≡ Menu

Becoming an excellent cosmetic formulator

I saw this infographic titled “how to excel as a formulator” which lists 9 things you need to achieve that goal. The 9 tips from George Deckner are great but they could use some expansion. Unfortunately, the article on which the infographic was based does little to expand on the advice. So, I thought I’d do that here.  cosmetic formulating

9 steps to becoming an excellent cosmetic formulator

1. Be an innovator not an inventor – An inventor makes a new product and hopes the benefits are so obvious it sells itself. Sometimes they do, but usually they don’t. An innovator takes an existing product and makes it better. Since most cosmetic formulation types have already been invented, to be a great formulator you need to focus on innovation.

2. Partner with suppliers – It used to be that formulators tried to keep their projects a secret but this doesn’t make much sense these days. You can get much more accomplished if you outsource as much of your research as you can. Getting suppliers to assist your lab work will help you screen more materials and develop better products faster. Don’t worry about secrecy. The formula does not sell the product! Your idea is not unique and the thing that will make it successful is your marketing efforts. Great formulations are important but there are lots of excellent formulas that never achieved market success.

3. Develop raw material expertise – Being a cosmetic formulator is like being a cook, you just use different ingredients. To become a great formulator you need to know all the ingredients at your disposal. You should make it a point to create & test samples of any new raw material you encounter, even if it is not obvious when you would use it.

4. Kill bad prototypes quickly – Don’t waste time on technologies that don’t have great promise. Whenever you get a new raw material test it at the highest concentration level suggested. If you can’t see a performance difference at the highest use level, don’t bother testing it at lower levels.

5. Manage risk? I’m not really sure what this means but I suppose the advice could be that you should test things before launching. Ensure that your products are safe and effective before committing to a launch date.

6. Sell your ideas – As a scientist and formulator you probably didn’t get any sales training. However, in the business world people don’t really care which surfactant you used or about the clever emulsion technology you developed. They want to know the benefits of your technology and why they or anyone else should want to use it. Learn to tell stories that inspire people to get behind your ideas. And try not to get discouraged. The ideas from R&D people are often ignored in the cosmetic industry.

7. Benchmark your formulas – Excellent idea. There is no reason you shouldn’t be able to create a formula that works as well as the best performing cosmetic products on the market. Here you can learn to benchmark cosmetic formulas.

8. Quickly identify killer issues? – I’m not sure what this advice means but perhaps the suggestion is to think through the entire production process and address potential issues. Know whether your suppliers are going to be reliable or whether your lab formulation can still be produced on a large manufacturing scale.

9. Archive your knowledge – You are going to learn a lot over time and you are going to forget most of it. You should have a way to relearn information and keeping a digital archive is a great way to do that. Write notes about what you learned from every project. Keep copies of articles you found particularly helpful. Using a service like Dropbox or Evernote is a great way to keep your information online and secure.

So there you have it, 9 expanded tips on how you can become an excellent cosmetic formulator. Thanks to George Deckner for the original info graphic.


Scientific Activism for Cosmetic Chemists

I was at the Lake Erie SCC meeting the other night and the talk was given by Dr Joe Schwarcz regarding cosmetics, chemicals and the public perception of product safety. He made some great points about a number of hot button issues including lead in lipstick, parabens, pthlates, and more. The basic message is that NGO groups like the EWG have it wrong and the best science supports the notion that modern cosmetics are safe to use. science megaphone

One of Dr Schwarcz’s main messages was that the public is being misinformed by fear mongering groups and it is up to scientists to set the record straight. Unfortunately, he provided little information about how to do that.

I’ve given this a lot of thought however and put together what I believe scientists can do to combat the unscientific nonsense that is pushed daily by misinformed groups.

Why is this a problem

But before we cover what to do, it’s helpful to discuss why this is a problem cosmetic chemists should care about. First, miseducated consumers will influence market research which could make your marketing folks demand you avoid disparaged ingredients. You may lose control over which ingredients you can use but you won’t lose the responsibility for the results of those decisions. There is no upside for the formulator who is restricted in their ingredient choice for no scientific reason.

Next, your company may lose sales & may be targeted for negative publicity for no good reason. J&J was compelled to reformulate perfectly fine formulations due to unfounded claims by consumer groups.  You will likely find that reformulating functional products takes away resources that should go into creating innovative new products. This kind of fear mongering inhibits cosmetic innovation.

Finally, as a formulator you should be educated about the safety of ingredients you use in your formulations. You should be the expert that people turn to when they have questions about cosmetics.

What can you do?

