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The Basics of Cosmetic Chemistry

I found a couple of interesting articles that explain the absolute basic compounds used in modern day cosmetics.  Neither of these are particularly thorough, but if you want a quick understanding of the chemistry and science of cosmetics, both of these articles do a good job. female cosmetic chemist

For people just coming into this industry the following articles will be helpful background information for some of the more in-depth topics we will talk about here in the future.

For cosmetic scientists working in the cosmetic industry, you can use these to brush up on your basics and also as a way to explain the chemistry to people in your marketing department & other groups outside R&D.

1. Chemistry of cosmetics. – A piece written by the Australian Academy of Science.  Short but hits the primary raw materials and provides links to pages with some demonstrations.

2.  Cosmetic Chemistry explained – From the title Chemistry explained.  The author gives a little more information than the first reference.  Should be particularly useful for background information to share outside R&D.

Neither of these resources should be considered “high science” but if you need a quick introduction to the primary compounds used in cosmetics, they’re useful.

Do you have a favorite source for background information about cosmetic science?  Leave a comment below and let us know.


The way chemistry majors typically begin their chemist careers goes something like this. In their senior year of college they start looking through the newspapers for any company looking to hire chemists. Next, they put together a resume, send in a bunch of applications and hopefully get hired. If they happen to apply to a company in the cosmetic industry, then they become cosmetic chemists.  college-of-pharmacy

Unfortunately, this method of not knowing what industry you will end up in leaves you ill-prepared for a job in cosmetic chemistry. Most of the stuff you learned in college will not be applicable to your job. To help bridge the gap, here are the top 10 science topics you should know about when entering the cosmetic industry. Study up before your first interview!


It is amazing how little time is devoted to surfactants in college when you consider the importance they play in so many industries.

What are they? Surfactant is a shorter way to say “surface active agent”. These are molecules that have the property of reducing surface tension, thereby allowing oil and water to form stable (temporarily) mixtures.

Examples — Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Glycol Distearate, Ammonium Laureth Sulfate, Polysorbate 80

Why are they used? Surfactants are used for various purposes in cosmetic formulas including

* Detergents – for cleansing
* Wetting agents — for helping formulas spread more easily
* Foaming agents — to produce consumer friendly suds
* Emulsifiers — to create stable mixtures of oil and water
* Conditioning agents — to improve the surfaces of hair and skin
* Solubilizers – to help mix fragrances into water-based formulas
* Preservatives – to keep cosmetics microbe-free
* Special Effects — to improve the look of certain formulas

Where can you learn more? We’ll write more about surfactants in the future but for a quick primer on the subject, see this book on surfactants on Google.  For a more general discussion of surfactants, start with the Wikipedia surfactant page.


This topic is related to surfactants and covered even less in college. Yet emulsions are one of the most important types of mixtures / product forms you will encounter in the cosmetic industry.

What are they? An emulsion is a fine dispersion of one insoluble liquid in another. In the cosmetic industry, the most common emulsions are ones in which oil is dispersed in water. To create emulsions, typically a surfactant is also used.

Why are they used? Emulsions are delivery systems for beneficial cosmetic ingredients. These ingredients are often incompatible with water and have undesirable aesthetic characteristics by themselves. The ingredients are mixed with water to create creams or lotions.

Where can you learn more? Look for upcoming articles on Chemists Corner about emulsions, but until then, you can see this on Google for more information.  For a more general discussion of emulsions, see this emulsion entry.

Fatty Acids

While much college time was devoted to learning about acid-base reactions and equilibrium constants, very little time was spent looking at the properties and chain length distributions of specific acids. Those topics are much more important to cosmetic chemists.

What are they? As you learned in college, a fatty acid is a carboxylic acid with a long hydrocarbon “tail”. They are typically derived from biological sources and thus have an even number of carbon atoms. The most important fatty acids in the cosmetic industry are those that have between 8 and 22 carbons.

Examples: Lauric Acid, Palmitic Acid, Oleic Acid, Stearic Acid, Behenic Acid

Why are they used? Fatty acids are the basis for many of the surfactants used in cosmetic products. They are derived from natural oils such as coconut, palm kernel, sunflower, wheat germ, etc. They are used for the following properties in cosmetics.

* Conditioning agents – to improve the surfaces of hair and skin
* Thickening — to make thin products more creamy
* Secondary Emulsifiers — to help create stable mixtures of oil and water
* Opacifying agents – to make formulas look more luxurious

Where can you learn more? You can find information about Fatty Acids in the following fatty acid book and a general discussion here.


In college an entire course is devoted to hydrocarbon chemistry which is important. But almost no mention is made of silicone compounds and their usefulness in formulating.

What are they? Silicones are compounds that have a molecular backbone of —[-Si-O-]x- surrounded by hydrogens or methyl groups. They are manufactured from silicon dioxide taken from sand or other minerals. They are also known as polysiloxanes reflective of their polymeric nature.

Examples: Dimethicone, Cyclomethicone, Amodimethicone, Cyclopentasiloxane, Silicone oil

Why are they used? Silicones have a number of properties that make them useful to cosmetic formulators. They are amazingly slick, slippery and can make surfaces look shiny. Some applications include

* Conditioning agents – to improve the surfaces of hair and skin
* Opacifying agents – to make formulas look more luxurious
* Shine agents – to increase hair shine and give gloss to skin
* Defoaming agents – to reduce foam in cleansing formulas
* Occlusive agents – to help moisturize skin
* Slip agents – to help skin formulas spread more easily
* Hair detangling agents – to make hair easier to comb

Where can you learn more? There are entire organizations devoted to promoting the safe use of silicones. You can learn some general information about silicone chemistry from the Silicones Environmental, Health and Safety Council of North America (SEHSC). For more specific cosmetic uses see the Dow Corning web page. Of course, silicones will be a topic we explore in more detail later.


