A Cosmetic Chemist Reveals The Secrets Of What Goes Into Your Favorite Beauty Products

From cost to animal-testing to preservatives, here are expert answers to your most complicated questions about ingredients.
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From cost to animal-testing to preservatives, here are expert answers to your most complicated questions about ingredients.

If you are anything like me, you have probably, throughout your lifespan to date, spent at least a week’s time crouched in the aisles of your drugstore, Sephora or apothecary just staring at product descriptions promising RESULTS in no time flat, with multisyllabic ingredients that make you wish you paid attention in high school chemistry. 

What do all these ingredients even do? Does more equal better? Who is lying secretly yet openly?

It’s like going on a topically applied blind date: You invest your time and money, hope for the best, and maybe you get a rash. Unlucky in love or just unlucky in face wash, the sentiment can be eerily similar. 

Just know that there are several different teams that go into putting that product on store shelves and subsequently into your hands.

I got to chat with one of the first-level members of product creation. a cosmetic chemist, Kevin Ewell. I was all, “TELL ME ALL YOUR SECRETS” and he was like, “Alright.”

Kevin is a Research and Development cosmetic chemist who’s been involved in making products for companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Dove, Murad, Fresh, Benefit, and Bath & Body Works. He cut his teeth as a toxicology scientist doing safety testing on cosmetics and their raw materials before jumping into formulating for cosmetic companies. 

I attempted to ask a handful of (hopefully) incisive and well-rounded questions to debunk the myths and mysteries behind what goes into creating cosmetics, how they work, and what we as consumers can get out of them. 

Who’s my secret admirer? I’ll never tell…

Who’s my secret admirer? I’ll never tell…

How do cosmetic companies nowadays test their products and ingredients, assuming they are not tested on animals?

Almost no cosmetics available now are tested on animals anymore. Aside from the complications and issues that come with that, it’s part of a tricky juried area. There’s a term in the industry called “leveraging,” and it’s basically getting information that you knew from previous studies and you leverage it to new studies. 

Most raw material itself has to be tested for safety, and that was probably done 20 to 40 years ago, and those were all tested on animals. Even products you see that claim to be cruelty-free and don’t test on animals, a lot of their base raw materials were at one point tested on animals for safety. The company itself probably doesn’t test any of their final formulas and products on animals because it’s just not necessary, but all those materials at one time were.

Typically there are two different sets of testing. There’s acute toxicity testing, which determines the immediate result of putting any formula on your face, inhaling or ingesting it, etc. There is also sub-chronic testing. This tests long-term affects (think cancer or lung disease). Both of these tests give valuable information on the safety of the products we use every day.

So when a company approaches you to formulate for them, and they want you to create a product with a specific purpose in mind (anti-aging, skin brightening, etc.) do they have certain guidelines for you, or do they just let you have at it?

Well, it depends. I work for a company that does research and development by contract, and we also do manufacturing on a contract level. What that means is for some of our clients, we develop their formula from scratch--there’s nothing else out there like the product we make for them. For example, a client will really want an anti-aging product and they’re going with a mango story. So they want to include some sort of mango derivative, mango extract, mango peel--something to do with mango because that’s their selling point. Then they’ll go with a restriction guideline (e.g. paraben-free, alcohol-free) before presenting a type of product line. 

Usually, when launching a set of products, you’ll probably have a cream, serum, spa treatment or a skin-lightening treatment--something like that--and you try to fit the raw materials and formulate it into a base that is appropriate for what they want. You can have thicker or thinner bases, and that’s when it starts to fall into consumer perceptions. You might want a light-feeling moisturizer because it’s for day use, or during winter you may really want a creamy, thick moisturizing base. That’s when we start playing around with bases, called chassis. 

We try to develop different chassis for what we know already is the starting point; I already have a list different thick cream bases or light lotion bases or anything like that, and then I kind of tailor it around what the customer wants.  

When a company comes to me with a specific ingredient they want to incorporate into their product, it’s my job to source out that raw material and then pull out what specific parts of that raw material can be used for a particular treatment.

There's these post-modern "old wives tales" that cosmetic companies want their product to work just under 100%--the goal being to treat the symptoms but not the problem itself so that you have to keep buying the product and they don't render themselves obsolete. How much truth do you think there is to that? 

In short, that’s absolutely not true. 

