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Cosmetics got Chemistry

Posted by gxf on Dec 17, 2009 3:05:22 PM
Things have come a long way since the ancient Egyptians used galena (lead sulphite) as eye makeup. I spent most of last week in New York City at the annual meeting of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists. There is an amazing amount of very sophisticated chemistry going on in cosmetics.

One of the most enjoyable presentations was by Ricardo Diez of Chanel, Inc. Dr. Diez summarized developments in 'cleansing products' over the last 50 years. I put the term in quotation marks because what we call 'soap' today is quite different from soap of 50 years ago. An excerpt from the New York Times of that era advised women to wash their hair no more often than about every 2 weeks. This stuff was really just your basic soap, i.e., fatty acid salts.

Dr. Diez reported that in the 1920's German chemists created the first 'soap alternatives' or detergents to support the textiles industry. These were the people who filed the patents "behind widely used anionic surfactants" still around today. Surfactants transformed soaps into milder, more effective cleaning agents. Over time, manufacturers made the products gentler (think Johnson's ® "No More Tears" ®). Then added silicones to combine shampoo and conditioner (e.g., Procter & Gamble's "Pert Plus" ®). Finally, manufacturers combined moisturizers with the cleaners.

How did all this come about? Remember the DuPont slogan: Better living through chemistry? Some might find it frivolous to apply this expression to cosmetics. But the advances in 'soap' have made a real improvements to peoples' lives, making it easier and cheaper to practice good hygene - not just to keep up appearances. As a professional chemist, I'm proud to be associated with the scientists who've accomplished that.
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