How I became a cosmetic chemist
By: Perry Romanowski
One of the most frequented pages on this website is the post we did on how to become a cosmetic chemist. And that tells you a number of things you can do to get started as a cosmetic chemist, but I’ve found that everyone who works in this industry has a slightly different story. Here’s mine.
My path to science probably started with my love of animals. When I was a kid my family had a dog named Princess who just didn’t like kids. Unfortunate because my parents had 7 kids and the dog could never get away from us. I tried to befriend her but she never accepted. However, one year in the mid-1970’s she had four puppies which I adored. I remember being fascinated watching as she gave birth.
The puppies were so cute and I spent all my free time playing with them, taking care of them, and thinking about them. I could spend hours just watching what the puppies would do next. Eventually, my parents gave away three of them but we kept Soxie. I loved her. I still get choked up thinking about that dog.
But my experiences with dogs sparked an interest in all animals. I became particularly fascinated with insects. I remember catching them, putting them in glass jars, and just watching to see what they would do next. I loved to catch daddy long legs (which aren’t actually spiders), crickets, worms and grasshoppers. I recall once catching some big fat worms near a pond and carrying them over to show my parents. When I opened my hands they were all bloody. Those worms happened to be leaches.
The first books I ever read were picture books about insects. This insect fascination led to an interest in other animals and I devoured any book I could find on the subject.
Moving to the country
When I was 9 years old we moved from an urban suburb to a rural suburb farther away from the city of Chicago. The house was new construction surrounded by farm fields. It was a naturalist’s wonderland. Here I found, and caught, all kinds of different animals such as frogs, toads, salamanders, snakes, and turtles. My mother was not a huge fan (especially of the snakes) but she tolerated my obsession and let me keep a zoo in my room. I read books about how to take care of them and spent hours catching insects to feed them. I even attempted to set up a tank to mate grasshoppers so I would have a steady supply of food during the winter. It never really worked but it did teach me about the biology of grasshoppers and how to experiment.
During grade school I demonstrated a strong ability in mathematics and science classes were always my favorite. This continued in high school. I took more science classes than most others and did well. Biology was more interesting me. I was blown away when I first looked at a drop of pond water under a microscope and saw it teaming with life. In my Advanced Biology course I did a project where I had to raise an actual pig. The pig, Mindy, lived with me for 6 months and grew from a 10 pound piglet to an over 100 pound pig. I fed it, cleaned it, trained it, and kept notes of my observations. It was my first “research” project and I loved it.
During these years, I also became fascinated with seeds and growing plants. My plant of choice was the pumpkin. Each October after Halloween, I would gather up some seeds and let them dry out over the winter. Then in March, I would wet a napkin, put the seeds on it, and wrap it in plastic wrap. A few days later the seeds would sprout. I transplanted them into pots, then eventually into an outside garden. The pumpkin plants grew like crazy but they never grew pumpkins and I could never figure out why. I investigated and read books on the biology of pumpkins and melons and just never figured out why I only grew male flowers and never any female ones. Later in life I figured out it was because I was growing plants from the same fruit.
My interest in chemistry was not as strong as in biology but there were two areas that I liked, cooking and fireworks. The Fourth of July was always a favorite holiday of mine because my parents would let each of us have some firecrackers, sparklers and smoke bombs to light off ourselves. As a kid, I remember savoring every one, making the packs last for hours rather than the minutes like my brothers. I experimented with blowing up paper airplanes, ant hills, and any other structure I could find.
During high school, I stumbled on the formula for making smoke bombs (salt peter and sugar). Since I was a lab assistant the the chemistry teacher, my friends and I would experiment with different ratios and additives to produce different color smoke. It was all done under a hood but was probably pretty dangerous.
My friend and I got this brilliant idea to make a 2 pound smoke bomb and light it off during some outdoor high school event (like a football game or something). So, we bought up the salt peter and sugar and went to his house to melt it all together. We started outside but it was taking much too long so we brought it inside to mix it on his parent’s stove. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize how easily it would ignite. After a few minutes of cooking, the smoke bomb went off in his house and clouded the entire place with smoke. We eventually got it outside but the damage in his kitchen was significant. His parents were understandably upset and that pretty much ended our friendship. It also ended my experimentation with fireworks.
When I went to college I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself. I did well in math and science and liked programming computers but had no clue about what kind of job to do when I got out. I certainly would have benefited from some career counseling advice. In the one meeting I had with a career counselor I mentioned that I liked animals and it was decided that I would be a biology major. Seemed good enough to me at the time. Of course, if I had more insight, I would’ve pursued my strong interest in computers and would be one of those Google or Yahoo millionaires right now. Then again, I like how my life has turned out so perhaps blindly studying biology wasn’t such a bad thing.
