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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.

What are the Resources?

As you can see, cosmetics chemistry is an extremely complex field. Billions of dollars are poured into research and development annually. However, for multiple reasons, the dissemination of information to the public is somewhat limited.

In this extremely profit-driven industry, much of the work done is with the specific purpose of creating a competitive market advantage. For this reason, the industry is extremely protective of its proprietary knowledge and resists publication of its findings. Also, a common complaint within the industry (especially in the United States and Europe) is that the scientists are highly focused on the creation of profitable products, which often leaves them little time for novel studies, experimenting with newer, more expensive raw materials, or writing academic papers.

Fortunately, there are papers being published, both by scientists here and internationally. Also, information about hair product ingredients can be obtained from a variety of other sources, such as patents, corporate literature, and trade journals. There is also the current trend of scientists or science-minded people who post blogs, columns (such as this one), and websites devoted to providing complex information in a readily-accessible format.

A Sampling of Relevant Academic Publications

Industry Specific Publications

  • Journal of Cosmetics Science (peer reviewed and published by the Society of Cosmetics Chemists)
  • Happi (trade journal, but good resource for finding about new patents and new ingredients)
  • Cosmetics & Toiletries (excellent source with a general survey of current trends in the industry)

Patents

These are often an excellent source of information regarding ingredients and finished goods, and also processes.

PhD Dissertations

These often contain a wealth of material, if one wants in-depth information on one topic.

Internet "Experts"

There are a number of blogs, websites, and columns devoted to educating the consumer about skin care and hair product ingredients. Generally, these are people with a passion for cosmetics science and solid backgrounds in relevant areas. It is important to remember though that in addition to their strengths and expertise, they all bring to the table their own personal biases and weaknesses. No single person can know it all.

When evaluating the credibility and reliability of information, it is imperative to utilize multiple sources. This will help you identify potential problems with information, give you comfort with consistency of information, or perhaps yield insight as to areas of controversy or hypothesis in the field.

Want More?

Tonya McKay, NaturallyCurly's own CurlChemist, publishes once a month. Follow her columns and get your curly scientific advice right here!

Final Thoughts

Just remember, skepticism is good. In this age where we are inundated with "facts," discernment is our best ally. A PhD does not guarantee that a person can tell you what is right for you, with your unique hair, weather, water, and preferences. As one poster very wisely advised, trust your own experiences. When it comes to your hair, there really is no better expert than you.