Behind the clean beauty movement with Fancl

Behind the clean beauty movement with Fancl


Text: Angelyn Kwek

How do you define ‘clean beauty’? If your guideline is simply a label touting all-natural ingredients, it’s time to get the 101 on the golden standard of no preservatives, as established by Fancl

Let us preface this by saying Japanese skincare is a unique brand of beauty unto itself. From innovative textures and products to frankly bizarre (and gimmicky) gizmos, there's plenty to write home about from a single trip through the beauty aisles of Japan. But beyond the beauty equivalent of tourist traps, Japanese makeup and skincare has made a name for itself by being distinctively fragrance-free and 'green' — factors that add up to form a bigger picture known as the clean beauty trend, which has been gaining traction as of late. With that said though, it also puts into perspective the concept of clean beauty, in particular the fact that it's not an entirely millennial notion. 

Practiced by Fancl since 1999, the movement is nearly 30 years old, kickstarted by brand founder Kenji Ikemori who discovered preservatives were the underlying cause of up to 70 per cent of skin allergy issues that were prevalent at the time. And thus originated the Fancl story, which has remained largely unchanged since its early days as the brand stays committed to spreading the truths about the harmful effects of preservatives and additives — a philosophy that resonates strongly with today's increasingly savvy consumers who are wising up to the ill effects of chemical nasties.

Fancl Acne Care

More than just slapping on a 'preservative-free' label and calling it a day, a lot actually goes into Fancl's research, development and processing so as to ensure every product bottles only the best, efficacious ingredients that remain fresh without additives. Ever-forward thinking, the brand is also constantly innovating its technologies and know-how to improve packaging and formulations (such as issuing new editions of its iconic MCO Mild Cleansing Oil). So what exactly goes on behind the scenes of the clean beauty movement, you might ask? In pursuit of the answer, we hopped onto a plane to the Land of the Rising Sun via a specially issued Fancl Travel Passport with an eat, play, rest and learn itinerary to get a first-hand insight on what really constitutes no preservatives beauty, and how Fancl is the OG that enforces the gold standard. 

The first stop of this educational journey begins with R&D. Operating from day one of Fancl's founding, the research centre has been at the heart of every product launch, and has since turned out 500 patents in the fields of cosmetics and nutrition. This is the work of no less than 200 in-house researchers, which range from PhD holders and certified pharmacists to dieticians and nutritionists. Here, human ingenuity and cutting-edge machines go hand-in-hand to discover how preservatives inhibit cell activity and its accumulative effects. This knowledge is then applied to the design and optimisation of existing Fancl products, on top of being utilised to form the backbone of future innovations.

Further proving that clean beauty is going mainstream, a second lab was built in 2016 to adjoin the original building. Outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment for neuroscience, dermatology and pharmaceutical formulation, Fancl continues to innovate by conducting new research initiatives.

Fancl Chiba factory

Touring the facility and its various research departments also had us playing scientist for a day as we peer into microscopes, prepped with slides that contain synthetic skin cells that react in real time to the effect of preservatives. These are daily tests run by the R&D staff in order to determine the rate of skin ageing, from which they extrapolate data on how to enhance cell activity to protect against these stresses and slow down the process.

Consequently, Fancl's proprietary Skin Biomarker Analysis is one of the fruits of their research; it's a non-invasive diagnostic test that measures biomarkers from the epidermis and can scientifically pinpoint the different causes of blotches or wrinkles, as well as future risks to your skin's health. We were treated to this analysis post-tour, where a patch test was done on the cheek (yes, it's that simple when they meant non-invasive). The results will then arm us with information on the immediate and long-term corrective measures we should take to maintain our skin.

Fun fact: The researchers play human guinea pigs all the time by testing their work-in-progress formulas on themselves and each other. Yup, Fancl rocks the anti-animal cruelty badge.

The clean beauty movement

You know that 'FSS' stamp on every Fancl box that you see when you scrutinise the labelling? That's short for 'Fancl Safety Standard', the brand's very own QC marker, and it's proof positive of their extremely stringent manufacturing process. But why the need for this elevated standard and how does it tie into clean beauty? To understand, the next stop on our no preservatives journey was the Fancl factory in Chiba prefecture, one of five production bases located in Japan.

