This conversation happened in a classroom somewhere over the last two weeks. I know because it was eagerly reported back to me:

Teacher  “can you name a job that a scientist might do”  – the teacher was trying to relate science as a subject to its use in the wider world. Very nice.

Student “cosmetic chemist”

Teacher  chuckling “don’t be silly, a cosmetic chemist works behind a counter selling products. You don’t need to know science for that!”

Oh dear……

I come across a lot of schools in my social circle having teacher friends, kids at school and through being part of the Fizzics Education friends and family but that was the first time I’d heard that.

But it did get me thinking.

Just how much chemistry does a cosmetic chemist need to know?

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After pondering that for a while I came up with this analogy:

Nearly everyone has hair somewhere.

Nearly everyone has scissors and hands.

Nearly everyone could cut hair and after a little practice they could make it look pretty decent, great even and maybe at a push like a professional job!

But what if something goes wrong, or needs to be done quickly or cheaply, or requires a particular finish, or needs doing on tricky hair?

That’s when hair cutting bites back and you find out that there is more to it than you first thought.

and so it is with chemistry.

Here are some examples of where my frequently tested chemical knowledge has been used today:

  • Product won’t thicken. Tried all the usual things to do with recipe, ingredients, temperature etc.  Next try pH. Find out that it is shifting, look at the formula and realise that there are many things that will react in this base and that the base needs buffering. Buffer the base using my crazy chemical brain knowledge.
  • Answering the question: Which  type of Vitamin C is best for a tinted moisturiser?  My memory works first and pulls out info on various water and oil soluble options plus their features and benefits.  However, then from a dark corner of my brain comes a niggling idea about pro-oxidants.  Pro-oxidants are antioxidants that turn nasty and actually catalyse oxidation under certain conditions.  Transition metals can act as catalysts – do we have transition metals in a tinted moisturiser?  YES we do – iron in the iron oxides.  Quickly google scholar some papers to see if this is possible and allocate time to read them.
  • Preserving a protein rich lotion.  OK so this is a bit of chemistry and some micro.  First I have to chemically categorise the actives to see if there are any potential interactions between them and a preservative – proteins are notorious for overwhelming preservative systems and they are also bad with metal ions and some surfactants.  That sorted then go through various blends to see if they fit the chemical and physical parameters of this product.
  • Australian Native Botanicals benefits.  This one is part marketing and part science. The chemistry part is in identifying the active components of the extract then back to google scholar to see if any work has been done on them in terms of skin efficacy.  My chemistry background helps me to visualise and theorise how the actives might penetrate the skin and how easy it might be for them to reach their target cells.  An image of a polar bear – like dissolves like – is never far from my mind.

I could go on but I’m sure you are bored already!

Anyway the bottom line is this.  Cosmetic chemists are so much more than product pushers and while it is possible to be one or to do it without formal qualifications (there is no substitute for personal interest and dedication) there are some things – call them tricks, time-saving tips, truths or routines – that you just can’t know unless you have been trained in the lab to do it.

So teachers,  yes there is such a thing as a cosmetic chemist and believe it or not we use our chemical knowledge every day of our working life!

And as for the above question,  my answer is ‘lots’.

Stay safe and remember that if it isn’t fun you aren’t doing it right.