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How stem cell technology can really work

Right now there are a bunch of cosmetic brand that claim to use stem cells to provide benefits. For example, there is the Swiss Botany brand with their apple stem cells or the Peter Thomas Roth rose stem cell product. cosmetic stem cells

The stem cells in these products have virtually no effect. You can bet that if you left the stem cells out of those formulas no one would be able to tell the difference. It is pure marketing hype and nothing more.

But stem cell technology does have some promise. Here is an excellent piece of research that shows scientists have grown human hair from stem cells. It’s pretty cool. They took human pluripotent stem cells and were able to coax them into converting into human hair follicles. This was all done in a lab and on human cell cultures but it represent the first time it was ever achieved. Apparently growing dermal stem cells outside of the body makes them quickly lose their hair producing properties.

There are two important things to note here which separates this research from the stem cell nonsense that is put into cosmetic products.

1. They use human stem cells. It baffles me that companies use apple or rose stem cells and expect that they will do anything on human skin.

2. Their results are modest. They make no claims that they’ve cured baldness or any other condition people would love to solve. Researchers are almost always (as they should be) reserved about the meaning of any experiment. This could just be a fluke that they can’t repeat.

This is a very promising result though and it will be interesting to see where this technology goes. Animal and then human trials are probably the next thing required. But it won’t be as simple as just rinsing your head in a stream of human stem cells or topically applying some stem cell cream. They have to actually do a tissue transplant to get it to work.

Stem cell technology is promising and I believe in the future there really will be some amazing things done with it. Just don’t believe the hype of stem cell containing creams that you see for sale now. The stem cells aren’t doing anything.


Cosmetic science on tv

One of the fun aspects of what I do for a living is that I occasionally get invited to be a guest on TV shows.  Recently, I recorded a spot on the Dr Oz show which is filmed in New York.  You can see the video clip here.

Cosmetic Chemist TV Appearance

You might be curious about the whole process so I thought I would explain what happens.

Getting invited

The first time I was invited on the show, it was arranged by my book publisher, Harlequin.  We had just published our book “Can You Get Hooked on Lip Balm” and they sent me on a media tour.  In addition to the Dr Oz show I was also on a number of local news programs and on the Rachel Ray show.  Before doing all these tv appearances they also sent me through a day of media training which was very helpful.  If you want to appear on TV or in the media, I would suggest you do some type of media training.

Since the first appearance went well the Dr Oz show invited me out a few more times.  This latest time is the 4th time I’ve been on the show.  Now they contact me directly and usually it’s whenever they have some type of new story angle that involves cosmetic product mythbusting.  If I was a bit more ambitious I suppose I could pitch stories to them but I don’t look at TV appearances as anything but fun opportunities. That’s probably a mistake by me but oh well.

Preparing for the segment

When the producers contact you, it’s usually through email.  They first want to see if you are available.  Then they talk to you on the phone about the segment and what they want to cover.  You have some input here but a lot of times they have specific things they want to talk about.  In the segment above I can’t remember but I think I suggested the body wash micro beads piece.  They had ideas about the sunscreen and argan oil.  Of course, I helped flesh out the ideas with the basic facts and that eventually got turned into the segment we recorded.

I don’t get paid to be on the show but they do cover any traveling expenses.  For this segment I just happened to be in New York so they covered my car ride to and from the studio.  It’s a pretty nice studio by the way.  They used to film across the hall from the Jimmy Fallon show but they have since moved uptown.

The day of taping

They don’t tell you what to wear although they did ask me to bring my lab coat.  I’ve gotten a lot of use out of that lab coat outside of the lab.  I try to wear a collared, solid color shirt, staying away from stripes, and some black pants, business casual.  They fix your hair up a bit and put on some makeup to smooth your face and remove some of the oiliness.

You get put in a waiting room where the producer goes over the “script” with you.  You don’t memorize what to say and they don’t tell you what you have to say, but there are certain key phrases they would like you to include.  It helps make the segment flow more smoothly.  I figure this is done to help prepare you for the pressure of all the attention being on you.  Most of his guests are not frequently in front of an audience like this and it’s pretty easy to freeze up or stumble over your words.  After doing appearances on TV I have much more sympathy for politicians who get up in front of an audience and say stupid things.  It’s really easy to say something stupid under such circumstances.

After you’ve run through the script a few times they take you out to the stage to do a quick run through with how the segment will go.  This helps the camera men and prop people prepare.  Those stations you see set up get adjusted if needed.  You also get to say hello to Dr Oz (who’s a very nice guy by the way) and walk through how the segment will go.   You don’t really talk as they prefer to keep everything as spontaneous as they can. It takes only about 10 or 15 minutes but that is mostly just waiting for your turn.