The reasons that so much misinformation gets out in the public and takes hold is because groups that spout this nonsense are learned in the ways of PR, the media finds scare stories more interesting, and there are not a lot of scientists offsetting lies with the truth. The way that you can do your part to start combating these lies about cosmetic and chemical safety is by publishing your own content which tells the truth. Participate in scientific activism. Here are 10 things you can do.

Scientific activism

1. Learn what’s true – In starting a blog or answering questions about these topics you should be well versed on what is true. How many of you know about the safety profile of parabens? What would you tell people about the levels of lead in lipstick? As a formulator, you should have ready, science based answers to these questions. The way to learn what science has to say is to do some research in reliable, science-based sources. The FDA Cosmetics site is a great place to start. The CIR is also good as is Personal Care Truth.  And you can learn a lot on our cosmetic science discussion forum.

2. Know your competition – While you’re trying to get the correct information out about cosmetic products you should know who the misinformation groups are and what they are saying. Some of the key groups that have wrong things to say about cosmetic products include

3. Start a blog – People learn about things from the Internet and doing Google searches. Having a blog is a great way to get your information to show up when someone does a search. Right now if you do a search for the term sunscreen, the EWG 2014 sunscreen guide is what comes up. This is junk information filled with untruths and misunderstandings of science. The first mostly unbiased result is the 5th spot on the search page, an article by WebMD. The FDA shows up in the 7th & 8th spot but scientifically valid information from the American Academy of Dermatology doesn’t even show up on the front page. Similarly, junk information about Parabens is the first thing you see when you search for it on Google. This should not be. Starting a blog and writing about sunscreen, parabens or other cosmetic topics important to consumers will help move these junk peddlers off the front page of the search results. It’s easy to start a blog. Go to WordPress.com or Blogger.com to get started for free.

4. Link to good information – When you write about topics be sure to include links to sites with supporting information using the appropriate words. Do a search for the term keywords to understand better what I’m talking about but basically, Google ranks websites based on the number of other websites that link to them. So the reason that the CFSC ranks high for the term ‘parabens’ is because there are a lot of websites that use the word paraben then link it to the CFSC webpage that talks about parabens. To get the FDA’s website higher for the search term paraben, you should link to it like I did in this post. FDA link to the word paraben. They way to knock bad information off the front of Google is to replace it with good information.

5. Write about the right things – When you are writing your blog you should make a list of topics that you want to help change the public’s perception about. I would suggest things like parabens, preservatives, pthalates, sulfates, sunscreens, or any of the other villified cosmetic ingredients. The more you write about these things, the greater the chance your page will show up in a search result and the more likely someone will find out what is true.

6. Participate in Social media – Having a blog is great but many of these conversations are happening on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. You should set up your own accounts on these websites and start producing content. You could just repeat things from your blog but you could also respond to what other people are putting out. Getting a digital conversation going is the best way to combat misinformation. There are more social media sites beyond the ones I’ve suggested but those are the main ones. Youtube is also a great place to produce content if you want to make videos.

7. Correct Wikipedia – Wikipedia is an excellent source for many topics but for controversial ones it is less reliable. Since anyone can update a Wikipedia entry you should go through and update topics that are filled with misinformation. I know I had to fix the Cosmetics entry because it was filled with inaccuracies that seemed to have been placed there by the EWG. There is an art to updating a Wikipedia page however so be sure to following these best practices guidelines.

8. Rebut bad information – There is a skeptical plug-in called Rbutr which you can update on any page you find that has misinformation. Start using it to correct things that are mistaken on the web. It is not having a huge impact at the moment but it may in the future.

9. Stay informed – Finally, stay informed about new findings in the cosmetic area. When there is new information about the safety of parabens or sunscreens or anything else you should know about it. Don’t be afraid to reverse your opinion either based on new evidence. We are scientists and it is ok to be wrong. It is not ok to be wrong and not correct your mistakes when you discover you’ve made one. Information is always changing and if something you wrote a few years back is no longer applicable be sure to set the record straight. This is the primary difference between fear mongering groups like the EWG and scientists. The EWG will never reverse their opinion on parabens despite the fact that science has demonstrated that they are safe.

Publishing Tips for Working Scientists

1. Watch your behavior – Remember that anything you write on the Internet will potentially be there forever. Avoid calling people names, being insulting, swearing or writing or producing anything that you will regret in the future. If you are searching for a job now or in the future, potential employers will look at your online activity and use that in their assessment of whether they want to hire you. If you use your blog to mock natural product formulators don’t be surprised if it is harder for you to find employment with one of those producers. Some people may not worry about this but you might not want to add this extra hurdle in your way of future job prospects.

