What to do with working cosmetic technologies you can’t use

If you are not in the business of formulating hair care products you may have missed the big kerfuffle caused by the use of formaldehyde in a salon treatment called the Brazilian hair-straightening. A couple of years ago, the Brazilian treatment became quite popular until people figured out that there were high levels of formaldehyde being used to get the straightening effect. The manufacturers rightly claimed they were using methylene glycol but ultimately the regulators didn’t buy the explanation. Just recently, the SCCS (regulatory organization in the EU) declared that methylene glycol in hair straightening products represented a health risk.

So, here we have a cosmetic technology that works, but is not allowed. This occassionally happens to cosmetic formulators so it is helpful to have a plan on what to do with a technology you can’t use. Here are some suggestions.

Get the same benefit with less

I actually ran into this exact problem when I was working on a hair color retention technology. I accidentally discovered a formaldehyde-donor preservative had a color locking effect.It was actually the basis of my first patent. Anyway, as we developed the technology we were conscious of the maximum amount of formaldehyde/methylene glycol we could use and we made it a point to use the maximum amount without having to label “contains formaldehyde”. We were still able to get some benefit but not the maximum amount. But a partial benefit is sometimes good enough.

Find an analogue

If you figure out the mechanism by which your technology is working, you can partner with a raw material supplier to get a similar molecule made that doesn’t have the problems associated with the unuseable technology. In the case of formaldehyde, you could search for molecules that have a formaldehyde functional group. Or you can test other molecules that have methyl groups substituted for the Hydrogen atom. This is a chance for you to use your chemistry knowledge. Incidentally, this is what many of the Brazilian hair straightening brands have done.

Find a way to reduce negative effects

Reducing the level is one way to minimize negative effects but there are other options. Suppose you want to use a technology that is irritating but still provides a good benefit. You can find a delivery technology like microspheres or matrix polymers to reduce irritation potential. In the case of methylene glycol this would not have worked because the regulators don’t acknowledge nuianced use of technologies.

Use it as a model

Perhaps the best option for using a technology that is not suitable for sale is to use it as a model for what you want your product to achieve. In the cosmetic industry it is difficult to find suitable models and benchmarks for positive effects. When we found the color locking technology, it gave us a great visual target to compare all subsequent technologies to. As a formulator, finding targets to beat is critical.

Defend the technology

Finally, you can try to defend the technology by demonstrating it is safe to use. Just be aware that although you might convince regulatory agencies that a technology is safe, you’ll have a much harder time convincing certain consumers and all the chemical fearmongering groups. It may be a reality that you can never use the technology in a saleable cosmetic product.

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