Debunking Skincare Myths: An Interview With Cosmetic Chemist, Perry Romanowski
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If there is such a thing as a celebrity cosmetic chemist (there is), then Perry Romanowski is an A-lister, for sure. Perry is veteran cosmetic chemist and one of the minds behind the The Beauty Brains, a blog dedicated to pursuit of scientific truth behind the beauty products we use every day. He’s also written several books on the subject, including his most recent title, “It’s OK to have Lead in Your Lipstick.” Today, Perry takes the time to answer our skincare questions, debunk some beauty myths, and tell us about his new book. Let’s dive right on in!
How did you get into cosmetic formulation? Did you know that’s what you wanted to do while you were in school, or did you find your passion for it later?
Basically, I got a degree in chemistry and when I finished college I was looking around for any kind of job. I just happened to get a job at a shampoo company and that started me in the cosmetic industry. It was luck mostly. I didn’t even realize there was a cosmetic industry that hired chemists.
When asked to formulate a new product, what requirements are you given? Are there any common challenges you face when developing something new?
The cosmetic industry is mostly run by the Marketing departments. They work with the Market Research department to figure out what type of products that consumers want. Once that is determined the two groups sit down with the R&D department and work out the details like the type of formula, the color, the fragrance profile, the formula cost, the packaging and some of the feature ingredients. Also, the types of claims they want to make are described too. With that information the cosmetic chemists create products to meet the pre-determined goals. The biggest challenge in developing something new is to keep the formula within the cost constraints of the product. It is extremely difficult to make something that is truly innovative but still in the cost range of the type cosmetic product.
Are there any regulations for skincare products? Does the FDA or similar agencies in other countries have any say in what can and can’t be included in a formula?
Yes, there are regulations in skincare products. The regulations state that it is illegal to sell an unsafe cosmetic. If companies are selling unsafe products they are breaking the law and their products can be recalled & the company can be fined or even shut down. In the US, the FDA regulates cosmetics. Around the world there are other agencies that regulate cosmetics and each country is a little different. As a formulator you have to understand the regulations of wherever your product is going to be sold and formulate accordingly.
What are some of the methods used for product testing? Are they tested for efficacy as well as safety?
There are a number of things that are done for testing products. First, there are quality control tests. The products are tested to ensure they meet pre-determined specifications such as the color, odor, thickness, appearance, etc. Cosmetic companies strive to make consistent, high quality products and testing on both finished products and raw materials has to be done frequently.
To ensure that products are safe and will remain safe, stability testing is done. This type of testing exposes the product to different temperature and lighting conditions to see how well it maintains its quality over time. Products are not sold if they can not pass stability testing. This testing also involves microbial testing which ensures that the products will not get contaminated over time. Bacterial contamination in cosmetic products is easy and can spread disease. This is why a preservative is extremely important in producing a safe cosmetic.
Finally, if the product is using new to the world raw materials some countries require animal testing to be done. The EU recently banned animal testing of cosmetics but it is still done for products made in the US and China. Note that the vast majority of cosmetics are not tested on animals because they use raw materials that have already been safety tested. It’s only products that use brand new raw materials that get tested. Another type of safety testing that is done is on human volunteers. These are typically patch tests and sensitization testing for which the volunteers are paid.
In addition to these tests, performance tests are done to ensure that the cosmetic product meets the functions and claims of the product. This is really product specific. For example, when Fructis claims their hair products make hair 5 or 10 times stronger they have to conduct a test which proves this is true. It is illegal to lie in your advertising about cosmetics.
Mineral oil has really been getting slammed these past few years. I see many people claiming it causes cancer because it’s a petroleum product, and others who say it’s no good because it “doesn’t provide any real skincare benefits.” Is there any truth to these criticisms?