2. It can be emotionally draining – Being more visible on the Internet will open you up to more criticism. Even if what you say is true there will be critics who will call you names, question your ethics, question your intelligence, and call you evil. I learned this after being on the Rachel Ray show and getting highly criticized in their comments section. They seem to have removed it now but there were some mean things said about me. Here is a recap by another blogger. But don’t be discouraged. People will say things to you or about you on the Internet that they would never say to you in real person.

3. Don’t waste your time & energy – You’ll need to learn to let some arguments go. Avoid the temptation to be the one to finish an argument. Respond once or twice to someone then move on. No one is really interested in having their mind changed. You respond to effect people who may be lurking and reading the discussion but don’t ever think you are going to change the mind of the person you’re communicating with. Most likely, you won’t no matter how good your information is. There are people in this world who will never believe humans cause global warming and parabens are safe to use as preservatives.

4. Know your company’s policies – Perhaps most important is that you should know your company’s online policy. And if they don’t have one assume that anything you write will be seen as representing what your company is saying. You can put a disclaimer on your stuff like “thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the author and the author alone and do not represent those of any past, present or future employers.” That may help but some companies don’t want you to be writing about cosmetics at all. In these cases, I would encourage you to post using a pseudonym. I did that for years on the Beauty Brains until I was able to leave my corporate job. As the employee of a corporation you are not really free to write what you want without any possible repercussions. This is true of a blog, social media accounts and forums. If you are not independent be very careful about what you say or start writing anonymously.

Well, that’s all I have for the moment. I hope some of you take some of these suggestions and start fighting the tide of unscientific nonsense that has swept through the Internet. Perhaps we can fight the fear mongers and use the truth to remove them from the limelight.


Visit the Cosmetic Compliance Summit September 15-17

If you sell or product cosmetic products around the world you are going to have to keep up with the various local governmental regulations.  And what better way to learn those than to attend a three day summit?

Learn more about the Cosmetic Compliance Summit

It is going to be held in New Jersey on September 15 – 17, 2014.

Here are the main things you will learn by attending this conference.

• Understanding the need for Good Manufacturing Practices in order for successful trade operations
• How cosmetics companies ensure safety without using animal tests; What are the alternatives?
• Approaching the new and improved Product Information File; Understanding what new information needs to be added
• Understanding the New Requirements of the Cosmetic Product Safety Report
• How are your product claims being backed up by clinical and proved trials?
• Legal and business strategies for Global Cosmetics Regulatory Compliance: US, Latin and Central America
• Identifying who is designated as being the “Responsible Person” for your brand

You don’t want to miss this important industry event especially if you want to produce and sell cosmetics in a compliant way.



Sunscreen science and technology for formulators

Article by -Nitesh Rajput – Cosmetic scientist

Sunscreen, also commonly known as sunblock, sun screen, suntan lotion, sunburn cream, sun cream or block out, is a lotion, spray, gel or other topical product that absorbs or reflects some of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation on the skin exposed to sunlight and thus helps protect against sunburn.

Depending on the mode of action sunscreens can be classified into physical sunscreens (i.e., those that reflect the sunlight) or organic sunscreens (i.e., those that absorb the UV light)

What is SPF

SPF, also known as sun protection factor, is determined by how long you expose yourself to the sun before you start to burn, but in reality it is mainly a measure of UV A-B protection.

How to measure SPF

The SPF can be measured by applying sunscreen to the skin of a volunteer and measuring how long it takes before sunburn occurs when exposed to an artificial sunlight source. In the US, such an in vivo test is required by the FDA. It can also be measured in vitro with the help of a specially designed spectrometer. In this case, the actual transmittance of the sunscreen is measured, along with the degradation of the product due to being exposed to sunlight. The transmittance of the sunscreen must be measured over all wavelengths in the UV-B range (290–320 nm), along with a table of how effective various wavelengths are in causing sunburn (the erythemal action spectrum) and the actual intensity spectrum of sunlight. Such in vitro measurements agree very well with in vivo measurements.

Numerous methods have been devised for evaluation of UVA and UVB protection. The most reliable spectrophotochemical methods eliminate the subjective nature of grading erythema.

SPF math

Mathematically, the SPF is calculated from measured data as

SPF equation

E(\lambda) is the solar irradiance spectrum,
A(\lambda) the erythemal action spectrum, and
\mathrm{MPF}(\lambda) the monochromatic protection factor, all functions of the wavelength \lambda.

