Debunking Skincare Myths: An Interview With Cosmetic Chemist, Perry Romanowski
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:
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.