Meet the Cosmetic Chemist Dedicated to Pushing the Truth About Skincare on Instagram
Have you ever wondered who is responsible for crafting the formulas of your favorite skincare products? The answer is scientists — specifically cosmetic chemists. Creating the perfect formulation is a science that Esther Olu (aka The Melanin Chemist) is passionate about. The California-based formulator has built a following on social media by giving people a glimpse of this ever-changing career and debunking ingredient myths with fun and informative infographics. We recently had the opportunity to speak with her and learn more about this interesting career. Find out what it’s really like to be a cosmetic chemist and why Olu feels it’s important to share her scientific knowledge with her followers.
So, first things first, what exactly do cosmetic chemists do?
Cosmetic chemists work to see what ingredients can be combined to make certain products. I help make a variety of product formulas — from skincare to hair color and hair care. You name it, I work on it. We’re always coming up with different formulations, using chemistry and our knowledge to improve them and ultimately make the best product available.
What led you to become a cosmetic chemist? Were you always drawn to skincare and beauty?
I wasn't always immersed in beauty. To be honest, my interest in it didn't start until I was in college. I was consulting for a skincare brand, literally just telling people to use a certain moisturizer. Working with this brand was my defining moment. After that, I started to get more into beauty. So, when I was almost done with college, I knew I didn't want to go the traditional route with pharmacy school, I wanted to do something different.
In the upper divisions of chemistry you do a lot of organic chemistry — it’s kind of like reverse engineering in a sense — and I became curious about how what I was learning could be applied to beauty. After some googling I learned about cosmetic chemistry, and the rest is history.
What is the most difficult part of being a cosmetics formulator?
It’s frustrating when my formulations fail and I don’t know what the problem is because I have to continually make the same formula and tweak it just a bit to figure out what is causing the problem. This can get mentally draining because I begin to think that it’s something that I’m doing wrong, but it’s really just that the formula itself is not working. But once I figure out what the problem is, it’s so rewarding and one of the best feelings.
How long does it take to develop a skincare formulation from scratch?
Minimum a year, but it can definitely take longer. From concept to launch I’d say one to two years.
Is it common to go through four or five iterations until you create the perfect formulation?
Yes! Even more sometimes because with my current job I’m working with clients and brands. So say I think a formulation is perfect, but the client tries it and doesn’t like it. I have to go back to the drawing board and continually fix it until they’re satisfied with the result. One time I reformulated something over 20 times — it all comes down to the client’s happiness with the formula.
What are some of your favorite ingredients to work with?
I like glycerin because it’s a really simple ingredient that has a lot of versatility. Not only is it a great humectant but it also makes formulating easier. For example, if I’m having trouble mixing ingredients, glycerin can help combine them more seamlessly. I also love how it hydrates the skin. I think it may be my favorite ingredient to work with. I also like working with esters [a type of emollient] because of how they make the skin feel. They’re super versatile too: you can use esters to create makeup and skincare formulations.
What are some of the most common misconceptions you hear about cosmetic ingredients or products?
I feel like when it comes to skincare, people think that there’s always a right or a wrong answer. Skincare isn’t black or white — there’s always going to be a gray area. There aren’t many science communicators online to dispel the misconceptions, though. A common one for example has to do with sulfates: People think if a formulation contains sulfates that it’s automatically going to strip your skin or hair. Similarly, if you use something with glycolic acid it’s going to burn your skin. Stuff like that. That’s why formulations are so critical when we think about products that we use.
How do you use your social media platforms to spread awareness about cosmetic chemistry and educate people about ingredient misconceptions?
I like to create infographics. I feel that visual aids help a lot and, in my opinion, it's easier for someone to see a diagram compared to just text because they’re gonna be like, ‘what are you saying?’ I like to make videos, too, because I think when people see what I’m doing and what I’m talking about, it helps things click easier. Also, not everybody gets to see what goes on behind the scenes when it comes to cosmetic chemistry since the industry's so small. So, I like to give them an inside look. I like to be informative and simplify things, but also make people laugh so they kind of take things a little bit more lightly.
