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What is scientific skin care?

Here’s a story suggesting that scientific skin care is a great opportunity for cosmetic brands as it is poised for future growth.  The article then goes on to say that “scientific skin care”

“…scientific skin care draws on ‘alternative’ (also known as ‘natural’) medical traditions…from around the world”

They then go on to say that

“in alternative medicine the natural and the scientific are not mutually exclusive concepts…”

This is completely baffling to me.  Calling alternative medicine scientific is ludicrous.  Alternative medicine is specifically treatments that have not been proven to work!  If these were proven to work they wouldn’t be called ‘alternative medicine’ they would just be called ‘medicine’.

Scientific Skin Care

The market research firm that put together this report may be correct that skin care companies can benefit from adopting ingredients and techniques popular in alternative medicine, but they shouldn’t confuse popular with scientific.

This is the cosmetic industry and people are not necessarily interested in buying the best scientific skin care.  They want the best story.  This is why people spend hundreds of dollars on skin lotions that contain gold particles or caviar, or even superoxide dismutase.  There is nothing scientific about these ingredients, or at least they haven’t been proven to be effective from topically applied treatments.  And just because they sound scientific and people buy them doesn’t mean they are.

You know what is scientific skin care?  Moisturizers like Petrolatum, Mineral Oil or Dimethicone.  Humectants like Glycerin or Propylene Glycol.  These are the things that make skin moisturizers work.  Not gold or caviar or ancient herbs or acupuncture.  Petrolatum might not be pretty but it is science.

Alternative medicine is not.

As a formulator you should never lose sight of what is actually working. And don’t fall in love with any specific ingredient.

“The first principle (of science) is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool”


Making your cosmetic brand stand out

One of the best books on marketing by Seth Godin is his book The Purple Cow. It’s an easy read and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in launching their own cosmetic line. It’s also great for cosmetic chemists who just want to get a better understanding on how you might help improve the marketing of your own formulas.

Being different

The basic thesis of The Purple Cow is that to succeed in business, you have to stand out. And figuring out how to make your brand, your product or even yourself stand out from the crowd is the way to success.

In the cosmetic business, standing out can be difficult. There are thousands of brands and tens of thousands of products. Just getting your product in a store to compete with others is going to be tough. Worse, consumers are not very good at picking up actual product performance differences. So, even if your formulas work better than someone else’s, you’ll have a hard time getting consumers to understand it.

How big brands stand out

The big mass market companies are always looking for ways to differentiate themselves from their competition. Their biggest weapon is money spent on advertising. This allows them to “tell their story” to hundreds of millions of people. The simple exposure of their story to this many people is going to result in sales. It’s no coincidence that the biggest selling cosmetic brands also spend the most on advertising.

Some big brands that don’t compete with advertising try a different tact. They compete on price. White Rain, VO5 and Suave all shoot for the least expensive products they can create while still getting a decent profit. The profit margin isn’t great but when you are selling 100 million bottles a year, you can still make a lot of money.

How small brands can stand out

For the most part, small brands and independent cosmetic makers can not copy the tactics of big brands. They will not be able to out spend big companies in advertising and also can’t win a price competition.

However, there are still a number of ways that a small cosmetic product / brand can stand out.

1. Unique story. The best way to create a stand out brand is to come up with a unique story. Burts Bees did an excellent job of this and built their brand so large that it got bought for a huge amount by a large company. It should be noted that Burts Bees didn’t simply go for an “all natural, organic, chemical free” marketing position. They had a compelling origin story, a likeable character, some savvy marketing, and fortuitous timing. Beeswax lip balm wasn’t unique at the time but Burts Bees made it unique.

Here’s a company that is trying to stand out. They’ve created a line of nail polish inspired by things like menstrual blood, bruises and famous painters. The kicker is that they sell the polish for $80 a bottle and they are sold out (at least they claim to be). That is impressive marketing.

