Article by: Perry Romanowski

By: Perry Romanowski

One of the most frequented pages on this website is the post we did on how to become a cosmetic chemist.  And that tells you a number of things you can do to get started as a cosmetic chemist, but I’ve found that everyone who works in this industry has a slightly different story.  Here’s mine.

Early years

My path to science probably started with my love of animals.  When I was a kid my family had a dog named Princess who just didn’t like kids.  Unfortunate because my parents had 7 kids and the dog could never get away from us.  I tried to befriend her but she never accepted.  However, one year in the mid-1970’s she had four puppies which I adored.  I remember being fascinated watching as she gave birth.

The puppies were so cute and I spent all my free time playing with them, taking care of them, and thinking about them.  I could spend hours just watching what the puppies would do next.  Eventually, my parents gave away three of them but we kept Soxie.  I loved her.  I still get choked up thinking about that dog.

soxie

But my experiences with dogs sparked an interest in all animals.  I became particularly fascinated with insects.  I remember catching them, putting them in glass jars, and just watching to see what they would do next.  I loved to catch daddy long legs (which aren’t actually spiders), crickets, worms and grasshoppers.  I recall once catching some big fat worms near a pond and carrying them over to show my parents.  When I opened my hands they were all bloody.  Those worms happened to be leaches.

The first books I ever read were picture books about insects.  This insect fascination led to an interest in other animals and I devoured any book I could find on the subject.

Moving to the country

When I was 9 years old we moved from an urban suburb to a rural suburb farther away from the city of Chicago.  The house was new construction surrounded by farm fields.  It was a naturalist’s wonderland.   Here I found, and caught, all kinds of different animals such as frogs, toads, salamanders, snakes, and turtles.  My mother was not a huge fan (especially of the snakes) but she tolerated my obsession and let me keep a zoo in my room.  I read books about how to take care of them and spent hours catching insects to feed them.  I even attempted to set up a tank to mate grasshoppers so I would have a steady supply of food during the winter.  It never really worked but it did teach me about the biology of grasshoppers and how to experiment.

High School

During grade school I demonstrated a strong ability in mathematics and science classes were always my favorite.  This continued in high school.  I took more science classes than most others and did well.  Biology was more interesting me.  I was blown away when I first looked at a drop of pond water under a microscope and saw it teaming with life.  In my Advanced Biology course I did a project where I had to raise an actual pig.  The pig, Mindy, lived with me for 6 months and grew from a 10 pound piglet to an over 100 pound pig.  I fed it, cleaned it, trained it, and kept notes of my observations.  It was my first “research” project and I loved it.

During these years, I also became fascinated with seeds and growing plants.  My plant of choice was the pumpkin.  Each October after Halloween, I would gather up some seeds and let them dry out over the winter.  Then in March, I would wet a napkin, put the seeds on it, and wrap it in plastic wrap.  A few days later the seeds would sprout.  I transplanted them into pots, then eventually into an outside garden.  The pumpkin plants grew like crazy but they never grew pumpkins and I could never figure out why.  I investigated and read books on the biology of pumpkins and melons and just never figured out why I only grew male flowers and never any female ones.  Later in life I figured out it was because I was growing plants from the same fruit.

Chemistry

My interest in chemistry was not as strong as in biology but there were two areas that I liked, cooking and fireworks.  The Fourth of July was always a favorite holiday of mine because my parents would let each of us have some firecrackers, sparklers and smoke bombs to light off ourselves.  As a kid, I remember savoring every one, making the packs last for hours rather than the minutes like my brothers.  I experimented with blowing up paper airplanes, ant hills, and any other structure I could find.

During high school, I stumbled on the formula for making smoke bombs (salt peter and sugar).  Since I was a lab assistant the the chemistry teacher, my friends and I would experiment with different ratios and additives to produce different color smoke.  It was all done under a hood but was probably pretty dangerous.

My friend and I got this brilliant idea to make a 2 pound smoke bomb and light it off during some outdoor high school event (like a football game or something).  So, we bought up the salt peter and sugar and went to his house to melt it all together.  We started outside but it was taking much too long so we brought it inside to mix it on his parent’s stove.  Unfortunately, we didn’t realize how easily it would ignite.  After a few minutes of cooking, the smoke bomb went off in his house and clouded the entire place with smoke.  We eventually got it outside but the damage in his kitchen was significant.  His parents were understandably upset and that pretty much ended our friendship.  It also ended my experimentation with fireworks.

