Learning Cosmetic Science for Non-Cosmetic Scientists

learning about the science behind cosmetics

A question from Emma

Dear Colin
I started reading your blog a few months ago, and find it a fascinating and useful resource. I am in the process of setting up a small business selling soaps and bath products that I make myself by hand. I started this as a hobby about 4 years ago, but found that I loved the process and the huge learning curve, and wanted to devote more and more time to it…
I am very keen to learn more about basic chemistry, but I have no idea where to start as I have no science background (if you were arty in my day, the sciences were another world!). If you are able to suggest any reading or learning material to get me started I would be very grateful.

There is no doubt that you can get a lot more out of developing cosmetics if you also develop your interest in science in general and chemistry in particular. For a start science provides lots of tools that are very handy, like graphs and equations. And it also gives you a better appreciation of how things work and why they behave the way they do.

The funny thing is though, that isn’t particularly the reason I am interested in and continue to try to keep as up to date as I can on developments in the world of science. In fact I don’t really buy the whole arts versus science thing at all. This divide something that people have been talking about since C.P.Snow wrote his very influential book ‘The Two Cultures’ back in the 1950s. He argued that artists and scientists lived in very different mental worlds and didn’t really understand one another. It might have been true back then, but I don’t think it is true now. It certainly isn’t true for people I know.

(Incidentally, cultural historians have over 30 names for C.P.Snow.)

For me, it’s all about describing the world as it is. If you want to know about the pH of a solution you will find the Henderson-Hasselbach equation very handy. It is also a very elegant and beautiful equation in its own right.

Henderson Hasselbach Equation
Henderson Hasselbach Equation – Useful, Elegant and sadly inexplicable to non-scientists

If you want to know about human nature you can’t really beat a great novel like say, Madame Bovary.  Again, it might well be useful information that you can sort of use to your advantage, but that isn’t the reason you read it.  Oh and by the way, if you haven’t you really should.


So in this spirit, what would I recommend for someone who wants to learn more about science to help with their cosmetic formulating? I’d say learn about science in general as well as focusing on the directly relevant stuff. And there is no right or wrong way to go about this. If you really aren’t an equations sort of person you might well find that biographies of scientists and histories of the development of science are a good entrée. If you have a geeky streak trying to code your own soap recipe calculator might be an oblique way of getting familiar with chemistry.

We all learn in different ways and we all need to work out our own strategy, but I don’t think anyone needs to be scared of science.  If anything it is easier than the arts because you have constant reminders about it from real life.  Even  boiling a kettle to make a cup of tea is quite a good demonstration of the way matter works.  A very good starting point in my opinion would be Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.  But basically, best of luck and just enjoy it.

Free Guide To Cosmetics Regulations For Beginners

1 thought on “Learning Cosmetic Science for Non-Cosmetic Scientists”

  1. Colin, I can attest to the sciences and the arts not being completely separate entities. I grew up drawing, painting, making jewelry, and singing (classical opera… my shady past!). After college I went to a post-bacc pre-medical program with nothing but science and math, and I loved it. I never went on to medical school, but I was always grateful that I got to learn Physics, Statistics (my favorite) and Gen. Chem… and not just because I can still draw a Ferrous Wheel from memory. Now that I’m dabbling in making my own beauty products, I’m doubly glad.

    If their Chemistry outlines are anywhere near as good as their Physics outlines, I suggest Schaum’s Outline of Chemistry to anyone who wants to learn.

    Thanks for writing such an informative and thought-provoking blog!

    — Sarah

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