Making Makeup: A career in cosmetic chemistry

Author: Madeleine Jepsen

Institution:  Hillsdale College

Soap, shampoo, deodorant, lotion — people use these products every day, but rarely think about what goes into making them. This is the job of cosmetic chemists: they develop the array of hair, face, and skin products scattered across bathroom counter tops. These chemists conduct the research necessary for formula development and manufacturing and test the safety of the products before they enter the marketplace. Ultimately, chemists are involved in many of the steps before a product goes from concept to shelf.

First, cosmetic chemists must find ingredients that can be used for the product they are developing. Since the final product will be applied to porous, absorbent skin, the chemical ingredients must be safe for long-term use.

“There’s a lot of research that goes into the development of these products," says Priscilla Taylor, a formulation chemist at Bria Research Labs. "Once I’ve selected those materials, I go to work putting them together — looking at the chemistry, knowing what’s compatible with what. You don’t want a product on the shelf that within a month, two months, a year, starts separating, so you have to carefully select materials with a mind towards what the final product is intended to deliver. It’s kind of like cooking. You create a recipe, and then you make it.”

Each ingredient serves a purpose — some add color, some add scent, some add thickness or texture — and chemists must be sure that the ingredients are stable and do not cause harmful interactions when combined.

“For example, with a fragrance in a shower gel, you want the consumer to experience a bloom when the product hits warm water," Taylor says. "The fragrance has to deliver that, and there’s all sorts of things to consider, depending on the product’s end use.”

Additionally, chemists must find the most effective means of delivering these ingredients to the target area, which requires them to creatively apply their background in chemistry.

“There’s the argument of whether it’s a science or an art, and I think of it as a blend of the two," Taylor says. "It’s heavily science — you have to know what you’re doing and what you’re mixing together. There’s also an art. Over the years, chemists develop a knack for what they do, so one might take a different approach, but the end result is almost always the same: delivering a product that would appeal to the consumer and is safely used, and delivers the benefits it claims to have."

There are many chemical principles involved in developing and manufacturing personal care items. For example, oil-soluble ingredients in lotion prevent moisture from escaping through the skin or attracting additional moisture, and emulsification combines the oil and water-based components. Hair conditioner uses positively-charged, water-soluble moisturizing agents, which then bind to damaged hair through electrostatic forces. The pH and viscosity are also important factors to consider. Products that are too acidic or too basic will cause irritation, and a too-thick product will not be easy to spread across skin.

The process of formulation, which is highly product dependent, must balance cost and quality to optimize the end result. Beyond finding the best formula for longest-lasting lipstick or clump-free mascara, chemists also must consider the production process required to make these products on a large scale. Quality control technicians help ensure the manufacturing process will deliver the same product made initially in the lab.

When they enter into the industry, cosmetic chemists have at least a bachelor's degree in chemistry, microbiology, or pharmaceutical or cosmetic science. Some also obtain a master's degree in cosmetic science, but it is also possible to start as an entry-level technician and work up to a position with additional responsibilities such as a senior scientist or production manager.

On the whole, positions within the field of cosmetic chemistry are as diverse as the range of products they manufacture. Some cosmetic chemists work for independent research labs such as Bria Research Labs, which develop products for outside clients. Others work in the research and development departments of companies specifically devoted to selling personal care products. However, many students entering the job field are often unaware of this industry.

“When I was in college, I wasn’t aware of the field," Taylor says. "There was no curriculum for it, I learned on the job. I don’t know that there’s much of an awareness of this industry at the undergraduate level, and I think the more the word gets out there that this is an option for science majors, it’ll be a good thing.”



Interview of Priscilla Taylor, formulation chemist at Bria Lab