I worked in laboratories doing research, mostly biological, for seven years. But it was astonishing to me how different dealing with cosmetic chemistry could be. Kind of like a teenager getting mixed up with the wrong crowd — a little influence goes a long way. A few drops of the right reagent could make a formulation glide across the skin like magic, whereas the wrong addition could blow up the whole mixture.
Dr. Konstantinos Lahanas, Ph.D. recently came to us highly recommended, and he is going to be working with us on our specialized moisturizer that's premiering in December of this year. (Be excited — when I say it's different, I mean it's really special!) Dr. Lahanas started his career as a formulating chemist and earned his doctorate in Physical Chemistry. The synergy between his craft and scientific background gives him a very unique perspective of what a product could (and should) be. Dr. Lahanas has previously worked for Chemaid (4 years), Estee Lauder (12 years), and Limited Brands (8.5 years). In that time he has formulated or led the development of many award-winning products. Additionally, Dr. Lahanas has been an Adjunct Professor of Chemistry at Long Island University-C.W. Post Campus for 13 years.
Given the scientific nature of our blog, I thought our readers would love hearing from Dr. Lahanas on skin care, formulating, and more!
Dr. Konstantinos Lahanas (KL): Creating a formulation has much in common with creating a song, a book, a painting, or any other creative work of art. The tools may vary, but there are many similarities in the process. In personal care products, the tools of the craft are science and a large pallet of raw materials and technologies. As in the arts, the choice of materials, technologies, and most importantly, their integration depends on the message the formulator and marketer wishes to achieve. Much focus is placed on the raw materials used, but perhaps more important is how they are used together. After all, no one intends to sell a “bucket” of raw materials. We sell well thought out, well integrated products. It’s the product, as an integrated whole, that imparts the benefits and the overall experience.
So to more directly answer your question, the performance objectives are defined. What is the product supposed to do? How is it supposed to feel? How is it supposed to smell? What is the experience during and after application? Will the customer feel they enjoyed their experience and received value for their money? How do we ensure the product has integrity? In my work, I like to overlap functionality between the raw materials that make the product. It’s like transitioning a set of single and multi-functional ingredients so that one benefit seems to “transition” into another. A deep fundamental knowledge of chemistry aids in achieving this goal. The result is a product that stands alone as a unit. Ideally, it speaks for itself and is not just a bunch of ingredients.
KL: I disapprove of, first and foremost, ingredients without ethical merit. This means harmful, wasteful, or exploitative products. This can be both from a sociopolitical, or technological point of view — sweatshop types of ingredients, for instance. This is followed by ingredients or without aesthetic or functional appeal. Too often “technologies” are chosen on image alone, “snake oil”, if you will…
On a more technical front, I disapprove of misused products, products not appropriate for their intended use. Oxidizers, such as benzoyl peroxide have great value in anti-acne products, but less so in anti-aging products. First of all, they will destroy the antioxidant system of the product, and other actives, but also, if not prepared and used properly, they can actually become “pro-aging.” This is but a crude and extreme example to highlight the point.
KL: The personal care industry is incredibly dynamic and highly innovative, so much so, that the market’s appetite for technology far exceeds the rate in which these technologies can be developed. The pressure for new, new, new is very high. One downside to this is that valuable technologies can become “old news” before they reach their full potential. Still, the successful ones become a “price of entry” for the types of products for which they are intended. Sunscreens, antioxidants, peptides, anti-inflammatories, collagen and elastin stimulators and protectors, are classes and examples of technologies that have stood the test of time as the personal care industry has evolved. Innovations within these categories are often utilized with the new “up and comers” to generate innovations in final products. More recent one’s include anti-glycation ingredients, which I believe will be one of the next mainstays in skin care.
KL: pH can and does matter depending on what you’re trying to achieve. It’s not a “right or wrong” answer. It’s a product appropriate answer. Certain mineral sunscreen mixtures have an optimum “pH window” whereby their function is optimized. Viscosity, product integrity, preservation, and efficacy are heavily pH dependent also. A higher pH AHA product, other things being equal, will be less effective than the same product formulated at a lower pH. It can get quite technical, but there is a “right” pH range for many things. Conversely, a low pH zinc oxide sunscreen is not advisable because zinc oxide dissolved more at lower pH than a higher one. As they say… “It’s complicated.”
KL: Just as important of what you put into a product is the procedure by which you make the product. This means in what order and what conditions each ingredient is introduced in the manufacturing process. You certainly wouldn’t blend water, flour, yeast and eggs into a frying pan and expect to make a cake. Temperature matters in other ways as well. Products usually have an upper temperature whereby they remain stable. Many actives are not stable in higher temperatures. Temperature also matters in more subtle ways. When formulating a lipstick, or a lip balm, the meting temperature of the product directly impacts how that product feels and performs.
KL: As with pH, concentration matters very much, but more is not always better. There is such a thing as too much. Just like with medicines, you can “overdose” with some ingredients. When assessing an “active” one of the first things I look for is an experimental dose/response curve. This tells me a couple of things: A) That the effect is indeed due to the presence of the active; B) Whether there is a point of diminishing returns on the efficacy. At that point we would only be getting “side effects” and no further benefit.
KL: Again, “it’s complicated”, but two very good examples are: A) Always look for mixtures of antioxidants. They almost always perform better than a higher dose of a single antioxidant; B.) Look for mixtures of sunscreens for the same reason. In my opinion antioxidant mixtures should always be used with sunscreen mixtures. There’s a synergy that happens when one does this and they both perform better together. Further certain types of products should always be used together. If you use and anti-acne medication or an AHA type product, or for when you physically exfoliate, there’s even more of an imperative to use a sunscreen, since the skin becomes thinner when using such products.
KL: Here’s where chemistry becomes center stage again. Oxidation-sensitive ingredients — such as Vitamin C (ascorbic acid), Vitamin A (retinol), or antioxidants — should never be used with oxidizing ingredients like benzoyl peroxide. It causes their degradation, and in the case of retinol, it makes it into retinoic acid, which is a drug, and has a different safety profile. Subtle things such as uncoated titanium dioxide are oxidizers, in fact they a photo-oxidizers. So, to state the obvious, don’t use a photo-oxidizer, or photo-sensitizer, if the intended use is a beach type sunscreen.
KL: What I love most about well-informed blogs like FutureDerm.com is that it raises perspective and awareness. That’s a great service to readers, allowing THEM to make better informed decisions.