Polymers are mentioned all throughout your college chemistry courses but the focus is on the molecular structure and how to synthesize them. In the cosmetic industry, structure is much less important than polymer properties.

What are they? As you’ve no doubt learned, polymers are macro molecules made up of repeating monomer units. The molecule generally has a long chain backbone with side groups that modify its properties. Homopolymers are made up of a single type of monomer while copolymers have two or more monomer starting units. They can be synthetically derived or obtained from natural sources (then chemically modified).

Examples: [Natural] Polysaccharides, cellulose, starch, xanthan gum. [Synthetic] Polyquaternium-7, Polyquaternium-10, PVP

Why are they used? Polymers can be used to create a full range of effects in cosmetics. They can be used as thickeners, conditioning agents, formula stabilizers, styling ingredients, and even preservatives. The following are some examples but do not represent all uses for polymers.

* Thickeners – to modify the viscosity of a formula
* Formula Stabilizer – to help keep emulsions stable
* Conditioning agents – to improve the surfaces of hair and skin
* Opacifying agents – to make formulas look more luxurious
* Preservative — to prevent microbial growth
* Occlusive agents – to help moisturize skin
* Styling agents – to hold hair styles in place

Where can you learn more? For a general refresher on polymers, the Wikipedia polymer entry is good. For something more specific to cosmetics, see Principles of Polymer Technology in Cosmetics and Personal Care.

Skin Biology

As science majors you no doubt took some biology courses. Unfortunately, there are so many topics to cover like genetics, biochemistry, evolution, and classification systems, there is almost no time to go into specifics of human biology. Even in your human anatomy classes, the topic of human skin is only briefly covered. We can’t cover everything here but from a cosmetic standpoint, here are some important facts to consider.

1. Skin is made up of two layers — Dermis (inner layer) & Epidermis (outer layer)
2. As skin grows, cells in the epidermis die off and are pushed to the surface by new cells created in the dermis.
3. Dead skin cells are eventually shed and flake off.
4. The less moisture there is in the outer layer, the dryer skin feels
5. Skin products are designed to keep moisture in the outer layer and improve skin’s condition.

Of course, there are many more skin topics to cover like acne, age spots, wrinkles, etc. but those will be things to learn along the way.

Where can you learn more? A good starting point is the book Handbook of Cosmetic Skin Care.

Hair Biology

While you might have picked up a few facts about human skin, you were exposed to even less about human hair in your biology courses. Yet one third of the products launched in the cosmetic industry are formulated for hair. We’ll expand on hair biology in the future but the basic facts you need to know are the following.

1. Hair is made of keratin protein.
2. Hair has two important layers called the cortex (inner layer) and cuticle (outer layer)
3. The cuticle is responsible for the appearance and feel of hair.
4. The cortex is responsible for hair strength and flexibility

Where can you learn more? You can get a limited preview of a couple excellent books on the subject of hair biology. The Science of Hair Care and Hair and Hair Care.


Every biology major took some type of microbiology class. You probably touched on many micro organisms, even some that can contaminate cosmetic products. But while you were learning to grow E. Coli in a Petri dish, you weren’t learning the most important aspect of microbiology to a cosmetic chemist; how to use preservatives to keep your cosmetic formulas microbe-free. The primary preservatives used in the cosmetic industry include parabens and formaldehyde donors. Much has been written decrying the use of these ingredients but they are necessary to ensure the safety of cosmetics.

Chemical Nomenclature

Naming of chemicals is introduced in your first year of college and expanded upon when you take Organic Chemistry. You are taught the proper IUPAC system which allows you to figure out chemical structures from names. Here’s a surprise. Only a tiny fraction of that knowledge will be useful in the cosmetic industry. In this industry, we follow the naming conventions of the INCI. To learn more, you can see this article about making the transition from the IUPAC to the INCI.

Stability Testing

Unless you spent time volunteering for a professor who worked with proteins, you probably haven’t even heard the term stability testing. When you first start out your career, these may be the most common tests you have to run. Stability tests are studies set up to determine what effect storage at different environmental conditions will have on the formula. Samples of your product are put at elevated temperatures, freezing temperatures and exposed to different types of light. This gives an indication of what the product might look like after sitting on store shelves and in consumer’s bathrooms. The formulator’s goal is to always produce long-lasting, stable products.

This is just a brief synopsis of some of the most important science topics you need to know to work as a chemist or formulator in the cosmetic industry. If you are just graduating college, this will be an excellent primer for your first interviews.

Did we forget a topic you think is important?  Leave a comment and we’ll try to incorporate it into future entries.


HLB – The Easiest Way to Create An Emulsion

As a cosmetic chemist you will undoubtedly be asked to make products that require you to combine materials that aren’t easily compatible.   Fortunately, there is a system that can help you get started.

