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Qualified but not competent. What’s going on with Cosmetic Science?

April 12, 2022

You would think that the rise in people with qualifications in cosmetic formulating would be closely mirrored by a rise in formulating competency and (one would hope) a rise in scientific literacy but that’s not been my experience.

I accept that my opening sentence may come across as a bit harsh. That it could indicate I’m a bitchy, stuck-up, better-than-you cow-bag that feels everyone should bow down to me, but that’s not what I’m about. My motivation comes from a mix of frustration, sadness and fear! Yes, believe it or not, I’m scared about where this is leading…

The Coronaverse created the perfect environment for self-evaluation and a change in working life! Some used that time to re-educate and follow a lifelong passion to launch a brand or business in the cosmetic space. To those, I say ‘good on you!’ This can be a very fun and creative place to work and play once you’ve got yourself orientated and educated!

In terms of education, greeting these newly primed beauty business bods down that rabbit hole were and still are a number of options and that, my friends, is where all hell breaks loose!

For those who are interested, this blog post has also been recorded as a Podcast and that’s available by following this link.

Hubris: exaggerated pride or self-confidence.

Education, tips and tricks – the good, the bad and the ugly!

The self-directed education options out there for beauty brand newbies are vast and exciting! Never before in my lifetime have there been so many choices, so much information shared and so much content available to consume. Choice is largely a good thing as it increases the chances that you, the education seeker will be able to find a provider or source of information that suits your needs, wants and budget. But choice can quickly turn sour when you realise much of what’s on offer is pretty rubbish!

After doing some of my own research (hahahahahahaha, that’s what they all say) I’ve become somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who’ve set themselves up as teachers, group leaders, facilitators, content creators, ‘experts’ or even whole schools on the back of what appear to be dubious, shallow and/or narrow foundations.

Here are some examples of what I’ve found:

  1. Season 1 ‘winners’ from the Coronaversity of life turned teacher
    • That is, people who had quit their jobs and found some success with their own brands (or even just kitchen experiments) in the year before or right at the start of the pandemic, you know, at that time when our 2021-22 cohort were still wrestling that 6 pack of toilet roll from Karen in aisle 6. It is my opinion that some of these happy-go-lucky sharers and carers have possibly created so much soap or whipped body butter that some got into their eyes, preventing them from seeing that their experience and insights while somewhat helpful are extremely limited.
  2. Newly qualified graduates from reputable, accredited providers who go straight from zero to teaching / consultant hero!
    • Now these are usually good courses so the information learned is likely to be relatively thorough, accurate and relevant. However, it’s never the best idea to go straight from education into teaching and /or consultancy without supervision and ongoing peer review. I’ve said many times that Cosmetic is an Applied rather than Theoretical Science so while one may have got a grasp on the theory from a course, it’s only after enough hours of practice that one can call themselves fully Qualified in a meaningful way. In terms of practice, for those wanting to teach or consult around cosmetic science/ formulating it really is essential to back up book learning with experience gained in an established industry setting over a sufficient length of time (I’d say at least 2 years to gain enough experience to get started).
  3. Newly qualified graduates from unaccredited providers going straight to teacher/ consultant or Facebook group advisor/ administrator roles.
    • This is where most of my worry comes from and I’m sad to say this does indeed happen! I’m not sure what some of the unaccredited providers are teaching but some do seem to feeding the ego more than the intellect and that’s worrying. I’ve heard of cases where last years graduates teach this years students (what, why?). It’s worth noting that not all unaccredited providers/ courses are bad just as not all accredited providers are great, it’s just the variability is much greater when there’s no real rule book or oversight.
  4. Self-Taught brand owner turning their hand at contract manufacturing after doing a course on GMP or something similar.
    • Everyone has to start somewhere and this seemingly wreckless jump into manufacturing oblivion could actually end up working out if the brand owner involved has enough money and insight to create a more experienced team around them. The red flag for me around this is again with the ‘self-taught’ part. Brand owners that do make a go of it (and many do) with or without any good, bad or ugly educational input typically succeed because they know what they know and are very good at managing and delivering that. Contract manufacturing, white label, formulating and tweaking your products to suit others may sound like a no-brainer after doing all that hard work yourself (and winning at it) but in reality it’s a ball-ache that brings millions of new issues and struggles. I’ve heard from a few people in this camp who have ended up over their heads in issues after diving into this playground on their own.
  5. Smart Entrepreneurs who turn their special interest in cosmetics into a whole educational business model.
    • It was 2003 when I finally graduated with my Diploma in Cosmetic Formulating from the London School of Fashion. In the 19 years that have followed everything has changed. I completed that course while working in my first cosmetic industry job. I worked out of orange covered work-books, attended in-person summer school at Boots the chemist in the UK and spent evenings at Society of Cosmetic Scientists lectures all over the UK. I know I had a computer at home for some of the coursework but also know that other work was hand-written and submitted via snail mail. These days courses are often conducted online with work-at-your-own-pace delivery schedule. Content is multi-media and three-dimensional. Supplementary information and examples are being freely provided on You Tube and in Social Media groups or via Teams. This has the potential to be great! Whether it is great or not still rests with the quality of the course content and teaching, things that can’t be short-cut, jazzed up or over-looked.