In the green room

When the rehearsal is done they send you to hair and makeup to get made pretty and then back to your room where you wait.  The producer will come in and go over the script with you one or two more times.  When I was alone I also spent time running through the script in my mind.  The more you rehearse it the less likely you are to stumble over your words.

The first time I was on the show I had people from the publishing company with me in the green room but in subsequent appearances I’ve been alone.  There’s not much to do while you wait except run through the script, eat food from the veggie tray in your room, drink water, tea, or coffee, and watch the tv monitor to see what’s going on with the show.  I was probably waiting about 90 minutes prior to going on the show.

Appearing on the show

When it’s time to tape your segment the producer walks you from the green room to the backstage area.  The sound people hook you up with a microphone and you get led to the entrance of the stage.  Between segments there is a comedian who keeps the studio audience entertained and energized.  There is probably another 5 or 10 minute wait until they call you on.

My segment taped first so they positioned me at the prop stand and I waited for Dr Oz to do an intro to the segment.  This was the first time I saw the video of me being introduced as a “world renown cosmetic chemist.”  I like that.

Then we taped the segment.  Fortunately, I didn’t screw up or ramble so it went off pretty well this time.  They did do some editing but mostly I was happy with how it turned out.  In truth, it’s cringing for me to watch myself on TV so usually I don’t.  It’s a little embarrassing.  Still, it’s also fun for me and I’m happy to be getting the message out about cosmetic science to millions of viewers.

After you tape your segment you walk off-stage, get your microphone removed and you’re pretty much done.  The producer tells you you did a great job (whether you did or not) and they take you back to the green room to get your stuff.  If you want to stick around and catch the rest of the show you can but I didn’t.  I had to get back to the airport to fly home.


Overall, it was a positive experience for me.  I know some people will criticize me for appearing on the Dr Oz show since much of the stuff on his show is of dubious scientific validity.  In fact, one study suggested like 53% of his advice is wrong.  I definitely have mixed feelings about it.  However, I figure as long as I’m in the 47% of information that is correct and true and that I can help people learn more about their cosmetics, plus get the notion that being a scientist isn’t all about being nerdy, I’ll continue to do the show.  Besides my mom & dad like to see me on TV.

If you ever get the chance to be on a show like this, I encourage you to do it.  We need more scientists out in the public eye speaking about science.  There are too many people who know nothing about science but pretend they do getting on TV.  We need more actual scientists who know what they are talking about to combat them.



Don’t turn your cosmetic into a drug

Contrary to what you read on the Internet, the cosmetics industry in the US is regulated.  It is regulated by the FDA and they do a fairly decent job of it given their limited resources.  Cosmetics are some of the most safe consumer products you can buy.  One of the biggest mistakes companies make is that they “accidentally” turn their cosmetic products into drugs.  When this happens the FDA will contact you and if you don’t change your ways, they will impound or confiscate your products. cosmetics and drugs

Here is how you can turn your cosmetic into a drug and how to avoid doing that.

Use a drug active

In the US, an ingredient that interacts with living tissue and causes the cells to behave in a way that they normally wouldn’t is considered a drug.  The FDA lists a number of drug actives and these can not normally be used in cosmetic products.  So if you include an anti-dandruff ingredient or a glaucoma drug active in your formula you are selling a misbranded drug.  Even if you don’t make claims that the drug is doing anything for people you are still inappropriately selling a drug.  You might be able to hide from the FDA for a little while like this company did but eventually they will find you, warn you, confiscate your product and likely shut down your production.

Don’t secretly use drug actives in your cosmetics!

Make a drug claim

Most cosmetic companies don’t use drug actives, but they make the more common mistake of making drug claims which turn their cosmetic into a misbranded drug.  Raw material suppliers will often come to you with claims about ingredients that can stimulate collagen production, boost hair growth, or do some other magical transformation to the body.  Your suppliers can say these things but you can’t.  At least you can’t do it in a direct way.  Any claim that suggests your product is interacting or interfering with normal body metabolism is a drug claim and the FDA can send you a warning letter and potential shut you down.

Here is a recent example.  The company Cell Vitals was warned by the FDA for making drug claims about their cosmetic product.  Here are some of their offenses.

The company claimed that their stem cell facial moisturizer contained Camellia Sinesis Extract which is “anti-bacterial and … anti-cancer.”  They also said that their product contains “Argireline® …keeps down the release of a neural signal protein (catecholamine) and thus, prevents the muscle contraction involved in facial expressions.”

