How Engineers Create Cosmetics

How Did They Do That?

Many people take for granted the colossal amount of engineering that goes into developing cosmetics. For example:


Everyone knows how dangerous it is to get sunburned. Short of carrying an umbrella everywhere, how do we protect ourselves? Sunscreen works, but why? The mineral zinc oxide is particularly good at reflecting the ultraviolet (UV) light that causes sunburn. This mineral also happens to be very good at reflecting regular light so it’s easy to see — and why you often see it on the nose of lifeguards at the beach. But … what if we make the particles so small that they don’t reflect visible light (and appear invisible), and only reflect the UV light? We can do that, did do that, and the result is sunscreen that disappears when you put it on your skin. You’re wearing a zinc oxide wall, but it’s so thin you can see through it!

Foaming Soap

Regular liquid soap lasts longer when it’s dispensed as foam. More importantly, it’s fun. So how does one make liquid soap foamy? The main problem with foaming soap is that it can’t be shipped from the manufacturer to the store as foam (well, it can be, but it’s far too expensive; it simply takes up too much space). Therefore, foaming soap is delivered to the customer as a liquid and soap turns into foam as it is dispensed. One way to make liquid soap foam is by adding foaming agents — just like for shaving cream. Unfortunately, sometimes these agents are bad for the environment. The solution is a cleverly engineered pump right on the dispenser that turns liquid soap into foam with one simple push!

2-in-1 Conditioner

Washing long hair is a challenge. Not only does it take forever, but it can also leave hair a tangled mess to comb, or fly away on a dry day. Shampoo has something called a surfactant that contains a lot of positive charge to make it really good at removing dirt, but not so good at taming your mane. Once upon a time, people would put oil in their hair to separate and weigh down the strands of hair — macassar oil was particularly popular. This lead to the creation of anti-macassars to protect furniture as the oil would drip from men and women’s hair onto the back of chairs! Modern conditioners are long-chain molecules, called polymers, which wrap around the hair. But for some people, the second step of adding conditioner is one step too many in the process. Enter 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner. If shampoo removes dirt and oil from the hair and conditioner adds it, how can you put them in the same container? You can engineer special surfactants or emulsions to put the conditioner into the product so that it is not destroyed by the shampoo. When the hair gets clean, the right molecules attach to the clean hair to leave lustrous, manageable hair in half the time.

All Day Lipstick

Just after you apply your lipstick, you look marvelous. A moment later, your lipstick may appear on your glass, your shirt collar and ... well, that’s less marvelous. Not to mention that it’s necessary to touch up your lipstick so often during the day. Can’t someone engineer a lipstick that doesn’t come off? Certainly and it’s already been done. Engineers have made use of the fact that you shed the surface layer of skin cells from your lips every day. All day lipsticks work by actually dying or staining the outer layer of skin on your lips. Since your lips are stained, the color does not smear off on your clothes. However, the stain isn’t shiny so most all day lipsticks come with a clear gloss that is applied over the stain — and voila! By the next day, the stain will have come clean and you’re ready for a new look.

Lip Plumper

What in the world is a humectant? It’s an interesting material that absorbs water and swells. Why is it good for cosmetics? When a humectant is added to a lipstick or lip gloss, it absorbs the water from around your lips to temporarily give your lips a fuller, plumper look.

So You Think You Want to Do That?

Here are the required cosmetic engineering courses and the real-world problems these courses will teach you to solve:

What’s in the Blender

Emulsion Technology: Doesn’t everyone just naturally shake the bottle of liquid foundation before they use it? And why does it seem to separate if you haven’t used it in a while? Emulsion technology is about understanding how to mix things that ordinarily don’t mix: oil and water, peanut butter and chocolate. Well, okay, some things should be mixed, but not everything mixes well. More importantly, emulsion technology helps you understand how to keep things mixed and together. Quite simply, emulsion technology is a way to combine things that ordinarily wouldn’t combine. When you’re talking about cosmetics, the components that make up liquid foundation is a great example.

The idea behind an emulsion is simple. Ordinarily, if you stir something like oil and water you will form a mixture of bubbles. It doesn’t matter if there is more oil, more water or exactly equal amounts of each — the mixture separates quickly. The mixture won’t stay together unless you add something else. When it comes to oil and water, you could add an egg yolk to bind the mixture — and make mayonnaise in the process. You could also add mustard or soap … but it might not taste very good.

As you can imagine, when you are making cosmetics the mixtures are a bit more complicated than oil and water. And even though the idea is the same, the ingredients may be a little different: the oils used are often rare and valuable, you often mix in shimmering colors or wrinkle-stomping chemicals to the base mixture, the water is extremely pure and special types of soap called surfactants are used. However, it is still all about keeping the ingredients mixed together and looking good.

Playing it Safe

Industrial Regulations and Quality: Cosmetics have been used since ancient Egyptian times — it’s just a shame that they used poisons such as mercury and lead to create their makeup! During the Renaissance, women wanted to look pale so they used ceruse on their face. Unfortunately, ceruse caused lead poisoning and hair loss. In the 19th century, women used belladonna to dilate their eyes in order to make them stand out more; belladonna also contained a toxin that caused hallucinations. In the 20th century women used mascara that also caused blindness.

Fortunately, cosmetics these days are extremely safe because much of what U.S. manufacturers add to cosmetics is controlled by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and federal law. Many industry leaders even seek an Underwriters Laboratory (UL) approval or European Union CE mark to prove just how safe and effective their products are. The standards will only get higher as companies continue making “cosmeceuticals” (topical products that are a combination of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals) such as wrinkle reducers. Therefore, it is necessary for a cosmetics engineer to study industry regulations and product quality.

It Isn’t Just a Theory

Advanced Process Theory: Cosmetics engineering isn’t just about the application of makeup. It takes serious intellectual firepower to produce lush lipsticks, shimmering eye shadows and long-lasting mascara. Why?

  • Lipstick: It uses a lot of soft wax that has to be poured hot into a mold (because if it was poured cold it would be too thick and it would never pour at all). It also has to cool perfectly without any bumps, lumps or cracks.
  • Mascara: The thicker it is, the longer it will last. But can you imagine trying to pour tar into the tiny hole on the top of a mascara container?
  • Eye Shadow: The shimmer in eye shadow looks great when it’s sitting in the container, but how do you make sure that it simply doesn’t blow off your eyelid after it’s applied?

Just How Advanced Are

Advanced Process Techniques: Cosmetics are varied and fascinating. How do you spray expensive cologne so that it doesn’t spray everywhere or leave an intense spot behind like a can of spray paint? How do you dry a cake of blush when the hydrogel (the component that keeps the blush and your skin moist) breaks down if it’s heated? How do you create a system to make a foaming facial scrub, on demand when the customer needs it? How do you mix a color-shifting, avant-garde nail polish so that every brush full looks as even as the last? A cosmetic engineer trained at Manhattan College knows that atomization, spray drying, pumping and homogenization are only a few of the techniques in his or her arsenal.