Cosmetic Emulsions

Emulsions are one of the most common forms of cosmetic products. You find them in skin lotions, make-up, and even hair products. By definition an emulsion is a dispersion of two or more immiscible materials, where one phase, also know as the internal phase, is dispersed in the continuous or external phase. Cosmetic emulsions are classified as oil in water (O/W), water in oil (W/O) and water in silicone (W/Si). Multiple emulsions such as oil in water in oil (W/O/W) are also possible. Oil in water emulsions are the most common due to preferable cost and light skin feel.

In order to create an oil in water emulsion (one that remains stable for a long enough time), work must be done to overcome the interfacial tension between the two phases. This can be achieved by mixing; however mixing even at very high rates is not enough to provide long term stability.  An emulsifier or combination of emulsifiers is needed to stabilize droplets of the dispersed phase.  For example, simple oil in vinegar salad dressings will separate rapidly without the use of an emulsifier like mustard.

Using Surfactants

In this industry, we use surfactants to create emulsions. Surfactants are molecules that have a hydrophobic (oil soluble) and an effective hydrophilic (water soluble) portion. They act as emulsifiers by significantly lowering the interfacial tension and decreasing the coalescence of dispersed droplets.

HLB Formulating

Figuring out what surfactant to use for any specific formula will be a challenge you face as a cosmetic chemist. There is a great deal of research on surfactants and their behavior. But studying the thermodynamic equations and phase diagrams associated with surfactants can be a daunting task, not to mention the number of surfactants available to the formulator is vast. Luckily for us, William C. Griffin developed a way to streamline the selection of surfactants by utilizing the ratio of the hydrophobic to the hydrophilic portion of the molecule.  This method is referred to as the HLB (Hydrophile Lipophile Balance) method. Griffin first presented this method at meeting of the Chicago Chapter of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists in 1949 and it is still widely used today. He published the method shortly there after.1 (A bit of trivia for you, the Chicago Chapter was the first chapter formed in Society of Cosmetic Chemists)

The HLB method applies to nonionic (uncharged) surfactants but attempts have been made to broaden the concepts to other surfactant types including silicone surfactants. And using the HLB system to create emulsions is quite simple. All you have to do is calculate the HLB number of your surfactant, then the Required HLB for the oil phase and match the two numbers.

Determining the HLB of a surfactant

A typical nonionic emulsifier (e.g. Laureth-4) contains an ethylene oxide groups or polyhydric alcohol hydrophilic portions with a fatty alcohol hydrophobic portion. The HLB for a nonionic surfactant can be calculated as follows:

HLB = Weight % Hydrophile/5

Example 1: HLB calculation for Laureth-4

Molecular weight of ethoxylate portion = 176

Molecular weight of lauryl alcohol = 186

Wt. % Hydrophile = (176/(176+186)) x 100 = 48.6%

HLB = 48.6/5 = 9.7

Based on the calculation, surfactants with high HLB values will be more water soluble and those with low HLB values are more oil soluble. Division by 5 just allows for a compact, easy to use scale. The calculation is simple, but you won’t usually have to figure it out since most surfactant HLB values are readily available through literature references and surfactant suppliers.

Calculating HLB of oil phase

Each lipophilic ingredient in the oil phase has its own required HLB. These required HLB values are determined experimentally, however a method utilizing solubility parameters has been proposed by Vaughan and Rice.2 Required HLB values for some common oil phase ingredients are available to the formulator in literature. The Req’d HLB values are approximate and can vary by about ± 1 unit. It is also important to keep in mind that cosmetic emulsions often have complex oil phases with several components. The required HLB of an oil phase mixture can be calculated by first calculating the percent of the oil phase each ingredient contributes. This percentage is then multiplied by the required HLB for each of those ingredients and the results are summed.

Example 2: Calculation of required HLB for an oil phase mixture

The oil phase is 10% of the total formulation and consists of:

4% Shea butter, 40% of the oil phase. Req’d HLB of 8.

3% Jojoba oil, 30% of the oil phase. Req’d HLB of 6.5.

3% Sunflower seed oil, 30% of the oil phase. Req’d HLB of 7.

Total required HLB:

Shea butter contribution 0.4 x 8 = 3.20

Jojoba oil contribution 0.3 x 6.5 = 1.95

Sunflower oil contribution 0.3 x 7 = 2.10

Total Req’d HLB = 7.25

You can now select emulsifiers to match the required HLB of the oil phase and create an emulsion. A blend of high and low HLB surfactants is often used to achieve the desired value in part because of demonstrated effectiveness and efficiencies in packing at the interface. The HLB for the surfactant blend is calculated in same manner as the required HLB for a blend.

Example 3: Calculation of HLB for a surfactant mixture

The surfactant mixture is a 70/30 blend of Steareth-2 and Steareth-21.

Total HLB:

Steareth-2 contribution 0.7 x 4.9 = 3.43

Steareth-21 contribution 0.3x 15.5 = 4.65

Total HLB = 8.08

In order to match the HLB of a particular oil phase, it is easiest to set up a spreadsheet with the calculation and vary the percentages of each emulsifier in increments of 5% to find the right ratio.

Limitations of HLB

Although a very useful tool, the HLB system does have some limitations. For example additional water phase ingredients are not considered but still may impact the stability. The method also does not provide information as to how much surfactant is needed, but 2 to 4% surfactant is a good starting point to begin further optimization for stability. So it is important to keep in mind that the HLB system is not absolute in prediction of your formulations behavior, but a very good starting point for achieving emulsification.