College years

When I went to college I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself.  I did well in math and science and liked programming computers but had no clue about what kind of job to do when I got out.  I certainly would have benefited from some career counseling advice.  In the one meeting I had with a career counselor I mentioned that I liked animals and it was decided that I would be a biology major.  Seemed good enough to me at the time.  Of course, if I had more insight, I would’ve pursued my strong interest in computers and would be one of those Google or Yahoo millionaires right now.  Then again, I like how my life has turned out so perhaps blindly studying biology wasn’t such a bad thing.

I did well enough in college but was much more interested in socializing than learning anything.  With minimal studying, I was able to get pretty good grades.  This was actually a bad thing because I never really took any of my studies too seriously.

By the time I got to my fourth year in college I started looking at the job market for biology majors.  Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of options.  However, I did notice that there were many more job ads for chemists.  Upon further investigation, I found that I could easily switch to a chemistry major by taking a couple more chemistry courses.  It took me an extra year, but I got to work as a lab assistant and even took some Masters level courses.   I never loved biology nor chemistry but I did like both subjects.  I found the chemistry labs much more interesting than the biology labs and I particularly enjoyed Organic Chemistry.  For a cosmetic chemist, it’s good to like organic chemistry.  Incidentally, I didn’t like the class part of Organic Chemistry, but the labs were great.

Chemistry Career

In the second half of my second senior year of college, I started searching for a job.  My plan was to get a job, work for a few years, then return to college to get a PhD.  I didn’t know what I would be getting a PhD in but it seemed like something I should do.  It never happened.  I did eventually go back and finish the course work for a Masters degree in Biochemistry but it never helped my cosmetic career much.

In 1992, the job market was not great.  I read the book What Color is Your Parachute, put together a resume and applied for any chemistry related job I could find.  I only went on three or four interviews, but was ultimately offered a job at Alberto Culver.  I remember leaving the job thinking that I wasn’t thrilled about working for a shampoo company.  At the time it just seemed so…unimportant.  But the pay was good and I figured I’d only be there for a couple of years before going back to college for an advanced degree.   I ended up staying for 17 years.

My first job title was Cost Savings Chemist.  Presumably, I was hired to look at the current formulas and figure out ways to make them cheaper.  This turned out to be a ruse by the R&D management to get the front office to approve hiring a new chemist.  I ended up actually being another formulating chemist for the VO5 brand.  The job was interesting enough.  I learned a lot about surfactants and formulating and working in a lab in the cosmetic industry.  I loved mixing together the chemicals and being able use my creation at the end.  The first batch of anything that I made was a 2-in-1 shampoo with the notebook code 2458-1.  I had a sample of that on my desk until I left Alberto Culver some 17 years later.

I worked with some interesting characters and the atmosphere in the early years of Alberto Culver was really that of a small company.  As a formulating chemist you were responsible for everything including batching, getting raw materials, testing, developing claims, filling bottles, monitoring first production runs and troubleshooting batches.  Any problems with the formulation was always put on the cosmetic chemist to solve.  This was extremely challenging, but it also forced you to learn a lot.

In the beginning, I remember how easy I thought it all was.  In college, I would spend hours working out the Gibbs Free Energy equation of a problem or using Calculus to figure out the partial pressures and temperatures of a variable system.  In my new job, the hardest math I had to do was to figure out the percentage of powder to make a dye solution.

I was also surprised at the number of simple questions that didn’t have answers.  I figured everyone in the lab would just be an expert on formulating everything.  It turns out, most people in cosmetic chemistry specialize in one small area.  People working on hair sprays didn’t know much about shampoos, and people working on relaxers couldn’t help much when it came to choosing the right cationic surfactant for a conditioner.  It was frustrating.  What made it even more frustrating was that there wasn’t a single book to which I could refer to get answers.  Sure, you could find bits of useful information in books like Harry’s Cosmeticology and the Chemistry and Manufacture of Cosmetics, but these books were not written for a beginning cosmetic chemist.

