Obsessed With What’s in Your Skin Care? Meet Cosmetic Chemist Stephen Alain Ko
If you’re anything close to a skin-care obsessee, you’re probably drawn to the science behind your favorite products (we know we are). Give us all the ingredients, all the formulas and chemistry; we’re obsessed with learning what scientific cocktails help make our skin glow. To that end, we follow a staggering number of science-based skin-care accounts on Instagram, but one of our absolute favorites is Stephen Alain Ko of KindofStephen.
On his Instagram and blog, Ko, who lives in Toronto, shares everything from skin-care science experiments to what your favorite ingredients actually look like under a microscope. We recently chatted with Ko about his background, work and, of course, skin-care routine. Prepare for your skin-care curiosity to be satisfied.
Tell us a little bit about your background in cosmetic chemistry and how you got started in the field.
I started off in journalism, then switched to neuroscience, and finally chemistry in university. Skin care and cosmetics have always been a hobby of mine, but it wasn't until much later that I understood that it could also be a career path. I started early with my first job in second year university.
Take us through the process of creating a cosmetic product.
A new cosmetic product begins with an idea, which may be a prototype formula or a marketing brief. Prototype formulas are then developed, produced, tested, and a set of quality-control standards are developed. Formulas are also developed with scale-up in mind. For example, a person can make a smoothie easily at home with a blender, but that amount of force and energy isn't easily scaled up to an industrial size. From the formula comes large-scale production, packaging, bottling and more marketing.
My focus is on formulation and scale-up. The most enjoyable part of the process is seeing and feeling a formula go from paper to bottle.
As a cosmetic chemist, what's the number-one thing you'd tell people to do when they're picking out skin-care products?
To try them! The ingredient list only gives you so much insight into a formula. For example, stearic acid can be used as a wax thickener, but it can also be used as an encapsulator, which can stabilize and deliver cosmetic ingredients to the skin. On an ingredient list, it'd just show up as ”stearic acid”. There's no way for anyone to tell unless it's called out on the marketing or they have insight into the product's formula.
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Coloured clouds and crystals. Sublimation is one technique that chemists use to purify chemicals. For example cosmetic ingredients like pure caffeine can be extracted from coffee with sublimation. To see and learn how it’s done, check out my Stories or the Sublimation highlight on my profile!
What does a typical day look like for you?
Most days start off with reading scientific journals across a broad selection of topics. Then it's usually into the lab to create more prototypes, refine prototypes and retry prototypes that haven't worked as expected.
How has working in cosmetics impacted your life?
Working in cosmetics has allowed me to do what I enjoy and love as work. As I've gotten older, I've never had to second guess my job or career.
What's your favorite skin-care ingredient at the moment?
Glycerin is an ingredient that I think that many people should take a second look at. While it's not very sexy or marketable, it's a very good, high-performing water-binding ingredient for the skin. Additionally, ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and retinoids are always a part of my skin-care routine. I've been testing out ingredients with newer data to support their use like melatonin recently as well.
Tell us about why you started Kind of Stephen — the blog and Instagram account.
I saw a lot of confusion in discussion groups about skin care and writing was a way for me to reinforce, expand on and teach about what I had learned.There's a lot of hard-working students, scientists and researchers in this field, and I hope to highlight and share their work.
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A stirring beaker filled with water, magnesium hydroxide, and a pH indicator. A pH indicator is a chemical that changes color based on the pH of the solution. This one turns green-blue in basic solutions and red-yellow in acidic solutions. Red cabbage juice can be used as an indicator, it's yellow in basic solutions, blue and purple close to neutral, and red in acidic solutions. A strong acid, hydrochloric acid, is dripped in slowly. As the pH of the solution drops, the indicator changes from green-blue to red. As the hydrochloric acid and magnesium hydroxide mix and react, the solution's pH raises again and the indicator turns green. Mg(OH)2 + 2 HCl → MgCl2 + 2 H2O
What advice would you give to your younger self, in terms of your career in cosmetic chemistry?
I really wouldn't change a thing. I could have done things faster, worked harder, studied more — but I'm pretty content with the way things are.
What's your own skin-care regimen like?
My own routine is pretty simple. In the mornings I use sunscreen and ascorbic acid (vitamin C), and in the evenings I use a moisturizer and a retinoid. In addition, I'll be using and testing any prototypes I'm currently working on.
What's your advice for an aspiring cosmetic chemist?
I often get questions like how do I become a cosmetic chemist? And the answer is simple: Look at job requests. Companies will describe roles and list out the requirements needed. It's also a good way to understand the scope of jobs available in the field. A chemical engineer working in cosmetics, for example, often does not formulate and instead works on scaling-up production, but many people often confuse the two jobs.