Underrated Genius of Cosmetic Science

This is a guest essay by cosmetic chemist Cindy Yu from Corn Products International.

Beauty is a form of genius.
-Oscar Wilde

The simplicity of this statement cannot be more ideal in characterizing the cosmetic industry. Despite the popular misconception of the industry as a narcissistic microcosm of vanity and self-glorification, beyond the glitter and the glamor of the marketing lies the true “genius” of cosmetics: the sophisticated understanding of applied science and technology that is fundamental to how the products work. Although these products showcase a complex and elegant blend of science and art, cosmetic science is commonly regarded as inferior to the more “elite” scientific disciplines. There are reasons why cosmetic scientists do not seem to get the respect that they deserve, but with an understanding of these reasons, changes can be made so that this image does not continue to persist.

All about beauty

As an initial matter, it is important to note that cosmetic science exists because of one reason: beauty, a difficult and abstract concept to define. This concept of beauty has baffled anthropologists, psychologists, scientists and mathematicians for decades, yet it cannot be ignored as “beauty” matters within all societies. Every individual possesses a vague, innate template of beauty that exists in their minds. Because an individual’s physical appearance is, whether they like it or not, a major determining factor in many aspects of life, there exists a perpetual challenge to achieve some form of conventional “beauty” without ever knowing what that truly means.

It is with this vague and fickle desire for “beauty,” as well as the ensuing abuse of this desire by marketing gimmicks, that the field of cosmetic science has come to be judged by the public. Undiscerning consumers who purchase “hope in a bottle” products making outrageous claims become disillusioned and jaded when those claims prove false, and thus close their minds to a distorted view of cosmetic science, ignorant of what it can truly offer. These unscrupulous companies, who ignore moral integrity and choose the path of deception for monetary gain, have paved the road for the increasing cynicism towards the merits of cosmetic science by consumers.

Skeptical Consumers

Unfortunately, as a result, products and companies that actually do deliver as promised fall to the collateral damage of this skepticism, being lumped into the same category as those which do not by the public eye. Bewildered consumers have difficulty distinguishing legitimate claims from those that are nonsense, and with the unregulated spread of information on the internet, more and more unfounded and unsupported theories are being widely propagated by self-proclaimed “beauty experts,” such as the recent “green/natural” movement against the use of certain chemicals.

Additionally, the public focuses too narrowly on traditional independent fields of study as the “elite” scientific disciplines. Cosmetic science is an innovative, interdisciplinary field that encompasses many traditional disciplines. It incorporates fundamental and applied sciences, and branches out into areas of dermatology, nanotechnology, and other medical related studies. It is the fusion of scientific research with art that makes up the core of cosmetic science and is a gateway to new ways of thinking because of the level of creativity that is involved. There is an intricate level of detail and understanding that is incorporated with the formulation of these products, from the thixotrophic behavior of emulsions affecting the spreadability of a cream on the surface of your skin, to the intimate understanding of an encapsulated active using nanotechnology.

University support

Another factor affecting the reputation of this industry is the lack of support from universities. As of today, there are only four graduate Master’s degree cosmetic science programs established at universities in the United States, with one being a specialized online program, and undergraduate cosmetic science programs do not exist at all. As a result, it is difficult to recognize the achievements of the industry and its pursuits in the advancements of cosmetic science. The sparse demand for programs reflects the long-held misconception that cosmetic science is inferior to the traditional sciences; children and young adults are not informed and generally remain unaware of a potentially promising future in the field of cosmetic science.

Thus, it follows that one obvious way to improve the status of cosmetic science is the establishment of undergraduate programs at universities. Simply by exposing the exciting opportunities available in the field to young students, universities could encourage interest in cosmetic science and bring about an influx of promising new talent, as well as increasing the prominence of the field within academic circles. Although well-established scientists within the field may already have experience and education, in many instances they lack the creative imagination and simplicity that comes naturally to youth, who optimistically question the status quo.

Sometimes it is not the understanding of a scientific theory or law that may spark the development of a new product, rather, it is thinking about the impossible and reaching beyond those limitations that adults so often confine themselves to. Furthermore, having a presence on academic campuses would allow cosmetic scientists to occupy a forum in which they can exchange ideas and work with scientists from many of the “traditional” scientific disciplines. Because cosmetic science is interdisciplinary, many potential advances could be made through collaborations with experts in microbiology, physics, chemistry, bioengineering, etc., and as an added benefit, those experts may come to appreciate the complex technicalities of cosmetic science and learn to give it greater respect.

Proper regulation

Another change that would improve the image of cosmetic science is the implementation of proper regulation within the industry. There needs to be a standardized method to investigate and ensure the integrity of product claims marketed by end-user product companies. With the diminishing faith and credibility in the cosmetic industry, a restructuring must be instituted to regain the trust of the consumers. One way of accomplishing this would be for cosmetic companies to form a self-governing association (Personal Care Products Council) to promulgate rules and enforce sanctions for violations. Another way would be to go through the political process to get the government involved in passing and enforcing legislation aimed at consumer protection in cosmetic sales.

Purpose of cosmetic science

Ultimately, regardless of how the public views cosmetic science, it is fundamentally important that we believe in what we do as cosmetic scientists and know what our purpose is. The purpose of cosmetic science is not to market “perfection,” but to promote a better quality of life by enhancing one’s features, making both women and men feel more confident in their own skin and building self-assurance that can translate to success in other areas of their life. We should not view cosmetic science merely as “science” or “formulation” or “art”; it should be about the positive self-image created by its products, created by a fusion of both scientific and artistic elements with the overarching pursuit of beauty. This industry will continue to grow and flourish as long as the people that make up the industry continue to input their passion, dedication and creative innovation towards that purpose. Although cosmetic science may not be rated highly at this time, it has a potentially bright and promising future.

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