“How do I learn more about the science behind cosmetics?”
I get this question asked from time to time – a lot of people are interested in getting to know more about the science of cosmetics but don’t have a strong background in basic science. What do I recommend by way of learning the foundations? This is something that is very helpful if you want to do some blogging about beauty products and really really helpful if you want to create your own products.
I certainly think that there is no such thing as having too much knowledge of science when it comes to actually working on cosmetics either as a maker or a commentator. I have observed that the best formulators are usually the best scientists and it is surprising how often something you learn that doesn’t seem to have any direct applicability later turns out to offer a solution to a problem that you never realised you were going to have. If I could live my early life again I’d spend even more time learning about basic science than I did.
So where do I suggest you start?
The best source of information even today remains books. The convenience of e-readers is so great that it is impossible to ignore them, but an actual physical book in three dimensions is still the easiest thing to learn from. My strategy is to mix solid and electronic books. I also find that taking notes by hand while reading helps me to concentrate.
A good basic chemistry text book is a good starting point. I have found an excellent one free online recently.
You can read this online, but it is probably better to upload it to your e-reader if you have one. Even better would be to print it out and use it as the basis for your notes in a ring binder. The only trouble with it is it has rather a weird format with two pages per PDF page. Pay particular attention to the branch of chemistry that is known as physical chemistry. Chemicals are too numerous to learn all their properties by heart – you need to understand how they work so you can spot patterns.
Biology is nearly as important as chemistry for cosmetic formulators, and quite a lot of formulators have biology degrees. There are plenty of very good books on biology. If you want to really give your brain a treat then the absolute classic is Darwin’s Origin of Species, which is beautifully written and is still full of useful stuff. But that is quite a time commitment and if you just want to get up to speed on biology quickly then any good human biology text book should do the trick. I am afraid I can’t really recommend one as it is about 30 years since I last looked at one.
Biology and chemistry are both important, so it isn’t surprising that biochemistry is also a valuable discipline. Biochemistry sounds like it should be a mixture of the two other sciences, but is in fact a subject all of its own. Biochemistry is concerned with the chemicals that make up the body and how they interact – and this is something that is very relevant indeed to the way cosmetics work. I have a battered old biochemistry textbook on my shelves – though I rarely refer to it any more because I have more or less memorised it over the thirty years I have owned it. If I do need to look something up I generally look at this Wikipedia page where somebody has generously compiled Wikipedia entries on the subject together. (This seems like a good idea for a lot of subjects, but this is the only successful one I have found for what I am interested in.)
A good understanding of maths and statistics is also a great help to being both a cosmetic chemist and a good citizen. A very accessible guide to this subject that assumes no prior knowledge is How To Lie With Statistics by Darrel Huff. The one aspect of maths that you really can’t avoid is percentages. They aren’t difficult. If you don’t understand them, then learn them. Here is an adult orientated webpage from the BBC.
Avoid Facebook groups. Some are very good. Some are very bad. Until you can tell the difference steer clear of them. Some are simply dens of dunces who echo misinformation to each other. Don’t waste your time filling your brain with rubbish that you will later need to remove. Beauty blogs in general rarely trouble with science, but some scaremongering sites will sometimes quote scientific papers and post references.
The important thing to remember is that science is not a body of knowledge. It is a way of working. It is very rare, as in Einstein level rare, that a single scientific paper establishes something as true or false. Statements such as “a recent studies proves that this is true” are almost never correct. Science can sometimes demonstrate a proposition as false – though even this is by no means easy. But the most established scientific consensus can be overturned by new evidence. Certainty is not really available in science.
This is a good description of the scientific method.
But like chess, just because the rules are simple it doesn’t make playing the game easy. To get any good at it takes constant practice. But the effort is well worth it.
I’ll review resources for cosmetic science itself in a later blog post.