Simple Surprising Science of Cosmetics with Perry Romanowski
Science of Cosmetics
Jonathan: Hey, everyone, Jonathan Bailor back with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast. Today’s show is going to be a really, really fun and unique one. We have the world’s foremost and most famous cosmetic chemist. You might be saying, “Well, what the heck is that?” We will find out.
Perry Romanowski is with us. He has spent over two decades researching and developing products to solve consumer problems in the cosmetic and personal-care industry, and I really wanted to have him on the show.
He got his Bachelor’s in Science degree from the University of DePaul. He has got an M.S. in Biochemistry. He is out there doing the science. I wanted to bring him on the show because this is an area where I know there’s a lot of marketing, there’s a lot of claims out there, and I want to make sure we have got the science if we are going to rub anything on our body or rub anything in our hair. Perry, welcome to the show!
Perry: Thanks for having me, Jonathan. I’m happy to be here.
Jonathan: Perry, you are a cosmetic-chemist-turned-blogger and have two blogs/websites. The first is ChemistCorner.com and the second is BeautyBrains.com. Two questions: First, what the heck is a cosmetic chemist; and second, why are you so famous on the internet?
Perry: That’s a great question. First of all, as far as a cosmetic chemist goes, when I was in college I was studying biology and chemistry. Basically I focused more on chemistry because by the time I got to be a senior, that’s where I discovered all the science jocks were. When I got out, I interviewed with a bunch of places, and the place that I landed a job was at a shampoo factory. I subsequently learned that shampoos in the United States are considered cosmetics, and actually all personal- care products are cosmetics.
Before that, I just thought makeup was cosmetics, but it’s much more than that. What a cosmetic chemist does, they’re really, you could look at them like the chefs of the cosmetic world. We are the people that take the raw materials and we mix them together and we create the formulas that people use every day. Actually, it’s a lot like cooking. If people like cooking, they’d actually like to be cosmetic chemists; but instead of using eggs and flour, we’re using sodium laurel sulfate and cetrimonium chloride.
Jonathan: Sounds delicious.
Perry: There is really a lot of science in the business of cosmetics, and for people who like to invent things and mix things together, it’s actually a lot of fun.
Jonathan: What led you to take your knowledge of cosmetic chemistry to the internet and start writing about it?
Perry: Well, I had always enjoyed writing. If I wasn’t doing science I’d like to write about it. In fact, one of my first freelance gigs as a writer was writing for an encyclopedia. I worked on this project called How Products Are Made, which was published back in the ‘90’s.
I always enjoyed doing that. I started doing a few magazine articles, and the magazine articles got compiled into a book, and so I have a book called Beginning Cosmetic Chemistry, which essentially teaches people how to become a cosmetic chemist. I have always enjoyed explaining things to people, and someday I would hope to be a professor, I suppose.
But this is a way that I could be in industry and still get the teaching. Then back in about 2005, I discovered the wonderful world of blogging. My first blog was not a science blog; it was actually a blog about the card game Euchre. Euchre is a popular game here in the Midwest, but it was called the Euchre Universe, and I wrote about that card game every day, the strategies of how to win, and that really got me going.
Eventually, it occurred to me that doing a blog about cosmetic products would be a popular one, especially from the standpoint of a scientist. Because there are a lot of beauty blogs out there written by people, usually women who like to use the products, and what they think about them. But they are fooled by all the marketing information that they get about the products, and there really wasn’t anything – and there really still isn’t anything except our website – which answers questions about beauty products from the standpoint of a scientist. That’s how the Beauty Brains got started, and it just kind of snowballed from there.
Jonathan: Perry, that is a noble public service, for a lack of better terms, because you’re exactly right. There’s very few things on the list of things to not type into a search engine. One is diet pills, another is beauty products, because the amount of just nonsense out there is overwhelming. What have you seen to be the three things that if you could just tell someone, “Watch out for these three things,” what would they be?