It is here that we get a peek at the systems in place to ensure the raw materials remain fresh, thus eliminating the need to add harmful preservatives to prolong shelf life. Through the glass is as close as we could get, as personnel who haven't been disinfected aren't allowed near the production line. And if you're thinking this sounds like some biological-hazard-hazmat-only scenario, you're not exactly far off. The entire production process is contained in pharmaceutical-grade cleanroom environments where temperature and humidity are controlled to prevent airborne dust and dirt from contacting the ingredients. Even the cleaning of these machines and equipment are done with a combination of pressurised air and purified water. The workers who oversee this process also have to don sterilised full-suited scrubs as part of Fancl's safety protocols.

Fancl Chiba factory

As we follow the assembly line, which is fully automated from start to end, our guide pointed all the details that would ordinarily escape notice but were integral to maintaining Fancl's no preservatives stance: There were ceiling filters to constantly cycle the air for cleanliness, and everything was piped from room to room to mimimise exposure to contaminants. All of these measures collectively enforce the quality and safety standards that ensure the final product reaches Fancl customers as fresh as the day it was bottled, and all without using preservatives.

Fun fact: No makeup can be worn inside any of the cleanrooms, so the female staff do without. But interestingly, their complexions are comparable to your good face day when you've slathered on your most expensive foundation. We're talking even the oldest employee, who was 62 years old. Apparently, this is what a lifetime of using Fancl does for your skin.

Extra fun fact: 16,000 bottles of MCO Mild Cleansing Oil and a mind-boggling 48,000 bottles of Active Conditioning Emulsion are produced per day at the Chiba plant. The latter is the brand's most popular product, with one bottle being sold every six seconds. 

Taking up prime real estate along Tokyo's premier shopping belt, the Ginza Square flagship store — which is also celebrating its 15th anniversary this year — is 10 floors of all things Fancl. Operating beyond a retail store, each level is a concept space built around the brand's approach to makeup, skincare, health and dining.

Starting from the top, there's a preventative health studio equipped with a variety of machines and apparatuses that test your current state of fitness. And off to the side is a little juice bar that serves up specially concocted health juices made from fresh fruits and greens to improve body conditions, such as reducing fatigue and boosting your immune system. As part and parcel of its holistic practices, these health tests are followed up with consultation services conducted by certified dieticians and nutritionists. There's even an entire floor dedicated to health supplements, which are developed by Fancl to complement its know-how in clean beauty so as to help you achieve good skin from the inside out.

Fancl Ginza flagship store

A similar service is provided when it comes to skincare. Remember that Skin Biomarker Analysis test we mentioned several paragraphs ago? It's at the flagship's beauty floors where you'll have a sit down with Fancl's experts who will run through your results with you, breaking down what your skin is deficient in, whether it's moisture, collagen or its ability to defend against oxidation. All this data is generated from that one patch test, and it's condensed into a report that comes with a personal solution programme, which is a 30-day serum blended with ingredients customised uniquely to your skin needs to help improve your skin's barrier functions over time. Basically, it parallels seeing the doctor and getting properly diagnosed, followed by receiving the right medication that will kick your illness to the curb.

Unfortunately, this service and product is exclusive only to Japan as of now but plans are hopeful to roll this out across Fancl globally in the next handful of years. In between going in for our one-on-one health and skin consultations, we wandered among the various floors to shop makeup, skincare and health supplements during spare pockets of time, on top of lunching at Fancl's very own restaurant on the ninth level where every meal is prepared free of preservatives. Suffice to say, this is a sanctuary you can happily spend the entire day in. With everything from makeup and skincare to health and dining, this is how the clean beauty movement comes full circle at Fancl.

Fun fact: There's a secondary dining locale, down in the basement of the Ginza flagship store. Called the Dorobushi Kitchen Café — as it's a partnership with the Dorobushi Kitchen dining chain — this is where to go if you're jonesing for DIY salads and baked goodies made with natural and organic fresh ingredients. There's even a man-made waterfall in the café, from which oxygenated water flows. Regular café-goers have even said sitting close to the waterfall has improved the appearance of their hair and skin, thanks to the diffused spray of oxygen-enhanced H20.

Fancl MCO Mild Cleansing Oil

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