1. Griffin WC; Calculation of HLB Values of Non-Ionic Surfactants, Journal of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists; 1954. Vol. 5, pp 249-235

2. Vaughan, C.D. Rice, Dennis A.; Predicting O/W Emulsion Stability by the “Required HLB Equation”; Journal of Dispersion Science and Technology; 1990. Vol. 11 (1), pp 83 — 91.


How to make a cosmetic formula

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How Do Cosmetic Raw Materials Get Their Names?

I must confess. One of my favorite things about being a chemist is getting to say long words and knowing what they mean. I loved learning the IUPAC system for naming chemicals.

That’s why I found ingredient lists on shampoos & conditioners baffling. I didn’t know what most of the chemicals were. They were similar to IUPAC terms, but not quite. It turns out that the cosmetic industry doesn’t use the IUPAC naming system. Instead, they follow their own system as laid out in the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI) dictionary. This volume is produced by the main cosmetic industry trade group called the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC, formerly the CTFA but we’ll save that for another time). inci naming

List of Ingredients

The first thing to know about cosmetic ingredients is the ingredient list. In the United States, every personal care and cosmetic product is supposed to have their ingredients listed. In the business, we called it the LOI (list of ingredients). Any ingredient above 1% is required to be listed in order of concentration (by weight). At 1% or below, the ingredients can be listed in any order. Typically, preservatives and dyes are listed at the end. In a future post, we’ll show how this labeling requirement can help you formulate new products.

Any ingredient above 1% is required to be listed in order of concentration (by weight).

To be proper, companies are supposed to follow the naming conventions as laid out in the INCI.

Cosmetic Ingredient Naming Conventions

While many chemical names in the INCI seem arbitrary, there are some standard rules. The following will help you make heads or tails out of the ingredients on most LOIs. We can’t list all the conventions here, but we’ll point out the major ones and give examples.

Common Names

When they first came up with the INCI (originally called the CTFA Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary) in 1973, many cosmetic ingredients already had names. These common names were incorporated into the dictionary even though they didn’t follow any specific naming rules. Therefore, we use Glycerin instead of the more accurate Glycerol and Menthol instead of (1R, 2S, 5R)-2-isopropyl-5-methylcyclohexanol. Common names are also used for various natural ingredients like Lanolin and Beeswax.

Stem Names

Probably the most important thing to learn about naming cosmetic ingredients is to memorize this list of hydrocarbon stem names. It’s a bit different than the IUPAC.

So, if you have a 16-carbon alcohol, you call it Cetyl Alcohol instead of Hexadecanol. For an 18-carbon acid, you would use Stearic Acid instead of Ocatdecanoic acid.


You’ll run into names like Cocamidopropyl Betaine that don’t match any of the stem names. This is because the raw material uses coconut oil as a starting raw material. In these cases, you use an abbreviation of that starting material. Other ones you might see include Palm Kernel oil, Soybean oil and Sunflower oil. In a future post, we’ll show the fatty acid distribution of these materials.


The INCI tries to follow established conventions from other systems. For example, when you want to name an ether, you take the stem names from both fatty acids and add the term ether. Thus, a molecule made with a 14-carbon and 16-carbon chains connected by an oxygen would be called Cetyl Myristyl Ether. An ester of the same molecules would be Cetyl Myristate.

Nitrogen Containing

Hydrocarbons that contain nitrogen are amides and have the phrase included in their name. Therefore, Lauramide is used to describe a 12-Carbon molecule (Lauryl) that has a NH2 group on its end. If the Nitrogen has other hydrocarbons attached, those are also named. So, Lauramide DEA would be that same 12-Carbon molecule attached to a Nitrogen which also has Ethyl groups attached to it.  When these Nitrogen containing compounds are turned into salts, the suffix “-monium” is added. So, a 16-Carbon attached to a Nitrogen with three methyl groups is Cetrimonium Chloride.


A variety of conventions are used to name polymers. For Nitrogen containing polymers, the term “Polyquaternium” is used. There is also a number associated with the ingredient but it doesn’t refer to anything chemically. It just happens to be the order in which the material was registered.

Other polymers use common abbreviations. PEG is Polyethylene Glycol. PPG is Polypropylene Glycol, etc. Then a number is included to refer to the moles of ethoxylation in the polymer.


For silicone containing materials, terms like Dimethicone, Cyclomethicone and amodimethicone are used. Whenever you see some form of these words in a chemical name, you know there is some silicone in it.


Ten years ago, you used to see the abbreviation FD&C in front of many chemical colorants. Today, however, the INCI has adopted a simplified method for naming colors. They just list the color followed by a number (e.g. Yellow 5). This doesn’t tell you anything about the chemical composition but you can get the structure by looking it up in the INCI. An alternative naming system is the EU one in which each colorant is assigned a 5-digit chemical index (CI) number. Yellow 5 in the EU is called CI 19140.

Miscellaneous Rules

There are many other rules that you’ll have to learn over time. To give you a flavor here are a few more.

  1. Water is just called Water. (Not deionized or purified or anything else. Just water)
  2. Fragrance is called Fragrance no matter what compounds are used to make it. This is changing but for now, it’s correct.
  3. Botanicals use the Latin name of the plant or part plus the term Extract. So, if you use an ingredient taken from the leaf of a lemon, the ingredient is called Citrus Medica Limonum (Lemon) Leaf Extract.


