When I think of cosmetic chemists and the beauty industry, the first image that pops into my head is the corporate cosmetic chemist formulating products to the specifications of marketers at one of the multinational conglomerates. But there’s a new breed of cosmetic chemist emerging to challenge the big beauty brands and their cost-cutting, undisclosed-actives-concentrations ways. Indie formulators, like my foreverboo Chel of Holy Snails, are innovating products and using social media to get the word out.
One such formulator is Stephen Alain Ko, the cosmetic chemist behind skincare and beauty industry blog Kind of Stephen. Stephen is another of those amazing people using his knowledge and education to come up with crazy new formulations that may change skincare forever, for the better. I wanted to get to know Stephen a little better and give you guys a chance to, too. So here’s our interview on cosmetic chemistry, formulation, the state of the industry, and what cool stuff you might be putting on your face in a few years!
Tell us about your education and your background in the beauty industry!
I always loved making lotions and potions and I suppose the first taste of it was making potions with friends when I was 6 years old. We would take walnuts and (unbeknownst to us) extract tannins, juglones and other pigments and use them to dye things – like our parents furniture!
I was the first person in my grade to get acne by a year, so I became known as the guy with acne. It was absolutely devastating for my self-esteem, but I don’t think I would’ve discovered my love for cosmetics and skin care without that experience – so I see it now as a positive. A few years later when other kids starting breaking out, I was the person they went to for advice – it was nice!
It wasn’t until my first year of University that I discovered cosmetic chemistry was a real career choice. I had the chance to enter a business plan competition and I created a small line of products and a business plan – I was noticed by a few people in the industry and got my first job through that!
I’ve also chosen to remain in school, as I need the library, resources, and journal access for my work. I also really do enjoy learning new things and finding ways that I can apply it to my work. It can be a hassle balancing a full time job with courses, but everytime I feel like whining I remember that people have accomplished much more than I have with less time. There’s a research group on campus that works on self-emulsifying nano-emulsions, for example. It’s basically an oil that you can pour into water that turns into a nano-emulsion with some light mixing, it’s one method of increasing skin penetration of actives and for food increased absorbance of certain nutrients – amazing stuff. I’ll have an opportunity to work with their group next year – and I don’t think I would have these kinds of opportunities without being so close to education. I would really love to pursue a master’s degree and a PhD in chemistry, but unfortunately I don’t think you can do those part time.
I’m always working on new formulations, some just for fun, and some for a possible future line. It’s been a dream of mine for years to be able to launch my own line of products where I have control over the formulation, marketing, and packaging. I want to create little pieces of art! As well I’d really like to be able to funnel money into skin care research, as well as improving global hygiene. People are dying due to a lack of access to clean water and basic necessities like soap. Children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are at the greatest risk. When a bag of rice and a bar of soap cost almost the same, what choice can a family make? It’s really sad and something that I want to make an impact on. There’s a fantastic charity called Clean The World who recycle discarded hotel soaps and redistribute it to people in need, they’re a group I want to work with in a capacity greater than an individual…and I hope I will be able to do that soon!
What are your cosmetic chemistry and beauty industry pet peeves?
I think my biggest pet peeve when it comes to formulation is cleaning. I probably spend more time cleaning than I do actually formulating, I’m not actually sure how true that is because I’ve never timed it – but it certainly feels like forever.
I think my other biggest pet peeve about the cosmetic industry, in general, is just the condescension to its customers. I think the beauty industry has such a great opportunity to really get people interested in chemistry and science. There used to be a great gap between cosmetic chemists and customers, called the marketing department, but social media has made that gap disappear. And I totally understand, being asked the same questions, or being asked for an opinion on something you disagree with can become tiring. But I see it as people expressing their curiosity in science and chemistry, and why would anyone ever want to quell that?