I did well enough in college but was much more interested in socializing than learning anything. With minimal studying, I was able to get pretty good grades. This was actually a bad thing because I never really took any of my studies too seriously.
By the time I got to my fourth year in college I started looking at the job market for biology majors. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of options. However, I did notice that there were many more job ads for chemists. Upon further investigation, I found that I could easily switch to a chemistry major by taking a couple more chemistry courses. It took me an extra year, but I got to work as a lab assistant and even took some Masters level courses. I never loved biology nor chemistry but I did like both subjects. I found the chemistry labs much more interesting than the biology labs and I particularly enjoyed Organic Chemistry. For a cosmetic chemist, it’s good to like organic chemistry. Incidentally, I didn’t like the class part of Organic Chemistry, but the labs were great.
In the second half of my second senior year of college, I started searching for a job. My plan was to get a job, work for a few years, then return to college to get a PhD. I didn’t know what I would be getting a PhD in but it seemed like something I should do. It never happened. I did eventually go back and finish the course work for a Masters degree in Biochemistry but it never helped my cosmetic career much.
In 1992, the job market was not great. I read the book What Color is Your Parachute, put together a resume and applied for any chemistry related job I could find. I only went on three or four interviews, but was ultimately offered a job at Alberto Culver. I remember leaving the job thinking that I wasn’t thrilled about working for a shampoo company. At the time it just seemed so…unimportant. But the pay was good and I figured I’d only be there for a couple of years before going back to college for an advanced degree. I ended up staying for 17 years.
My first job title was Cost Savings Chemist. Presumably, I was hired to look at the current formulas and figure out ways to make them cheaper. This turned out to be a ruse by the R&D management to get the front office to approve hiring a new chemist. I ended up actually being another formulating chemist for the VO5 brand. The job was interesting enough. I learned a lot about surfactants and formulating and working in a lab in the cosmetic industry. I loved mixing together the chemicals and being able use my creation at the end. The first batch of anything that I made was a 2-in-1 shampoo with the notebook code 2458-1. I had a sample of that on my desk until I left Alberto Culver some 17 years later.
I worked with some interesting characters and the atmosphere in the early years of Alberto Culver was really that of a small company. As a formulating chemist you were responsible for everything including batching, getting raw materials, testing, developing claims, filling bottles, monitoring first production runs and troubleshooting batches. Any problems with the formulation was always put on the cosmetic chemist to solve. This was extremely challenging, but it also forced you to learn a lot.
In the beginning, I remember how easy I thought it all was. In college, I would spend hours working out the Gibbs Free Energy equation of a problem or using Calculus to figure out the partial pressures and temperatures of a variable system. In my new job, the hardest math I had to do was to figure out the percentage of powder to make a dye solution.
I was also surprised at the number of simple questions that didn’t have answers. I figured everyone in the lab would just be an expert on formulating everything. It turns out, most people in cosmetic chemistry specialize in one small area. People working on hair sprays didn’t know much about shampoos, and people working on relaxers couldn’t help much when it came to choosing the right cationic surfactant for a conditioner. It was frustrating. What made it even more frustrating was that there wasn’t a single book to which I could refer to get answers. Sure, you could find bits of useful information in books like Harry’s Cosmeticology and the Chemistry and Manufacture of Cosmetics, but these books were not written for a beginning cosmetic chemist.
Beginning Cosmetic Chemistry
My frustration with the available texts and a discussion with my co-worker Randy Schueller, led to a collaboration on a
series of articles published in Cosmetics and Toiletries targeted to beginning cosmetic chemists. I had always enjoyed writing and found this to be an excellent way to learn more about formulating. The articles were a big hit and we kept them up for a number of years. Eventually, we put the articles together and added some more chapters to produce the first Beginning Cosmetic Chemistry book in 1998. I was extremely happy to have published my first book.
The BCC book led to a number of other opportunities including some book editing jobs, chapter contributions to other books, and even a freelance job writing for an encyclopedia. I loved writing for the encyclopedia. It was a ton of work and required lots of library research (this was the days before the Internet) but it taught me how to work for myself and the discipline to meet deadlines. One project was How Products Are Made and I smile every time I stumble upon an article that I wrote like this one on licorice.
SCC Training Course
The book also led to a request from the Society of Cosmetic Chemists to do a training course based on it. Since my writing partner was not a big fan of traveling, I took the project on by myself. It was a lot of work distilling the book down to a 6 hour course but I did it. I remember wanting to make my course more interesting than other talks that I had seen. I have always found science lectures boring and I wanted to ensure at the very least, that I wasn’t boring. This prompted me to add things like juggling, ukulele playing and puppets at various points in the lecture. I always strive to communicate useful and enlightening information but in a way that is also interesting. Over the years I have continued to shape my training course and have received lots of positive feedback. I also discovered that I enjoy speaking in front of an audience. That was fortunate.