Why is it important for you to change the narrative around these misconceptions?
It comes down to fear-mongering. I think about the pandemic and how fear has dominated the way people think for two years. That fear happens with skincare ingredients, too. It’s gotten to the point where people think something as simple as a moisturizer is going to kill them because of a singular ingredient. Skincare should be fun. That’s why I want to reframe the way that we think by using science because it's there for a reason. I think that communicating facts helps people enjoy things more and take things a little bit more lightly.
The beauty industry as a whole has a history of not being very inclusive. In recent years we’ve seen things change from a consumer standpoint with more diverse shade ranges and more products formulated for melanated skin, but what are the behaviors on the formulation side of the industry?
I think we have definitely made some progress, but I feel like we're also still lacking. I'm currently the only African American person in my entire company and that was the same case at my previous company as well. It was really interesting how the Black Lives Matter movement shifted the narrative a bit, but only temporarily. Brands and companies were claiming that they were going to make a change and include more people of color in the corporate setting, but it seemed like that morale only lasted a couple of months and then died down. I feel like people are using [Black Lives Matter] as a trend, not because they actually care about change or inclusivity.
What I also find interesting is that Gen Z and even millennials aren’t taking that. We want to see more inclusivity and we're starting to call out brands more often, asking things like ‘why is the shade range so limited on this product?’ and so on. The cosmetic chemistry industry is already so small, but we need more people of color in the field to show more representation. Look at sunscreen — we know that mineral sunscreens tend to leave a very pale cast on darker skin tones. We need to see more people of color working in the sunscreen sector for these formulations to improve. So yes, I do feel like we’ve made progress, but we need more progress, more consistent progress.
What steps need to be made to make the cosmetic chemistry field more diverse?
There are so many limitations put on people of color and women when it comes to STEM in general. I think there needs to be more outreach — through scholarships and big companies — to show that they’re putting an investment into STEM for women. For example, the Society of Cosmetic Chemists gives the Madam C.J. Walker Scholarship to under-represented minorities. The scholarship doesn’t just help pay for their tuition, but it highlights their achievements, too, which in turn gives the recipients connections at big companies. We need more of that, and I think it should start with big companies. The companies should invest in outreach and bring more awareness to the importance of STEM. Awareness will really make an impact.
For cosmetic chemistry in particular, I would love to see large beauty conglomerates provide awareness by creating videos to show what cosmetic chemistry is and get people really interested. Some of my colleagues make videos like that on their social media and people are extremely interested, so I think taking that to a bigger stage will get people talking. Social media has a huge impact on our lives, so if more people in cosmetic chemistry utilize it as a form of education and awareness it will definitely get people talking and spark interest in the field.
What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in cosmetic chemistry?
Always be open to learning because science is constantly evolving. There are so many sectors within cosmetic chemistry including sunscreen, makeup and skincare, so I’d say don’t just stick to one because there’s so much you can learn. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to fail because at one point you’re going to fail with a formula. Perseverance is key. I think failure is a great thing to learn from, and it’s more rewarding than anything once you do learn from a failure.
What is your all-time favorite beauty product?
My favorite skincare product right now is the Sachi Skin Ursolic Acid & Retinal Overnight Reform. It’s really pricey, but it helps with my acne and I think it’s so worth it.
What is your favorite beauty trend of the moment?
I like that the industry is focusing more on barrier repair. Over the past year I feel like people have been focusing on skincare more, but they didn’t exactly know what they were doing. So a lot of people were experimenting with exfoliation, but sometimes too much and they ended up impairing their skin barriers. Now more professionals are coming online to teach about the importance of the skin barrier and show people how to be gentle with their skin — like by not using so many active ingredients at once. So I think that’s pretty cool.
What are you most looking forward to in 2022?
I’m interested to see where the skincare space is headed because it’s forecasted that microbiome skincare is going to be a huge trend. I’m also ready to learn more in my career.
Photo courtesy of Esther Olu, Design: Juliana Campisi