Will cosmetic chemists become obsolete?

A few weeks ago I was giving a talk at a Society of Cosmetic Chemists meeting and one of the formulators in the audience asked me this question, “Will cosmetic chemists become obsolete?”obsolete-chemists

In further conversation he wondered whether this would happen due to the creation of computer programs that could automate the formulation process. He pondered whether going into cosmetic science was really a good idea or whether science minded students should turn their attentions to industries that had more potential.

I thought about this. He made some good points. But upon further reflection I don’t think formulators will become obsolete any time in the near future. Here are 5 reasons.

Technology isn’t advanced enough yet

While computer programming has made some advancements and formulation software is helpful, there isn’t yet a computer that can reliably create formulations. I’m not aware of any computer that has been created to specifically replace the formulation chemist. I imagine that it could happen as it would be relatively easy to program a machine to create iterations of formulations, but this could only be done in a “dumb” way.

For example, you could give a computer a list of all surfactants, cosmetic thickeners, adjustment agents and everything else that goes into a formula and it could spit out any number of reasonable formulas to make. But it wouldn’t be able to tell whether the formula would be effective. It wouldn’t be able to predict stability. And it wouldn’t be able to make it. This might happen in the future but I don’t see it happening any time soon.

Formulation technology isn’t advanced enough

Even after we have a computer program that can come up with formulations, I don’t think we will be replacing cosmetic chemists any time soon. The main problem is that coming up with potential formulas is not the last step. You need a way to evaluate the formulas. Most importantly, you need a way to determine whether the formula is appealing to people. There aren’t good ways to do this at the moment. Very few methods exist that connect formulation performance with consumer perception and desire. And science is not making much progress in this area. Until we have that connection, you’ll need cosmetic formulators to do it.

People are still needed for innovation

While computers are good at repetitive and iterative processes, they are not yet good at innovating. Computer programs can’t be made to generate reasonably good ideas or have flashes of inspiration. Computers aren’t yet able to see the potential in a mistake like when I accidentally discovered a standard preservative was good at keeping artificial hair color in the hair. Until computers get more creative and better at making non-obvious logical connections creative cosmetic chemists will still be needed to make cosmetic products of the future.

Human labor is still less expensive

The cosmetic industry is relatively large but not nearly as large as the pharmaceutical industry. That means there isn’t as much money invested in the R&D facilities of most cosmetic companies. And human labor continues to be less expensive than robotic labor. You’ll still need people to create formulas and solve problems. This might change in the next 100 years, but in the next 50 years I don’t think future formulas need to worry. Who knows, in the next 100 years people may have advanced beyond the desire to use cosmetic products.  Or maybe not…

Things don’t actually change that fast

People are always predicting major changes in the future but if you look at life today on a fundamental level it is not much different than life from 100 or 200 years ago. Occasionally, there are innovations that change the world but more frequently, things don’t change much. We still sit on chairs, use forks, read books, wear shoes & shirts. Technologies upgrade for certain but nearly all fundamental things have been invented. Although there were many more 200 years ago, there are still people in the world who are blacksmiths and work on horseshoes. In the future, there may be less need for formulation chemists but I don’t think it will ever completely vanish. We still have cooks don’t we?

Of course, one other reason that chemists will still be needed is because the marketing group or the production group will need someone to blame when formulations don’t quite work out the way they’re supposed to.  Blaming a computer for inevitable problems is much less satisfying. 😉


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