The MPF is roughly the inverse of the transmittance at a given wavelength.
The MPF is roughly the inverse of the transmittance at a given wavelength.

The above means that the SPF is not simply the inverse of the transmittance in the UV-B region. If that were true, then applying two layers of SPF 5 sunscreen would be equivalent to SPF 25 (5 times 5). The actual combined SPF is always lower than the square of the single-layer SPF.

Difference b/w Sunscreen and Sunblock

Both sunblock and sunscreen will protect your skin from UVA and UVB light (aging rays and burning rays), they use different chemicals and those chemicals work in different ways, which is why different terms are used.

Sunblock works like a mirrored shield. It contains minute particles of reflective material. They reflect the sun’s rays away from your skin blocking the damaging rays from ever reaching at all.
The ingredients included in sunblocks include Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. (This includes Powder Sunscreen and Mineral Makeup.)

A sunscreen works in a way more like a sponge: where the sunblock reflects the beams away from your skin, the sunscreen soaks them up before they can reach you. Those rays that escape have been altered in wavelength, so that they are no longer in frequencies that endanger the skin. The ingredients that are most often found in sunscreens include PABA, Benzophenones, Cinnamates, Salicylates,

Sunscreen ingredients and there limitations

Here are the primary sunscreen ingredients used around the world.

p-Aminobenzoic acid -15 % (banned in US)
Cinoxate -3 %
Benzophenone-8 -3 %
Benzophenone-3 – Up to 10 %
Benzophenone-9 -Up to 10 %
Octyl methoxycinnamate – up to 20 %
Octyl salicylate – Up to 10 %
Sulisobenzone – Up to 10 %
Trolamine salicylate- Up to 12 %
Avobenzone – Up to 10 %
Titanium dioxide – Up to 25 %
Zinc oxide -Up to 25 %
(% vary according to regions and countries)


Known to his friends as Ed, Maison G. de Navarre, first took an interest in cosmetic science while studying pharmacy at the College of the City of Detroit (now Wayne University).  As part of his qualifications to take a State Board examination, Ed worked in a drugstore and became interested in the many cosmetics and perfumes sold in there. Maison G de Navarre

Starting the SCC

Louis Spencer Levy, publisher of The America Perfumer, created the Michigan Cosmetic and Extract Association in 1933. Ed became the first president and served as secretary and treasurer in later years. Ed began writing a column for The America Perfumer in 1934 called “Desiderata”, which means “desired things” in Latin.  He shared technical information and advice in these columns. Through correspondences with readers, Ed soon realized the cosmetic industry had a need for a way to share and build collective knowledge.

It was in 1935 that Ed had the idea to create a The Society of Cosmetic Chemists (SCC). He planned a founding meeting that summer which was to take place in Cincinnati. After arriving in Cincinnati for the meeting, numerous cancellations frustrated Ed and he returned to Detroit disappointed.

In 1938, Ed began the task of creating the first edition of the book “The Chemistry and Manufacture of Cosmetics.” The initial manuscript was one thousand pages long and the book was so popular that it was reprinted six times. (I tracked down a first edition copy for my personal cosmetic science library!) That book has evolved into a multiple volume set that undergoes periodic updates and those books are still essential assets to cosmetic scientists today.

First SCC meeting

In 1944, Ed was ready to give it another shot. He had begun a business consulting in the cosmetics industry and approached many of his clients to gain support for the development of the SCC.  May 23, 1945 the founding members of the SCC met at the Lexington Hotel. A constitution and the name of the organization were adopted and there was a short technical program. Ed served as the first chairman as there the role of president was not yet established.

Expanding to the IFSCC

Ed was also very involved in the creation of the International Federation of the Societies of Cosmetic Chemists (IFSCC). On September 9, 1959 eight representatives from different national Societies of Cosmetic Chemists met in Brussels, Belgium to solidify the mission and goals.  The first congress was held in Munich, Germany in 1960 with 350 attendees from 16 countries in attendance. Ed served at the first president of the IFSCC.

Today, Maison G. de Navarre’s legacy is celebrated through two awards that bear his name.  The highest honor of the SCC in the US is the Maison G. de Navarre Medal Prize for scientific contributions to the field, and the IFSCC awards a promising young scientist a prize in his name.

SCC today

While dissemination of scientific knowledge is easily accessible through publication, much more so today, Ed realized the importance of personal connections and conversations that could be developed through a professional organization. Today the SCC and IFSCC continue to thrive on the opportunity for personal dialogue and camaraderie.

Go here for more information about the Society of Cosmetic Chemists.


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”

{ 1 comment }

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.