The naming of raw materials in cosmetics share some characteristics with the IUPAC system you learned in Organic Chemistry. However, there are many differences and for some things it is impossible to determine the chemical structure from just the name. For more information, your best bet is to go to your company’s library (or your city’s) and take a look at the latest version of the INCI.

Do you have any ingredient naming questions? Leave a comment below and let us know.


There are many different routes you can take to learn to become an expert formulation chemist but few are more powerful than conducting your own knock-out experiments. These type of experiments can help you learn a number of things such as,

  • 1. The function raw materials
  • 2. The performance effect of raw materials
  • 3. The formula effect of raw materials

It can also potentially lead to the discovery of a new formulation and cost savings ideas.

Formulation Chemist Knockout Experiment

The term knockout experiment was taken from the field of genetic engineering. In it, scientists create organisms in which they remove or “knock out” a specific gene. Then they see what effects the removal of a certain gene has on the organism.

In the cosmetic chemist’s version of a knockout experiment, you take a known formula and “knock out” a specific raw material. You then see what effect the absence of that raw material has on the final product. It’s a simple yet powerful study that can quickly get you familiar with any formula.

What will a cosmetic knockout experiment teach you?

When you first start your cosmetic formulating job, you will often start new projects with a formula that your company had previously developed. I remember the first formula I ever made (a shampoo) was originally developed by the guy whose notebook I inherited. My boss asked me to make samples to give to our Marketing group for evaluation. I had no clue about why any of the raw materials were used, what they did, or even how hard they were to work with.

You will undoubtedly be in the same position if you are just starting in this industry. Even if you’ve been around for a long time, it’s impossible to know the effect of raw materials in any formula you haven’t personally made (or observed being made).

Knockout experiments can rapidly tell you when making a batch exactly which ingredients have the most effect, which ones can be removed and which ones interact. When you’re done making the formulas, you can learn what raw materials have the most impact on the final specifications and the product performance.

The amount of information you can learn from a single knockout study makes it well worth doing on every new formula you are asked to work on.

How to conduct a cosmetic knockout experiment

Running a knockout experiment is fairly easy. All you have to do is take your initial formula and make a series of batches in which you remove one ingredient. If it’s a water-based formula, you simply add water to replace the missing mass.

Here is an example batch sheet for conducting a knockout experiment on a shampoo formula.  (Click to enlarge) As you can see, each subsequent formula has a line where the value of one ingredient is supposed to be.knockout cosmetic experiment

In this formula there are 8 unique ingredients which means you will need to make 8 different batches. The first batch is the control batch which should be made first. This ensures that you are able to successfully make the formula.

You should try to control as many variables as possible such as temperature, mixing speed, mixing time, etc.

Simplifying the knockout experiment

While it is best to make a new formula for each ingredient, this can become impractical and unproductive if there are dozens and dozens of different raw materials. In these cases you can minimize the number of batches to make by ignoring ingredients not expected to significantly impact the end performance such as

  • 1. fragrance
  • 2. dye
  • 3. extracts
  • 4. preservatives

If you don’t know which ingredients are superfluous, ask one of your more experienced peers. But be careful. It is wrong to make any assumptions about a formula. There could be ingredients you expect not to have any effect that do.

It’s worth noting that more complicated versions of this knockout experiment can be conducted using DOE (design of experiment) software. These experiments can give you much more information. Unfortunately, they also require many more batches to be made. In future articles we will discuss DOE further.

Evaluating your cosmetic knockout formulas

After you’ve made your batches you will end up with a series of formulas that need to be tested. At the very least you should take pH and viscosity measurements. You can then correlate the presence of any ingredient with an effect on those variables. This can be extremely useful if you need to help make adjustments on the production level in characteristics like pH, viscosity, texture, odor and appearance.

You should also conduct appropriate lab tests to see how the removal of a certain ingredient affects performance. For foaming products, conduct foam tests. For skin lotions, do a moisturizing test. Perhaps most important is to try the product out on yourself. Try to experience the product like a consumer. This will give you excellent clues about how important any raw material is to the overall effect of the formula.

Knockout your cosmetics

The knockout experiment is not a perfect way to learn all you can about a formula. There are important synergistic effects it will miss. That’s why DOE is often superior. However, you can’t beat knockout experiments for speed and ease. And you’ll definitely learn a lot about raw materials quickly. To become a great formulation chemist you have to make a lot of batches and try many different ingredients. The knockout experiment helps get you there faster.


Why Cosmetic Chemists Should Always Try Their Products

The number of people I’ve known who work on products that they’ve never even tried has always amazed me . They miss so much when they don’t have direct experience with a product. Perhaps it’s understandable if you are not in the target market for your product, but anyone can safely use most any product and the information you’ll learn from the experience will be invaluable. Here are 5 reasons cosmetic chemists should be trying every cosmetic formula they work on. scientist apply makeup

1 – Learn the most important characteristics

When I first started working on the cosmetic industry, I was making hair care products. While I always used shampoo, I rarely used conditioner. It seemed like a waste of time. But when I was given the task to make a new hair conditioner formula, I needed to figure out the most important characteristics. Reading about slip, spreadability, and hair conditioning properties didn’t make sense until I tried the product. After using it a few times, I figured out what these terms meant and why they were important. This gave me a basis for evaluating new formulas allowing me to know when I made something better.