Those are not cosmetic claims!  And they will get you in trouble with the FDA if you make them.

Note the FDA has people that scour the Internet specifically looking for companies that are making illegal drug claims.  Being small is no guarantee that you can get away with it.

Avoiding problems

To avoid the problem of turning your cosmetic into a drug follow these tips.

1.  Don’t claim that your product will treat a disease.
2.  Don’t claim your product changes the body’s biochemistry
3.  Use phrases like “changes the appearance” or “helps the body” or “stimulates”
4.  Don’t ascribe function to any single ingredient.  Always say your formula provides the benefits.

If you follow these tips you should be ok but you’ll see some competitor’s who continue to make drug claims.  Don’t do it.  These companies are probably in it for the short term to make quick money then get out before they are busted by the FDA.  If you are serious about building a beauty brand avoid turning your cosmetics into drugs.



The largest natural and organic cosmetic companies

We’re in the process of launching a new course about formulating natural cosmetic products.  You can see our latest video here.

Formulating natural cosmetic products

In the process of putting together this course I’ve been looking at the different ways that cosmetic companies market their products as natural.  While it seems that almost everyone has some kind of SKU or advertising targeting natural there are a number of brands that really focus solely on a natural positioning.  Here are the top 15 natural brands as of 2013.  Interestingly, it is big companies that dominate.  However, there is a big hole for companies like P&G and Unilever as they don’t have any top brands…yet.

Burt’s Bees (Clorox)
Aveda (Estee Lauder)
Aveeno (Johnson & Johnson)
The Body Shop (L’Oreal)
Nu Skin
Hain Celestial Group
Dr. Perricone, MD Cosm
Bare Essentials
Tom’s of Maine (Colgate-Palmolive)
Dr Bronner’s
Yes to Carrots
Aubrey Organics

Incidentally, if you are interested in natural formulating be sure to get our free formulating natural cosmetics report.


How stable are your formulations?

I once made a shampoo formula that I kept for about 17 years.  It was my first batch of anything and for some reason I just never disposed of it.  It stayed stable for about 7 years before it striated into three layers.  I suspect if it were a clear shampoo that would not have happened. ancient-skin-cream-cosmetic

Anyway, 17 years seems pretty impressive but not nearly as impressive as this cream which is just about 2000 years old.  The formula contained animal fat, starch and tin dioxide.  Even more interesting, the scientists who analyzed it made a copy of the formula.

Perhaps the 2000 year old sample wasn’t completely stable (no one said whether they tried it or not) but it doesn’t look separated in the picture.  That’s an impressive feat by an ancient cosmetic chemist.


Hot trends to look for in 2015

Euromonitor is a market research company who covers the beauty market.  They put together a white paper suggesting some trends that will be popular in 2015.  Here is the list.  You can get the full report heretrends-2015

1.  Buying convenience – Consumers are finding it easier to buy products online or through their phones.  Beauty brands need to have online distribution to be successful.

2.  Brand activism – More brands are tying in some social good with purchases of their products.  This might be a good way to grow a new beauty brand.  Find a cause that people will care about.

3.  Vloggers and Bloggers – They are going to have an even bigger impact on what people buy in the coming year.

4.  Sharing consumers – I’m not sure how this will play out with cosmetics but perhaps a company can buy in bulk and sell to groups.

5.  Malls build communities – While online purchasing is going to increase shopping centers and malls are gearing more towards being a place for people to gather.  Big brands can’t ignore retail opportunities.

6.  Millenial purchasers – There are 2.6 billion of them and they’re going to start buying.  Better have some cosmetics for them to purchase.

7.  Consumers demand privacy – Not sure how this will affect cosmetics.

8.  World shopping – With online purchases people can buy cosmetics from around the world.  All brands will be global and might have to adapt to local regulations.

9.  Virtual reality – This is going to grow in 2015.  Perhaps people will be able to virtually design their own cosmetics and have finished product sent to them.

10. Focus on well-being – Consumers will be more focused on their health and monitoring it, especially using mobile apps.  This should be good news for brands positioned as healthy.



Are people using cosmetics wrong?