Beginning Cosmetic Chemistry

My frustration with the available texts and a discussion with my co-worker Randy Schueller, led to a collaboration on a
series of articles published in Cosmetics and Toiletries targeted to beginning cosmetic chemists.  I had always enjoyed writing and found this to be an excellent way to learn more about formulating.  The articles were a big hit and we kept them up for a number of years.  Eventually, we put the articles together and added some more chapters to produce the first Beginning Cosmetic Chemistry book in 1998.  I was extremely happy to have published my first book.

The BCC book led to a number of other opportunities including some book editing jobs, chapter contributions to other books, and even a freelance job writing for an encyclopedia.  I loved writing for the encyclopedia.  It was a ton of work and required lots of library research (this was the days before the Internet) but it taught me how to work for myself and the discipline to meet deadlines.  One project was How Products Are Made and I smile every time I stumble upon an article that I wrote like this one on licorice.

SCC  Training Course

The book also led to a request from the Society of Cosmetic Chemists to do a training course based on it.  Since my writing partner was not a big fan of traveling, I took the project on by myself.  It was a lot of work distilling the book down to a 6 hour course but I did it.  I remember wanting to make my course more interesting than other talks that I had seen.  I have always found science lectures boring and I wanted to ensure at the very least, that I wasn’t boring.  This prompted me to add things like juggling, ukulele playing and puppets at various points in the lecture.  I always strive to communicate useful and enlightening information but in a way that is also interesting.  Over the years I have continued to shape my training course and have received lots of positive feedback.  I also discovered that I enjoy speaking in front of an audience.  That was fortunate.

Formulation Career

While I wasn’t working on my writing projects, I was doing the job of a formulator.  I moved up and around in the Alberto Culver company doing stints as a formulator on brands like VO5, Tresemme, and St. Ives.  Here I learned the ins and outs of formulating emulsions, cleansing products, styling products, and conditioners.  Some of my more interesting projects included finding over a million dollars in cost savings, developing a new pearl system for a shampoo, figuring out what was causing aluminum hairdressing tubes to bloat (never really did), and developing a shampoo and conditioner that scored as well as or better than Pantene in consumer testing.  I remember during this work, I washed my hair over 1500 times in one year.  I declared myself the “most shampooed head in America” and was probably not wrong.

But my most interesting discovery was found completely by accident.  I was doing some work on a hair color retention project and got tired of washing tresses all the time.  So, I tried to develop a method of soaking hair in water to simulate washing.  I found that when you soaked colored hair in water a certain amount of color was removed.  My plan was to correlate soak time to some number of washes.

Everything was going fine until I opened the container of soaking tresses and it smelled awful.  I figured it was bacterial contamination so in my next attempt, I just added a little preservative to the water.  Well, the next day when I looked, the color didn’t come out of the hair any more.  I repeated this and still the color remained.  This led to more research which eventually led to what we called our color locking technology which eventually ended up as a patent.  The work also led to a hair straightening product which was still in the works by the time I left Alberto.  It was a pretty cool serendipitous discovery for me.

The Beauty Brains

While I enjoyed my work at Alberto Culver, I have always had this notion of starting my own business.  As a kid I was a door-to-door seed salesman and had a job as a paper boy.  In college, I was a waiter and wrote a book called Milk the Tip which taught servers how to make more money through tips.  I never published it but it kept me inspired to continue to find just the right product to launch my own business.  When the Internet came around, I discovered blogging.

My first blog was a blog about the card game euchre called the Euchre Universe.  I wrote nearly every day and learned a lot about search engines, blogging, and more importantly, how people make money on the Internet.  This experience naturally led to the idea of starting a beauty blog.  People (particularly women) were always asking me questions about what products worked or not whenever they found out I was a cosmetic chemist.  I was happy to answer and thought it would make a good book someday.  The Beauty Brains was born.  It was always written with the idea that eventually it would become a book.

The blog quickly gained an audience.  I think for a number of reasons but most importantly because it was written from a scientists point of view.  There weren’t (and still aren’t) a lot of beauty blogs written by people who actually know how to formulate the products.  The blog started making money and I soon became more interested in it than in my regular day job.  At Alberto I had moved up to the ranks of middle management and found the work rather dull and meaningless.  I didn’t do much formulating anymore and felt that I had limited influence on the success or failure of any project.  I was also approaching 40 and figured if I ever wanted to do something great in the world, I’d better get started.

