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Confessions Of A Cosmetic Chemist

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
The following is an interview with Ron Robinson, cosmetic chemist and founder of BeautyStat, as told to Taylor Bryant.

I totally fell into a cosmetic chemist career. I went to college as a pre-med major and had some familial pressure to become a doctor. I did well in college, got accepted into medical school, went for a year, and dropped out — it wasn't what I wanted to do and I definitely wasn't passionate about it.

After coming back home from med school, I started to send out a bunch of résumés and I responded to an ad for a cosmetic chemist. I drove up to this big white building and it turned out to be the Clinique laboratories. The ad itself just said "cosmetic chemist for a big beauty company," I had no idea what it actually was until I literally drove up to the address for my interview. I walked in and there were all of these clean, pristine-looking laboratories, with beakers and chemicals everywhere it was totally love at first sight. Needless to say, I got the job.
What It Takes
You have to have some kind of science background — chemistry preferred — to get into the field. When I first started out, there were no schools that specifically taught cosmetic chemistry, so you really just applied your science knowledge to the formulation research while on the job. The process is much easier now, there are more organizations and groups — both online and offline — that help to recruit, develop, and connect aspiring cosmetic chemists.

As a cosmetic chemist, you can either be on the research side, where you're exploring the science behind ingredients and raw materials, or development, where you're actually formulating. I did the latter.

Dexter's Laboratory IRL
The job itself is just how you probably picture: All of the chemists are in lab coats, we wear protective eyewear if we're dealing with products that can splatter or can get into the air, we mix and weigh our ingredients in beakers and flasks, we use stoves to formulate and to combine our ingredients — it's exactly that.

I worked on a team with several other chemists and, basically, we were assigned projects that had us research and formulate products for the upcoming calendar. So, I might've been assigned a couple of new moisturizers, cleansers, a sun product, and I might've been working on reformulating a couple of products, as well. Basically, they try to diversify the assignments so everyone gets to work on some potential big blockbuster products as well as lesser star ones.

We can go through literally hundreds of submissions when developing products. I could be working on a new night cream, I'll formulate it and submit it to marketing for review. They'll come back and say, "Oh, it's too tacky, it's too sticky, it's too thick, it's too thin, it needs more slip, it needs more glide, we don't like the scent, we want to tint it pink, etc." I could be making variations into the hundreds before the product is finally approved and ready to launch. The average time was typically one year to 18 months, but some products can take years to develop.
Misguided Guidelines
Sometimes, for makeup products, we would get a prototype that might be someone's dress swatch, or the inside of a stiletto, something like that. And we'd be like, "Umm, how do we match that, how do we duplicate the leather on someone's shoe?" Or, if we're working on a cleanser, they might say: "It's gotta be a leafy-foam, like my doily that's sitting on my credenza." Really wacky examples. So, we'd often have to force the marketing team to give us realistic prototypes — something we can really work with and duplicate.

Imitation Game
It's not necessarily a secret, but when I've developed products for different companies over the years — whether it's makeup or skin care — we've used benchmarks of other competitors. We're looking at those products and we're basically trying to duplicate their texture or we're looking at the ingredients they used — and that's very common.

For makeup, in terms of shade, everyone's copying everyone else. We may tweak them a little bit, but essentially, they're more or less the same. You'll see a lot of similarities in terms of textures and shades of beauty products on the market and that’s very much intentional.

Prized Possession
I worked on some of the original Clinique Turnaround products back in the early '90s and those ended up being some of the best-selling products at the time. That was a shining moment in my career — I was very proud of that. I'm working for the company, so the work I do is their property — everyone accepts that. But it would definitely be nice if one of those Clinique products read: Made By Ron.

Hello From The Other Side
I was a cosmetic chemist for 10 years before starting my own company, BeautyStat. I always loved developing, but I wanted to get closer to the consumer (though I did frequently read reviews of products I developed for market research purposes — that's something I encourage all cosmetic chemists to do). Now, I'm able to use my expertise from the science side of cosmetics and bring that to content on my own website. It’s much easier now for me to see what’s just clever marketing versus what's breakthrough science, since I worked behind the scenes for so long. And though the work I do now is different from before, once a chemist, always a chemist.