In a recent discussion on our cosmetic science forum about functional cosmetic ingredients a commenter complained that my positions were too demoralizing. I suspect my skepticism about the effectiveness of certain ingredients came off a bit too harsh, but also my message was misunderstood. In this post I’ll try to clarify my meaning.
In reading through the entire discussion I’m struck by the lack of skepticism that many of the scientists and formulators display. Although we are people like everyone else, I would think our training should make us less prone to non-skeptical positions. And though skeptical thinking is not how humans naturally evaluate the world there are excellent reasons why scientists can benefit from being most skeptical.
What is skeptical thinking
First, we should cover what is meant by skeptical thinking. Skepticism just means following a specific logical process when evaluating the validity of claims. It involves keeping an open mind and questioning whether a claim is supported by empirical research and has demonstrable reproducibility. The scientific method is a critical tool in the evaluation of these claims.
It is extremely difficult to evaluate everything in life skeptically, but it is crucial if you want to avoid following fallacious beliefs. And when you are formulating, striving to create the best products possible you will only be able to do this by critically examining all your beliefs about the functionality of any ingredient.
How can formulators benefit?
While the benefits of removing from your mind unsupported or erroneous beliefs seem obvious, not everyone would agree. There are some things that we want to believe or our gut tells us is true even if we can’t prove it. This is the philosophy of people who are staunch supporters of the precautionary principle. For them, you just need a gut feeling that an ingredient is bad to ban it. As a skeptic I find this philosophy mistaken and irrational. But even if you support that kind of philosophy there are still other reasons for a formulator to be skeptical.
Make Functional formulas
One of the primary benefits of being skeptical is that you will be more likely to make formulas that work. You will not waste your time chasing after technologies that have no chance of working. Having a skeptical mindset when creating your formulas will force you to review your formulations with a critical eye. You will not fall in love with your ideas or technologies and exaggerate positive results while ignoring negative results.
Find real innovations
There is so much opportunity in cosmetic formulation to create products that out perform the ones that are on the market. However, you will not find real innovations if you spend all your time chasing after technologies you like and ignoring ones that you don’t. Petrolatum is currently the best skin moisturizer from a functional standpoint. Any innovation that you are pursuing has to outperform petrolatum on a blinded basis. If it doesn’t, move on and look for the next innovation. Being skeptical allows you to find these innovative technologies because it prevents you from becoming enamored with ones that just aren’t going to pan out.
Inspire supplier innovation
In addition to your own innovation, being a skeptical formulator will also inspire raw material suppliers to become more innovative. If they are not selling ingredients that have a good story but don’t work in practice, they will be more likely to find or develop technologies that actually work in a demonstrable way. When you take a supplier’s technology that doesn’t work as they say you are contributing to the dearth of innovative technologies in the cosmetic industry. Being skeptical will inspire supplier innovation.
How to be skeptical
Verify all results. As a cosmetic scientist you will be inundated with marketing information from cosmetic raw material suppliers. They will present you all kinds of impressive claims which may even be backed up by actual lab studies. However, remember they are trying to sell you something so you need to be highly skeptical of any data that they show you. If you didn’t run the study you should doubt that it is true. Now this doesn’t mean you completely reject any study you didn’t perform, it just means until you verify the functionality of an ingredient you should assume that the data you’ve been shown is highly suspect.
Reject anecdotal evidence. This is probably the hardest one for people to do. Just because you’ve experienced a positive result using a technology doesn’t mean that it works or that other people will experience the same results. Your experience or anecdotal evidence can guide your research and help you in developing hypotheses however, it is a terrible thing to base your conclusions on. You (and all people) are easily fooled. We want to believe that our experiences are correct. This is not how science works. Unless you can validate the performance of a technology on a double-blinded basis you should be highly skeptical that there is a positive effect. I know it’s difficult to conduct these tests but this is the only way to know. Don’t trick yourself and you are the easiest person to trick.
Question your beliefs. The best way to be skeptical is to ask questions and conduct blinded experiments. When a supplier shows you a technology and the evidence to support it ask for the data or method they followed. Better yet, ask for a sample and conduct some blinded studies yourself. And just because you read about a technology that worked in the lab that does not mean the technology will work when applied on skin from a topical treatment. You need to test it in your base, with your raw materials, produced by you. And do this on a blinded basis.
Reality based formulating
Remember science is science and reality is just how it is. If things are not the way we want them to be we shouldn’t pretend that they are. As scientists it is up to us to have the highest standards when it comes to proof of effectiveness.
Be willing to believe, but before supporting a specific ingredient in a formula at a certain level because it’s going to have some effect on the skin, you need to demonstrate whether it’s noticeably functional or not. If you can’t demonstrate that an ingredient used at a significant level is superior to using a drop of that ingredient then there is really no reason to use a high level. You owe it to yourself and your consumers to be an efficient formulator.