Longer answer: as a chemist, we’re always trying to formulate to get the best results, but it’s limited by several things. First is budget. When you’re trying to produce a low-cost or mass-market item, you really are constrained on the raw materials you’re allowed to use and the quantities you can use them in. Certain raw materials are used in a price-per-kilogram scale. The cost of any cheap lotion would be anywhere between 75-80 cents a liter. And if that comes packaged in an 8-ounce tube or bottle, you’re probably looking at around 85 cents a liter of raw material. For expensive lotions or treatments, those formulas can cost up to $80 per liter of raw materials, so literally a hundred times more. That’s where you start to see the disparities in the performance of the product.

The bigger issue when talking about treating symptoms or effectiveness in product use has to do with drugs versus cosmetics. The FDA plays a big role in making that call; they define a drug as a substance that claims to diagnose, prevent or treat a disease, or alleges to affect the structure of your body. When you start talking about products that clear up acne, prevent wrinkles or lighten your skin, you’re potentially crossing the regulatory line that separates you making a cosmetic from you making a drug. At that point, it gets a bit hairy because you’re no longer making a product that you can sell anywhere. 

There’s the issue of regulated or monographed raw materials. If you have a raw material that you claim will treat or get rid of acne, for example, you then have to prove with biological studies that this material does what you say it does. Some big companies create high-performance synthetic materials that really do work, but stay within the guidelines of cosmetic without going into drug territory. For instance, benzoyl peroxide is a monographed raw material, so you can claim that it treats acne. Something like arrow root, for example, is not a monographed raw material, so you can’t outright say that it treats acne, but you can toe the line with phraseology like “blemish-reducing” so you can communicate what it does without defying those regulations of a drug. 

Truthfully, any product that really works and has some form of efficacy is technically a drug and no longer a cosmetic. Most cosmetic companies do not want to manufacture a drug, so they keep to those regulation lines very closely. Qualifying those studies of whether a material or product does what it actually says it does is the costly bit. Lots of people don’t perceive that acne is a bacterial infection on the skin, which is why the treatment ranges into the drug prescription category with retinoid, tetracycline, and those kinds of products you ingest internally to treat it. But I only work on formulas that are OTC (over the counter).

As far as so-called "miracle" creams go, what do these caliber of products have in common? As in, what do you think makes them so universally effective? Is every cosmetic company essentially trying to make the miracle product? How much do you think the price tag contributes to the perceived success of the product? 

I’ve worked on maybe one or two of those types of formulas where the sky’s the limit as far as cost goes. After that, I’m just toeing the line of where OTC ends and cosmetic begins. So I can use the most effective compounds that have their clinical data but aren’t technically drugs. There is a little bit of cost inflation because I’d be using the highest-grade materials and best quality ingredients, but a bigger component of the cosmetic industry is the quantities of ingredients (the amount that’s put into the formula). 

Whenever you look at the back of product package, there’s an ingredient list that is listed in order of highest concentration to lowest (you generally always see water at the top). However, once you reach below the 1% line, you can kind of jumble the order of ingredients. Whether it’s a quarter of a percent, a tenth of a percent, half of a percent or 1/1000th of a percent, it doesn’t matter where it lies after that. That kind of artificial change in formula at that point accounts for a huge change in the cost of that formula.  

For example, the cost of water in a formula is typically about a penny a kilo. Other raw materials--like a specialized protein, hydrolyzed protein, a special acid or specialty essential oils--they can cost up to $30,000 a kilo. So then you can see that if you have 1% of that in your formula, that makes your formula a per-kilo cost of $300 just for that one raw material. If you have it 1/1000th of a percent, it makes it $0.30 per kilo. But you can also imagine that the effectiveness of that raw material at 1% compared to 1/1000th of a percent makes a big difference.

It’s hard for a lot of people to look at two formulas and see the same active ingredients with a big price discrepancy. One thing to look for, especially in high-end cosmetics--your lighteners, your anti-aging products--any product with high-cost ingredients tends to be highly reactive. They react to the oxygen around them (including the water in the formula) and these products tend to have issues with discoloration. 

You might notice that a month after you buy them, a cream might change from white to yellowish or brownish. The materials inside start to oxidize when they get a little bit of air in them. That reaction you’re seeing is what makes the reaction in your skin as well. These high-end formulas will also have a lot of antioxidants as well. They’re there to stabilize the formula, and the cheaper formulas won’t have them because stabilizers tend to be rather expensive. 

