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Substances naturelles en Polynésie française

Jean Guezennec
Christian Moretti
Jean-Christophe Simon

Part one. Synopsis and Recommendations

Annex 2. The cosmetics industry

Texte intégral


1The cosmetics industry is probably among the most promising for utilisation of natural substances.

2The dermocosmetics market is booming and, as the use of animal-based substances declines, natural marine or plant-based substances are increasingly sought after.

Scientific approach

3“The cosmetics industry bases a lot of its communication on natural substances. But there is genuine scientific work going on behind the fashion for environmentalism”, says Patrice André, Director of the Dior laboratory for biology, cosmetics and active ingredients in Orléans, France.

4The cosmetics industry mainly uses plant substances that have been in use for a long time. They therefore actively seek out traditional uses. According to Jean Guézennec of IFREMER, they are also keenly interested in molecules extracted or synthesised from micro-organisms (in the broad sense of the term), but one obstacle is the problem of producing these molecules cheaply.

5Ethno-pharmacologists make a key contribution to this work, studying traditional communities’ use of plants, especially in tropical forests. Bioprospecting starts with inventorying the plants used for body care: wound-healing substances, balms, anti-inflammatories, etc. A preliminary selection includes only botanical families new to industry, as this increases the chance of finding new molecules. Chemists then prepare increasingly pure extracts, isolating the plant’s active molecules.

6They then assess the biological properties by biological tests on cell cultures or biochemical tests (protein inhibition or activation, specific biochemical processes).

Strategy largely market-driven

7Cosmetics advertising paints in glowing colours the extraordinary virtues of natural substances, for health and for the development of Southern countries. This marketing style should be kept in perspective.

Product chain organisation

8As with functional foodstuffs, there is a promising place in this sector for small local businesses supplying raw plant materials, either for the cosmetics industry, or formulating or producing cosmetic eco-products with a strong Polynesian connotation.

Prospects for French Polynesia

9Is it worth organising an ad hoc structure to conduct biological tests geared to the cosmetics market, so that French Polynesia can supply active ingredients with high value added? Given the diversity of substances the islands possess, the question is worth considering. To answer it, all aspects must be taken into account, as outlined below.

Technical aspects

10The appropriate biological tests will depend on the target, of which there are many. Many laboratories have their own approaches to these tests: in France they are out-sourced to numerous specialist structures.

11As there is strong demand for new active principles, product chains mainly develop from the supply side (according to M. Hansel, Chairman of Cosmetic Valley).

Economic aspects

12Although demand is high for raw plant materials and new active principles, it involves small quantities (rarely more than a tonne). These products are also short-lived (on average, four to ten years on the consumer market: ten years is an exceptional lifespan for a common cosmetic product).

13Selling a number of different products may compensate for small demand and short life. Firms are constantly looking for new active ingredients to formulate their products.

Regulatory aspects

14One definite factor for success would be to keep informed of upcoming regulations.

15European regulations define a cosmetic product as “any substance or preparation intended to be placed in contact with the various external parts of the human body (…) with a view exclusively or mainly to cleaning them, perfuming them, changing their appearance, correcting body odours, protecting them or keeping them in good condition”.

16All products so defined must comply with the legislation provided for in European Directive 76/768/EEC. Cosmetic product labels must include a full list of ingredients.


17In the light of these factors, the experts consider that there is no justification for the authorities to intervene very actively in this sector or seek to structure it; given the volatility of products in the sector, there is no guarantee that the Polynesian economy can develop sustainably on this basis. However, synergy between local research laboratories and project initiators could be strengthened.


18It is difficult to predict that a substance will have a use in cosmetics before a number of biochemical tests have been made for objectivization and toxicological assessment. Individually, these tests are only valid for one type of extract and one claim (e.g. slimming, anti-wrinkle or lightening properties). The tests are always very costly and are paid for by the cosmetics company developing the product. They are never published, and if the results are of interest a patent is applied for immediately. If a plant extract is too highly active, it is likely to be prohibited for cosmetic use and reclassified as a medicinal product. The active cosmetic ingredient must have a lowlevel activity, and it is difficult, and costly, to demonstrate its efficacy, especially on a health organ, the skin, which has its own powerful mechanisms for regulating homeostasis.

19In brief, one cannot predict that a plant will be useful in cosmetics on the basis of information on chemical composition or traditional use given in the literature. Costly, case-by-case toxicity and objectivization studies are essential.

20The whole plant is never used, even if traditional practice attributes more or less well attested virtues to it.

  • For the sake of the appearance and quality of the finished cosmetic product, plant extracts are used – very rarely the whole plant.

  • The efficacy of the extract depends on the solvents used.

  • The active compounds must be identified and their non-toxicity at the intended doses must be verified.

  • Tests must be conducted to verify that the molecule is active, but not too active, in local application.

  • The mechanisms by which the compound acts must be identified.

  • The usefulness of the extract must be verified by increasingly sophisticated and costly biochemical tests, and return on this investment is only possible by means of patents and exclusive rights agreements.

21Because an active ingredient has a life of only five to seven years in the cosmetics industry (owing to fashion trends and the need for marketing focus to change constantly), a product must be very useful indeed if one is to risk developing an official, medium-term production chain from scratch. This is no less true in French Polynesia than elsewhere, and in fact it is very rarely done. When a cosmetics manufacturer, raw materials supplier or end formulator finds an interesting product, they organise their own supply chain, generally under a private, bilateral commercial agreement. Usually only a few tonnes of plants are required, and there is no point putting public money into this kind of trade.

22It would be perfectly possible to establish a small local cosmetics industry based on an exotic marketing image, but using imported “industrial blanks”. To attract a tourist customer base, European quality standards would be required; in this case local plants would have a marginal place in the industry as development costs would be far too high for the size of market.

© IRD Éditions, 2006

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