No. Mineral oil is a perfectly fine ingredient that provides excellent skin moisturization effects. That is why people use it. Indeed it is derived from petroleum but its safety has been consistently proven for years. There is zero evidence mineral oil causes cancer. You can read more about mineral oil and its effects here:
The Top 5 Myths About Mineral Oil: Part 1
Myths About Mineral Oil: Part 2
Parabens have also taken a beating – there are many people who still strongly believe they can cause cancer. Where did this myth come from?
Parabens are safe to use in cosmetics. Their safety was recently reaffirmed by an industry-independent group of scientists in the EU. The reason they are a controversial ingredient is because one researcher published a flawed study which found parabens in breast cancer tissue (and parabens in non-cancerous breast tissue). There has never been any evidence demonstrating that the ingredient causes cancer or any other health problem especially when used in the levels found in cosmetics. It’s really not something that consumers should worry about at all.
Are there any other product ingredients you feel have an undeserved bad reputation?
Sure, there are lots of ingredients with undeserved reputations. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Aluminum Salts, Triclosan, Propylene Glycol, Formaldehyde-donor preservatives, certain sunscreens, and certain colors. These ingredients have been safety tested for years and have been determined to be safe in the levels used in cosmetics. The fears are all fueled by people who do not understand science or toxicology. If you want to know whether an ingredient is safe you should see what professional toxicologists have to say on the subject.
What’s your stance on denatured alcohol in skincare products? I’ve read some sources that say it’s always bad for skin, no exceptions. Yet other sources say that in some formulas, it’s not only fine, but can improve product performance. Who’s right?
Denatured alcohol is perfectly fine in skin products. There is no scientific evidence that it represents a problem. In fact, there is evidence that it is not a problem & has some benefits. There is really no good reason to avoid it.
This is excellent news, since denatured alcohol seems nearly impossible for me to avoid. What sort of benefits does it have?
The main benefit of alcohol is that it kills microbes. Additionally, it can help with ingredient penetration.
Is there any truth to the belief that jar packaging is extremely unhygienic, and/or detrimental to the shelf life of a product? If jar packaging is as awful as people say it is, why do companies use it?
Jar packing of products can be done perfectly safely and it is not something people should worry about. Of course, this assumes that the formula has a proper preservative system. There are some small companies who avoid preservatives and use jar packaging. This is unhygienic and extremely dangerous in my view. If you are buying an “all-natural” cosmetic, avoid jar packaging unless they use a proper preservative. But for cosmetic products produced by large companies, jar packaging is perfectly safe.
What about ingredient efficacy? Can that be compromised by jar packaging? I have often read that the air exposure from opening the jar accelerates the degradation of some skincare ingredients.
Not really. Opening a jar causes the top layer to oxidize which can make the product feel less appealing, but it won’t have much effect on the efficacy of the ingredients below the top layer.
Do you have any favorite skincare ingredients? What do you gravitate toward when you’re shopping for yourself?
The ingredients that work best for moisturizing skin include Petrolatum, Mineral Oil, and Dimethicone. If I’m looking for a skin moisturizer these are the best ingredients to use. Of course, it depends on the formulation too. These ingredients can be formulated badly and leave skin feeling too greasy. Another good ingredient is Glycerin for moisturization. Ingredients that claim to stimulate collagen production or elastin or otherwise affect skin growth are BS, and not worth paying extra.
Are there any skincare ingredients you actively avoid when shopping for yourself?
Not really. I just don’t recommend paying extra for ingredients that claim to be anti-aging. Antioxidants in topical skin products have not been proven to have much effect.
Are there any skincare ingredients that have anti-aging effects? What about retinoids?
Yes retinoids have some proven anti-aging effects. Also, Niacinamide. But beyond that, not really – most anti-aging ingredients show promise in the lab, but are not effective in topically applied products.
You recently published a book called “It’s OK to Have Lead in Your Lipstick,” which clarifies beauty myths and reveals the truth behind the claims beauty companies make. I love the title – what’s the story behind it?