Action – Find your unique story.

2. Niche consumer group. While it’s critical to have a unique story, it may be easier to stand out by starting with a niche consumer group and creating products specifically for them. The age of the Internet makes it much easier to identify niche groups. These groups are still going to be too small for the big corporations to go after but for small brands, you can make a great living catering to a smaller group.

So, what would be an example of a niche consumer group? Groups like

a. People allergic to Gluten containing products
b. People with psoriasis
c. People who are religious
d. People with a political ideology
e. People who ride motorcycles

Action – Find your nich consumer group.

3. Noticeable differences. The most satisfying way to stand out is to create a cosmetic formula that is noticeably different from all other ones out there. This is exceedingly difficult to do as the cosmetic field is “mature” science and there aren’t a lot of breakthru technologies. But don’t stop looking because you may find something. To create a product that performs better than all others you need to first identify the market leaders. Do some research to find out who actually has the best performing technology. And test it yourself. Then start creating formulas that work better.

Action – Figure out what the current best technology is and work to best it.

4. Novel marketing. The final way to stand out is to come up with some novel marketing methods. Big brands do things like create viral commercials, do public stunts, or wine and dine magazine editors & bloggers. You can do some of those things but don’t stop there. Brainstorm some ideas how you can get people talking about your brand. Then try them out. An excellent book on this subejct is Guerrilla Marketing.

Action – Determine a novel marketing strategy for your product.

Remember, you don’t have to be the biggest brand in the cosmetic business to be successful and make a good living. You just need to be unique. Figure out how you can stand out from the crowd of competitors and you will be able to earn a living from your cosmetic brand for life.


Nail design can prevent date rape?

Sometimes it seems innovation in cosmetic formulation is nonexistent. Most of the new products that are launched every year are simply minor adjustments on current technology. In my view there has been little real innovation in cosmetic formulation in quite some time. And the things that are innovative (e.g. powdered shampoo or beauty patch products) don’t usually becomes big market successes. Rather, the biggest successes are the brands who have the most innovative marketing stories and positioning like Urban Decay which didn’t exist until 1996 and was sold to L’Oreal for ~$150 million a couple years ago. The kicker is that there is nothing innovative about their cosmetic formulas at all. They are high quality products but not anything that a reasonably competent cosmetic chemist couldn’t make. nail design

That’s why I’m pleased to read stories about truly innovative technologies being developed in cosmetic formulas. This story about a nail polish being designed to detect a date rape drug is a good example. According to the report some undergraduate students at North Carolina State University are trying to produce a nail polish that will reveal the presence of date rape drugs in drinks. They were no doubt influenced by the Drinksafe technology which is a coaster that can detect whether your drink is spiked with a drug or not.

Nail designed innovation?

Now, I don’t know if these students will really be able to create a nail polish that replicates the effect of this color changing coaster. It’s not even clear that the coaster is effective. But the idea is interesting and if they could do it, it would definitely be an innovative new product. Depending how they do it, this could be a stand alone nail polish or a raw material that is put into all nail polishes.

I doubt this will be available any time soon and it is unlikely that these students will be the ones who bring it to market. It’s more likely they will have to partner with someone who knows something about formulating nail polish, but time will tell. It’s an excellent idea even if it is a small niche product at the moment.

Cosmetic product innovation

So there is still room for innovation in cosmetic formulating. This nail polish is designed to have a multi-purpose effect and this is one way that you can come up with new cosmetic formula innovations.

Think of your cosmetic product and add a second feature. Here are some examples off the top of my head.

Nail polish that generates electricity – paint on solar panels?
Makeup with ID tag chemical for identification
Scratch & sniff nail polish – releases a different scent for a pick-me-up when you’re tired
Nail polish water purifier – great for camping!

These may not be great ideas but they would be innovative if created. Feel free to take the ideas and do whatever you like with them.

Now, what are your cosmetic formula innovative ideas?