I left my job just as they were getting ready to promote me to the next level.  It wasn’t a hard choice and while I loved working at the fine company, working for myself is much better.  I felt this sense of freedom that I have never experienced in my life before.  To be in complete control of your destiny is exhilarating, and a bit scary too.

Chemists Corner

With my time freed up, I started this Chemists Corner website specifically to help people become better formulators and to inspire college science majors to consider working in the cosmetic industry.  It truly is an enjoyable job and it is difficult to explain the feeling of gratification that you feel when you see a product that you created on the shelves at your local grocery store.

The response to this website has been incredible.  I’ve met lots of new people, recorded some videos and even started a cosmetic science podcast.  It has just been tons of fun.  On the Beauty Brains side, we did eventually launch a book which got picked up by Harlequin and reworked as a book called Can You Get Hooked on Lip Balm?  This led to a book tour which eventually landed me on a few television shows including the Rachel Ray show and the Doctor Oz show.  It was an overall fun experience but being able to communicate science accurately on television is extremely difficult.

After a couple of years, I struck on the idea to do an online training program.  I recognized that many people were unable to put out the expense of traveling to do a live SCC course and thought an online version would be great.  Thus, the Complete Cosmetic Chemist training course was born.  This was successful and I eventually teamed up with Allured to help distribute it better throughout the industry.  I’ve also worked with them to create more courses including a Naturals formulation course, a Formula Optimization course, and one on Skin Physiology.  I have been happy with how these have turned out and am inspired to create more.  Our next independent project here on Chemists Corner is a training program that teaches people how to start their own cosmetic line.

Cosmetic Chemistry in the Future

Well, that pretty much is it about me so far.  I’ve been extremely lucky in my career and am happy things turned out the way they did.  In the future, I’m going to continue to write for this website and hopefully bring on some more writers to help.  I’ve had the opportunity to work with some excellent people thus far and am grateful for their contributions.  I’m going to do more writing, lecturing, (joggling) and I hope one day to launch another project I have in mind called Open Source Formulating.  This will be an online repository for all the cosmetic science formulation information that can be gathered in one place.  I would like to see a day when cosmetic chemists are viewed more importantly like cooks and they have a higher status in the cosmetic industry.  Through this website and future projects I hope to make that happen.

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43 comments

  1. Jean

    I want to have my own cosmetic line in the future ! 🙂

  2. Jean

    Hi, I’ve recently stumbled upon your blog! I’m on my 4th year of chemical engineering and thinking of being a cosmetic scientist after. What do you think are the best schools for this all over the world? Thanks!

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Probably the University of Cincinnati and Fairleigh Dickenson

  3. Sabina Ligas

    I am obsessed with research and cosmetics! I currently am about to graduate from Colorado State University with a double major in Equine and Animal Science. I currently work in a Clinical Science laboratory and a Environmental and Radiological health laboratory. I realized that cosmetic science is my calling and I feel like its too late to change my majors. (financially) But I want to get an internship at a cosmetic company and I am just worried that my majors won’t be sufficient enough. Is it a better idea to do a masters in Cosmetic Sciences?

    1. Perry Romanowski

      You may be able to get an internship with those majors since you do have some science background. It really depends on the company however.

      1. Sabina Ligas

        Thanks for the response. I guess the only way i’ll find out is if I start applying. Thanks!

  4. chen

    Hi Perry,

    I am a recent graduate student. Thank you for sharing your knowledge to us. I have a question I found that you mentioned the course is closed on Aug. 31. Well is this link (http://chemistscorner.com/members/ ) still working? Are these two the same one?

    Can I still register course from here http://chemistscorner.com/members/ ?

    Also could you please let me how I gonna receive the courses and info from you.
    Looking forward to your reply.
    Sincerely,

    Chen

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Yes, you can still sign up for the course.

  5. Spring

    Reading this through has given me some hope. I’ve just recently found my way into the industry and found myself struggling. This really helps to see that there can be a light at the end of the tunnel.