Perry: Well, three tips. First of all, it’s a myth that more-expensive products work better. More-expensive products do not work better than the less-expensive products. In fact, the products that you can get at your local Target or Wal-Mart work every bit as good as the ones that you’re going to get at department stores and salons. In fact, a lot of times they’re formulated by the same company, but you wouldn’t know that by the brand. You’ve got to understand that in the cosmetic industry, we all have access to all the same chemicals; and for the most part, we’re all able to come out with products which are pretty much equivalent.
The thing that drives the price up on cosmetic products is not the way that it works, but it’s the packaging, it’s the advertising, it’s the name, and it’s those things which don’t really affect the way it works that affect the price, much more than the way it works.
My advice to anybody who is getting a cosmetic product, start with the lowest- priced thing that you’re happy with. If it doesn’t work for you, work your way up until you get to a point where you find a product that works well for you.
Don’t be fooled by these products that are in the hundreds of dollars. It’s embarrassing to me to see cosmetic skin creams and anti-wrinkle creams that will go for $200 and $300 an ounce when I know that they’re not working any better than a product that you can get at your local Target for less than $20.
Jonathan: Perry, just really quick, I love, love that you said that. Because even outside of the cosmetic arena, there has been all sorts of social-science experiments where you take a store that’s selling something that people don’t really understand what it should cost. For example, we all kind of know, let’s say, what a gallon of milk should cost or what a hamburger should cost. We have a frame of reference for that.
Let’s say we were in a store buying a cosmetic product, or a type of stone, like a topaz stone. There have been social-science studies conducted where they’ll take the topaz stone and they sell it for a dollar. And they will take the same topaz stone, exact same stone, and sell it for $100, and actually sell more when they sell it for $100 because people don’t know how to judge quality based on anything other than price, because they have no frame of reference.
When they see something that’s more expensive, they literally buy more of it, even though it’s more expensive, simply because they’re using price as the proxy for quality. It sounds like when it comes to cosmetics, that’s not a good approach.
Perry: Absolutely. There’s a thing called the halo effect, and the halo effect is the characteristics of the product which convince you that it’s working better than maybe it actually is. If you buy a product that costs you hundreds of dollars, you’re inclined to believe that it’s working; because the alternative, that you got ripped off or spent too much money, is much more painful to think of than to believe that the product is working. But if you tested the products on a blinded basis, where you didn’t know how much it cost and the packaging was all the same, it is very difficult for you to tell a difference.
Jonathan: Love it. What is number two?
Perry: The second thing that I would say is – and you find this on the internet a lot – is the concern of cosmetics causing cancer or there being dangerous chemicals in cosmetics. You have seen stories about lead in lipstick, or estrogen or hormone ingredients, or ingredients that impact hormones. What you find is that these are written by people who are not scientists, they are people who are really fearmongers, I think.
There are a lot of brands that buy into this, and we will get to that in a second. But what I really want to say is that the ingredients used in cosmetics have been safety tested. Cosmetics are safety tested before they are put on the market. In fact, in the United States, it is illegal to sell an unsafe cosmetic product.
One of the things that people miss is that chemicals, all chemicals, can be dangerous, it doesn’t matter. Even water can kill people. So there really isn’t a thing as a toxic chemical or a dangerous chemical without knowing the dose of a chemical that you’re exposed to.
That’s the important part, how much are you exposed to? It’s not how dangerous is the ingredient. There is a safe level of ingredients, and cosmetics are tested for these. For the most part, really any product that you are going to get in the store is perfectly safe for you to use.
Jonathan: Perry, a good example of this, you mentioned there’s the old saying that the poison is in the dose. To bring this home to maybe another area of nutrition, for example, we say that sugar is not great for you; in fact, sugar can be bad for you. But we don’t say that, for example, blueberries cause diabetes. Because the dose of sugar that you would get when you eat blueberries is not at the, let’s call it, poisonous level that you would have if you perpetually drank soda. Again, it’s the dose, not the substance in and of itself, that is particularly troublesome. Is that on the right track?
Perry: No, that’s absolutely true. That is absolutely the correct way to look at things. When it comes to cosmetics, it’s the dose that matters, it’s not so much the specific ingredient that you use.