Chemical Reactions in Cosmetic Science

In college, most chemistry classes were focused on creating chemical reactions. We were constantly challenged to figure out what reaction would happen when you mix chemicals together.

Cosmetic science is not usually reactive

So, you might find it surprising that cosmetic scientists usually do the opposite. We mix chemicals together and hope that nothing happens. In a cosmetic formula, chemical reactions are bad. They are a sign of instability and we do everything we can to prevent them.

This drive to make nonreactive systems might lead you to wonder whether all those chemical reactions you memorized in Organic Chemistry were a waste of time. And if you work as a cosmetic formulator, you might wonder, “Are there any chemical reactions in cosmetic science?”

Yes, there is!

Reactive cosmetic products

While most of the chemical reactions in our industry occur at the raw material suppliers labs, there are some cosmetic products specifically designed to chemically react.  Here’s a list of the most common.

Permanent Waves

These products are designed to permanently change the shape of hair. People with straight hair often use permanent waves to get a little curl in their hair. A permanent wave formula has a reducing agent like thioglycolic acid that reacts with the di-sulfur bonds in the cystine amino acids breaking down the hair structure. Hair is first shaped into curlers, then the product is put on hair. It begins reducing hair and is rinsed with water to stop the reaction. A neutralizing chemical like hydrogen peroxide, is added which reforms the di-sulfur bonds into the new configuration.

Hair Relaxers

These products do the opposite of permanent waves. They make curly hair permanently straight. The method is similar you chemically break down hair, reshape it, then reform the protein bonds in the new configuration. Sometimes ammonium thioglycolate is used but most often it is sodium hydroxide or lithium hydroxide. The compounds break down the di-sulfur bonds in hair and the neutralizing step stops the reaction.

This is the most damaging chemical treatment for hair.

Hair Bleach

Hair bleaching is a process used to turn brunettes into blonds. You didn’t really think that there were that many blonds in the world did you? Hair bleach is a chemical reaction between melanin (the material in hair that gives it color) and hydrogen peroxide.

Hair Colors

Hair coloring is a slightly more complicated version of hair bleach. It uses hydrogen peroxide to break down hair’s natural color, then the peroxide also oxidizes a polymeric reaction with dye monomers. When the dye polymerizes inside the hair, it creates a color molecule that is too big to easily come back out.

Skin Darkening

These products are designed to give fair-skinned people a tanned look. They work by using an ingredient called dihydroxyacetone or DHA. It reacts with the proteins in the stratum corneum via the Maillard reaction to produce the brown (although sometimes orange) color. All the steps haven’t been worked out, but basically when DHA is exposed to skin protein, it is converted to pyruvaldehyde, which then reacts with arginine, lysine, and histidine amino acids in skin to form brown/yellow pigments called melanoidins.

Be sure to see Kelly’s article about DHA in Cosmetics & Toiletries magazine.


These are products designed to help people to remove unwanted hair. The primary active in these types of cosmetics is some version of thioglycolic acid. The acid reacts with the cystine amino acids in hair and breaks down the S-S linkages. The hair is reduced to a jelly like mass that can then be wiped away. Note this is the same reaction as in permanent waves.

2SH-CH2-COOH(thioglycolic acid) +R-S-S-R(cystine)—–> 2R-SH + COOH CH2 SS CH2 COOH (dithiodiglycolic acid)

Chemical reactions are not the primary focus of most cosmetics, but there are a few reactions so don’t fret. Memorizing those reactions in Organic Chemistry wasn’t a complete waste of time.


Sunscreen formulas may be hazardous to sea life

Here is a story that caught my interest about the ingredients in sunscreens harming ocean life. It turns out that the active ingredients in mineral sunblocks, Titanium Dioxide (TiO2) and Zinc Oxide (ZnO), undergo a chemical reaction that produces hydrogen peroxide. sunscreen-phytoplankton

The way it works is that when a photon hits the molecule it is converted to heat and a free electron. The free electron reacts with Oxygen to produce an oxygen radical which reacts with free hydrogen which then combines with another to form hydrogen peroxide.

