How to Find Answers to Common Cosmetic Product Questions

When people find out you are a cosmetic chemist, they instinctively begin asking questions. They assume that you are an expert who will give them the “real” answers to their burning beauty queries. This phenomena was what prompted me and a few of my cosmetic scientist friends to start the Beauty Brains.

I’ll write more about the Beauty Brains and the power of science blogging in the future, but in this post I want to discuss how to answer questions that you inevitably get from both consumers and non-scientists in your organization.

Cosmetic Science experts

Depending on how long you’ve been on the job, your expertise will undoubtedly be limited in some areas. Typically, you’ll focus on one formulation area such as skin, hair or color cosmetics and get limited exposure outside your area. Also, you will not know too much about ingredients that you don’t personally use. But non-scientists will expect you to know everything and as a cosmetic science “expert” you will also want to at least know more than the people asking the questions. This is why you need to make it a point to learn about areas beyond your area of focus. (The Complete Cosmetic Chemist is a great way to learn the basics of all types of cosmetics). You need to learn the important science, the raw materials, and the general types of formulas that are developed for each area. We cover some of this stuff on Chemists Corner but there are other resources.

Learn Cosmetic Science Issues

Consumers are bombarded from many areas with information that is exaggerated, inaccurate, or worse, downright lies. There are a variety of activist groups who want to cause mistrust in authorities and fear to gain power and drive donations. They don’t let science get in the way of their beliefs. Additionally, there are cosmetic marketers who benefit from fear and misinformation that dissuades consumers from buying more popular brands created by bigger manufacturers. At one point in history, companies were saying that Proctor and Gamble was run by satanists. And, of course, there are also marketers who trick consumers into buying products by making promises on which they can’t deliver. You as a scientists need to be the voice of unbiased reason. Do not fall for your own (or other company’s) marketing BS. Keep an open mind and go where the science takes you.

This brings us to the issues that consumers (and marketers) most frequently ask about.

A. Cosmetic Ingredient safety
B. Expensive versus inexpensive products
C. What products work
D. Ingredients that work
E. How products work

In the next section we’ll look at each of these areas and give you places to find answers.

Finding reliable answers

A. Cosmetic Ingredient Safety.
It seems some of the people most passionate about cosmetics are the ones that are convinced that cosmetic companies are run by evil capitalists and are driven by profits with no concern about poisoning their consumers with toxins and carcinogens. This attitude is best exemplified by people like Annie Leonard and Stacy Malakan (CFSC). Unsurprisingly, you’ll also find people who sell natural and organic products expounding this view. The primary targets include parabens, SLS, propylene glycol, fragrances, and any of the other 12 most maligned cosmetic ingredients.

It is important for you to learn about the issues and to be able to answer consumer’s or marketer’s or government agencies’ when they question the safety. See what researchers say bout the safety of these ingredients. Do your own research, but remember you will not likely know more than a toxicologist or a scientist who actually studies this specific subject. You should defer to the consensus of experts with any issue in which you are not an expert.

Common questions include, “Are parabens safe?” “Is SLS causing cancer?” I would encourage you to see what independent sources have to say. These sources would include FDA or EU Scientific Committee on Consumer Products. You should also see what Toxicologists have to say about the subject. The bottom line is that you need to review many sources and be driven by what scientists are saying, not by fear groups, random bloggers, or all-natural marketers.

B. Expensive versus inexpensive products
Regular people will see advertisements or read Internet posts or go to their local Sephora and see high priced lotions and potions. They won’t be able to help but wonder if these products are better. In fact, most will assume they are. But you, as a cosmetic chemist, will know better. Take a look at ingredient lists and manufacturers. Expensive products are frequently made by smaller companies or by big companies when they buy out small companies. There is limited (read no) evidence that expensive products work better. As an industry expert, you should know what the expensive products are and be able to answer questions about them. Be sure to learn the market and find out what products work best for which applications. Of course, remember that cosmetics are a personal choice and what works for one person won’t necessarily be the best product for someone else.

An interesting source for unbiased evaluations is Consumer Reports. Unfortunately, they are not always reliable. When I first started in the cosmetic industry, I read a report they did about shampoos. They said that two formulas that I personally worked on rated differently in their testing. Well, I knew that the only difference between the products was their marketing position, color and fragrance so they should not have scored differently in the testing.

C. What products work?
Another frequent question will be about what products work. There are some standard problems that almost all people suffer and they seek real solutions from their cosmetic and personal care products. These include things like hair loss, unmanageable hair, and the other top 10 hair problems, plus wrinkles, cellulite and the other top 10 skin problems.

You should be knowledgeable about the limits of current technologies and how products that make outrageous promises are able to get away with it. Learn what kind of technology they are using. Review their ad copy and see how they word their claims. Don’t forget about the power of the placebo effect when someone tells you they spent a lot of money on a product that you know couldn’t work as they report.

To discover what works and what doesn’t, you’ll have to investigate for yourself. Begin with a general source like Wikipedia, then move to more scientific sources like JSCC, IFSCC journal and other journals indexed in PubMed. Remember to be skeptical!

D. Ingredients that work
When you learn about products, you’ll also discover specific ingredients that work. This is good because consumers frequently want to know what ingredients to look for in their cosmetics. Most often they’ll want to know about anti-aging ingredients. But they’ll also ask about skin lightening, anti-acne, sunscreens, antiperspirants, and hair ingredients. As a well-rounded cosmetic chemist, you need to have an idea of what these ingredients do and whether they work. To stay informed, keep up with journal articles, supplier literature, and industry magazines.

E. How products work
People are naturally curious and often want to know the magic behind their beauty products. You should be able to answer the basic science. This includes knowing about surfactants, sunscreens, antiperspirants, makeup, moisturizing ingredients, colorants, skin lightening ingredients, AHAs, antioxidants and numerous other basic functional cosmetic products. It’s difficult to learn about everything in one place but you can find a lot by doing a Google search, reviewing Wikipedia information, or finding information at some of these sources.

Chemists Corner
The Beauty Brains
Personal Care Truth
Cosmetics & Toiletries
P&G Science site
L’Oreal hair science
L’Oreal skin science

In our next entry, we’ll go through some tips on communicating your answer to a non-technical and sometimes suspicious public.

Do you have favorite sources for information? Leave a comment below.

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How to Become a Cosmetic Chemist

The job of a cosmetic chemist, or as they call it in the UK a cosmetic scientist, requires you to do a wide variety of things both in and out of the lab. Your main responsibility will be that of a formulator. This means you mix raw materials together to create cosmetic products like lipstick, nail polish, skin lotions, shampoos, toothpaste and any other type of personal care product.


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