The other thing I’d like to mention about cosmetics is that if people are afraid of cosmetics, they really shouldn’t use them. You do not need cosmetics in your life, and you could live a perfectly fine, healthy life without using cosmetics. So if you are driven by fear, you really shouldn’t use them.
Now, I think the level of fear that people have is way overblown. If you think about it, if you are afraid of cars, you shouldn’t drive a car either. But the benefits really outweigh the risks. In terms of cosmetics, they are probably the most safe consumer product that you can buy.
Jonathan: Perry, the key here in what I’m hearing is, of course, we don’t have to use cosmetics, absolutely. Just like we have a buyer-beware approach when approaching cosmetics and approaching any product, we should also have a reader-beware approach when we go to a website or any news outlet. Just like we know a cosmetic company is in the business of making money, for example to your first point, they may artificially inflate the cost of something because, again, their motivation is to make money.
At the same time, news outlets’ jobs are to get your attention, and a great way to get your attention is to scare you. They may, for example, say that this particular ingredient is poisonous, or in studies where rats were put in a bathtub of it and sat there for three days, it caused bad things to happen. But, of course, that’s not what we would do if we chose to use, let’s say, a safe face cream. Again, they are in the business of getting our attention, so they do that by making these wild claims that exaggerate the dose dependency we talked about in your first point. Fair?
Perry: Absolutely. You’ve got to remember, if you think about news stories, what’s the more compelling headline? Baby shampoos are perfectly safe, or your baby shampoo is going to kill your baby? You know, which is the story that people are going to want to read? The news media is much more focused on putting out scare stories and things like that because those are the kinds of things that people want to read; it’s not because that’s really what reality is.
Jonathan: I think the key takeaway – correct me if I’m wrong, Perry – is not avoid all news stories because they’re all trying to scare you. It’s just as you have a sense of caution for everything else in life, because you have to understand people’s motives, have a sense of caution here and understand that especially nowadays, much of the news media should be thought of more as an entertainment outlet, at least in my opinion, than in an unbiased, factual outlet. So just keep that in mind, right?
Perry: You are correct. The one thing I would also say is never get your science information from the news media, or at least the mainstream media. Go to science outlets for the real story because the news, they do a terrible job of covering science.
Jonathan: I think all the listeners here can definitely agree with that from an eating and exercise perspective, so it sounds like we just apply that exact same logic when it comes to cosmetics.
Perry: Absolutely. Now, the final thing that I would want people to know is you see this trend of natural cosmetic products, and it’s important to know that this is all just a marketing term and is a marketing spin. There is really nothing inherently more safe about products that claim to be natural than your conventional cosmetic products.
The other interesting thing about that is that in the United States and really around the world, there is no agreed-upon definition of what something is natural, so any company can pretty much put the word “natural” or “organic” on their product and be perfectly well within their rights.
If there is a consumer who has been essentially duped into believing that a natural product is going to be better for them, as far as cosmetics goes, they really have no way of determining whether that’s true. The fact is, natural products really are not demonstrably more safe for you, and they typically do not work as well.
Jonathan: Certainly, we want to put an exclamation point next to that point, Perry, because this term “natural” has literally become – and not just in cosmetics. You see things, like I’ve got my favorite, is agave nectar, which is touted as an all-natural substitute for terrible non-natural things like high-fructose corn syrup. Of course, high-fructose corn syrup is no good and it is unnatural.
But the reason folks don’t like high-fructose corn syrup is because it has approximately 40 to 42% fructose in it. But this all-natural agave nectar has 90% fructose in it. So if you’re trying to avoid fructose, the “natural” alternative is no better. This is really one that gets me fired up, Perry, because I preach a message of eating as nature intended, for lack of better terms, eating things we find in nature. But it seems that as soon as corporate interests get their hands on that word “natural,” even if you read products right, it’s almost like inspired by natural ingredients. It’s so fluffy.
