GMOs in Cosmetics

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms whose genes have been artificially altered to modify their characteristics in some way or another. GMOs may be plants, animals or most commonly microorganisms including bacteria, viruses parasites and fungi. Where the GMO is a microorganism it is typically referred to as a genetically modified microorganism (GMM). Examples of GMM are bacteria modified to produce insulin (to treat diabetes), human growth hormon (to treat dwarfism), and clotting factor 8 (to treat hemophilia).

Typically, genetic modification involves isolating and removing the DNA encoding a single gene from one organism and reinserting it into the same organism upon modification of its function or reinserting it into the genetic material of another organism. The aim of genetic modification is usually to introduce a new, improved characteristic to the target organism. Genetic modification is basically the modern concept of selective breeding, in which organisms with desired traits (and thus with the desired genes) are used to breed the next generation, and organisms lacking the trait are not bred.

GMOs in Cosmetics

Plant-derived ingredients were among the very first GMOs in cosmetics as some botanical cosmetic ingredients are derived from or contain components from GMO food products including corn oil, corn flour, soybean oil, and other components produced by yeast. In some cases, however, GMOs have been developed specifically to assist in the production of cosmetic ingredients. For example, canola has been modified to produce high levels of lauric acid, a key ingredient in soaps and detergents, at a reduced cost to consumers. The list below are derivatives with a high chance of GMO that are commonly used in food production and may thus be used also in cosmetic ingredients:

  • Canola
  • Corn (except popcorn)
  • Cotton
  • Papaya
  • Soy
  • Sugar beets
  • Maltodextrins
  • Ethanol (if derived from corn or GMO sugar beets)
  • Sucrose (if derived from sugar beets)
  • Molasses (if derived from sugar beets)
  • Amino acids
  • Yeast products

GMO Testing

Cosmetic ingredients are not routinely tested for GMOs mainly due to the high testing costs, the availability of alternative non-GMO (e.g. synthetic) ingredients, and the low risk profile as cosmetics are applied only externally. Currently, primarily crops, food and supplements are DNA tested for GMOs and also primarily in countries where labeling of GMO products in the marketplace is required (not required in the United States). Testing can include Single-Species GMO detection providing total GMO content of a single species which is most suitable for products such as grains, flours, and soy isolates, and also Broad-Spectrum (cross species) GMO detection determining GMO content from one or more sources of GMO.

For cosmetic manufacturers that want to produce GMO-free skin care products (or at least products with a small likelihood to contain GMOs) can apply with the Non-GMO Project to have their products evaluated for GMO avoidance. The requirements to meet the Non-GMO Project standard include, among other things, ingredient risk classification, traceability, and testing.


The FDA has concluded there is no evidence that bio-engineered food or plant ingredients are less safe than those produced through conventional methods. Similarly, ingredients derived from GMOs that are now found in cosmetic and personal care products are considered to be as safe as those produced through conventional means. However, other organizations including The Organic Consumers Association and Greenpeace stated that risks have not been adequately identified yet.