Top 7 Cosmetic Chemist Myths

As cosmetic formulators, we are supposed to be scientists. Rational, curious, and willing to modify our beliefs based on new information. But we are mostly humans who suffer from confirmation bias, personal beliefs and good ol’ fashion stubbornness.

I’ve met some cosmetic chemists and formulators that hold some “interesting” beliefs that don’t quite hold water. Admittedly, in my younger years I believed many of these things too. However, there is no arguing with facts no matter what you want to be true. Here is a list of some of the most common cosmetic science myths that cosmetic chemists believe.

1. Expensive raw materials are better.
Formulators get introduced to raw materials from suppliers all the time. Sometimes these ingredients can be incredibly expensive, say $1000 per Kilogram or more. I often heard chemists lament that if they could only add some really expensive ingredients to the formula, they could make products that perform much better. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true. If you do a blind study of the best performing cosmetic formulations, it is not the most expensive formulas that work the best. Very few ingredients are better moisturizers than Petrolatum which is a pretty inexpensive ingredient! Just like cosmetic products, expensive ingredients are not always better ingredients.

2. Results of a small study are believable.
You spend a lot of time testing your ideas and often you run a quick study and make a great discovery like you’ve made hair stronger or you’ve improved skin moisturization for 24 or 48 hours. Many cosmetic chemists will just run with this information and believe it to be true. They may even get their boss or marketing group excited about it. But this is a mistake. Small studies are rarely predictable of what a larger, controlled study will show. Whenever you get great results from a small study, repeat and repeat again. There are lots of inadvertent & invisible mistakes that can happen. That’s just the nature of science. Unfortunately, the business side of the cosmetic business will pressure you to stand behind small studies because they support what marketing wants to say. Try to avoid this at all costs.

3. Competitors have superior technology.
It’s easy for you to develop “technology envy” when you see one of your competitors come out with a cool new product or they sell a lot more than your brand. You may even field a market research study that demonstrates their products score better than yours. This could cause you to develop the notion that your formulas aren’t as good. Sometimes that is true. But most times, your competitor’s formulas are not better than yours. Market success is only loosely tied to the performance of the formula. And your competitors have nearly all the same tools that you’ve got. There is no reason a small cosmetic company can’t produce products every bit as good as the big cosmetic companies.

4. Natural or organic ingredients are better/safer.
Astonishingly, I hear more and more formulators claiming that they only use natural and organic ingredients and that somehow makes their formulas better or safer. They are not.

5. If a technology is patented it is useful.
Thousands of patents are granted each year to cosmetic companies. You might even be impressed when you read on someone’s LinkedIn profile or resume that they have dozens or more patents. While it’s great to get patents, the truth is most cosmetic patents are based on technicalities and obscure discoveries that have very little commercial relevance. Often, the most useful thing about a patent is that you can advertise it on your packaging and call your product “Unique”.

6. Consumers can tell subtle differences between formulas.
This is one of the most troubling things about being a formulator. Consumers are easily fooled by superfluous factors. You can spend months improving foam height or creaminess. You can devote hours developing statistically significant, provable, incremental improvements to your formulas. You can do all this but if you use the wrong fragrance or the wrong color or the wrong packaging, all your work will go unnoticed. No matter what your market research group thinks, consumers are terrible at evaluating how well a formula works. The vast majority of consumers just don’t notice subtle differences.

7. Marketing people are clueless.
While this one might seem true (and for many individuals it probably is), your marketing department isn’t completely clueless about your products. They just have a different perspective on product development. While chemists are focused on what the final product will look like and how it will perform, marketers are more focused on what consumers want and what they will believe. Marketers just assume that the scientists will come up with products that can deliver on what consumers say they want. This causes them to suffer from wishful thinking which can come off as clueless. However, in the cosmetic industry it is extremely difficult to stand out if you focus only on product performance. We need people focused on marketing to successfully sell products.

Remember, people don’t buy a product the first time because of how it performs. Performance affects whether they re-buy a product but it’s marketing that gets them to try it the first time.

Got any myths that you’ve heard from cosmetic chemists? 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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