You’ll also see a lot of anti-irritants in higher-end products because let’s face it: if you’re trying to lighten your skin or reduce wrinkles or get rid of acne, a lot of the chemicals you use will be very irritating. When you see really long ingredient lists in these products, typically what those are intended for is to buffer any adverse effects of the main ingredient. 

So is this visible reaction I’d see in a product a desirable trait? I mean, is that the mark of an effective formula? I can imagine many people being disappointed seeing their expensive creams go from snow white to murky yellow, think it’s gone south and then chuck it.

Well, it’s the sign of a reactive product. One thing in my industry, and what really starts to draw out good versus bad formulating, is trying to stabilize a good product. So what you are seeing doesn’t really change the effectiveness of a product--just the consumer perception of it. That’s something every company is trying to fight. 

The problem is that the better your formula is, the more reactive it is, and the more chance for it to change appearance. I’ve worked on a skin-lightening product that took me eight months and about 100 different trials and formulations before I was able to stabilize it.

So I imagine a lot of the success of a product has to do with consumer perception rather than the effectiveness of the formula itself.

The bit of sad truth as a chemist is that no matter how well I make a formula, how stable or how well it works or anything like that, in reality, the actual formula really accounts for about 10% of the sales--90% is marketing and packaging.

Caution: Products may be more deceptive than they appear

Caution: Products may be more deceptive than they appear.

How much difference/improvement do you think using products tailored to suit a person's needs (be they acne treatment, eczema or anti-aging, etc.) does as opposed to living a healthy lifestyle, relatively devoid of relying on cosmetic products? 

Living healthily is a huge contributor to your overall health. Your skin is the largest organ on your body. Your diet and lifestyle, exercise and habits all contribute to its health. Smoking, for example is one of the worst things you can do for your skin; it accelerates aging and effects how your cells replicate. 

Cosmetics came about because every human body is essentially the same machine, but every person’s make-up and chemistry is different. Climate affects your skin and body in a big way, too, being that your skin is really the outside layer of protection from the environment, so it’s affected by the elements around you. That’s where lots of different cosmetics come into play: your sunscreen, your moisturizer, and any photosensitive products like skin-brighteners. 

A healthy lifestyle helps a lot and is one of the biggest contributors to your skin’s overall health, but that accounts for maybe 80% of what 20% of cosmetics and OTC drugs affect.

In what way exactly does smoking damage your skin?

Basically, your skin is like a five-layer cake, made up of cells. The bottom layer of cells is where new healthy cells live, and as time goes on they move closer to the surface and die. The top layer of your skin is essentially made up of dead cells. They sit up there to protect against environmental damage. The bottom layer of your skin is made of new cells that are always replicating, like copying a sheet of paper in a photocopier. It’ll come out the same way every time. 

Habits like smoking, UV damage and poor diet affect how cells replicate as if they were smudges on the glass of a photocopier. The copies start incorporating all those smudges and imperfections. Smoking reduces your skin cells’ ability to retain moisture, clarity of your cells, and contributes to age spots when you’re older. It also affects the keratin in your cells, which breaks down the collagen network in your skin and leads to wrinkles.

Why is my nose all red?

Why is my nose all red?

Personally, I've always been wooed by spot-lightening products and have spent a pretty penny trying to find one that works. Do you have any insight as to why people would choose one of these products over others? Is it just that different people's skin react better to certain ingredients? Or do they all basically do the same thing?

You mean, the claims themselves? It’s a sticky area when it comes to cosmetics. Well there are two types of claims, really. There’s safety claims and those are kind of self-explanatory. Those just tell you where on the body it’s safe to use, who is safe to use them (children, babies, pregnant women), and what type of application (leave on versus rinse off). There’s certain raw materials associated with them--some you can only rinse off, some are only for adults over 12, or some you can use on the body but not on the face or lips. Those are all viable safety claims, and that’s pretty standard throughout.

Then you get into performance claims. A lot of marketing goes into that. You want to know that any statement made about a product’s performance can be substantiated, but the truth is that there’s still a lot of gray area in that. I have to say from my own personal experience that the fact is that larger companies are better at testing their products. Kind of a blanket statement, but the larger the company, the better and more substantiated their claims are. The reason for this is because they have more to lose. They’d have to do a recall on hundreds to millions of units. 