    Thanks!

  6. Trang Vu

    Hi, I am a sophomore in college now and thinking about switching to Chemistry major because I have become interested in cosmetic chemistry recently. I have a question about how to gain experience related to cosmetics science during your college years. I think getting a position in a research lab is a good way to start, but I don’t see any researches related to cosmetics, hair or skin going on in my school. What else do you recommend me to do to get a feel of the industry? Thank you.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      I would recommend you attend some meetings of the local SCC or IFSCC group in your area. I’m not sure where you are located but go to http://scconline.org and see if you can find a group near you. Then attend the meetings, talk to people, and see if you can find some opportunities. Hope that helps.

  7. Sasha83

    Dear Perry,

    I have been following you and reading up on you for last few months. I am definitely a big fan of yours now. Also saw you on Dr. Oz. I feel motivated by reading your stories. Thanks a lot for posting and encouraging others. It mrand alot

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Thanks for the kind words!

      1. Sasha83

        I meant to say it Means a lot*

        I hope one day I can be as good as a chemist as you are.

        I do have a question. I have a BS in Biotechnology but now I want to shift my career towards Cosmetic Formulation. So I wanted to know if I should do your Practical Cosmetic formulation course and Do you give a certificate or diploma after completion of the course work.
        I definitely want to start my career and hopefully land a job as a formulator and grow in this industry (and hopefully become as good of a chemist as you are:)

        Thanks a ton

        1. Perry Romanowski

          You will get a lot out of the Practical Cosmetic formulation course, especially if you are looking to get into the cosmetic industry. We do give a certificate of completion if you finish all of the quizzes but the main value you’ll get out of the course is the knowledge you’ll gain which will be invaluable when doing interviews.

          Hope that helps and good luck!

  8. Emmanuel kizito

    Your biography is fascinating. I hope to learn more from your upcoming seminar by April.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Thanks!

  9. Courtney

    I love hearing background stories about people! This was great. Plus, I’m a nosy person, so it’s always nice when someone offers you the information you’re dying to know! I’ve been a fan of The Beauty Brains for quite a while now and got into many arguments in beauty school in which I always used “well these cosmetic chemists that I know said ____” to back up any argument. Thanks!

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Thanks Courtney!

  10. Ivana

    Hello, I have read most of your posts over the years of being a college student. I love your website and your story is so helpful and fascinating. I hope to meet you one day.

  11. Veera Patil

    Thank you sir for the information about FDU..
    In my 12th std I opted for Maths by taking Psychology…
    So my question is can I get admission in FDU for cosmetic science without having maths in my high school…coz I want to do Analytical Chemistry in Cosmetics…. Plz help

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Yes, but you will need to eventually take math.

  12. Veera Patil

    Hello Sir, currently I am doing BSc in chemistry and i am interested in doing my Masters for Analytical Chemistry in Cosmetics. As you said tat for getting admission in NYU needs a four year degree in Chemistry.. then after BSc is a diploma for getting in NYU is sufficient?
    I love organic chemistry bt I am only good in lab not in class… for me all synthesis are simply volatile….. nd so as analytical is my favourite subject I eventually opted for that…
    But is there any scope for Analytical Chemistry in Cosmetics in New York??? Plz answer…

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Check out the Fairleigh Dickenson program for cosmetics.

  13. Angela

    Hi Perry, your story reminded me of the following motivational quote: “If you want to succeed in the world must make your own opportunities as you go on. The man who waits for some seventh wave to toss him on dry land will find that the seventh wave is a long time a coming. You can commit no greater folly than to sit by the roadside until some one comes along and invites you to ride with him to wealth or influence.” – John B. Gough
    Thanks for sharing wisdom!

  14. Ruvimbo Lynn Nyarambi

    Inspiring story indeed. I personally think cosmetic chemistry is such a great industry and I hope to start my own line one day.

  15. nulambeh jim

    hi perry, this is really great you are a great inspiration to my career

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Thanks for the kind words!

  16. Jeres

    Perry,
    Congratulation for such an impressive accomplishment. Not many would have such commitment, determination and patience. It is quite an inspiration to me.