The book is our third one published through the Beauty Brains. We decided to write this one because there were a lot of new beauty product questions we got from readers of the Beauty Brains blog and we wanted to go more in-depth than we typically do on the blog. We also saw a proliferation of terrible books about beauty products that were written to scare people and trick them into buying overpriced products that were not actually safer. It’s OK to Have Lead in your Lipstick was a rational look the ingredients in cosmetics, their safety, and the reliability of what seem like outrageous claims. It was really a lot of fun to write.
Are there any new discoveries or breakthroughs in skincare you’re excited about right now?
We scientists are always looking for ingredients that will reduce the signs of aging and improve the look of skin. A number of anti-aging products show promise in the laboratory (like Hyaluronic acid), but when they are put into topical products the effect is no longer there. There are some promising delivery systems on the horizon but nothing breakthrough just yet.
You can find Perry’s book, “It’s OK to Have Lead in Your Lipstick,” on Amazon.com You can also read more of his scientific insights on the beauty products we love on his blog, The Beauty Brains.
Awesome interview! I’m glad to hear an expert’s opinion on mineral oil – personally I’ve never avoided it, but a lot of people seem to be very opposed to its presence. Same with alcohol denat – if it irritates your skin I guess that’s one thing, but I feel like people sometimes come out with the pitchforks when you recommend skincare products containing alcohol.
Yeah, people really hate mineral oil, don’t they? I don’t hate mineral oil at all, but I only like it for specific things – I like it as an ingredient in my cleansing oil/balm, and I like it if my moisture barrier has been compromised and I need a hardcore occlusive layer to prevent water loss. Otherwise, it’s a bit too plain for my liking, and I think a lot of companies overcharge for it. Still – when I see people hating on it, I bristle up.
In general, I feel like skin care is somehow a really sensitive topic for people. Sometimes I think I see just as many pitchforks over skin care ingredients as I do over politics or parenting styles!
I know this conversation is from a little while ago, but I am just now reading it 🙂
I choose skin care products for various reasons– environmental impact, things that won’t actively harm my skin, long-term efficacy, pleasure of use, etc. I have really sensitive skin and although not all “natural” products are good for me and my skin, I have found that the simplicity of ingredients in my favorite natural options works best for me–I will take rosehip oil over a complicated cream any day. I also have a strong personal preference for essential oils over synthetic fragrance for 2 reasons–I simply couldn’t find a traditional perfume I loved no matter how many samples I tried while I adore many natural options, and there is some scientific evidence for the benefits of aromatherapy.
That said, I also believe that fear and stress over ingredients probably causes more wrinkles than alcohol or preservatives in skincare products ever could! I wish more people could focus on the benefits they have found using organic oils, clays, etc. and less on the fear-based avoidance of certain products. All the fear leads to is companies advertising themselves as “paraben-free” or whatever, without making any changes to actually be better for the environment or for our skin.
This was awesome! I’ve been a big fan of the Beauty Brains for years, so this was really cool. The bit about denatured alcohol is a big pet peeve of mine, as there’s a very well known skincare guru who, despite not having any dermatological or chemistry background, continues to bash the inclusion of any alcohols in skincare at all. I see her misinformed influence all over the place, especially /r/skincareaddiction.
Hey Audrey! I know the guru you speak of. 🙂 She’s part of the reason I’ve been so confused about denatured alcohol. My favorite sunscreens always seem to contain a lot of alcohol, and it was nice to hear from Perry that it’s not going to make my face fall off. As far as that skin care guru is concerned, I will say – she may not be right 100% of the time, and we don’t see eye to eye on everything (fragrance, for example), but she does get a lot right. I think she’s done more to open consumers’ eyes to product labels than anyone. And the woman makes one hell of a BHA! For me, the annoyance comes when I encounter an individual who won’t question anything she (or anyone else) says, even if there is evidence to the contrary.
