I was recently asked by one of the students in the cosmetic science training program about the future of cosmetic formulating. She said…
Are we reaching a stage where further novel & creative products don’t often exists except in the marketing stories?
This got me thinking about formulating and what the future looks like for cosmetic scientists.
Current formulating limits
The truth is the vast majority of cosmetics are not significantly different. If you make the fragrance and colors the same, and put a formula in identical packaging, most consumers can’t tell a difference. People just don’t have a very well developed sense of feel. It’s much easier to tell differences between taste and smell. Touch, which is the sensation required for telling differences in cosmetics, is just not as well developed. (Sadly, most cosmetic chemists can’t tell a difference either.)
As a cosmetic chemist, you can spend lots of time optimizing your formulas and getting just the right levels of actives but it won’t make nearly as much difference as changing the fragrance or packaging. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve given a panel of people vastly different shampoo formulas which had the same fragrance, viscosity, color and packaging and they couldn’t tell a difference.
It can be troubling.
When it comes to formulation optimization, there is only a little bit that you can do to make your formulas better than your competition.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of work to do for formulators. Optimizing formulas to make them less expensive, making slight improvements in feel, and keeping up with regulatory changes are all going to keep you pretty busy. They just aren’t going to lead to significantly improved formulas.
Cosmetic formula improvements
Since your consumers can’t tell much difference, the chances of you creating a revolutionary product through formula optimization are low. There may be some discoveries that can be made using Combinatorial Formulating, DOE formulating or even Crowdsourcing formulation, but breakthroughs aren’t likely.
Two things that could dramatically improve cosmetic formulas include improved raw materials and nanotechnology.
New raw materials could lead to new properties of formulas. Unfortunately, there aren’t many new raw materials being made. Sure, chemical companies are always introducing new ingredients, but they almost never introduce an ingredient that will dramatically change the way consumers experience products. Raw material suppliers focus on the needs of chemists producing things like better emulsifiers, delivery systems, thickening agents, and lower cost ingredients. Consumers do not care about these things. They won’t really notice if they are in there.
The most promising areas of new ingredient development would be polymers. Polymer manufacturing is in it’s infancy and not terribly sophisticated. One only has to look at the polymer molecules of life (DNA, Proteins, Enzymes) to see what is possible with polymers. In the cosmetic world, we get simple thickening agents, film formers, and conditioning polymers. There are much more interesting possibilities if anyone could figure out how to control which monomers get placed where.
Nanotechnology also holds some promise for radically improving formulations. If we could create more permanent, invisible films on the skin or hair that could certainly improve things. Of course, this technology might be stopped before it even gets going if regulatory people get in the way.
So, right now, there is nothing about cosmetic formulating that will lead to radically improved products.
The cosmetic industry is at the stage where the candle industry was just before the light bulb was invented.
If formulating won’t lead to the next great improvement what will?
Non-formulating cosmetic solutions
It’s difficult to answer this question but as a self-proclaimed futurologist I’ll give it a go. I believe there are a number of technologies that have the potential to radically change the cosmetic industry. These include Electronic Ink, Nanorobots, Machines, and Virtual World technology.
Imagine a cosmetic which you apply and then can make it change color on demand. This is what electronic ink could do. E-ink is a technology involving tiny polymeric spheres filled with colors that can be changed when an electrical field is applied. Consumers could apply the makeup, then use a electrical field wand to blend to the perfect color. And if they are unhappy with the result, they could simply reset and start over.
We discussed this in the formulating section, but I’m thinking about a different kind of nanotechnology. At some point we’ll be able to create invisible machines that can be programmed to move along the skin or hair surface and change things. They can remove dirt, oil, and dead skin so you won’t have to use cleansing products. They could also be programmed to change color so you can easily change the way you look. While this might be years off, it might be quicker to just reprogram organisms that already live on your skin. Could we have Demodex mites that work to make you look better?
There was a cartoon from the 1960’s called the Jeffersons which was supposed to be reflective of humanity of the future. In the opening scene they showed the people getting out of bed, stepping on a conveyor belt, going through a machine and coming out the other side perfectly ready to go. This is what could be possible in a few decades. This type of technology won’t require new formulations. It will require the development of new computer and robotic technology. You could just program what you want to look like, step into the machine, and come out looking that way.
Virtual World Technology
If the environment starts to radically change or we start to run out of oil, society might have to switch to a completely different way of interacting. People will no longer go into the office but rather work remotely or virtually from their own homes. The need for actual cosmetics will be drastically reduced. However, the need for virtual cosmetics and make-overs will be dramatically improved. Rather than getting a degree in chemistry, you might be better off getting a degree in art or web design.
These technologies are certainly not close to being created and they may actually never happen. However, if you’re looking for radical innovation in the cosmetic and personal care industry these are the types of technologies it will come from. Traditional formulation won’t be able to compete.