Perry: Yes, absolutely. That’s another thing that you should take a look at with your cosmetic products. A lot of times people, they blame the cosmetic industry for being liars. I’m here to tell you that, for the most part, cosmetics companies do not lie. What they do is they are able to write the truth in such a way where it gives you one impression, but where they are really saying something else.
They will say a product with aloe will help soothe your wrinkles, for example. A consumer might read a statement like that, kind of read it quickly, and they will get the impression that the product is going to cure their wrinkles. If you read exactly what the words say, they don’t exactly say that; it just gives that impression.
As a consumer, you have to really read carefully what is written on the packaging and look out for some of the weasel words like “formula contains” or “the formula is going to improve the appearance.” It doesn’t say it’s going to get rid of your wrinkles, it will say it will improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. It’s a very subtle thing, and it’s a way that people are tricked, and it’s a way that you end up spending more money for your cosmetic products than you really need to.
Jonathan: Perry, is another good word to watch out for “may?” The reason I say that is it recently struck me that you could create anything and say – and be telling the truth – that it “may” do anything else. For example, I could hand you a pen and say, “Perry, this pen may enable you to fly,” and what I said is true. It may. It won’t, but it may.
Perry: Yes. Those are some of the kinds of weasel wording that you look for. The one thing that I do want to say, though, is that I might come off seeming to say that cosmetics don’t work. The truth is cosmetics actually do work. Skin creams make your skin feel better and they do make your skin look better. Hair products certainly can make your hair look better. So cosmetic products really do work. The problem that they get into is they exaggerate the claims.
Probably the main reason for that is that it’s very difficult to stand out. Everybody can make a good product. So you’ve got to figure out some way to make your product stand out and be bought among the whole sea of all the options that the consumer has. In their zeal to get themselves to stand out, many cosmetic companies will exaggerate the claims and the impression of the way that the product works. Ultimately, a consumer who spends a whole lot of money on a product, unless they are fooling themselves, they will typically be disappointed in the results.
Jonathan: Perry, speaking of results, are there any clinically-documented, randomized, controlled trials showing that certain cosmetic products cure things rather than, for example, if you apply a tanning cream to your skin, it will make your skin look tan, but then it will stop and you have to reapply it. In some way, it masks a symptom. Is there any cosmetic product that if you use it for a period of time, you can stop and that which it did it will continue to do?
Perry: That’s a great question. The truth is, if the product did that, it wouldn’t be a cosmetic anymore. If you look at the definition for cosmetics by the FDA, cosmetics are only allowed to change the appearance of your skin or hair or biological surfaces. Once a compound interferes with, say, your collagen production or hair growth, it no longer is a cosmetic; it’s now considered a drug, and it’s regulated differently by the FDA.
When you see things where a cosmetic is claiming that it is going to interact with some sort of form of cell metabolism, they’re making unsubstantiated claims, and they’re most likely making illegal drug claims. Cosmetics themselves are only supposed to be transient, they are only allowed to change the appearance and make you feel better; they are not actually allowed to have a long-term effect.
Jonathan: If our goal is to have a long-term effect, have you dabbled in the science there? For example, have you seen an individual who wants to improve their hair, because I know you specialize in hair, and certainly I’m sure you could rattle off your favorite set of cosmetic products, which to your point by definition are cosmetic, meaning they work on the surface, they don’t change anything at the root. Is there a way to target the root, say through diet or exercise, in your experience?
Perry: That’s a problem that cosmetic chemists and the pharmaceutical industry has been looking at. The truth is, there’s nothing that’s going to grow your hair. There’s nothing that’s going to – I mean, beyond the drugs that are approved: Noxidil, which only works for maybe 20% of people; and Propecia, which is an internal drug and regulated differently – but any of these topical treatments that aren’t one of those drugs I mentioned, there’s really no evidence that they work.
People are spending a lot of money because they want that problem fixed. It’s just a problem that we haven’t solved yet. Research continues in it, and when a product does come out and it does fix that problem, it’s not going to be a cosmetic, it’s going to be a drug.