Some of the questions in this interview were things I already knew the answer to (parabens, mineral oil), but the denatured alcohol thing has been really confusing for me. I’m glad I won’t have to feel so conflicted when I reach for my Biore Watery Essence Sunscreen tomorrow! 🙂
Thanks for doing this interview! I thought his inputs about antioxidants/anti-aging ingredients in skincare and jar packaging are interesting. He seems to personally favor a pretty basic moisturizer, whose only purpose is to moisturize, no claims of anti-aging or skin renewing. xD It’s interesting that he says antioxidants have not been shown to do much for the skin, while a certain famous person with her own skincare product line has been touting the benefits of antioxidants and bashing products that lack fancy antioxidants and cell-communicating ingredients. For me personally, I don’t know how much good they do. I think that those products with many ‘natural’ ingredients that are supposed to be amazing for the skin are also more likely to cause a (negative) skin reaction. I’m pretty split about whether it’s worth it to spring for those ingredients or stick with a basic, non-irritating, uni-purpose moisturizer. Regarding the jar packaging, you will always be using the top, less appealing layer, which he himself said is not the best part of the cream once it’s been open even if the microbial growth is contained. It just makes me think that although it may not harm the skin due to pathogens, it’s not going to provide the best possible benefits (if it can do anything good). Just my 2 cents. xD
Hey Diana! I agree, I thought his thoughts on those items were very interesting as well! I’m very happy to have that information.
I do like to have a basic, no-frills moisturizer on hand, much like what he described – I prefer to use something like that if my skin gets irritated. But I have some definitive preferences about what I want to spend my money on. I like buying moisturizers with frills (at any price point). I already have my retinoids, sunscreen, and acids to prevent wrinkles. But I like having “extras” in my moisturizer (and other skin products) to help specifically with skin tone, acne, dullness, hyperpigmentation, hydration, and texture. Additionally, it’s very important to me on a deeply personal level that my skin care be actively enjoyable. These are products that I am putting on my face every day, multiple times a day, and I am willing to pay a premium for a special texture, a delightful fragrance, and an overall experience that is genuinely pleasurable. I want results, and I want joy, and I’m not willing to choose between the two. That said, I almost never review specifically “anti-wrinkle” products, for precisely the reasons he stated. I love luxury, but I’m also a big fan of facts. 🙂
As far as jar packaging goes, I think you make a really excellent point about the top layer being the one that’s most likely to be used. Though I’d imagine it’s less of an issue if it’s a product you’re using every day, and even less so if it’s a twice-a-day product. For someone like me, it might not even be an issue at all. When I am dispensing product from a jar, only a fraction of it comes from the top at a time because of the way I’m removing it. Most of what I’m putting on my face came from underneath.
How exactly do you personally dispense product in jars?
This is so awesome. I’ve watched and read related topics about certain ingredients like parabens, alcohol, mineral oil, dimethicone etc. And they said it’s ok and normal. If you’re allergic to it that’s another topic all together but it really shouldn’t be avoided just because. 🙂 Thanks so much for this!!!
You’re welcome, CJ! 🙂
That was interesting to read.
I still don’t like mineral oil. I know it’s not toxic and it doesn’t cause allergies normally but every time I use it on my face, I end up with very clogged pores. It works fine on the rest of my body though.
But parabens and silicones are being way too bashed for nothing.
Hey Teti! I don’t blame you – I wouldn’t like mineral oil either if it gave me clogged pores. I think there’s a big difference between not liking it based on a personal experience, and not liking it because you think you shouldn’t. 🙂
This was such an interesting read! Love your blog.
A couple of things about his responses confused me, though. At one point, he says, “…performance tests are done to ensure that the cosmetic product meets the functions and claims of the product. This is really product specific. For example, when Fructis claims their hair products make hair 5 or 10 times stronger they have to conduct a test which proves this is true. It is illegal to lie in your advertising about cosmetics.”