If you don’t try a formula, you can’t make it better

2 – Build your powers of observation

Many of the formulas you will work on are ones you’ve tried all your life. But most of the time you use them without thinking. Your mind has become dulled to the experience. When you try a product thoughtfully, you can build your powers of observation and discover all sorts of details you never noticed.

For example, you might start to notice the ease at which your hands slide while applying a lotion, or the length of time it takes to “work into the skin”. You might notice the bubble density of your body wash or shampoo. In short, using a product frequently and mindfully can make you an excellent evaluator.

You can’t make formulas better if you don’t know what to change

3 – Figure out formula problems

Sometimes your Market Research data will come back suggesting there is a problem with your formula. This will be surprising to you because companies do not like to field consumer tests with formulas they know will exhibit problems. Even if all your lab testing shows your formula is good, there may be some subtle things you miss if you don’t try it.

For instance, the product might sting or cause another unpleasant sensation during use. There might be a foul odor which you only smell when it’s exposed to skin, hair, or moisture. You might feel tiny particles that interfere with the experience.

Trying a product identifies unseen problems

4 – Learn the effects of raw materials

A great benefit to trying your formulas is that you learn quickly how different raw materials change the experience. You can read all you want about a raw material but until you actually experience it from a formula, your knowledge isn’t useful. Every cosmetic chemist should have a standard “blank” formula which they can incorporate a new raw material in and try it to determine the effects. This is the best way to learn. Even if the raw material isn’t meant to affect performance, it can have a subtle impact that you would never notice unless you used it.

The fastest way to learn about a raw material is to use it

5 – Inspire new product ideas

Finally, trying cosmetic formulas is an excellent way to inspire new ideas. When you think about the different products while using them, you may start to notice common problems. For example, maybe all the skin lotions you use feel too greasy or don’t last long enough. You should write down these observations and try to come up with new solutions. Product brainstorming while you’re in the act of using a product leads to much more useful ideas than sitting in an office just trying to think.

If not you, who?

As a formulator, you should take pride in everything you make. And if your formula is not good enough for you, how can it possibly be good enough for anyone else?

Do you try all the products that you make?  Why or why not?  Leave a comment below.


How to Read a Scientific Journal Article

If you want to stay up on the latest research in cosmetic science, you’ll have to learn to quickly filter and read scientific papers. With page turning titles like “Dermatological aspects of a successful introduction and continuation of alcohol-based hand rubs for hygienic hand disinfection” or “Deposition of 18-MEA onto alkaline-color-treated weathered hair to form a persistent hydrophobicity” keeping up can be challenging. confused chemist reader

Fret not! We here at Chemists Corner have put together the following tips that will make it much easier for you to figure out what you don’t need to read and how to get the most out of everything you do read.

Don’t do this

The worst possible thing you can do is to read an article from the title to the conclusion straight through. It will take a lot of time & brainpower to understand and you may not learn anything useful. As a formulation chemist, your time is valuable. Don’t waste it on unproductive reading.

Take notes

To help you remember new ideas or other insights you get while reading, be sure to have a paper and pen ready to take notes while reading. If you’re able, just write right on the article. You can write questions to yourself and see if they are answered while you’re reading. The combination of reading and note-taking will make the study of the article much more effective.

Why are you reading it?

The first thing you want to figure out is why you would read a particular article anyway. Scan the title to get a rough idea of what the article is about. Then ask yourself “Why would I read this?” If you are a cosmetic chemist who specializes in hair products do you really need to read an in-depth article about antiperspirant efficacy? There may be a good reason (finding inspiration for new ways to test your hair product) but it is probably of academic interest only. You should focus on articles that will teach you things applicable to your job. Before reading any article always ask yourself

What do I hope to learn by reading this article?

Review the Authors

You’ll notice that some authors are quoted time and again in literature. For example, in the Journal of Cosmetic Science, Clarence Robbins and Yash Kamath are some of the most respected and often cited researchers in the subject of hair. Articles written by them are worth your time. However, supplier sponsored articles may not be scientifically robust enough for you to get much out of them. They might be excessively biased which should cause you to question the results.

Figure out what the title means

Once you know what kind of bias the authors might bring, it’s time to start dissecting the headline. This is often challenging, but given enough thought you can do it.

Take this example…

“Dermatological aspects of a successful introduction and continuation of alcohol-based hand rubs for hygienic hand disinfection”

If you pick out a few keywords you can get the gist of what they are talking about.

  • ‘Dermatological aspects’ — It’s about how they affect the skin.
  • ‘alcohol based hand rubs’ — It’s about hand sanitizers.
  • ‘introduction and continuation’ — It’s about frequent use

So, from these keywords the article is roughly about how using alcohol based hand sanitizers will affect skin over time. If this is an area of formulating relevant to you, continue reading the article. Otherwise, don’t bother.

Understand the abstract or synopsis

After figuring out the headline, next try to tackle the abstract. If it’s written well, it will succinctly describe the hypothesis, what was done to test it and the results. You’ll get a great sense about whether you need to read further.

Review the diagrams & procedures

Instead of moving right to the background / introduction, use your knowledge from the abstract and look at the diagrams. At this point it should be evident what the graphs are trying to depict. Check to see if the control makes sense, if you understand the differences shown, and if the information matters to you. To help understand the figures, look at the method/procedure section. If it is relevant to your work, try to visualize doing the experiment yourself. This could help you repeat the work if you wanted to.