Jonathan: Speaking of drugs, these are substances we ingest, and then they do their thing, they cause chemical reactions in our body. To that end, I’ve heard many people, myself included, define food as an enlarged drug, because it causes a chemical reaction in the body. Have you seen in your experience any particular foods that, let’s say if we are targeting our nails, or we’re targeting our skin, or our hair, that these foods… Because we hear about this in magazines all the time, but let’s not get our science from Cosmo, let’s get our science from scientists. Have you seen any foods that do have demonstrable effect on, let’s say, hair, skin, or nails?
Perry: It’s one of the big trends in the cosmetic industry now, we call it the beauty from within. A lot of companies are coming out with these products, these food supplements, these fortified waters and drinks to affect your skin. The truth is there is zero evidence that any of these products have any impact on your skin.
The truth about supplements is that if you’re a relatively healthy person and you eat a normal diet, you’re not going to notice any difference by using a vitamin supplement or any other kind of food supplement. In fact, on some level they can be dangerous if you’re on other drugs because there can be an interaction with those. It is an area of interest and it is an area of research but, as of yet, there is no real evidence that would show that ingesting a product can have a noticeably positive effect on your skin or your hair.
Jonathan: If we were to say, I’m getting ready to go to a wedding, or I’m getting ready to go to a class reunion and I want to look good; even if it’s temporary, I want to look a little over-the-top good. For women and for men, what would you say from a scientific perspective are the top one to three things we could try to have that temporary boost in our appearance?
Perry: Cosmetics absolutely work. And if you want to get rid of your skin wrinkles or blemishes, then certainly using colored cosmetics is a way to go, and using hairstyling products to make your hair look a certain way. All of these things that people naturally do, they work; they work temporarily of course, but they absolutely do work. That’s really what you can do. It doesn’t really cost a lot to get cosmetics; you don’t have to spend a lot of money on them. But they absolutely work.
Jonathan: It sounds like the takeaway, Perry, is that, one, we should really understand that all cosmetics are safe, and other than gray-market, weird internet cosmetics, they are safety tested, and that just because something contains a substance which in incredibly high doses could be bad for you, that doesn’t mean that the dose that is presented to us in a given product has that consequence.
Separately, if we do want to try out cosmetics, we could go to our local drugstore, local Wal-Mart, or Amazon, or search around on the internet and find a product we like, and don’t have to spend an arm and a leg. In fact, it would be, per your wonderful advice to start off the show, start as inexpensive as you can and work your way up, right?
Perry: Yes, absolutely, that’s great advice. Really, if that’s the one thing that people get from this interview, I think I’ve done my job.
Jonathan: Well, certainly anytime we hear someone who’s got more than 20 years of experience in the industry, and has got a scientific background, saying that you can get the same results for less money, and can back it up with science, that’s a message I certainly like hearing.
Jonathan: Perry, if folks want to learn more about you, you’ve got your ChemistCorner.com website, and also BeautyBrains.com website. Correct?
Perry: Absolutely, those are me.
Jonathan: Perry, what’s next for you? You certainly spend quite a bit of time in the media, a lot of time blogging; what’s next?
Perry: Another thing that I do is actually, I spend a lot of time running while juggling, it’s called joggling. Right now I’m training to do a 24-hour run while joggling, trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records.
Jonathan: Wow, that is a first, Perry. So you know what you should do? You should also apply cosmetics while juggling. You should juggle cosmetics while jogging, and talking about chemistry.
Perry: That’s a great idea. I love it.
Jonathan: Perry, I don’t think you’d have too much competition in the Guinness Book if you did that.
Perry: No, I absolutely would not.
Jonathan: You could set the world record for most cosmetic products juggled while discussing chemistry and jogging simultaneously.
Perry: I like it.
Jonathan: All right. Perry, I hope I’ve given you a little bit back in return for your wonderful insights on the show.
Perry: Thanks a lot, Jonathan. I had a good time.
Jonathan: Thank you so much, Perry. Listeners, I hope you enjoyed today’s show as much as I did. Remember this week and every week after, eat smarter, exercise smarter, and live better. Talk with you soon.