Challenges of being a cosmetic chemist

Most scientists who end up in the cosmetic industry didn’t plan it that way. While there are now college and university cosmetic science programs, the vast majority of cosmetic chemists are more like me and they just stumble into the industry.  You can read how I became a cosmetic chemist. Unfortunately, when you study chemistry or science in college it does not prepare you for working in industry. Doing research in industry is not the same as doing research in college. There are a number of challenges that get in the way of the science and make getting to the truth of a subject much more difficult.

Marketing driven

The first thing you have to know about the cosmetic industry is that it is marketing driven. In some industries like electronics or pharmaceuticals, the Research and Development departments drive the development of new products. They have teams focused on basic research to make breakthroughs that will eventually lead to new products. If the scientists make some new discovery or develop some technological advance, it can get turned into a product and the marketing and sales groups get on with selling it.

The cosmetic industry is not like this. Instead, the Marketing department essentially tells the R&D department what projects they will be working on. This is not necessarily bad, but it does make it more difficult to do basic research and make new discoveries. There is much more focus on “development” and less focus on “research.” For a scientist, this can be a bit distressing. Most scientists are curious sorts who want to investigate the world and discover what is true. Spending all your time adapting formulas to fit marketing requests can get a bit dull, although it can be fun too.

Free time research

We were actually given some “10% time” which was free time you were supposed to use to be innovative, do whatever research you want and come up with a cool new technology/product. This was a bit of a fake program though. The reality is that they kept you so busy with all your projects, you never had 10% time to work on anything. And even if you did come up with a new technology or product, the company wasn’t really interested in it unless you could also prove that it was something consumers were asking for. This can be frustrating.

Cosmetic Science

While doing science in a marketing driven industry is hard, there are still times when you might manage to conduct experiments. Unfortunately, these experiments are usually more pseudo science than real science. You see, the goal of scientists in industry does not always coincide with the goal of science.  While the goal of science is to determine the truth of any subject or question, the goal of an industry scientist is to support the marketing story that your company wants to tell. Evidence is collected in a way that supports beneficial business claims. Discoveries that don’t support your claims are ignored and not reported. This is why you should take everything you read in cosmetic science journals with a heavy dose of skepticism.  It’s not that people are lying. They just aren’t necessarily trying to get to any ultimate truths.

For example, Is Hyaluronic acid really good for your skin?

There are lots of research papers that will say that it is. But there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical

Did the researchers publish all the data they collected? Did they try to prove that other things worked better? What was the impact of the environment, the genetics of the consumer, the impact of how the product was put together, or even whether consumers could tell a long term difference or not?

These are not the kind of answers that are useful if they don’t come out the right way. Cosmetic science often takes the approach of not asking questions for which they don’t want to know negative answers. And this is why it is not exactly rigorous science.

Scientific difficulties

Beyond motivated research there is also another significant challenge in cosmetic science. It’s just really hard!  When working with people and the complicated systems of skin and hair, it’s hard to come to any solid conclusions. What might work on one person, may have little to no effect on someone else. What might be safe for one consumer could cause terrible breakouts and rashes in someone else. Human bodies are so complicated that it would take large, expensive studies to really learn what is generally true.

And when you work as an industry scientist, you don’t usually have the time or money to invest in doing rigorous science. Instead, you set up what you think are reasonable experiments that have the best chance of giving you the results you want, and you run them. They may be scientifically designed and you might even do double blind, controlled studies. But these types of things are rarely replicated because once you get a positive result, you don’t want to ruin it by getting a negative one. The motivation of cosmetic science research is to support the claims that your business wants you to make.

Skeptical Science

A final problem is that finding technology and solutions to many problems is just really hard. All the obvious things have been discovered. Cosmetics have not changed much in the last two or three decades. It is for this reason that most of the new “innovation” in the cosmetic industry is in marketing stories. “Clean beauty,” “organic”, “natural”, are the hottest trends right now. None of them represent an improvement in products from the standpoint of performance. They are all marketing stories which provide little to no additional benefit to consumers.

These are just a few of the reasons it can be hard to be a cosmetic chemist and why you should remain skeptical of any cosmetic “research” that you read.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy being a cosmetic chemist. And there is some interesting science in the field. It’s just much more difficult to make real breakthroughs than you might imagine.

14 thoughts on “Challenges of being a cosmetic chemist

  1. Avatar
    Olivia says:

    I love your honesty. I feel sorry for the cosmetic chemists because they have a valid education in chemistry and science and not to mention a conscience. It is sad to see the beauty business really thrives on alchemy and magic (and a lot of BS).

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    Sheryl says:

    I worked in pharma R&D for a decade so I found this POV on your industry to be fascinating (& unfortunately not too surprising with respect to “scientific claims”).
    I find myself infinitely frustrated with Congress and their refusal to regulate the cosmetic and herbal supplements industries & their claims on a more rigorous level. Someone (s) are going to die from herbal supplements or be injured from untested products (because animal testing is BAD!) before change occurs. It saddens and terrifies me.

    • Avatar
      Perry Romanowski says:

      I completely agree. Supplements are a huge problem in our country and the government is doing nothing about it.

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    susie says:

    This is amazing I appreciate and respect your honesty so much, its rare and hard to find these days. Is it even possible to really formulate organic non-toxic cosmetics ( products that are actually safe and not harmful to the body ) -that work ? Have you found a difference in performance compared to the cosmetics that use traditional chemicals in their products?

    • Avatar
      Perry Romanowski says:

      Hello – Cosmetics are not natural. So, the term “organic” does not really mean anything except what marketers want it to mean. Whereas an organic tomato refers to a plant that was grown following organic farming methods, there is no equivalent process for making cosmetic products. There are standards about some of the ingredients but even those ingredients are chemically processed to put into cosmetics. Basically, there are no organic cosmetics.

      As far as non-toxic products go, it is illegal to sell unsafe cosmetic products. All cosmetic ingredients regularly used have been safety tested the levels of safe use are known. If you are buying a product from the store, you can be sure that it is safe and not harmful to the body.

      The only difference between traditional cosmetics and ones today that are advertised as organic is that the traditional products work better, last longer, and are generally more safe. The amount of natural/organic product recalls due to people using unsafe preservative practices is astounding. You would be safer to avoid such products.

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    Anna says:

    Thank you, Perry! Great to know that I am not the only one feeling frustrated as a cosmetic chemist (and still enjoying it too:) I don’t mind working with positive results-focused pseudoscience, but to speak with marketing team that miss this critical eye, being so dogmatic about some “innovative” projects – that cost me a lot of energy to keep calm:) My colleagues believe that one publication in international journal makes the revolution in our industry – but that is not how the science works. I love meetings with other cosmetic chemists – they understand:)
    Sometimes it also feels that many of us forgot the basic definition of cosmetic product and trying to develop miracle treatment with claims suitable for pharmaceuticals, not cosmetics.
    Still, it is a great jobb, giving satisfaction and simple joy!

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    Svetlana Gorodin says:

    I’d like to recommend the first lesson from Perry’s short course about cosmetic science to each yang beginner, who is looking for his/shes place in the Cosmetic Industry. It will be interesting and helpful.

  6. Avatar
    Ky says:

    I am a beginning formulator and am aspiring to start a brand.
    Do you think I could be able to call my products “clean” if they contain Phenoxyethanol?
    Just wondering.

    • Avatar
      Perry Romanowski says:

      “Clean” is a marketing term that means whatever you want it to mean. There is nothing to stop you from calling your product clean and using Phenoxyethanol.

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