Interview with a cosmetic research scientist
Have you wondered who are the actual brains behind a breakthrough ingredient? They are cosmetic materials research scientists, working behind the scenes in R&D departments of cosmetic material suppliers and manufacturers worldwide. I am fortunate enough to learn more about what goes into developing novel cosmetic raw materials with a brilliant researcher, Dr Bianca McCarthy.
Originally from Brisbane, Bianca started her career as a cosmetic chemist, then obtained a PhD in Science at the University of Sydney (in record time!) and is now a research scientist at Shiseido’s Advanced Research Centre in Yokohama, Japan.
What led you to where you are now?
Let me start off by saying that I was not interested in cosmetics, skincare, or haircare until I was in my 20s! Rather, I am where I am today because of my interest in science: I regularly attended science camp from a young age (and was proud of it!), studied chemistry and physics in high school, and did a Bachelor of Science and Honours at the University of Queensland.
Upon graduation, I worked as a laboratory assistant at a cosmetic and therapeutic contract manufacturing facility just outside of Brisbane. I had an incredible mentor who introduced me to cosmetic science and gave me many opportunities to expand my skills, including doing the UK Diploma in Cosmetic Science and the Belgium Intensive Course in Dermato-Cosmetic Science. While studying, I became interested in the physiology of the skin and especially, the damage caused by UV. So it was at this point that I decided to go back to university and start my post-graduate studies at the University of Sydney.
Over the next few years, I would research the role of vitamin D compounds in preventing damage caused by UV. During my Ph.D., I was also given a great opportunity to work in the personal care division of a multinational raw materials distribution company. In this role, I worked closely with active ingredient suppliers and cosmetic brands, and saw a great fusion between science and marketing, and appreciated how this could help improve the lives of consumers.
To this day, I still like to hover at the interface between basic science and product development. I feel like this is where we can make the biggest difference. Now, at Shiseido, I feel like I am able to do this to a greater extent.
Tell us more about your key area of research. What part of it do you find it most engaging?
Growing up in Queensland, where the UV is extremely strong, sun protection was always an important part of my life. So, when I was contemplating going back to university, it made sense to combine my interest in science with my personal experiences with UV.
I was fortunate enough to get a position in Rebecca Mason’s group at the University of Sydney. Rebecca is a leader in vitamin D research, and over the next few years, I researched the role of vitamin D compounds, specifically in preventing damage caused by UV. I think that everyone could relate to the research in one way or another, maybe because they knew someone who had skin cancer, or they were worried about vitamin D deficiency themselves, or even just that they were aware of the damage caused by the sun. The accessibility of our research meant that we were given ample opportunities to present at academic and industry events. For me, networking and speaking with other researchers in the field is still the best part of research. I always find it motivating to hear about all the different ways people approach a particular problem. It inspires me to work harder and think more creatively.
What goes behind the scenes in discovering a new ingredient? Are ingredients discovered or invented?
Every year, there are new ingredients being marketed as anti-ageing, skin whitening or anti-pollution actives, for example. These seem to be sourced from all sorts of places, from the bottom of the ocean to the middle of a remote desert! Synthetic ingredients, like peptides and vitamins, are also popular choices for actives.
It can take many years for new ingredients to make it to market, whether they are discovered in nature or synthesised in a lab. Take retinoids for example. Retinol was first synthesised in a lab in the early 1950s. However, their use in dermatology, first as an anti-acne and then as an anti-ageing treatment, were not realised until the 1960s and 1980s, respectively. I can only speculate on why it took so long, but it probably had to do with safety and efficacy tests, not to mention regulatory approvals. Nowadays, everyone knows about retinoids and they are one of the most accepted and widely used class of anti-ageing active ingredients.
You can appreciate that some companies may not be able to invest resources into discovering new ingredients, so what you will more than likely see is new roles for existing ingredients. Using in silico techniques, it is possible to map potential interactions between an active ingredient or active constituents in a natural extract and particular proteins in your biological pathway of interest.
How long does it usually take for a new finding/invention to make it into stores?
The pace of new product development is dependent on several factors, including current trends, what competitors are doing, and, of course, research outcomes. Therefore, it could take as short as 2 years or as long as 10 years! For “me-too” products (i.e. copies or dupes), however, this timeline is much shorter. Safety and efficacy testing, as well as regulatory approval, takes a huge amount of time, but is just as important as the research itself.
How different is your role now compared to being a formulator in the past? What do you miss most?
Most of my time these days is spent doing basic research, and as most researchers would know, basic research is a very tedious process that can involve a lot of very labour intensive experiments! So, if I think of my day-to-day activities, sometimes I miss the fast paced environment of working in contract manufacturing. There were always new projects with tight deadlines, and it was exciting to be part of the development process.
Nowadays, my work is more focused and I feel a real sense of achievement in getting interesting results, learning new experimental techniques, and having brainstorming sessions with colleagues. While I may have to wait a much longer time for the reward, when compared to contract manufacturing, I am enjoying the journey and the self-developments I am making along the way.
What is it like working in a Japanese environment? How does that compare to Australia?
Before I moved to Japan, I was conscious of the fact that Japanese companies had a bad reputation for working people too hard. It was a more than pleasant surprise to learn that work here was flexible and independent. I have seen firsthand how much the company values its researchers, especially those who are female, which makes for a safe and welcoming working environment. On top of that, I feel like it is very fitting to work as a scientist in Japan. Generally speaking, Japanese people are considered perfectionists, and when it comes to the work itself, my colleagues are all very methodical and precise! This atmosphere motivates me to improve my own scientific skills.
Culturally, I still experience stumbling blocks, mainly arising from the different ways of communicating. Australians are open and direct, and often discuss their personal lives at work, sometimes as a means of bonding with a colleague. Japanese people do not operate like this! I still remember an incident with a senior male colleague. It must have been a Friday afternoon because I asked him what his plans were for the weekend. He looked at me confused and asked, ‘Why? Do you want to do something?’ Clearly this was not what I meant, so I quickly learnt to dial down the amount of personal questions I asked.
It is difficult to assimilate while still retaining your own identity, but I try to mirror some Japanese behaviour when required. Also, I have learnt to change the way I think about cultural differences. No longer do I consider particular behaviours as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or that the Australian way to communicate is ‘better’. Things are just, ‘different’.
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