Cosmetic Science - What is it?

Simply put, cosmetic science is the area of study focused on the development of products designed to improve the look and feel of skin, hair, nails and other surfaces of the body. The subject of cosmetic science actually overlaps with a number of sciences including Chemistry, Physics and Biology but also includes softer topics like Marketing and Market Research.

What are cosmetics

When talking about cosmetics, it’s helpful to understand what they are. Before I got into the cosmetic industry, I had assumed that cosmetics were color cosmetics such as lipstick, eyeshadow, blush and nail polish. These things are cosmetics but so are other things like shampoo, body wash, skin moisturizers, hair gel, etc. In fact, almost any product that you put on your body for the specific purpose of improving the appearance or feel is considered a cosmetic. See this video for a more expanded description of what are cosmetics.


Since all cosmetics are made up of chemicals (yes even so-called “natural” cosmetics are chemicals), the most important aspect of cosmetic science is chemistry. This is the study of chemicals and how they interact with each other. As a cosmetic scientist you need to first get to know the cosmetic raw materials available and what they do. You also need to learn how to put the raw materials together into a safe and effective formula.

Raw materials

The raw materials that are used in most cosmetics around the world are listed in the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients Dictionary. The latest edition of the INCI Dictionary has over 22,000 entries so it takes some time to learn about everything you could include in your cosmetic formulas.  In reality, those thousands of options can all be simplified and we’ve described how there are really only three types of cosmetic ingredients. These include functional, aesthetic and claims.

Functional ingredients are the ones that provide the benefit of cosmetics. They include cleansers (surfactants), conditioning agents, colorants, fragrances, reactive ingredients, film formers, and drug actives. Every cosmetic you’ve ever used or made has at least one functional ingredient.

Aesthetic ingredients are those that help make delivery of the functional ingredients more acceptable. These are ingredients like solvents, cosmetic thickeners, preservatives, fragrances, pH adjusters, plasticizers, fillers, appearance modifiers, anti-oxidants, anti-irritants, and delivery systems.

Claims ingredients (sometimes called fairy dust) are ingredients added to a formula at a low level for the primary purpose of getting to put the ingredient name on the label. This includes ingredients like natural extracts, vitamins, proteins, biotechnology, and fanciful made-up ingredient names.

You can learn more about what the raw materials are and their function in our cosmetic science course.


While knowing the raw materials is important, it is equally important to know how to put the ingredients together in a formulation. There are a wide variety of formulation types including solutions, emulsions, gels, sticks, aerosols, powders and more.  See this post on the types of cosmetic formulas for more information.


Depending on the type of products you are making, there are a number of topics in the field of physics that are important. For color cosmetics the principles of light reflection are important for determining color mixtures and formulations. In cleansing products it’s important to know about physics of colloidal solutions and the mechanisms of foam creation and dirt removal. For sunscreens, the physics of energy absorption and reflection. For all cosmetic products it’s helpful to know the science of rheology. Fluid dynamics are also important to understand as this relates to the mixing and filling of large batches of cosmetics.


Since cosmetics are put on the biological surfaces, it is helpful to know the basics of hair, skin and nail biology. Cosmetic chemists learn about hair growth, the composition of hair fibers, and the ways in which it is damaged and repaired by personal care products. For skin science cosmetic chemists need to understand how the skin grows and the structure of the different layers. It is also helpful to know some of the biochemistry involved in creating skin as some raw materials and cosmeceuticals are thought to interact with biochemical mechanisms to improve the look and feel of skin.

Cosmetics also have the potential to grow dangerous microbes so formulators must spend time testing to ensure contamination doesn’t happen. For this reason it is important to learn about the growth habits of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that can infect cosmetics.


Math is the foundation of most any scientific subject. For this reason it is important that the student of cosmetic science have a good understanding of basic math. This means being able to quickly figure out percentages and convert units from mass to volume and visa versa. While the math can get complicated the job mostly involves straightforward calculations and avoids more complex math like Calculus or Number Theory.


Since cosmetic science is an applied science it also involves topics that fall outside the realm of standard physical sciences. This primarily involves product marketing and market research.

Market research is a type of psychological research and it focuses on figuring out what problems consumers have and the types of products they want to solve those problems.  Marketing is also a psychological study which focuses on figuring out how to communicate with consumers and getting them a message which will prompt them to buy your products.

Unlike other science-based industries, the cosmetic industry is highly driven by marketing considerations. Much of the basic cosmetic science technology has been worked out and formulators spend their time trying to incrementally improve existing products.

Future of cosmetic science

There are a number of technologies that promise to have an impact on the future of cosmetic science and formulation development. This includes

  • 3D printing cosmetics which may have some application in the color cosmetic area.
  • Epigenetics - a field which activates DNA sequences based on environmental conditions
  • Microbial cleansing - using good microbes to clean skin surface
  • Sustainable sources - raw materials derived from renewable resources like plants

The topic of cosmetic science covers a wide range of subjects which can take a lifetime to learn it all. It is an interesting area of study and typically requires a degree in Chemistry or Chemical Engineering to enter. Go to the following link to learn more about a cosmetic science career.



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