  17. Tim

    I have a similar story atleast early on. Majored In Biology, minor in Chemistry and worked for 18yrs R&D in the lab and plant process engineering making biodiesel, esters such as Isopropyl Myristate,refining shea butter,hydrogenating oils, fatty acids, waxes and working with jojoba oil. Left them and did a a few consulting things. Went to work for a candle company as chief chemist and developed veg candle formulas and wax meltable formulas to compete with market leader Scentsy. Independent tests seemed to indicate in my less than 2 yrs at candles, I had created industry leading products. Unfortunately low sales led to manufacturing shutdown so now I’m in the market. Even though probably one the leading people in manufacturing esters and naturing oils can’t find a job. Currently working on MBA but I have no formulation experience with the raw materials I created for the cosmetic industry and just having a chemistry minor means my resume often gets ignored even though I should be able to quickly rise in whatever field I enter. Looking for opportunities and low cost online training that would be recognized and a desired on a resume.

  18. Bre

    This was great to read. I am currently in the last year of my Masters in Organometallic chemistry, and it is my DREAM to be a cosmetic chemist. I’m a beauty addict through and through, and want to be able to work in something I’m passionate about, which is both chemistry and cosmetics. Professors, however, only know academia, and have no real experience outside of a University setting, so I find it extremely difficult to get advice from them on how to get into the industry, as well as the different aspects of the industry. Stumbling across your website was one of the best things I could have done today! Please continue to share your knowledge with society.

    1. Perry

      Hello Bre – Thanks for the kind words and good luck achieving your cosmetic career! If possible, join your local SCC and start meeting people already working in the industry.

  19. Kim

    Perry,

    I truly enjoyed reading your story. I can identify with your early interest in science. I also spent a great deal of time collecting and looking at small animals, insects, and plants as a child. I eventually got a degree in microbiology with a minor in chemistry. I only spent two years using my microbiology knowledge and have spent the past 17 years doing food chemistry. I never thought I would be doing food chemistry and enjoying it so much. Chemistry was not so bad after all.

    1. Perry

      Hello Kim,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the story. I really had no idea that studying chemistry would lead me to a career in cosmetics but I’m glad it did. Although, food chemistry sounds like a pretty interesting path too. Chemists really should be as prestigious as cooks.

  20. Bridget

    I have never, never, never posted a reply ever on any site. Ever:). I’m just kinda flabbergasted that I got so lucky and stumbled across all this info, all these resources to dig into… A PODCAST!? That’s awesome! I’m a hair stylist (10years now, Chicago suburbs too!) and was a rather mediocre science type in school. But NOW after having so many clients and questions arise over the years, i find that this branch of science I can’t seem to ask enough “but why’s?” about.!! Ive been intermittently digging into whatever i can find on your specialty as certain questions arise, but you’re right about the lack of documented, specialized, knowledge out there on the subject…. Finding resources here WITH your wit, your enthusiasm and charming life story was a refreshing treat, much like a cold water rinse:) Thank you!!

    1. Perry

      Thanks for the kind words Bridget. 🙂

      1. Sagar sawant

        Hey perry,
        I am planning to join masters programme in cosmetics at,long island university but had a few queries which are what are the carrer opportunities in cosmetics industry and what is the amount of salary I can expect?

        1. Perry Romanowski

          That really depends on where you are located. Do a search for “career” on our website and you can see information we have written about that previously.

  21. andrianto

    So inspiring-life story! Thanks a lot Perry.

    1. Perry

      Thanks Andrianto!

  22. Eliza

    Dear Perry, this is such a lovely story! Thank you for sharing, it’s great to read about your background.

    Those pictures as you at a little boy and in college are so cute & funny!

    Your story on the smoke bomb truly made me lol 🙂

    Your career is so inspiring and every day I thank you for this blog and I love the idea of the open source formulating site!

    It is rather strange indeed that cosmetic chemists don’t get as much credit as good cooks. Although there is 1 area in the cosmetic industry where formulators do get some credit: perfumers in the FF industry. ‘Noses’ are treated like stars and I do hope that cosmetic chemists will become more popular as I know for sure that there is star material out there!

    1. Perry

      Thank you Eliza. It was fun to remember all that stuff. I haven’t thought about it in a long time.

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