The world is changing all the time, and one of the big changes is that technology is removing many of the barriers to doing things that used to exist. Had you wanted to start a cosmetic company thirty years ago you would have had to have had a pretty big slice of capital just to get into the game. But now things are available in much smaller quantities so you can launch a product with much less actual cash. This is already having an effect. The business is now much more about niche products than it used to be.
I think the way things are going to develop is that products are going to get more and more fine tuned to the needs of particular consumers. And given that personal care products are used in far greater quantities by women, I have a feeling we are going to be seeing a lot more women involved in product development in the future. So I thought it would be interesting to pull together some inspiring female role models. There weren’t too many, but I have found four.
Mariah the Jewess
Mariah the Jewess is not only the first female cosmetic chemist whose name we know, she is also the first cosmetic chemist whose name we know. And in fact she is the first bench chemist whose name we know. We don’t know a huge amount more about her. The exact time she was operating isn’t clear. It was sometime between the 1st and the 5th centuries AD, but my personal guess is that she was probably a contemporary of another famous female scientist, Hypatia of Alexandria and was probably based in the same city. My logic is that if we know that there was a period and location where one female scientist was able to come to prominence then there is a good chance that another one might too. The chances of the same situation arising again at another time and place are much lower.
Mariah was involved in the development of distillation and extraction, and her name is still remembered in the term bain marie for a water bath used in many labs to this day to keep samples at a high temperature without actually burning them. Anyone who has ever worked in a cosmetic lab will know just how useful that is.
Trotula di Ruggeiro
Trotula di Ruggeiro was the first person to write a book on beauty products. My biography of her is my favourite of my blog posts. (Not that anybody has read it, but is the way it goes. Blogging is a hard school.)
She lived in Salerno in southern Italy in the twelfth century and was in a perfect place to be influenced by Greek scientific writing, practical skills from the arab world and the rich culture of herbal medicine from the Mediterranean.
I like to think of her working outside in the Italian sun in the famous garden that was situated there when she lived there.
The point is that she wrote the first book on cosmetic formulations, and it was a very long time until a second one was produced. The documenting of knowledge is a really important part of the process of creating a genuine science of cosmetics. It is only if we record what we do and share it that we are able to make progress in our understanding so Trotula’s efforts are a key development in the history of cosmetics and a real contribution to the products that we enjoy today.
Elizabeth Arden is better known as the creator of the brand that bears her name. But whereas a lot of entrepreneurs in the beauty business have no interest whatever in the science of the products they make, Elizabeth Arden actually did the early product development herself. Her original name was Florence Graham which was what she was called when she worked in the accounts department of the pharma company Squibb. While there she got into the lab and studied the way formulations were put together. She later had a spell hands on working in beauty treatments.
It was with this background that she went on to create one of the best known beauty brands of all time, and one which continues to go from strength to strength today.
Even in the 1980s when I first started working in the cosmetic industry there were relatively few books published on the subject. I remember looking for a book on hair dyes and drawing a complete blank. I can’t have looked hard enough, because it turns out that there actually was one. It was written by Florence Wall, and I am indebted to my friends at the Beauty Brains for making me aware of it.