How do you know if a cosmetic raw material works?

I saw a science article that indicated in a mouse study that a compound in apple peals (ursolic acid) was good for helping build muscles. After I “tweeted” this fact, one of my followers responded that Uroslic Acid was also good for skin care. She even included a link to research published in the Archives of Dermatological Research.

According to the abstract skin wrinkling and xerosis associated with aging is a result of a reduction in collagen and ceramide content. In their study, they found Uroslic Acid was able to increase both ceramide and collagen production. So, it logically follows that this might make a good topical skin application. In fact, a raw material marketing department would seize on this research and start selling the promises right away.

Unfortunately, they would be jumping the gun.

There are two things that strike me about this study and raise red flags about the viability of this raw material. First, the study was done on cultured normal human dermal fibroblasts, or more simply, cultured human skin. This is decidedly different than actual human skin. Sure the cells might be the same but the structure of the thing is completely different. Just because a raw material is shown to do something in the lab doesn’t mean that it will work on a real person or when delivered from a real cosmetic.

Just because a raw material is shown to do something in the lab doesn’t mean that it will work on a real person or when delivered from a real cosmetic.

The second thing is that the study was published in 2002. That was over 9 years ago! If Ursolic Acid had the ability to increase ceramide and collagen production in skin, why hasn’t any more work been done to demonstrate an effect when applied topically to human skin?

To be fair, I did read that Ursolic Acid is currently going through clinical trials to see whether it works as an antiwrinkle ingredient. No results are published yet.

However, it seems to me that it would be a remarkably simple test for some cosmetic company to have already done. This would suggest to me that someone has already done it and were not able to get any results that were worth publishing or even launching a product around.

This view may be a bit skeptical but “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

How do you know?

This brings us to the question of how a cosmetic chemist can know whether the raw material that your supplier is bringing you really does the things it claims. Here are a few suggestions.

1. Be skeptical but open minded. It’s hard to make something new. That is why there are so few new things. The raw material you are being presented probably doesn’t work as claimed. It is an easy matter to give only the evidence that supports your case when you are trying to sell something. Of course, you don’t want to filter out too much. If you can easily test a raw material for its claims, you should do it.

2. Get independent testing. While the testing of a supplier is a good start, you should never rely on supplier testing to prove a claim. They have an incentive to find information that supports the product they are selling. I’m not suggesting they make up data. However, they certainly aren’t going to show you negative data. I like independent data generated in-house.

3. Do blind testing. The first rule of science is to not fool yourself and you are the easiest person in the world to fool. If you don’t want to believe in a raw material, you’ll find data to support that belief. Conversely, if you want to believe in a raw material, you’ll find data to support that. This doesn’t lead you to the truth. When evaluating a raw material for a claim, you should do a double blind study. To do this, it helps to have a technician who can label all the samples, do all the testing and give you the data for analysis.

As a cosmetic chemist, you are going to be inundated with information from suppliers demonstrating that their new raw material is the most excellent thing since sliced bread. Use a little skepticism and testing to ensure that what they say is true.

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