While I wasn’t working on my writing projects, I was doing the job of a formulator. I moved up and around in the Alberto Culver company doing stints as a formulator on brands like VO5, Tresemme, and St. Ives. Here I learned the ins and outs of formulating emulsions, cleansing products, styling products, and conditioners. Some of my more interesting projects included finding over a million dollars in cost savings, developing a new pearl system for a shampoo, figuring out what was causing aluminum hairdressing tubes to bloat (never really did), and developing a shampoo and conditioner that scored as well as or better than Pantene in consumer testing. I remember during this work, I washed my hair over 1500 times in one year. I declared myself the “most shampooed head in America” and was probably not wrong.
But my most interesting discovery was found completely by accident. I was doing some work on a hair color retention project and got tired of washing tresses all the time. So, I tried to develop a method of soaking hair in water to simulate washing. I found that when you soaked colored hair in water a certain amount of color was removed. My plan was to correlate soak time to some number of washes.
Everything was going fine until I opened the container of soaking tresses and it smelled awful. I figured it was bacterial contamination so in my next attempt, I just added a little preservative to the water. Well, the next day when I looked, the color didn’t come out of the hair any more. I repeated this and still the color remained. This led to more research which eventually led to what we called our color locking technology which eventually ended up as a patent. The work also led to a hair straightening product which was still in the works by the time I left Alberto. It was a pretty cool serendipitous discovery for me.
The Beauty Brains
While I enjoyed my work at Alberto Culver, I have always had this notion of starting my own business. As a kid I was a door-to-door seed salesman and had a job as a paper boy. In college, I was a waiter and wrote a book called Milk the Tip which taught servers how to make more money through tips. I never published it but it kept me inspired to continue to find just the right product to launch my own business. When the Internet came around, I discovered blogging.
My first blog was a blog about the card game euchre called the Euchre Universe. I wrote nearly every day and learned a lot about search engines, blogging, and more importantly, how people make money on the Internet. This experience naturally led to the idea of starting a beauty blog. People (particularly women) were always asking me questions about what products worked or not whenever they found out I was a cosmetic chemist. I was happy to answer and thought it would make a good book someday. The Beauty Brains was born. It was always written with the idea that eventually it would become a book.
The blog quickly gained an audience. I think for a number of reasons but most importantly because it was written from a scientists point of view. There weren’t (and still aren’t) a lot of beauty blogs written by people who actually know how to formulate the products. The blog started making money and I soon became more interested in it than in my regular day job. At Alberto I had moved up to the ranks of middle management and found the work rather dull and meaningless. I didn’t do much formulating anymore and felt that I had limited influence on the success or failure of any project. I was also approaching 40 and figured if I ever wanted to do something great in the world, I’d better get started.
I left my job just as they were getting ready to promote me to the next level. It wasn’t a hard choice and while I loved working at the fine company, working for myself is much better. I felt this sense of freedom that I have never experienced in my life before. To be in complete control of your destiny is exhilarating, and a bit scary too.
With my time freed up, I started this Chemists Corner website specifically to help people become better formulators and to inspire college science majors to consider working in the cosmetic industry. It truly is an enjoyable job and it is difficult to explain the feeling of gratification that you feel when you see a product that you created on the shelves at your local grocery store.
The response to this website has been incredible. I’ve met lots of new people, recorded some videos and even started a cosmetic science podcast. It has just been tons of fun. On the Beauty Brains side, we did eventually launch a book which got picked up by Harlequin and reworked as a book called Can You Get Hooked on Lip Balm? This led to a book tour which eventually landed me on a few television shows including the Rachel Ray show and the Doctor Oz show. It was an overall fun experience but being able to communicate science accurately on television is extremely difficult.
After a couple of years, I struck on the idea to do an online training program. I recognized that many people were unable to put out the expense of traveling to do a live SCC course and thought an online version would be great. Thus, the Complete Cosmetic Chemist training course was born. This was successful and I eventually teamed up with Allured to help distribute it better throughout the industry. I’ve also worked with them to create more courses including a Naturals formulation course, a Formula Optimization course, and one on Skin Physiology. I have been happy with how these have turned out and am inspired to create more. Our next independent project here on Chemists Corner is a training program that teaches people how to start their own cosmetic line.
Cosmetic Chemistry in the Future
Well, that pretty much is it about me so far. I’ve been extremely lucky in my career and am happy things turned out the way they did. In the future, I’m going to continue to write for this website and hopefully bring on some more writers to help. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some excellent people thus far and am grateful for their contributions. I’m going to do more writing, lecturing, (joggling) and I hope one day to launch another project I have in mind called Open Source Formulating. This will be an online repository for all the cosmetic science formulation information that can be gathered in one place. I would like to see a day when cosmetic chemists are viewed more importantly like cooks and they have a higher status in the cosmetic industry. Through this website and future projects I hope to make that happen.