Anyway, this increased level of hydrogen peroxide in the ocean water can kill off some of the marine phytoplankton. This is a significant food source for larger sea creatures so when phytoplankton is reduced it has devastating effects on other animals.

Unintended Consequences

This just makes me think of the advice that is given by organizations like the Environmental Working Group (EWG). They do an annual recommendation for sunscreens and always choose TiO2 and ZnO based products as the “safest” choice for consumers. There is no good evidence that organic sunscreen ingredients like Oxybenzone or Octinoxate are dangerous for people but that doesn’t stop the EWG from suggesting they are.

As this story about the effect of TiO2 on aquatic life demonstrates, there may be unintended consequences to what you think is good advice. If you care about the environment it is probably better for you to use sunscreens based on different UV filters that don’t include mineral sunscreens.


Often, I wonder about the history of our industry. So I’ve been collecting old cosmetic formularies and books. They tend to be rare. There were only two copies of my latest purchase, published in 1935, available on Amazon. That book is Canitics: The Art and Science of Hair Dyeing, written by Florence Wall. It appears that Florence was one of the first women to be recognized as a cosmetic chemist and the first female medalist in the Society of Cosmetic Chemists. cosmetic chemist florence wall

Florence Wall

Florence Wall was born in Patterson, NJ in 1893. She attended the College of St. Elizabeth and graduated with Bachelors’ degrees in Arts and Education and honors in both English and Chemistry. There were few opportunities for women in chemistry at the time, so Florence spent time teaching high school science.

World War I opened doors for women in many careers when men were sent off to war. Florence began working as an industrial chemist and later a cosmetic chemist. In 1924 she took a position at the leading manufacturer of hair dyes, Inecto, Inc. She was to be a liaison between the lab and the salon where product testing occurred.

Soon, her technical writing skills and knowledge of several languages caused a change in course and she was put in charge of library research and the department of technical advice. Shortly thereafter she was asked to write a text on the science of hair dye and coined the term canitics to mean the art and science of hair dyeing. Florence continued to write throughout her career. She published 5 books and published over 300 articles.

Inetco created the Notox Institute for postgraduate education in hair dyeing and Florence was charged with developing the curriculum. Soon after, Inetco purchased the Marinello Company, a beauty and cosmetology school still in existence today. Florence began developing curriculum for the Marinello schools as well.

Florence fought for recognition of cosmetic science as a true science and was involved in updates to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic legislation. She attended hearings and worked closely with Senator Royal Copeland. She intended to fight scientific inaccuracies and ensure accurate representation of the cosmetic industry.  She earned her doctorate at the New York University School of Education.

Dr Wall continued writing and lecturing late into her career and even set up a class in cosmetic hygiene at New York University. She was inducted into the Cosmetology Hall of Fame at the New York World’s Fair in 1965. Florence passed away at the age of 95 in 1965.


OTC Drug Monographs and Cosmetics Part 2

Monographs specify the active ingredients, levels of actives and permitted combinations of active ingredients that can be used in cosmetics that make OTC drug claims. Monographs also contain guidance on labeling and test methods to verify efficacy.

Components of the Drug Facts Label

  • Active Ingredient(s) – Active ingredients and the percentage of each in the product are listed. Generally these are weight percent but there are exceptions. For example the Tentative Final Monograph for OTC Healthcare Antiseptic Drug Products used % volume.
  • Uses – Symptoms or disorders that the OTC drug is indicated for.
  • Warnings – When the product should not be used, what at physician or pharmacist should be consulted, factors that may alter the expected response to the product, and common side effects.
  • Directions – Dosage and frequency of use. Can be sub-dived by age group, size, or other factors that may affect response to the product.
  • Other information – Special instructions as needed. For example, storage conditions to preserve the shelf life of the product.
  • Inactive Ingredients – The ingredients that comprise the delivery vehicle of the product.

