How to find reliable, accurate scientific information about ingredients in hair products.


A discussion took place recently on the CurlTalk forums about how difficult it can be to find reliable, accurate scientific information regarding hair product ingredients. The uncontrolled nature of the internet means that anyone can post a video, blog, or advertisement, claiming to be an expert and dispense information and advice. Quite often, it is evident that there is a bias or undisclosed motive behind the information being presented, which certainly fosters distrust.

Perhaps most frustrating to some of the participants in the discussion was how often supposedly credible experts disagree with one another on key points. Some even expressed confusion as to whether there is a specific area of scientific study directed at understanding hair and how its properties are affected by products, and if so, it was assumed it must be a rather new area of study.

So why does this seem to be so challenging? Is it possible to access solid and unbiased information on hair and the products we use on it?

It is Definitely Science

The vast amount of information made readily available to the public on the internet in the past decade has made it possible for consumers to educate themselves about the products they use to a far greater extent than ever before. However, the fact that the information is new to a more general audience should by no means be taken to mean that the information or the field itself is a new one. The study and development of hair and skin care products is generally referred to as cosmetics science or cosmetics chemistry. Unfortunately, that name can trivialize the field due to the perception that cosmetics are a superficial or less important area of research than other subjects deemed more critical. Certainly, the term "cosmetics science" is not particularly revealing of the scope of the scientific principles involved in developing products that meet the high requirements of the consumers.

Cosmetics science is a multidisciplinary one, relying upon many different areas of scientific expertise. No single person possesses in-depth expertise in all of the areas. Within huge finished goods, manufacturers such as Unilever and Proctor & Gamble and suppliers of raw materials such as National Starch, BASF, and DuPont, there are teams of scientists with different areas of expertise, working to develop and optimize hair product ingredients and final products.

  • Microbiologists: These scientists typically possess either a master's or doctorate in their field, and they study growth of microbes and fungi in products, and develop and optimize preservation packages.
  • Polymer Chemists: Typically possessing advanced degrees in organic or physical chemistry or in polymer science, these scientists develop or use new polymeric materials to achieve specialized effects in products.
  • Physical & Analytical Chemists and Materials Characterization Experts: These scientists come from a wide background and perform tests ranging from the simple to the highly sophisticated on raw materials (ingredients) and finished goods.
  • Colloid & Surface Chemists/Scientists: These scientists have advanced degrees in organic or physical chemistry and study solutions of oil and water, and find ways to better stabilize or optimize them, or find new ways to  capitalize on their properties.
  • Formulation Chemists: These scientists who develop the finished goods formulas can come from a broad range of backgrounds, such as chemistry, biology, and pharmacy.
  • Biochemists: Graduate studies in various areas of biochemistry prepare these scientists for study of proteins, skin, hair, and plant-based materials.
  • Chemical & Production Engineers: These engineers work with the formulation chemists to help the product make the transition from a small lab-scale formula to a large-scale manufacturing process.
  • Cosmetologists: Many of the larger companies have in-house hair salons, where they can do focus groups and testing of new products, to obtain and quantify customer responses.
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Tonya McKay

Tonya McKay Becker is a curly-haired polymer scientist and cosmetic chemist whose academic and industrial research experience have provided her with expertise in the fundamentals and applications of polymer science and colloid chemistry. She has long had a fascination with the structure-property relationships of the complex solutions used in hair and skin care products, and how they interact with and impact these remarkable biological substrates. Ever curious, Tonya has dedicated herself for more than a decade to honing her expertise on the science of curly hair, how it differs from straight hair, and how product ingredients used on curly hair affect its health and beauty. Her passion for sharing this knowledge with others has led to her current career of educating people from all backgrounds who share an interest in this exciting field.

Good article, and a timely read!