Later on, however, he goes on to talk about how only retinoids and niacinimide have proven anti-aging effects and how claims about other ingredients, like antioxidants and hyaluronic acid, are inconclusive or unproven (paraphrasing here). There are plenty of skincare products with ingredients like that and claims that they reduce or slow signs of aging or make other claims. So in those cases, is the advertising lying? Because he just said that they can’t, yet many ads and marketing copy make claims that their ingredients do have anti-aging effects.
I’m just curious. I wonder if it’s about carefully parsing the ad and marketing copy.
Anyway, he can pry my snail mucin products out of my cold dead hands 🙂
Great point, Jude! I would be really curious to know that as well.
Interestingly, there is a section in Perry’s book that talks about snail mucin specifically. It wasn’t completely dismissed – the book indicates that there’s some potentially interesting supporting evidence, but that more research is definitely needed.
Ha! My face is doing some research on it. My face concludes that it seems to be pretty awesome so far.
Hahahaha! Jude, I just LOL’d at this so loudly. I believe my face concurs with your face.
Interesting interview! I will fully admit I’ve never much cared for the beauty brains, half the time I find it incredibly helpful and then it feels like the other half they’re telling me my HGs are junk that do nothing lol. It’s not that I don’t read it religiously…it’s just that my head sometimes says “impossible!”
The packaging responses were interesting, I will always choose pumps and opaque bottles if given the choice and I’m still not stopping =P but now I may be willing to at least try? Maybe
It’s totally situational to different people but I really haven’t seen basic bare bones routines doing much to people who already have things they want to fix (hyper-pigmentation, scars, blackheads, list goes on) and I’d be interested in seeing what he really meant by that.
Thanks for this!
It’s always interesting seeing what experts such as dermatologists and cosmetic chemists have to say about skincare and such. I’m really baffled by his statement that antioxidants have no proven effect on the skin though. By that does he mean proven anti-ageing effect? Because I think most of us here know that only retinoids can do anything even remotely age “reversing” but aren’t topically applied antioxidants good to use anyway for preventative reasons?
I wonder the same thing, Bebe! What about their efficacy for UV damage prevention and free-radical scavenging?
Loved this interview! Also love the Beauty Brains!
Thanks, Ling! I’m glad you enjoyed it! 🙂
Thanks for this – I love Perry! Such a necessary voice of reason 🙂
He’s pretty fantastic!
[…] If Memebox stocks this mask, you’re going to have to fight me to get it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a regular sheet mask, but a regular sheet mask that’s done very well. The ingredients are really good. Here’s the COSDNA anaylsis. Butylene Glycol and Triethanolamine are two possible triggers for acne, but they’re rated 1 out of 5 and 2 out of 5 respectively, so this mask will likely be fine for most people. What sets this sheet mask apart from others in the budget-friendly category is the variety and number of extracts included. What I don’t like to see in sheet masks is water, glycerin, one active ingredient, and then not much else going on. This mask has a bunch of ingredients like Ocimum Basilicum (Basil) Leaf Extract that are used for skin conditioning, but also ingredients like Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower/Leaf Extract and Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Extract that have antimicrobial properties. This is exactly what I want to see in my sheet mask ingredient list. Ahh–and for those concerned about alcohol in the list: it’s commonly added to sheet masks because it helps skin to absorb the actives in the time the sheet is on your face. Unless your dermatologist or experince says otherwise, it’s not the ingredient of death that people make it out to be. If you’re interested in more about alcohol (and other cool skincare chemistry questions!) check out Skin&Tonics’ interview with a cosmetic chemist. […]
[…] An interview by Kerry of Skin&Tonics with cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski included a question about whether jar packaging is safe. Romanowski answered that jar packaging is “perfectly safe” and should not be a cause for concern–with the caveat that he means jar packaging of products made by major companies that use proper preservatives (as opposed to small companies that package their products in jars despite not using preservatives). […]
Very interesting read.
I feel like periodically certain ingredients are suddenly deemed to be bad and everyone goes crazy over how to avoid them, praising products not containing those products. And a few months later it all dies down.
