I share the frustrations of many of you when it comes to understanding hair products and how hair responds to them. Entirely too often it seems to me that luck or fate have more to do with the mythical condition known as "a good hair day" than anything else. Of course, as a scientist, I know that simply isn't the case, but it seems impossible (translate: entirely too much effort) for me to analyze all the variables and reliably achieve that elusive state of perfect balance. Why can't we just formulate products that perform predictably and reliably—this isn't rocket science, is it? Maybe that is a good question.

The fact is that a huge number of factors influence the behavior and texture of our hair: outside temperature, humidity, dew point, hair texture, hair condition (chemically or thermally treated?), type of products used, order in which products are used, handling of the hair, water quality, etc.. None of this even takes into account the many ingredients in the products we use, and how those ingredients might interact with one another, with your hair, or with the local climate. It is mind boggling and daunting to even the best researchers.

Thus, it seems ironic that in the scientific world, cosmetic and personal care chemistry are often treated with skepticism and have a reputation for being poor science. Despite all that I know of the many principles involved in the development of hair and skin care products, I must confess to having made this accusation myself a time or two, even toward my own projects. My biggest complaint in graduate school was that I just couldn't get in there and ask those molecules what they were doing!

What's Bad in Cosmetic Science?

There are some reasons for people having this dim view of the industry. Misleading marketing and outright charlatanism are unfortunately prevalent in the field, with outlandish claims often made without proper data to back them up. Statistics are abused and misrepresented to give the appearance of remarkable results. Preying upon the fears of consumers with heavy-handed 'safety' information is also a technique used to convince people to avoid certain products and to purchase theirs.

Other practices in the industry, usually at smaller companies with fewer resources, such as haphazard formulation, inadequate quality control, and insufficient stability testing of new products and raw materials, can erode the trust of consumers and scientists alike. Formulating without a solid grasp of concepts such as emulsion stabilization, viscosity modification, and preservation can result in unpredictable shelf life of a product and also in inconsistent results in application. Extensive testing is necessary to evaluate a product every time the formula is changed, but it is frequently foregone.

Another criticism of the field is that new findings are not always published in peer-reviewed journals, as the data and information are considered proprietary. This helps companies maintain an advantage in an incredibly competitive market, but it can lead to skepticism from anyone who thinks to question their claims. However, there really is excellent and highly scientific work being published by researchers in this area, not only in the trade journals of the field, but also in more academic publications such as "Langmuir," "Macromolecules," "The Journal of Physical and Colloid Chemistry," and others. Patents can also be great sources for information.

What's Good in the Cosmetic Science?

Innovation and achievement of lasting success in this competitive market requires a strong commitment to fundamental scientific research, with high levels of interdisciplinary expertise and collaboration between experts in various fields. Consumer product companies such as Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Living Proof, Estee Lauder (and many others) devote millions of dollars to doing the highest level of science in order to maintain or grow their market share. Raw material suppliers do the same, and commercially-funded university studies are ongoing worldwide and involve the latest technologies.

Some of the scientific disciplines utilized in the research and development of new personal care products are:

  • Biology (understanding hair and skin)
  • Microbiology (prevention of microbe growth in product)
  • Colloid science (understanding mixtures of waters and oils)
  • Physical chemistry
  • Biochemistry (proteins, fats, cell membranes)
  • Nanotechnology
  • Polymer science (synthesizing new polymers for specific uses, understanding how polymers behave in formulas and in situations)
  • Processing and engineering (scale-up of a product from lab to commercial production)
  • Biotechnology
  • Water chemistry (understanding pH, hard water/soft water and the impact that has on products)
  • Analytical chemistry and materials characterization (evaluation of raw materials and finished products, including development of novel ways to emulate and evaluate how the product will be used)

Advances in the fields of polymer science in particular have given cosmetic scientists many new ingredients to work with, capable of providing exciting new benefits in the areas of styling, conditioning, moisturizing, and product thickening. Vitamins, herbal extracts, nanoparticles, and other additives have also been gaining popularity with formulators.

Formulators who have added new ingredients to products frequently left many of the old ingredients in the formula. No one wanted to run the risk of decreasing the efficacy of a product or of alienating consumers by changing the product too much. Unfortunately, this led to huge ingredient lists that are expensive to manufacture and final products with very complex behavior. The statistical probability of a complication or problem arising increases with the addition of each new variable. Each new ingredient added to a formula brings with it the potential for interaction with other ingredients, sometimes causing unfavorable results.

In an interview at the Chemists Corner, Dr. Johann Wiechers, an accomplished scientist in the field of skin delivery of biologically active ingredients, discussed how advanced technology is enabling cosmetic scientists to explore the fundamentals of their work at a molecular and mechanistic level. Sophisticated analytical techniques, increased computational capability, and systematic experiments augment knowledge and in some cases have changed 'the rules' completely. Hopefully, scientists will use this information to develop new formulas using fewer ingredients, limiting them to the use of only those strategically selected, high performance components. If you care to delve further into this topic, Dr. Wiechers has written a series of articles on the topic, "Is Cosmetic Science Really 'Bad'?"

In closing, despite its occasionally shaky reputation, I remain in awe of the complexity involved in developing a really good hair or skin care product. While there is certainly an element of art to the development of hair and skin care products, it also incorporates the highest levels of many scientific disciplines

The development of tools by which we can characterize and understand the behavior of cosmetic ingredients and how they interact with skin and hair will inevitably lead to new discoveries and products in the future. As scientists with expertise in different areas continue to collaborate, the consumer will benefit by having access to products specifically targeted to different needs and that provide consistent results. I look forward to reaping the benefits of this work!