Unfortunately, many of the big voices in the industry can come off as rude and in the worst cases sexist. There’s so many interesting concepts you can teach with beauty products. When I first started learning chemistry most of the teaching examples were based on making bricks, or TNT, or how to make drugs. I didn’t find those relatable or interesting. But now that I’ve learned
more and have worked in the industry, I see so many examples in the cosmetic industry that could be great teaching tools for chemistry as well. I don’t think I’m qualified to be a teacher, but I do try to encourage anyone who reaches out to me to learn more about chemistry and explain concepts to them with beauty relevant examples that are relatable. Another dream of mine has been to teach an introductory chemistry course through beauty, and hopefully that’s something I’ll also be able to do one day!
What are your favorite ingredients to work with?
I really like working with fragrances, because they’re fun and provide an instant effect. I don’t actually include them often in my formulas though, because they don’t necessarily offer any benefits to the skin, some ingredients can double as a fragrance and active though. Also I really suck at smelling things, so I think it would probably be unfair to unleash my “fragrances”.
Sunscreens are also another ingredient I like working with, the newer ones have some really cool textures and effects, and there are additives that can extend the path that UV light takes – so it’s more likely it’ll come in contact with a sunscreen chemical and become “neutralized”. Unfortunately most of these ingredients aren’t allowed in the US and Canada.
I think the biggest development I’m excited about is incorporating more client feedback into the product development process. Right now, the industry is very one way. I’ve sat through so many trendsetting presentations where it was just completely off. Two years ago a big pigment company was promoting gold as the next big trend in makeup, but everything I was seeing on Instagram was greyish-nude pink lips. Gold was definitely not big that year.
Companies, or people rather, like Charlotte Tilbury, Jeffree Star, Kylie Jenner, and Emily Weiss of Glossier are super responsive to their fans and clients. I think we’ll see more and more transnational brands making investments into these brands as they have the community and love that a million dollar ad campaign just can’t create. Charlotte Tilbury is a force and I know she has some of the big companies scared…she was able to outbid them on some of the most expensive retail spots, ones that they had for years!
What’s your dream product?
I actually have dreams of creating a mask that just causes your acne to pop out of your face, leaving behind smooth perfect skin. It would’ve saved me a lot of grief in high school.
One of the coolest formulas I’ve worked with was a gel cleanser that had non-newtonian properties. Basically it was like a thick gel that kinda reacted like flubber! If you pulled it apart quickly it would almost shatter, but if you touched it gently it would move like a giant puddle of goo. You could snap off a piece and roll it in your hands into your ball, and if you gently massaged it it would turn into a soft putty again. It was totally just for fun, and it didn’t perform any better or worse than a non-cool cleanser though. I’m still thinking of ways to turn it into something that’s not just cool, but we’ll see – it’s not high up on the to do list right now!
What advice do you have for beauty consumers looking for their ideal products?
I think being consistent with your routine is the most important thing. A lot of people put a lot of emphasis on the formula and concentration. Yes, these things are absolutely important, but unfortunately as a consumer we just don’t know unless the company markets or releases that information. The INCI list on the back of the product may look technical, but it’s not very thorough or specific in its language. Green tea extract or Camellia Sinensis Leaf Extract can mean so many different things. It could be standardized for caffeine, EGCG, fragrance, or a myriad of other compounds – it may not be standardized for anything. 10% niacinamide may look better than 5% niacinamide content, but if that 5% niacinamide is optimized for skin penetration – then it’s entirely possible that the 5% will perform better for the skin. There’s a lot of variables at play, and you can’t make assumptions based on the limited information that is presented to you on the product packaging – it sucks, but it’s just the way that the industry is right now.
One thing we can control though is our consistency, most visible changes to the skin take 3 months (or longer) for us to notice them. That’s especially true for acne medications, I think we sometimes give up before we can actually notice the benefits.
Getting to know people like Stephen has shown me how fascinating cosmetic chemistry can be. There’s a ton of science behind every product we put on our faces (well, hopefully), and it makes me wish I’d spent more time listening and less time sleeping in my chemistry classes as a student. Since beauty sleep was apparently just so high priority back then, I guess the best I can do now is enjoy and try to understand the fruits of these chemists’ hard work, and pass it on to you guys!
If you like to see the insider view of cosmetic chemistry, including pictures and videos of some really freaky and cool experimental substances, check out Stephen’s Instagram, @kindofstephen!