always have to emphasise to our customers that not all natural things are immediately great and not all synthetic ingredients are bad. People are often afraid of synthetic products, as if they were something harmful.’ For a chemist, it is not different whether a component is synthetic or natural – if it is the same ingredient, we can only talk about the degree of cleanliness and if that is also the same, then the components in a product are identical, even though their origins may be different. ‘What we should consider is the technological process of making a component and we should prefer the one that has created less stress on the environment. Sometimes the synthetic process may actually be significantly more environment-friendly than deriving the component with the same degree of purity from natural raw materials.’

In addition to Berrichi, several other cosmetics producers like Nõgel, Turbliss, Sõsar, Loond SPA have reached out to Tallinn University. With Loond Spa, they studied the properties of the healing mud of Värska, for example. The process of creating a final product is very individual and the time depends on the specific product and the question of whether all ingredients are accessible or whether some components need to be removed from the raw ingredients in lab conditions or whether there needs to be some other form of processing. Therefore, in the easiest cases, the birth of a product may take six months, whereas the more complex products with thorough testing may take up to two years.

Collaboration is not limited to one university

Other universities have also been involved in bringing scientific cosmetic products onto the market. The best-known example is the cosmetics brand Lumi (Estonian for ‘snow’ – ed.), which is a spin-off of the University of Tartu, a research-based company that grew out of the university. The first final formulas of Lumi products were developed six years ago in collaboration with the Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) and there have been other collaborations with the Estonian Rural University and Tallinn University.

Currently, the company is working on innovative lactobacillus at the University of Tartu, with the team of Reet Mändar, but it is early days and hence not the time to introduce any outcomes. ‘Lumi certainly wishes to be a trendsetter – our mission is to improve the world – we have the proof through feedback from our customers that a natural and holistic approach to the skin is possible and much more effective than many known solutions to date,’ says Märt Miljan, co-founder of Perfect Cosmetics OÜ, which operates under the Lumi brand. He adds that the skincare principles accepted a couple of decades ago have been completely turned around – we have done everything wrong! The result is that many people have skin problems, which begs the question: how can people’s skin experience bad times with so much available in the shops? The answer is that we have taken the wrong attitude towards our skin and, in order to regain balance, we need to use natural products that suit our skin.

‘The meaning of natural cosmetics has really changed – for us, functionality and product effectiveness have always had priority, especially when we think of sensitive skin, which more and more people experience due to lifestyle,’ adds Miljan. ‘Whereas six years ago natural cosmetics referred to orange-smelling sugar scrub or some relaxing spa product, today it is great to see that a natural cleanser or cream meant, for example, for acne, is much more effective than a synthetic product with the same function!’ Miljan claims that thanks to the general developments in the field, they are also able to offer better products and the customers are more aware and able to expect more. ‘Nature has perfected its products for millions of years. It is our role to find those developments and to mix the perfect concoction.’

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