When I was in college I dreaded writing lab reports. They seemed so structured and uncreative that doing them was a chore. Then you had to worry about the grade you would get. It wasn’t fun.
So, when I was given a black, 100-page plus lab notebook on the first day of my new job as a cosmetic chemist, I was less than pleased. I thought it would be like being back in college. Fortunately, I was wrong.
Benefits of a lab notebook
I learned to love my notebook and looked forward to keeping track of my work. It became my “diary” of scientific thoughts and ideas; a personal tome of my development as a cosmetic chemist. It also helped me when it came time to file patents, solve production problems and prove to my boss that I actually did do some work.
What changed it from drudgery to joy?
Follow a system
I started following a system. It was a lot like the one learned in college, but it doesn’t require you turning it in for a grade. But you do want to be thorough in the possible event that the notebook gets used in a court case. (This really happens!) Here are some of the key parts of a system you can follow to make keeping a lab notebook a breeze.
What to write in your lab notebook
To be complete, there are 7 different sections you should include when writing up any experiment you run. Depending on your own style, you’ll write more or less in some of these areas. Some sections are optional.
Two things before you start
Use a black ink pen to write in your notebook!
Never use white out!
Whenever you are starting a project or experiment you should write down why you are doing it. Often this can be as simple as stating “Marketing wants me to develop a new skin lotion that performs better than some competitor’s formula.” Some see this section as optional, but I think it is a key component of a well kept notebook. The Background section helps make sense of all your experiments. This section also helps remind you of why you did something months later, and helps ensure that you know why you are conducting an experiment before you do it.
Always know why you are doing any particular experiment!
This section is narrower than the Background section. It states specifically why you are running this particular experiment and what you hope to learn or do. For example you can write “The objective is to create batches of a particular formula for evaluation in a home use test.” This section is a critical one and should be included for all experiments.
Just like in college, the Hypothesis states what you believe and what you hope to confirm or disprove in the experiment. This section won’t apply to many of the things that you do so you can look at it as optional if anything you write here was already covered in the Objective section. But when you are evaluating a new raw material or comparing two different ones, it is helpful to write down your hypothesis before you actually run the test. Often this section is used when you are repeating a preliminary study or trying to figure out why something you observed went the way it did.
The Procedure is one of the most important sections. It tells anyone reading your notebook how you did what you did. You should include step-by-step instructions on how you make your batches including what kinds of equipment you used such as hot plates, beakers, mixers, etc.
Someone should be able to read your procedure and duplicate your work.
You may include your formulas in the procedure section however; it often makes more sense to list this in the Data section because you will be recording data as you put ingredients into your batch.
The Data section is where you record all your observations, measurements and ideas about what is happening during the experiment. If the experiment involves making a batch then you would include the following information.
- Raw material names (trade name or INCI name when possible)
- Raw material tracking code / lot number
- Percent required for the formula
- Batch size and amount of raw materials required
- Amount of raw materials actually added
- Time ingredients are added
- Temperature of addition
- Observation of what happens to the batch while you’re making it
There are dozens of other things you can record but as you gain experience you’ll know what’s important and what’s not.
Results / Conclusion
After you’ve completed your experiment or made your batch, you should write down a discussion about how it went. Incorporate some of the observations you made and tell people who might be looking back on this from the future, anything they might need to know to repeat your work. You can also include here an assessment of other ideas you had and new experiments that occur to you.
In this final (optional) section you list what Next Steps you are going to take. You can suggest a new experiment or list what will happen to the batch once it’s done. This can be as simple as something like “Products given to Marketing for their evaluation. Depending on what they say we’ll modify the formula or initiate stability testing.”
For the most part, lab notebooks in this industry continue to be written by hand. It’s just more convenient than any electronic version. Admittedly, many cosmetic chemists create their formulas on spreadsheets and paste (using archival quality glue) them into their notebooks. It’s easier than hand writing everything. In the future, electronic versions may replace the old pen and paper system but not anytime soon. Remember, we live in the country that was supposed to go metric dozens of years ago.
What is your experience with lab notebooks? Is there something we have missed? Leave a comment and let the other chemists here know your thoughts.