People apply color cosmetics hoping to improve the way they look.  But according to this research published in the The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, most people don’t know what they are doing and are applying too much. cosmetic-makeup

Cosmetic evaluation method

In the study 44 women participated as models.  They were first photographed with their hair back wearing no makeup or facial jewelry.  They were then given a tray of popular color cosmetics and told to apply makeup such that they were going out somewhere fancy for the night.  After this, their pictures were taken again.  A range of photos were created using the “no make-up” and “with make-up” as the high and low points of the scale.  22 male and 22 female participants were then stationed at a computer and asked to optimize the attractiveness of the given faces.


Researcher found that both men and women preferred the look of women with less makeup than applied.  Women liked the appearance of slightly more makeup than men.

While this is an interesting study, I don’t think looking at pictures is a good way to evaluate the attractiveness of someone.  How many people do you know who look great in real life but don’t take good pictures?  I think most people are more attractive in real life.

Anyway, what this research suggests is that people who put on a lot of makeup can probably put on less.  It also shows that some makeup definitely helps everyone look better and that is something of which we cosmetic chemists can be proud.


Controlling Cosmetic Product Quality

A question was posed to us recently about creating consistent cosmetic products and formulations.  Basically, the reader wanted to know how you do it.  The answer is probably the same whether you are making cosmetics, cars, or computers…Consistency. consistent-cosmetic

Use consistent raw materials

When you make a formula you need to use the same ingredients every time you make a batch.  Ideally, you would use ingredients that are even from the same batch of raw material produced by your supplier.  However, this isn’t possible because you will eventually run out of that lot.  What you should keep consistent is who you get the raw material from (supplier) and the specifications of the cosmetic raw material that you get.  If you have a consistent supplier and specification for a raw material you are well on your way to producing a consistent product.

Consistent ingredient levels

Using the right ingredients is important but equally important is using the right levels of these ingredients.  When you weigh out the amount of raw material you’re going to use to make the formula you have to be consistent in how much you use.  This can be challenging as some raw materials tend to stick to the side of weighing containers and sometimes you just pour too much onto the scale.  One of the most common reasons for a batch not turning out the way you expect is because of inconsistent weighing.  Ideally, you will have no more than a 5% error in your ingredient weighing.

Consistent procedures

How you make a batch is almost as important as which ingredients you use.  To have a consistent, high quality product you need to combine the ingredients in the same way every time.  You should keep track of the mixing speeds, the equipment, and the time for making the batch.  These should be the same every time you make a new batch.  Also, the temperature should be consistent too as should when you add ingredients.  To get the best chance of making a repeatable product you should make the product the same way every time.

Consistent filling

Another thing to consider is after the batch is made.  You need to be consistent in the way that you fill the product into containers.  You can effect the viscosity if you send the product through a small nozzle or you try to fill it too quickly.  The method of filling can definitely affect the final product.

Cosmetic product testing

Finally, you need to do some consistent testing to ensure that your batches are indeed consistent from batch to batch.  This would be things like viscosity and pH measurements plus color, odor, and appearance evaluations.  Do the testing at the same temperature using the same equipment.

Creating a high quality cosmetic product is not difficult but it can be made much simpler if you do one thing…be consistent.



Figuring out the 1% line

A fun activity for any cosmetic chemist is to look at a list of ingredients (LOI) and try to determine where is the 1% line.  If you don’t know the 1% line refers to the place in the LOI which indicates where the concentration of ingredients is less than 1%.  According to cosmetic labeling rules everything in the formula that is used in a concentration higher than 1% is required to be listed in order of concentration.  At 1% or below, you can list it in any order.  cosmetic-ingredient-list

So, if you can figure out where the 1% line is a formulator can get a pretty good idea of the concentration of the main ingredients in the formula.

Let’s look at an example.

Here is a color-enhancing hair conditioner.

Water, Cetearyl alcohol, Glycerin, Behentrimonium chloride, Cetyl esters, Isopropyl myristate, Quaternium-80, Polysorbate 20, Fragrance, Methylparaben, Polyquaternium-37, Mineral oil, Benzophenone-3, Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate

Finding the 1% line

In doing this exercise you want to start with the last ingredient and work your way up the list to figure out where the 1% line might be.  Once you figure this out you can guess at what the formula concentration of the other ingredients might be.

It also helps to know what most of the ingredients do and some of their approximate use levels.  Since I know that Methylparaben is a preservative, there’s no reason it would ever be used as high as 1%.  So, we can figure that everything after that ingredient is also used at a level of less than 1%.  That brings us to our first principle…

Preservatives are almost never used at a level of 1%

Other ingredients like colors (except for color cosmetics) and fragrances are rarely used above 1%.  So in this list, fragrance is also probably under 1%.

