The Problem With Cosmetic Ingredient Research

I was scanning through the various science magazines I follow and stumbled on this interesting article about a couple of essential oils and their effect on skin. The researchers looked at geranium and calendula essential oil for their potential as antioxidants and sunscreen ingredients. It turns out the authors discovered that Geranium essential oil had a SPF value of around 6 while the Calendula essential oil had an SPF of around 8.

Interesting, right?

Well, I guess but then the authors go ahead and claim that

“The SPF of CEO was higher than GEO, and the results of SPF show that these essential oils can be employed in sunscreen formulations to protect the skin from sunburn. “

This is where they lose me and also where I think cosmetic science research often goes wrong. Assuming that these oils indeed have the experimentally determined SPF values, this is far less effective than ingredients that have already been proven to protect against the sun!  Why would a formulator use an inferior performing ingredient when they have perfectly good, validated ingredients to choose from?

No, people should not use geranium and calendula essential oils as sunscreens.  They should use Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide and Avobenzone or any of the other 16 approved sunscreens by the FDA.

Cosmetic Science Research

And this demonstrates a big problem with cosmetic science research. Often, the research is being done by someone who is keen to prove some point. In this case, the authors wanted to demonstrate that a natural essential oil can be used as sunscreen. And maybe they proved it. However, the really important question of what should people use as sunscreen actives is ignored. Cosmetic science research too frequently answers the wrong question. We want to know what is the best technology to use, not whether some ingredient has a modest effect.

When doing research on ingredients, the authors should find the best technology available and compare whatever they are investigating to the best available. The best sunscreen available is Zinc Oxide. Geranium and Calendula essential oil pales in comparison.

4 thoughts on “The Problem With Cosmetic Ingredient Research

  1. Avatar
    Phil says:

    Spot on Perry! In another context, consider the academic adding a novel preservative factor (usually “natural”) to a formula and, when it more or less passes USP , announcing success – often suggesting a preservative-free claim. As the individual has never carried the responsibility for preservation, of course the simple test is considered be-all and end-all, the results readily extrapolated from the mock formula to the world of cosmetics, the material readily ,available and in composition and efficacy, etc..

  2. Avatar
    Liliana says:

    And yet, without asking the question, how are we to discover any new and useful ingredients that perform better than modestly and can compare to or surpass the accepted “best” choice? I take your point regarding the article you read, but your rebuttal kind of dismisses the value of experimentation for the sake of the ol’ tried and true.

    • Avatar
      Perry Romanowski says:

      I agree we should ask the questions. And researchers should be looking at ingredients that can work better than the accepted “best” choices.
      What this article is striving to accomplish is to encourage researchers to be more critical about their own “discoveries.”
      Yes, they found an essential oil that has SPF protection. But no, they didn’t find a new compound to use that will replace the current “best” choices.
      At the very least the authors should note that in their discussion section. Here they are just pretending their discovery is more significant than the evidence suggests.

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