Cosmetic innovation challenges - Is there innovation in cosmetic science?

Every year, many of the magazines and websites dedicated to the cosmetic industry publish their lists of cosmetic innovations or trends that will affect formulating. For example, the popular In-Cosmetics show gives awards each year for innovative ingredients of the year. While these companies mean well and certainly the awardees and nominees deserve to be recognized, the choices for “innovation of the year” demonstrate a significant problems in the cosmetic industry when it comes to innovation. Namely, there isn’t much real innovation.

What is innovation?

Before pointing out the problems, it’s worth mentioning what I consider constitutes “real” innovation. While there are lots of things that qualify as innovations, all of them should involve some type of improvement. Improvements can be found in ingredients that

  1. Deliver new or improved benefits to the consumer
  2. Reduce the cost of making the product
  3. Decrease the environmental harm caused by the product
  4. Reduce the time required to make the product

Of course, there may be other innovations I’m missing but those are the main ones as far as formulators are concerned. However, as far as cosmetic consumers are concerned, only the first type of innovation will matter much to them. Sure cost might be important but to some but a product’s price is not a big driving factor. Environmental concerns make for good marketing stories but they don’t drive purchase in the way that product performance or cost does. Almost everyone will say they want products that are good for the environment, what they purchase tells a different story.

In my view, “real” innovation is something that makes the products better for the consumer. With that definition in mind, let’s see where the problems are with innovation in the cosmetic industry.

Focus on ingredient source

One problem hampering “real” innovations is the focus of ingredient sourcing. Raw material companies come out with new ingredients that are “green” or “natural.” The big selling point is supposed to be that the ingredients are good for the environment and more sustainable than petroleum derived ingredients. There is also the implied cosmetic fear mongering claim that natural ingredients are somehow better and safer for consumers. While it would be helpful to make ingredients that are more sustainable, this type of innovation has no immediate impact on consumers. There is a reason that synthetic ingredients were invented. That is primarily to improve on the shortcomings of the ingredients that were used before it. Invariably, these ingredients were plant or animal derived compounds.

This push to find plant based ingredients to replace synthetics is often leading to ingredients that don’t work nearly as well as the synthetic alternatives. A good example of this is the push for saponin surfactants. While they come from nature, they pale in performance when compared to Sodium Lauryl Sulfate.

Innovation focused on raw material source may lead to some useful ingredients from the producers standpoint, but it doesn’t provide any “real” benefit to the consumer. Ultimately, this will result in products that work only as well or perhaps a bit worse than what we have now.

Focus on drug benefits

Another problem with the innovations today is the focus on drug benefits. There are some very interesting compounds that may affect biochemistry but the truth is, if they worked as stated that would make them illegal drugs. The FDA has warned companies about making claims about products that are meant to affect the structure or function of the skin. It’s illegal to do that. So when raw material companies focus their innovations on ingredients meant to stimulate collagen synthesis or increase cell metabolism, those aren’t cosmetic ingredients. Those are drugs. Almost all of the innovation done using biochemistry is for the development of drug actives. This puts formulators in the uncomfortable spot of having to use ingredients they know are illegal or using ones they know don’t actually work. This can’t be a good way to innovate in the cosmetic industry.

Focus on early science

Innovations that try to take advantage of emerging science is another significant hurdle for “real” innovation. Since it is difficult to find breakthroughs in existing technologies, cosmetic companies look to emerging science for inspiration and ideas. Currently, that includes topics like epigenetics, the microbiome, stem cells, proteomics, or customized DNA based formulations. This is great. It’s also where I think true innovations in cosmetics will be found. Unfortunately, these things will take time.

Before real innovation can happen science will have to work out the basics behind these topics. Too often a marketer will get wind of a topic that is popular in the public consciousness and will launch products immediately. There are a ton of products or ingredients meant to treat the human skin microbiome even though we have little idea about how it should be treated. Until we have the basic science worked out, the innovations in these areas represent wishful thinking more than “real” innovation.

Why isn’t there more “real” innovation?

There are a few reasons that companies continue to focus on pseudo innovation rather than “real” innovation. These include the slow pace of real innovation, consumer demand for something new, the high cost of discovery, but mostly it’s because real breakthroughs are hard to find. There haven’t been significant, consumer noticeable improvements in cosmetics in decades. The biggest improvements in cosmetics have already been discovered. That’s not to say there isn’t any room for improvement. However, as far as I can tell, cosmetic formulas will not look that much different in 20 years from now than they look right now.

Future of cosmetics

One of the followers of my newsletter asked the following about the future of cosmetic science.

What is the future in this field like? Do you guys believe that we have peaked in terms of technology and raw materials? What is your hope and vision of this field 50 years from now?

- I think the future in the field of cosmetic science will be more of the same, the industry will be driven by marketing stories and pseudoscience. That’s because very little “real” innovation is happening. There will always be a need for cosmetic chemists to adapt formulas to new marketing stories. But as far as “real” innovation goes, I don’t have much faith in new things being developed. I hope I’m wrong.

- Yes, I think we have peaked in terms of consumer noticeable performance. There is certainly room for incremental improvements but as far as chemicals go, I don’t think cosmetic formulas will change much. For real innovation to happen in the cosmetic industry new materials or devices will be required. Also, we’ll need modification of regulations so cosmetic products can be allowed to interact with skin biochemistry.

- I hope the industry continues to evolve in the coming years. It would be nice to get away from petrochemical derived ingredients and to renewable resources. However, it’s also important that we don’t sacrifice useable farm land for the production of cosmetic ingredients. Hopefully, future innovators will find ways to produce sustainable ingredients in a harmless way. I also hope that we find smarter materials that can clean, color and moisturize in more targeted ways. That will lead to lower levels of chemical use which should be better for the environment.

But as far as finding innovations that represent real improvements for consumers…I’m having a hard time thinking of any. I guess the areas that would make the most sense is making products last longer, making products have less impact on the environment, and of course making things that work better for individual consumers.


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