That brings us to Polysorbate 20.  This ingredient is used as a solubilizer typically for fragrance so it is like that it is not used at a 1% level either.  Usually a 1:1 ratio of fragrance to solubilizer is used.  Ignoring everything we’ve looked at thus far we are down to the following ingredients…

Water, Cetearyl alcohol, Glycerin, Behentrimonium chloride, Cetyl esters, Isopropyl myristate, Quaternium-80

Educated guess at the formula

Now that we’ve narrowed down the number of ingredients we can guess at what a reasonable percentage might be for the remaining ingredients.  I know that conditioners are mostly water so this formula contains at least 90% water.  If we figure that the last ingredients, Quaternium-80, is used at just about 1% we can start to fill in reasonable guesses for the other ingredients.  Here is a reasonable starting formula.

  • Water – 90%
  • Cetearyl Alcohol – 4.5%
  • Glycerin – 1.5%
  • Behentrimonium Chloride – 1%
  • Cetyl Esters – 1%
  • Isopropyl Myristate – 1%
  • Quaternium-80 – 1%

Remember the total formula should equal 100%.

This would just be a guess and I know it is not exactly the formula because we’ve left out all the other ingredients that are less than 1%.  But this formula should get you reasonably close.

Incidentally, I could be mistaken and both Quaternium-80 and Isopropyl Myristate might be used at levels lower than 1% (say 0.75%) but it seems a reasonable guess.

Next steps

After creating this approximate formula, the next step would be to make a batch of it and see how it turns out.  Then you try tweaking the levels and adding some of those ingredients that we ignored at levels under 1%.  Eventually, you should be able to create something that performs similar to the product you are trying to emulate.

This is a fun exercise and I would encourage you to go find other cosmetic ingredient lists and try to see if you can figure out where is the 1% line.


What are cosmetic product specifications?

When you create a formula in the lab it’s rather easy to create batches that are consistently the same in terms of their physical and chemical characteristics.  This is because you use sensitive balances, you work with smaller amount and you are not typically under pressure to get something made on a specific schedule.  These same conditions are not true of production and for these reasons (and others) you need to set specifications for your finished formulas. cosmetic specifications

What are cosmetic specifications?

Specifications are a range of values assigned to a formula which dictate the physical and chemical characteristics of any batch that are acceptable for a quality product.  If some characteristic of a batch is found to be outside of the specifications the batch is either adjusted or discarded before it can be sold.  In this way, specification ensure that every consumer will have a consistent experience every time they use the product.

Who sets specifications?

The specifications are initially set by the product development team.Traditionally, R&D takes the leading role in this process but they also get input from the marketing and market research departments for factors that will affect consumers.  As the lead product formulator, you are ultimately responsible for setting specifications.

What characteristics?

The product specifications for any cosmetic formula will vary depending on the type of product it is, but there are some commonalities.  For example, all products should have an appearance specification.  When the batch is done it should be checked for color, clarity, or any other unique appearance that the formula is supposed to have.  If your product is a blue body wash but the final batch appears green, it would fail the specification test.  Another common specification (or spec) would be odor.  Product batches should always be checked against an odor standard to ensure it has the proper odor.

Other key characteristics that get listed in the specifications would include

  • pH – A range should be set for every aqueous based formula
  • Viscosity – A range should be set for any liquid formula.  Also, the test should be done using a standard spindle and speed.

Of course there can be other specifications that are measured including product performance tests, penetration tests, moisture % tests, and more.

Ideally, you’ll set specifications for the least amount of testing required to ensure that the product is consistent.  Production people are under a time crunch and often don’t want to wait for intensive testing before releasing the final batch.

Who tests the product?

Normally, the specification testing is done by the Quality Control group at your company.  In this way there is an independent verification of the quality of the final product.  The production group is under pressure to release as many batches as they can so if they were responsible for the testing, they might pass batches which are borderline.

What happens when a product is out of spec?

Since there are numerous reasons a product could have characteristics outside of specifications there are numerous answers to this question.  Sometimes adjustments are made.  For example, if the pH is too low or high and acid or base is added to adjust the pH.  If the viscosity is off sometimes the batch is reprocessed (heated, mixed and cooled again) or an ingredient known to increase or decrease the batch is added.

If something like the color or odor is off often the batch will be blended off with another batch in a small enough proportion that the mistake isn’t detectable.

But sometimes, and production people hate when this happens, a batch is too far out of spec to be saved and it has to be discarded.

Specifications are an important aspect of formulating and as a cosmetic chemist you need to be familiar with why they are used and how you set them.  In a future post we’ll look at how to set them.