There’s a lot of groups out there that like to go after large companies and disprove their claims, be it by interviewing the dermatologists who helped make those claims and saying something like one of them doesn’t remember approving said product. When I use to work for Johnson & Johnson, they would spend millions of dollars a year just to substantiate claims and hundreds of thousands of dollars on equipment to substantiate claims as well. That’s literally all they did. They had labs dedicated to this purpose alone. And I’ve worked with smaller companies that would rely more on that leveraging technique. They’d get a company that uses the raw materials and who’s tested them to be able to say things like “this will lighten your skin one shade in 30 days.” 

Running tests with people can be very expensive. Just for a simple user skin test to gauge reaction with 100 people could cost up to $10,000.  Now get into a 30-60 day clinical study, and that goes up to $90-100,000 just to substantiate that claim. A lot of smaller companies won’t substantiate their final formula; they’ll just substantiate what kind of leverage of substantiation that the company who sells the raw materials makes. Smaller companies tend not to fall under the same pressures as large companies in that regard. 

Also, getting away from animal testing, companies will use volunteers to test products directly, which can get pretty expensive. I mean, these volunteers are putting whatever the substance is directly on their bodies or into their eyes or what have you, so they need to be appropriately compensated for the risk.

You mentioned that your expertise lies in skin and hair care. Hair is basically made up of dead cells. You can damage it using chemicals and heat, but as far as it appears you can't really do a whole lot for it once it's grown out from its follicl, right?. To my understanding, good haircare starts and ostensibly ends from within. You can slather it with conditioners and oils, but how much can you actually affect its structure and condition using products alone? 

Hair follicles or a hair strand has a three-layer structure. It has the medulla, the cortex and the cuticle. If you were to think of your hair strand as a garden hose the very outside of it would be the cuticle, the rubber would be the cortex, and the medulla would be the watery center. 

The medulla doesn’t extend the entire length of the shaft of hair, but it’s what gives hair its shape, strength and durability. As you age it tends to shrink towards your scalp, so the older you get the less of the medulla is in each strand. Then your hair mostly becomes cortex and cuticle, which is where you find the dry hair with split ends. 

Your hair is basically what your fingernails are made out of: keratin, which is 97% of what your hair is. You’re right, your hair is not living, but because your skin is living, it helps repair a lot of what grows from it. Once your hair grows out of your head it’s kind of on cruise control, and whatever happens to it happens to it, so that’s why you want to protect it using products.

There’s a whole list of different ingredients in hair products to protect it, and they’re broken down into two groups, one being moisturizer. That helps hold moisture into your hair and the medulla, which is the moist part of your hair, using humectants, which are water-containing acids. 

Then there are proteins, kind of like the keratin protein that your hair is made out of, and that will penetrate the hair and build a sort of scaffolding around it. As your hair grows longer and further away from your scalp, the outer layer of your hair, the cuticle, starts to break down and it starts to get chips in it. When you add hydrolyzed keratin proteins to hair, that fills in those chips and helps protect the hair by taking place of what’s naturally there. 

You’ve got your products geared towards heat or UV protection, there are oils that soften hair and make it more pliable, and there are glosses and serums that sit on the cuticle to smooth the hair.

OH That’s why

OH, THAT’s why.

So what type of product would be most effective in protecting your hair, like an oil versus a butter or something like that?

Well, it’s not necessarily the type of oil, butter or cream--you’re looking for what’s called a cationic conditioner. 

Your hair is chemically charged. That’s why in the winter, your hair will get all staticky when you take off a hat, for example. Since your hair has a negative charge, you want to find ingredients that are attracted to that negative charge and hold onto your hair like a magnet. 

Whenever you look at the back of a conditioner bottle or hair mask or something like that and you see a polyquaternium and a dash and then a number, those are really good for protecting your hair. Those are molecules designed to encase your hair and protect from a lot of damage that may come to it. The number denotes the molecular chain length in that polyquaternium. The longer the chain length, generally the more expensive the product gets and the heavier it will be for your hair. Thick hair benefits from a high molecular chain length of these ingredients. Thinner hair tends to be weighed down by them. They all work though, regardless of that number.  

As a general rule, because hair is negatively charged, these cationics won’t wash out completely since they are strongly bound to the keratin in your hair.

You’ve pointed out to me that sunscreen is the most important product you can use, but tell me why it’s so important.