I can’t deny being angry about this situation. For me, this feeling stems from the fact that this, cosmetic chemistry, is all I’ve ever been good at and valued for in the business world and now it feels like it’s being unvalued, trashed even. Don’t worry, I’ll go work on that with my therapist…

In the spirit of playing the issue not the human, those who identify as being in any of the above scenarios are neither to be shamed nor, entirely blamed for the role they are playing in lowering the scientific integrity bar in this industry. For the most part, these people have good reason to feel they can go ahead and establish or diversify their businesses. Many are motivated by the desire to empower others; some want to give back to the industry that welcomed them in and gave them a diploma; others identified a niche or opportunity and just ran with it! That is all worth celebrating, that’s what businesses do!

The bottom line is that most of these people didn’t just rock up here on a whim. First, they invested; put in the hours; went to ‘school’ and got themselves an education.

With that in mind I need to draw my thoughts, this blog post, to a conclusion.

I still don’t really want to admit it but I feel I must.

It’s not the bad schools, the naive, inexperienced but enthusiastic teachers and graduates, the business-savvy-but-science-light entrepreneurs or crafter-turned-pro that are at fault here. No, this is my failure, a failure of me as a Cosmetic Industry Trained Chemist. It’s a failure of my peers and my industry.

Collectively ‘we’ have failed to preserve and promote the foundational role academic integrity and scientific method play in what we do. We’ve failed to explain how our adherence to, respect for and application of these fundamentals create opportunities for better, safer, greener, cleaner and more exciting products. We failed to win hearts and minds.

We created this monster and now this monster is suffocating us.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. April 12, 2022 3:40 pm

    Two forces operating here. First, those who can’t teach. And second, we are well and truly in a post-truth error.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      April 12, 2022 3:50 pm

      I agree entirely!
      To quote Pablo Casals, “The situation is hopeless, we must take the next step.”

  2. April 12, 2022 8:24 pm

    I follow your podcast closely and look forward to more detailed recordings of ingredient deep dives. I am a formulator and love to learn about cosmetic science and ingredients. LOVED the ones you did on Glyceryl Stearate and Castor Oil. Look forward to many more. Some sugggestions: polymer science, the science of waxes, charges in products and how it affects formulations, how molecules “get along” in formulations and of course, individual deep dives of ingredients themselves…………thank you for all you do and I look forward to more!

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      April 12, 2022 8:33 pm

      Thank you for your feedback, it’s very sweet of you to share your ideas and feedback on my work. I’m grateful for your company and will definitely be adding more of that type of content as soon as I can.

  3. daisies permalink
    April 29, 2022 12:09 pm

    Fantastic post, Amanda. I’m curious to hear more of your thoughts about how you think your industry has failed in this regard, and what it might be able to do to improve the situation.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      April 29, 2022 1:21 pm

      Oh where to start! Mainly a lack of peer review, credential checking and standard enforcement to protect the integrity and quality of education and information being offered by schools and individuals. It has become a free for all with little oversight and at times we too have helped raised the profile of or pandered to businesses & individuals in this space because they are popular rather than suitably qualified.

      • April 29, 2022 2:23 pm

        Yes, indeed. Agree 100%.

      • daisies permalink
        April 29, 2022 2:35 pm

        Interesting. As a DIYer wanting to learn more, I would like to see better oversight, too, and not have to navigate the mire of bad and questionable options.

        Personally, I would like there to see more of a bridge gapped between the industry and homecrafters, with more affordable, reliable books, courses, etc. There’s a huge interest in DIY cosmetics that’s not going away, so I think ushering people toward better options is important.

        One more question: do you think the industry giving into ‘no parabens’, etc. marketing has helped spread pseudoscientific thinking in this realm?

      • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
        April 29, 2022 8:48 pm

        I am all for DIY’ers and feel that a great deal of creativity comes from that sector. However, there are now so many DIY’ers that feel their experience is equivalent to that gained in industrial setting that the lines are hard to draw. Some DIY’ers and even whole schools are dismissive of the benefits of following good scientific method, commercial viability, scalability and thorough testing.
        I do feel there’s a way to make this work but DIY’ers and Industry Insiders alike both have to develop insight and boundaries then stay within them. There’s nothing wrong with forming cross-‘cultural’ teams and working together as both groups have much to learn from each other but not While there’s so much hubris, aloofness, wilful ignorance and blindness in the way.
        Here’s to us all knowing the good, bad and the ugly of who we are and what we stand for.

  4. daisies permalink
    April 30, 2022 9:52 am

    Yes, I agree wholeheartedly about these issues with ‘expert’ DIYers, and the arrogance and wilful blindness out there. To be honest, I blame those individuals and the DIY beauty culture far more than I’d point the finger at your industry. I was just curious how the cosmetic industry might help curb this.
    One thing I’d really like to see is more of a barrier to homecrafters being able to sell goods. I get shocked by the poor level of knowledge I see from those who are already selling products. I’d like to see some type of accreditation required before anyone can sell cosmetics.

    • daisies permalink
      April 30, 2022 10:56 am

      Sorry, that’s popped up as a reply to the post, and I intended it as a reply to your last reply to me.

      • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
        April 30, 2022 11:00 am

        No problem. I’m very much wanting to encourage rather than punish so I’d be in favour of regulation and tighter standards but more as a way of drawing a logical boundary – for clarity rather than punishment. Definitely something to ponder

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