Read the Intro

At this point, you should know well enough if you want to read any more. Start with the introduction to determine whether the authors know about what has already been studied in the area. You will eventually become an expert in your area of study and you’ll be able to tell how knowledgeable these authors are. If they don’t seem like they’ve got a grasp on the subject, be suspicious of the results. They may have made an obvious mistake.

Read the results sections

You should next read the results section to see what the authors think is the implication of their work. Here is where you can get some ideas on how you might apply the knowledge gained from reading the article. You can also decide whether you agree with their conclusions. Often what’s written by the author is not the only way to interpret the data.

Read the discussion last

Finally, take a look at the discussion section. Since you’ve already understood the title, abstract and diagrams, this section should only be skimmed to see if it answers (or raises) any questions that remain. If the first few sections were well-written, this section should require the least amount of reading by you.

Articles and the Cosmetic Chemist

Reading scientific articles can make you a smarter cosmetic chemist and can provide a great source of new, formulation and innovation ideas. Make a habit to read at least one scientific article in your specific field each day. They will become easier to read and you’ll become an area expert. Who knows? Once you know enough, you will be writing an article yourself.

Do you have any suggestions on how you might read a scientific article? Leave a comment below and let the other chemists on Chemist’s Corner know.


Lab Notebooks and the Cosmetic Chemist

When I was in college I dreaded writing lab reports. They seemed so structured and uncreative that doing them was a chore. Then you had to worry about the grade you would get. It wasn’t fun.

So, when I was given a black, 100-page plus lab notebook on the first day of my new job as a cosmetic chemist, I was less than pleased. I thought it would be like being back in college.  Fortunately, I was wrong.

Benefits of a lab notebook

I learned to love my notebook and looked forward to keeping track of my work. It became my “diary” of scientific thoughts and ideas; a personal tome of my development as a cosmetic chemist. It also helped me when it came time to file patents, solve production problems and prove to my boss that I actually did do some work.

What changed it from drudgery to joy?

Follow a system

I started following a system. It was a lot like the one learned in college, but it doesn’t require you turning it in for a grade. But you do want to be thorough in the possible event that the notebook gets used in a court case. (This really happens!) Here are some of the key parts of a system you can follow to make keeping a lab notebook a breeze.

What to write in your lab notebook

To be complete, there are 7 different sections you should include when writing up any experiment you run. Depending on your own style, you’ll write more or less in some of these areas. Some sections are optional.

Two things before you start

Use a black ink pen to write in your notebook!
Never use white out!


Whenever you are starting a project or experiment you should write down why you are doing it. Often this can be as simple as stating “Marketing wants me to develop a new skin lotion that performs better than some competitor’s formula.” Some see this section as optional, but I think it is a key component of a well kept notebook. The Background section helps make sense of all your experiments. This section also helps remind you of why you did something months later, and helps ensure that you know why you are conducting an experiment before you do it.

Always know why you are doing any particular experiment!


This section is narrower than the Background section. It states specifically why you are running this particular experiment and what you hope to learn or do. For example you can write “The objective is to create batches of a particular formula for evaluation in a home use test.” This section is a critical one and should be included for all experiments.


Just like in college, the Hypothesis states what you believe and what you hope to confirm or disprove in the experiment. This section won’t apply to many of the things that you do so you can look at it as optional if anything you write here was already covered in the Objective section. But when you are evaluating a new raw material or comparing two different ones, it is helpful to write down your hypothesis before you actually run the test. Often this section is used when you are repeating a preliminary study or trying to figure out why something you observed went the way it did.


The Procedure is one of the most important sections. It tells anyone reading your notebook how you did what you did. You should include step-by-step instructions on how you make your batches including what kinds of equipment you used such as hot plates, beakers, mixers, etc.

Someone should be able to read your procedure and duplicate your work.

You may include your formulas in the procedure section however; it often makes more sense to list this in the Data section because you will be recording data as you put ingredients into your batch.


The Data section is where you record all your observations, measurements and ideas about what is happening during the experiment. If the experiment involves making a batch then you would include the following information.

  • Raw material names (trade name or INCI name when possible)
  • Raw material tracking code / lot number
  • Percent required for the formula
  • Batch size and amount of raw materials required
  • Amount of raw materials actually added
  • Time ingredients are added
  • Temperature of addition
  • Observation of what happens to the batch while you’re making it

There are dozens of other things you can record but as you gain experience you’ll know what’s important and what’s not.

Results / Conclusion

After you’ve completed your experiment or made your batch, you should write down a discussion about how it went. Incorporate some of the observations you made and tell people who might be looking back on this from the future, anything they might need to know to repeat your work. You can also include here an assessment of other ideas you had and new experiments that occur to you.

Next Steps

In this final (optional) section you list what Next Steps you are going to take. You can suggest a new experiment or list what will happen to the batch once it’s done. This can be as simple as something like “Products given to Marketing for their evaluation. Depending on what they say we’ll modify the formula or initiate stability testing.”

For the most part, lab notebooks in this industry continue to be written by hand. It’s just more convenient than any electronic version. Admittedly, many cosmetic chemists create their formulas on spreadsheets and paste (using archival quality glue) them into their notebooks. It’s easier than hand writing everything. In the future, electronic versions may replace the old pen and paper system but not anytime soon. Remember, we live in the country that was supposed to go metric dozens of years ago.

What is your experience with lab notebooks?  Is there something we have missed?  Leave a comment and let the other chemists here know your thoughts.


