Science in the Name of Beauty: Summer internships give insight into the scientific research behind cosmetics

Author:  Reger Beth
Institution:  Neurobiology
Date:  February 2002

"Easy, breezy, beautiful - Covergirl®."

"L'Oreal. Because I'm worth it®."

Cosmetics have become so commonplace in our society that advertisements can be found in all facets of the media, from television and radio to magazines and even on bus placards. Ads claim that makeup can make a woman look younger, more beautiful, and even make her more popular. But what exactly is in that lipstick so many women applied this morning, or the dye they used last weekend to turn their hair that brilliant shade of blond?

Creating makeup consists of much more than just keeping up with the latest fashion trends. Cosmetic companies use extensive laboratory research to develop the ideal formulas. Their researchers create lipsticks that have different finishes - creamy, matte, glossy. They develop eye shadows with different formulas; some stay on all day while others fade by noon. Chemists formulate hair dyes for different types of hair, and for different results - some dyes are permanent, while others rinse out in a few weeks. Cosmetics companies such as L'Oreal® and Covergirl® (a subsidiary of Procter and Gamble) have devoted entire divisions and millions of dollars each year entirely to research and development of different products (

Typically, scientific research is associated more with academia and pharmaceuticals than beauty and fashion. "When you think about research, you don't think about cosmetics," said Karen Mruk, a summer intern at L'Oreal USA, the parent company and research site for companies such as L'Oreal®, Lancome®, Maybelline®, Redkin®, and Laboratory Garnier®. Mruk worked in L'Oreal's hair color lab, helping to develop and test hair dyes. She explained some of the lengthy processes that are involved in bringing a hair color product from the drawing board to the store shelf.

Prototype products are sent from the marketing department to the hair lab, and it is the job of researchers to match that color and develop the formula. Sometimes the prototypes are products from a competing brand, and researchers try to match their colors. Other times the goal is to extend a product line by creating variations of an existing item.

"Organic chemistry is the basis for developing all of the hair dyes," said Mruk. Ammonia and peroxide are the main ingredients in many hair dyes; both are strong chemicals that many people object to using in their hair, as they dry and damage the strands. What people do not understand, explained Mruk, is that both ammonia and peroxide are important components in hair dyes. Ammonia helps to open the pores of the hair so that it can absorb color. "Most non-ammonia products wash out because the pores never absorbed the color," Mruk said. Peroxide activates the color in the dye, as hair dyes themselves are colorless, she added.

"Knowing chemistry helps to optimize the formulas and develop the best formulas," said Patrick Walston, Project Leader of L'Oreal USA's Hair Color Research and Development. Even so, he added, it is hard to predict how reactions will proceed as the processes used to develop hair dyes deal with competition reactions between similar molecules.

After the dye has been developed, researchers run a battery of tests to make sure it is safe. According to Walston, these tests include measurements of compatibility, pH, and viscosity, as well as toxicology and microbiology screens. The products must conform to all FDA regulations, and must not contain any carcinogens (some products by other companies do contain carcinogenic agents, Mruk noted.) The dye is also tested on hair samples before being sent to the testing department, where it is then tested on volunteers.

As an intern, Mruk learned "to apply the theory of the classroom to real life situations." Jodi O'Donnell, another former intern in the L'Oreal USA Hair Care Division, concurred. O'Donnell said the best part of the research was "seeing a product that I made [tested] on somebody. Often in chemistry, you don't get to see the end product."

Many people do not associate science with the makeup that they apply every morning. However, science, and chemistry in particular, is the basis behind all cosmetics. Before appearing on the drugstore shelf, each product goes through an intense repertoire of tests and evaluations in an attempt to optimize the product for the consumer. Often, the products that interns such as Mruk and O'Donnell help develop during the summer are the hottest trends for the next season's collection, endorsed by celebrities and popular fashion magazines. While cosmetics remain popular, cosmetic companies will continually be employing scientists to create new products in the name of beauty.