Recently aluminum salts in deodorants have been the new “enemy” in Germany. It got to a point where I felt like I had to defend myself for still using deodorants containing aluminum salts (because they are the only ones working for me) while those people being against them never could state a valid reason for demonizing them except for “I heard…” or “XY (on YouTube) said that….”. Good to know I can now go on using my favorite deodorants without worrying ^^
Thank you for this post.
This is exactly why this is scary that these guys are sharing misinformation. Aluminum exposure has a proven link to Alzheimers disease, and has associations with breast cancer, bone disorders, and kidney disease. As a healthcare provider, I would recommend that people try to limit exposure to aluminum. Don’t take my word for it, this information is available on PubMed if you would like to read the research for yourself. This is a shame that these guys are getting all this publicity and money to promote misinformation.
I think it is an excellent idea to be skeptical and look at the evidence and the science. However, these beauty bloggers clearly have an agenda (that is not motivated by people’s health and safety) and are not purely looking at the science on this topic. Again, shameful.
I do not agree on some of what he said for example, on the topic of denatured alcohols. I can find probably a dozen journal articles about how it IS bad for your skin and promotes photo-sensitivity, etc. I also don’t agree on the jar packaging but I’m not gonna go there heh.
I agree, this guy needs to back his claims with real evidence or keep his opinions to himself.
hi I am in 10th grade honors chemistry. We have a semester long project to do and one of the parts is an interview. My topic is cosmetics and how they effect our skin. I could talk over phone 9194132640, Skype or even just email you the questions…please get back to be asap because I would really like you to be my guide for the project. Thank you 🙂
hi I am in 10th grade honors chemistry. We have a semester long project to do and one of the parts is an interview. My topic is cosmetics and how they effect our skin. I could talk over phone, Skype or even just email you the questions…please get back to be asap because I would really like you to be my guide for the project. Thank you 🙂
I’m sorry, but these guys are highly suspect as corporate cronies. As a healthcare provider and a person that understands the fundamentals of science and biology as well, I see this guy’s blog as full of the science that is touted by the big beauty industry to keep products safe for shelf-life and infectious concerns. However, they either make fun of, gloss over, or just not mention the dangerous cumulative and long-term effects of some of these ingredients on human health (especially children), without backing their claims. They have no citations for any of the claims they make against the evidence (backed by research) that says that many of the chemicals they support for use in personal care products are not safe for long-term, repeated use (which is exactly how we use personal care products).
Don’t claim to be sharing the “science” when you don’t actually cite anything other than your opinion. For example, this (from above):
“Are there any other product ingredients you feel have an undeserved bad reputation?
Sure, there are lots of ingredients with undeserved reputations. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Aluminum Salts, Triclosan, Propylene Glycol, Formaldehyde-donor preservatives, certain sunscreens, and certain colors. These ingredients have been safety tested for years and have been determined to be safe in the levels used in cosmetics. The fears are all fueled by people who do not understand science or toxicology. If you want to know whether an ingredient is safe you should see what professional toxicologists have to say on the subject.”
This is not an accurate representation of the data (aka. its a lie). You are right in that we should talk to toxicologists about this. Because the studies that I have seen tell me that Toxicologist have a lot of not good things to say about these exact substances in terms of the impact on human physiology. Show me your data to back the safety of these chemicals (over time, not just acute poisoning, toxicity, or allergic response) and then you are allowed to share your opinion with lay people.
[…] the product incorporates preservatives, as most larger companies do to extend its shelf life. In an article on Skin & Tonic, chemist Perry Romanowski mentioned that smaller, natural brands that forgo […]
[…] the product incorporates preservatives, as most larger companies do to extend its shelf life. In an article on Skin & Tonic, chemist Perry Romanowski mentioned that smaller, natural brands that forgo […]
[…] vilify all alcohols. But if you ask skin care formulating chemists, such as Perry Romanowski (Read Article) or others, you’ll likely receive a completely different opinion. And if you ask someone […]