How to Become a Cosmetic Chemist

When I’ve spoken at high school career days, the most often asked question (after how much do you make?) is “How do you become a cosmetic chemist?” Since you may soon be looking for a chemist career that uses your science background, you might be wondering the same thing.  Here are 7 steps you can follow to become a cosmetic chemist. There are different paths, but the following has proven consistently effective. cosmetic chemists

7 Steps to Becoming a Cosmetic Scientist

1. Get your science degree

You could start your own company or work for a relative that started one, but this isn’t how most people get into the cosmetic industry. If you’re following the traditional path, you should get a 4-year college degree from a college or university. The most common degrees that cosmetic scientists get are Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, Biology, and Microbiology. You also find a few Physics majors too. For most companies, the specific school you attend is less important than the degree you received.

2. Maybe get an advanced degree

While a 4-year degree is all you need, bigger companies like P&G or L’Oreal tend to favor students who have Masters or PHD degrees in cosmetic science. The truth is that most of these degrees do not help make you a better cosmetic scientist. The training you receive on-the-job is much more valuable. The exception to this is when you enroll in one of the few cosmetic science focused programs in universities around the United States. This isn’t a complete list but here are three great options.

University of Cincinnati – College of Pharmacy
University of Southern Mississippi – School of Polymers and High Performance Materials
Fairleigh Dickinson University

You can contact the Society of Cosmetic Chemists (SCC) for a complete list.

3. Research Cosmetic Companies

There are literally thousands of scientists and chemists working in the cosmetic industry. Fortunately, the number of jobs continues to grow. This is an industry that continues to sell product even in uncertain economic times. Everyone wants to look good no matter how much money they’re making.

There are various types of companies that employ cosmetic scientists and chemists. These include finished goods manufacturers, contract manufactures, raw material suppliers, and testing laboratories.

A great place to find potential employers is through the trade journals. Here are three sources to find companies. In some cases (like the Thomas Register) you can search by state.

Happi Buyers guide
GCI business section
Thomas Register

4. Pick a job

In college, they rarely tell you what kind of job you might get when you graduate. If you are looking to work as a scientist in the cosmetic industry there are a wide variety of jobs to choose from. Use the list below to see which one best fits your interests.

a. Cosmetic Formulator — If you like inventing and creating, the formulator is where you should be. Most of these jobs are with Finished Goods & Contract manufacturers. A few raw material suppliers employ formulators in their Technical Services departments.

b. Quality Control Chemist (QA/QC)— If like working with GC, IR, and Mass Spec you might enjoy a QC or QA job. Every company in the industry hires these scientists.

c. Analytical Services — Closest thing in the industry to scientific research. Most raw material suppliers and finished goods manufacturers have Analytical Departments.

d. Process Engineering (PE)— Like building things and engineering? Then this might be the job for you. Almost any cosmetic company with manufacturing facilities will hire PE scientists.

e. Synthesis Chemist — If you loved organic chemistry, then raw material synthesis is the place you should be. Most of these jobs will be with raw material suppliers.

f. Regulatory Scientists — For the people who like science but don’t like to be in the lab, a job in regulatory is a good place to go. Nearly all companies hire regulatory scientists and (unfortunately) more and more jobs are being added. I say unfortunately because more governmental regulations make it tougher to create innovative cosmetics.

g. Sales — If you like talking to people, going out to lunch and negotiating, a job in sales might be right for you. Plus, these are the people in the industry who usually have the most flexible jobs and make the most money.

5. Get a job

To actually get a job, the first thing you are going to want to do is put together a resume. You should be working on this near the end of your junior year in college or certainly in the early part of your senior year. The sooner you have a resume, the sooner you can start sending it to HR departments. You can go the old fashioned route of looking through want ads or college career offices, but you can also use the power of the Internet. For finding jobs, try…

Careers in Cosmetics

6. Find a temporary assignment

Sometimes you won’t be able to find your perfect job right out of school. Big companies often hire people that worked for them first as temporary workers. Get your resume to a scientist focused temp agency and see if you can land your first assignment.

Kelly Scientific Resources
K Force Staffing

7. Network with other cosmetic chemists

Perhaps the most powerful way to get a job in the cosmetic industry is to get involved with social networking sites. We are going to create a forum on Chemists Corner so you can chat with other cosmetic chemists. But EVERYONE should create a LinkedIn page. (Don’t worry, it’s free). Here is where professionals hang out and post their career information. Think of it as a fluid, online resume. But it’s even better because you can strike up relationships with people all over the industry of which you want to become part. Another great resource is Facebook. People often list the names of the companies they work for and the jobs they do. Do a little searching and create some important relationships.


You’ll also want to get involved with the industry’s premiere professional society, the Society of Cosmetic Chemists. There are chapters throughout the US. In the UK you can join the Society of Cosmetic Scientists. For other places in the world, check seek out the IFSCC for contact information.

Society of Cosmetic Chemists
Society of Cosmetic Scientists
International Federation of Society of Cosmetic Chemists

Take Action now!

Cosmetic science is a great career for a scientist. It can be constantly challenging and requires a creative mind to make formulas that stand out. It also provides you the opportunity to walk down the aisles of your local store and see your creation for sale on the shelves. That is incredibly satisfying.

Do you have any ideas on how to get a job in the cosmetic industry? Leave a comment below and let the rest of the community know.