As a cosmetic chemist, you’ll find patents to be an extremely useful source of information. In them you will find starting formulations, novel test methods, and even the historical development of cosmetic science. But reviewing them can be tedious so learning how to read them productively is important.
Where to find US Patents
While there are lots of places to find the full-text of patents online, the best place is the United States Patent and Trademark Office. This website contains a wealth of free information. The only other site worth considering is the Google Patents site. It has the same information as the USPTO site but has the added advantage of using the Google search engine. Sometimes this is more helpful.
Main sections of patents
On the front page of a patent, the most useful information includes
1. The patent number (top right corner)
2. The date of the patent (top right corner)
3. The inventors / assignee
4. The Title of the invention
5. The Abstract of the invention
Inside the patent, you’ll find the following key sections.
Images - If it is a device of design patent, illustrations of the invention will be included before the text. For cosmetic formula patents, these are not usually included.
Field of Invention - This section is usually just a rewording of the abstract.
Background of Invention - Provides a history of the development of the technology and sets up the problems that the patent is trying to solve. It will site other patents which helped inspire the invention.
This is an excellent source for learning about the historical development of these kinds of formulas and for finding other relevant patents.
Summary of Invention - Here you’ll find the basic idea behind the patent. After reading this section, you should have a good idea about what are the key elements that make the patent unique. It will also help set up the next section.
Detailed Description - This is the most tedious part of the patent because it includes as much information as the lawyers can pack into it. It’s written in a way that is easy to get lost. Superfluous details are included just to ensure that the company covers as many possible angles as they can. You’ll find ranges of weight percentages both preferred and “most preferred”. But you’ll also find details that may be useful in later development.
This is the longest section of most patents but you can skim most of it upon your initial read through
Formula Examples - At the end of the description section, you’ll find formula examples which will include a range of compositions & weight percents. Right after this section, you’ll also find a ‘Method of Preparation’ which tells you generally how to put the formula together.
Here is where you find your starting formulas
Test methods - In some patents, you’ll find test procedures that the inventor followed to prove that the invention is novel. This isn’t in all patents but keep an eye out for them. It gives you an idea of how you might test your formulas and also helps indicate how useful the patent actually is.
We claim: - This is the last section of the patent and can be the most useful. It summarizes all the information that comes before in specific, single sentence lines.
Reading a patent for general understanding
Now that you know the construction of a patent, it’s time to learn how to read them.
If you already know the basics of the subject and just want to understand what an inventor did, follow this procedure for reading the patent.
Step 1 - Read through the title and the abstract to
determine if you want to know more.
Step 2 - Skip to the end and read the ‘We claim’ section to get a sense of exactly what the invention is about. The first few claims are usually the most relevant.
Step 3 - Next, go back and read the ‘Summary of Invention’ to fill in some of the details.
Step 4 - Finally, go through the Invention Details section to get the complete picture.
Getting starting formula ideas
If you just want to get a good sense of how to copy a competitor’s formula (or just how to make it), skip to the back pages and find the Example Formulas. Use these suggested formulas to create your own versions. Note, the formulas listed in patents are often different than the ones that are actually sold on the market. These example formulas should be used as a rough starting guide. You should also eventually modify them if you ever want to market your own version of the formula.
Getting test methods
Sometimes after the example formulas you’ll find a section that explains how the formulas were tested to prove their claims. Read through this section and see if you can copy the tests that they did. Often, this will not require any special equipment.
Learning cosmetic science
If you are new to the industry or are attempting to formulate in an unfamiliar area, then be sure and read the Background Section. This will give much of the necessary cosmetic science to help you understand these types of formulations. You will also find references to older patents. If you still need more understanding, look up these old patents and review the background section in them. After reviewing a few relevant patents, you should have an excellent understanding of the basics of the field.
Are there tricks you use to get a better understanding of patents that weren’t included here? Leave a comment below and let us know.