Test Methods

The appropriate test method is designated in each monograph along with details regarding laboratory validation, instrument calibration and standard materials to test against when appropriate. The final product must pass the test as described by the monograph to claim efficacy.

While monographs are lengthy and complicated, they exist to protect consumers. That’s why it is important to have a deep understanding of the monograph when working on formulating cosmetics that are also OTC drugs.

Click this link to see part one of over the counter drugs and cosmetics.


We’ve looked at the definitions of cosmetics, drugs, and cosmetic drugsFDA-monographs in the past, and listed cosmetics that have FDA monographs.  So, we thought we’d give more background on monographs and what they mean for cosmetic formulators.

Historical background

Before the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) existed most drugs were available without prescription. Unscrupulous individuals could bottle anything and sell it as a miracle cure. In 1938 the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act gave the FDA authority to issue regulations and was amended to clarify the difference between over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription drugs. OTC drugs are thought to be generally safe and effective (GRAS) and can be sold without prescription.

The Monograph Process

The monograph process has three phases each requiring publication in the Federal Registrar (FR), the official publication of the United States government which contains t contains government agency rules, proposed rules, and public notices. The first phase is a review by advisory panels. The panels determine whether or not fit GRAS criteria and are safe for self-use. The panel also reviews claims and recommends labeling. The findings of the panel are published in the Federal Registrar as an advanced notice of rule making (ANPR) which is followed by a period of time is allotted for public comment.

The panel classifies ingredients into three categories:

Category I – Generally safe and effective for claimed therapeutic indication

Category II – Not generally recognized as safe and effective or unacceptable indications

Category III – Insufficient data to permit final classification

Phase two is an assessment by the FDA including the panel review from phase one along with public comments and inclusion of any new data that has become available. The agency then publishes its conclusions in the FR as a tentative final monograph (TFM). Again, there is a period of time set aside for additional comments and data to be submitted from the public.

The final phase is publication of the monograph. After the monograph is published, products containing active ingredients not included in the monograph require a new drug application or a time and extent application which requires that the ingredient have demonstrated safe use in markets outside the US for at least 5 years. While monographs can be updated, it’s often a very long process. There are currently 8 ingredients that have been waiting for approval for the sunscreen monograph, some since 2002.

In part 2 we will look at the parts of an OTC monograph.

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Market Research Basics for Cosmetic Chemists

In any big company there will be a group known as Marketing Research which every cosmetic formulator will have to interact with eventually. In this post, we’ll go through the most basic information about what the group tries to accomplish, how it will effect you and how you can use them to become a better cosmetic chemist.

What is Market Research

If you spent all your time in science classes you may never have had the chance to learn about market research. Essentially, it is the process by which companies find out useful information about their consumers, potential customers, and the marketplace. It is done using standard questionnaires, home use tests, or moderated focus groups.

Focus group — During the early phases of a new project, the market research group will organize focus groups of expected customers. These are round table discussions where a moderator talks to the customers and finds out what they think. In the meantime, you, your marketing group, and anyone else from the company who might be interested sit behind a two-way mirror, observing and taking notes about what is being said. Ideally, you’ll get a good sense about what people like, don’t like, and want.

Often these groups are convened after the consumer has tried one of your prototypes so this discussion can help you see exactly what is working and not. Focus groups can be extremely useful for finding new product ideas and helpful for figuring out what is good and bad about your formula. However, they can also be misleading as they represent only a small fraction of your customer base. Don’t put too much stock in the impressions you get from focus groups.

Home use test — These are formal tests where you create prototypes, send them home with consumers, and get feedback after they have used them for a few weeks. Home use tests can give you an excellent idea about how your new formula stacks up against competition or previous prototypes. Of all the types of market research you might encounter, home use tests are the most useful to cosmetic chemists.