UV light really damages those cells that replicate your skin. Pretty much all of your anti-aging efforts begin with sunscreen. When you’re in your 20s and 30s your skin is in great shape. But when you get to your 40s and 50s, that photodamage that came from your earlier years really starts to show up. 

You won’t see the benefits of sunscreen next week or next month or next year, but it’s essentially saving that copying process that helps prevent any damage from happening to your cells. When you need it most (now) you probably don’t care, but once aging occurs, no matter when that happens, there’s really nothing that will reverse that--you can only put it off. 

Wearing an SPF 15 every day will do so much more for your skin than any hundred-dollar anti-aging cream will ever do for it in the future.

There are two types of sunscreens, there’s organic (meaning carbon-based), and there are mineral sunscreens. You’ll see metals in their ingredients like zinc or aluminum in them. Mineral-based sunscreens don’t feel that great on your skin--they’re oily and heavy--but they are stronger and longer-lasting. Organic [chemical] sunscreens are the kinds that are blended into makeup and moisturizers. Those feel much nicer on the skin and are equally effective.

(Now time for some new and very interesting unsolicited advice…)

Talking about the whole idea of natural and organic cosmetics, there’s a huge growing part of the cosmetic industry saying how natural is the way to go. The tricky part of that is “natural” is purely a marketing term. There’s no standard or regulation to it. There’s a bit of discrepancy with terms like “natural-derived” and “organic” or “certified organic,” but these are all generally marketing terms. You still have to be careful with natural products. 

A lot of people think preservatives are harmful and shouldn’t be in cosmetic products, so many companies will want me to formulate without. Preservatives are such an important part of your cosmetics, though! Recently, there was a big issue with Badger Sunscreen--I don’t know if you’ve heard of that product, but they had to recall their sunscreens because of bacterial and fungal contamination. Preservatives are there for a reason: to protect. 

Imagine if you never cleaned your shower for six months. Your bottle of body wash is left in a steamy, warm environment for all that time. Without preservatives, you would have a serious mold garden growing in that bottle. The truth is it’s gross, but something like that could literally be deadly if a bacterial infection goes internal. 

Sadly, people who are more compromised to that sort of thing are generally more attracted to natural products because they're typically not educated about those dangers.

How did parabens get such a bad rep then?

There was a study done back in 2001 on women with breast cancer. The woman doing the study took samples from breast cancer patients who’ve never had cancer in their family history. These women were now wearing deodorant and antiperspirant, whereas their mothers never did. So she took samples from around the area where deodorant is applied from women who had breast cancer and found parabens in the samples. 

The worry was that parabens caused cancer, and unfortunately, that study was published with a small sample size and little support for their argument. 

Parabens were also said to mimic estrogen, so they’re kind of similar in molecular structure; soy is the same way. This also raised a red flag because this makes the molecule “bioavailable,” which means it is more easily absorbed into the body. 

Since then, there have been studies back and forth with larger groups of people (her study only had 40 people), and after studying hundreds of people, they found that it really doesn’t show that parabens cause cancer.

I’ve always seen products that boast “paraben-free” and “sulfate-free” and I’ve never really know what they exactly are or why I wouldn’t want them.

Parabens are essentially a very good preservative. You don’t need a whole lot of it, and it’s been used for years and years because it works really well on fungi and mold; however, not so much for bacteria. Its molecules absorb and kill off microbes. Again, it’s used in low levels; 100% concentration is toxic, 10% is completely harmless. But if you’re rubbing it on your skin, you want to keep it at 1/10 of a percent of concentrate.  

Sulfates are a completely different thing; they’re what give you the foaming in cleaning products like shampoo. There are sometimes sulfate-free claims on lotions, and that’s arbitrarily put there because you would never put sulfate in a lotion. 

In shampoo it’s 30% SLS and SLES, which is sodium laurel sulfate and sodium laurel ether sulfate. It’s what makes the bubbles in your hair when you shampoo. The thing about sulfates is that they are irritants and they’re used as kind of a model for irritation; that’s why they’re only approved for rinse-off products. They tend to be a little harsher and are really good at cleaning. 

There’s very little danger in using them, but in terms of safety, I tend not to use sulfate products. I use betaine (coconut derivative) products, which are a little bit milder—on my son, who has a little bit of an eczema issue. I make sure whatever wash I use with him has the least amount of irritants.