You almost certainly won't win a Nobel or even a Lasker doing this kind of research. And your graduate school buddies may suppress a snicker or two when they hear what field of science you're in. But working in the cosmetics industry demands real knowledge of science--not snake oil.
If you are skeptical, just take a look at the programs some universities have tailored to deliver the knowledge that is needed to break into cosmetics science. The University of Rhode Island's Department of Applied Pharmaceutical Sciences, for example, offers an M.Sc. in Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Technology with courses in fundamentals of cosmetic science, basic research in cosmetic science, and cosmetic product formulation. Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey and the University of Cincinnati also have master's-level programs in cosmetic science, with courses covering a range of areas including colloid and surface science, biochemistry, applied organic chemistry, and the structure of skin, hair, and nails.
There is even a scientific journal aimed at research in the area, the International Journal of Cosmetic Science and, in the U.S., the 3900-member Society of Cosmetic Chemists.
So cosmetics are a sector in which scientists can safely consider seeking employment, and no question it is well worth considering--the cosmetic industry is big. All one has to do is stroll through a drug store, department store, watch television, or read mass-market publications, and the blizzard of ads gives palpable proof of the Kline and Co. finding that cosmetics in the U.S. is a $30-billion-a-year business. The market research firm estimates that cosmetic companies spend roughly 2.5% of their sales--that's about $750 million--on research and development each year.
And whatever your scientific background, you can get what seem to be rewarding jobs in cosmetics. Elias Packman, a member of the editorial board of the International Journal of Cosmetic Science, notes that, just like in other areas of applied research, there is a range of scientific specialties in the cosmetics industry: physical chemists, biologists, physiologists, to name a few. Packman himself, who developed a method to measure the effectiveness of skin moisturizers and headed his own research organization, the Institute for Applied Pharmaceutical Research, has a D.Sc. in pharmacy from the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy.
But even those with long careers in cosmetic research are still a bit surprised they found a home there. "My training is in reaction mechanisms," explains Keith Brown, who earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Liverpool and has been working at Clairol for 28 years. "Clairol--when I was looking for a job, which was in the early 1970s--were starting to do some work in reaction mechanisms in permanent hair dyes." When he saw their ad for a mechanistic chemist to help them with elucidating what the reaction mechanisms were, he thought it sounded very interesting. "Otherwise I never would have thought of the cosmetic industry at all as being a place where an organic chemist would really be able to do pretty fundamental work," he says.
Robert Lochhead, now a researcher at the University of Southern Mississippi, likewise never expected his Ph.D. in polymer molecular dynamics, earned in 1970 from the University of Strathclyde, in Scotland, to lead to jobs in the cosmetic industry. But when the funding for his NASA fellowship disappeared he ended up taking a job at Unilever to develop polymers for hairspray. The job was "a significant challenge," he says. "I realized that a lot of cosmetic science is very, very sophisticated." Hairspray consists of tiny polymer beads that must hold hair in place, he explains, and "that's like taking a spot of glue and putting it between two huge steel levers and expecting it to hold the levers in place." The spray also has to be resilient to humidity, yet it must wash out of the hair in the shower.
In his subsequent job at BF Goodrich (now Goodrich Corp.), where he helped develop the Crest polymer for toothpaste, Lochhead had to overcome other major challenges. "The polymer in toothpaste has to make the toothpaste a solid in the tube," he explains. "If it's not a solid the abrasive settles to one side in the tube, and you get no abrasive on the brush. Then under finger pressure the polymer has to turn into a liquid to come out of the nozzle, and then it has to turn back into a solid so it doesn't run down the bristles of the toothbrush. And when you put it in your mouth, the whole polymer gel has to collapse completely when it hits the saliva."
Unlike Brown and Lochhead, Gopinathan Menon, who now heads skin biology research at Avon in Suffern, New York, says he had an inkling that his initial interests might have cosmetic applications. Holding a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Baroda in India, he thought that his research on the "regression of feathers" in birds could add to the understanding of hair growth and loss in humans. But he failed to find anyone interested and with neither funding nor an interested team, the idea never took flight.
Menon eventually broke into the cosmetics industry after he took a sabbatical with Peter Elias, professor of dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco. Elias is also a consultant for the cosmetics industry and invites industry researchers into his lab for a few weeks or a few years so that they can learn about the structure, function, and metabolism of the stratum corneum, the top layer of the skin. Whatever is put on the skin "impacts heavily on the structure, function, biochemistry, metabolism, and regulation" of the skin, explains Elias, so it's important for the cosmetics industry to gain practical insights gleaned from the basic research.
At Avon, Menon is also involved in basic research. "I do have a lot of interaction with university scientists, and I continue to publish on basic science," he says, although this work may be related more directly to drug delivery through the skin than to cosmetics. "The research in the cosmetic industry is not terribly different from what goes on in the pharmaceutical industry in terms of looking for active [compounds]," comments Menon, although proprietary concerns prevented him from discussing the nature of his work in any detail. "We use molecular biology and cell biology techniques available today."
But Brown notes that working in the cosmetics industry, even when doing fundamental work that appears in respected publications, elicits more than a little skepticism from other scientists. Researchers connected with the cosmetics industry do face what Elias and Lochhead term "prejudice" from colleagues in other branches of science.
"You get typical reactions," says Lochhead, such as: "'What the hell is a scientist doing in the cosmetic industry?' And you start to explain it to them, and people say, 'Oh wow, I never thought of that.'"
Lochhead extols the working conditions in the industry, saying the best cosmetic labs rival or exceed those at universities. And he believes the opportunities for challenging, basic research are there too: "The basic research labs have gotten better [because] companies have gotten bigger, and they can afford better equipment and better research facilities."