But be cautious when analyzing the data generated from home use tests. The more detailed the question, the less accurate the answers. People often do not know why they like a formula or not and they are easily swayed by the halo effect. The most significant question asked in a home use test is whether or not the consumer liked the product. All other detailed questions should be taken less serious. For example, if your home use test demonstrates that your product doesn’t foam enough, be sure to see whether they liked the fragrance. Often if people don’t like the fragrance, they find other things wrong. It’s also important to run a control when doing a home use test but unfortunately, this costs extra money that companies don’t always want to spend.

Why use market research?

There are a wide variety of reasons that a cosmetic chemist would want to use market research. Here are just a few examples.

1. To figure out what your customers want — When you are trying to come up with a new product idea, asking consumers what they want is often a good strategy. Of course, consumers don’t really know what they want so you have to ask the right questions to get good ideas. The best things to focus on are the problems that consumers are experiencing. Once you know the problem, then you can come up with a solution that people might want.

2. To figure out what customers like — Market research is a great way to learn what people like. When you are formulating, you’ll generally create products that you like using. This is fine but you should remember that you are not making products for yourself. You are making them for consumers. Once you get a product you like, ask consumers whether they like it too. If they don’t, change it.

3. To make yourself feel better about a launch — Research studies are often done so late in the process that the information they provide can’t be used to modify the formula. This is an unfortunate reality. On the plus side, if your formula does well on the home use test, you can feel confident that your boss, their boss, and your marketing group will feel happy. And if the product doesn’t happen to be successful in the marketplace, no one will blame the formula.

4. To find potential problems — One of the best things about giving consumers your product to try before it gets launched is that you’ll quickly find any potential problems that you didn’t notice. Perhaps, there is an off-odor in the fragrance you didn’t detect or the packaging is too difficult to open. Consumer studies are great for finding problems like these.

What are the limitations?

While it is known as ‘market research’ the quality of the research is not the same as scientific research. The biggest problem with this type of research is that it is incredibly subjective and there is a wide range of variability. In fact, I’ve personally done tests where we tested the exact same formula among two different groups of 100 consumers and got opposite results. If you can’t reproduce a result, the conclusions from the result can’t be relied upon.

However, your market research group (and the rest of your company) will not likely see it from a scientific minded view. They will look at data obtained from market research as equivalent to that obtained from laboratory instruments. It’s not, of course, but you will have a hard time changing their mind. Just glean what you can from the data, ignore things that don’t make sense, and never rely on specific market research data to make drastic changes to your formulas.


Allured has a new book out about Sustainable Cosmetic Product Development. If you are interested in formulating for the Natural, Organic or Green market, this is an extremely useful book.

Cosmetic book summary

The first chapter looks at the development of the Green market and gives a great overview of the history of how the market has evolved. The second chapter is a bit more useful for formulators as it goes through the worldwide standards for Green, Natural and Organic products. This gives you great direction on how to formulate for specific places in the world. The next chapter gives an excellent overview of what it means to formulate with green ingredients. The next four chapters are probably the most useful ones in the book. They go through exactly how a formulator can use green principles to create hair products, skin products, color cosmetics, and fragrances. The final three chapters are related more to the work that goes on after formulating including one on green packaging, global sourcing of ingredients, and a final chapter on the environmental impact of cosmetics.

Book review

If you are asked by your marketing folks to make your formulas more “natural” or “green”, this book is an excellent resource. It gives you a solid background of the different definitions of green cosmetics and talks about all the certification programs around the world. Then it tells you exactly which ingredients can be used as substitutes for traditional, synthetic compounds. This compilation of ingredients with specific applications is a great resource. My only complaints about the book is that there was a little too much focus on history in the hair chapter and the Index could be more thorough.

Final comments

Overall, if you are going to be doing any natural formulating (and almost every cosmetic chemist will) this book is an invaluable resource.