Cosmetic Science - Looking Behind the Formulations

Beauty is big business. You may snigger at the promises in cosmetic adverts but in reality the majority of cosmetic manufacturers take science very seriously. Procter and Gamble, the biggest consumer goods company in the world, invest $2bn yearly into research and development of consumer goods. L’Oréal, the biggest cosmetics company in the world, employ over 3,000 researchers around the globe and have a grant programme specifically designed to support female scientists.

Science is at the heart of these companies, and it shows in their financial reports. They encourage and invest in scientists and research in the hope of making the next great breakthrough. The biggest areas of growth for the cosmetics industry are developing markets, male cosmetics and the ever-ageing world population. The L’Oreal annual report from 2010 estimates that the global cosmetics market is worth 144 billion Euros and of that, 32% is skincare.

If these manufacturers could crack the science and invent the elixir of eternal youth, they would be quids-in. So what can a cosmetic formulation achieve? What is the science? And are they really searching for the secret of eternal youth?
Under the Microscope: Mascara brush seen under a scanning  electron microscope and falsely coloured in photoshop. Taken by me!


Cosmetic creams and serums consist of similar basic ingredients; water, moisturising agents, colouring, preservatives and perfume. Beyond this they may contain a sun block and any number of other additives like vitamins, caffeine and plant extracts.

Where moisturisers have proven benefits; they can help make skin plumper, smoother, improve skin tone and prevent dry and flaky skin, the role of additional ingredients has been difficult to determine. But there are some additives that look like they have advantages of their own. Dr Iman Kotb, Clinical Research Fellow (Dermatology) at the University of Aberdeen, observed when using “0.025% retinoid cream (over 6 months)” and “mesotherapy facial rejuvenation agents like hyaluronic acid, vitamins, amino acids and growth factors” an “improvement in skin tone and firmness in over 60% of patients”.


Cosmetic products are tested in a number of different ways in order to demonstrate their benefits. Consumer studies can involve tens to hundreds of people who rate how a product has made them feel, or changed the appearance of their skin. Clinical studies involving skin experts make visual assessments of skin texture, tone and look. Statisticians and clinical ethics approvals are involved in the studies to ensure compliance with any regulatory requirements and that sample sizes are large enough to give statistically significant results. Laboratory testing of products is also carried out. Cosmetics manufacturers work with experts from outside the cosmetics industry, including university academics and professional bodies like the British Association of Dermatologists in order to improve their products and gain endorsements.

Although cosmetics manufacturers invest time and money into scientific testing, it is not a requirement to publish data on cosmetics in peer-reviewed journals. It is not uncommon for the only information about the way in which the product has been scientifically tested to be available through promotional material. This can make it difficult for consumers to evaluate the real benefits of products. There is often no way of knowing whether claims have been proven in a laboratory or by large-scale studies and the important control in a study is also not always clear. A hypothetical example, a new moisturiser was tested in a consumer study and the results showed that it improved skin ‘smoothness’ by 50%. The advertisements for the product state the improvement in smoothness. But, was the new moisturiser compared with the users normal moisturiser? A competitor moisturiser? Or did it improve ‘smoothness’ versus using no product at all?


There are steps in place to ensure that manufacturers cannot say whatever they like. The regulation of scientific claims in advertising has traditionally been based around three distinct categories; cosmetics, which primarily affect the outside of the body; nutrition and health products, which include such things as food supplements and contact lens fluid; and medical products, which refers to something used with the prevention, treatment or diagnosis of disease. In the UK, the Advertising Standards Agency regulates all of these categories, medical products are also regulated by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.

Industry self-regulation also occurs, where competitors challenge the claims of rival products. Finally, there is personal judgement; manufacturers want to produce products that give visible benefits to the consumer so they will purchase them again and again.
Under The Microscope: MicroPerfecting Powder seen under a scanning  electron microscope and falsely coloured in photoshop. Taken by me! COURTESY OF THE MICROSCOPE IMAGING  FACILITY, INSTITUTE OF MEDICAL SCIENCES,

Dr Siân Morris, Principal Scientist P&G Beauty and Grooming from Procter and Gamble spoke to me about, “the first and second moments of truth. You want to delight women when they first see how the product looks, feels and smells and then in the second when you apply it to the skin and see results. We are also interested in the third, fourth and 400th moments of truth because delivering on our promise is critical, to comply to obligations on claims with regulators. Most importantly because women who use products like Olay trust our brands and products, they expect a lot from us and we know we need to deliver”.

I asked if ‘ any product can reverse the signs of ageing?’ “Interestingly, if you ask most women they will tell you they want to look great for their age and to get compliments or maybe be thought of as several years younger but most don’t want to look 25 when they are 45 anymore. So we are looking to help offer a way to achieve younger looking skin, to minimise the signs of ageing, reduce the appearance of lines and wrinkles, firm and even the skin tone and texture with different products. It’s also about making skin feel smooth, soft, hydrated or clean and radiant as well as protecting it every day but it’s not about reversing signs of ageing in the way you may expect.”

This is an important point; it isn’t just about the active ingredients in a cosmetic formulation. Consumers buy products that look, feel and smell appealing, which they enjoy using. Cosmetic manufacturers expend a great deal of time and money in order to determine what cues in a product indicate that it is ‘working’. What scent says, ‘This product is reducing the appearance of fine lines’? Cosmetics are a luxury item, a concept that people buy in to. The ‘experience’ goes right from the advert, to the text and design of the product packaging to the actual product used, and this; you could call the science of cosmetics.

This article was published in Au Science Magazine, which you can read here -


  1. i love these, did you have to goldplate them first?

    1. yeah, the micro powder was quite difficult as it didn't stick down that well!! I have some more, planning to publish them on the Au Mag website, but I would like to photoshop them first!


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