Inside every little black beauty bag is a bit of chemistry. It’s in the lip gloss and the powder, it’s all over the sunscreen and it floats around and out of the perfume. Science fills our bath with bubbles, holds our hair and paints our nails. Chemistry even has a hand in the amazing colors of the clothing we wear or fabulous flowing fabrics.
Chemistry: a science that deals with the structure and properties of substances and with the changes that they go through. Merriam-Webster®
So, how all this chemistry got into fashion is part of history. Long before chemistry was a named science, the Babylonians were making soap in 2800 B.C. – the first written recipe of this chemical reaction using natural products – water, alkali* salt with oil from the cassia plant – was recorded around 2200 B.C. The early Egyptians used chemistry to enhance their looks and their lives. They took pulverized natural minerals like iron oxide and created pigments for cosmetics and they understood how to extract the chemicals from plants to obtain essential oils for perfume, dyes like henna for hair and skin, and tannins for leather. The use of extracted plant dyes to color textiles is even older, some estimate over 5,000 years. The first written account of dye use comes out of China around 2600 B.C. As explorers and traders traveled the world, the treasures they brought back included things like Indigo dye from India or Tyrian purple from snails in the Mediterranean Sea. All of these processes were passed along through the ages. Take the example of making soap. Today in chemistry, we call this chemical reaction SAPONIFICATION but in the days of the American settlers, they called this a chore. Shipping soap cake made in Europe was too expensive. Instead, ashes from the winter fire were collected and extracted with boiling water to remove the Potash (potassium carbonate – K2CO3) and convert it to Lye. This harsh alkaline liquid containing potassium hydroxide (KOH) was heated with vegetable oils or animal fat to make a liquid soap. By adding salt (sodium chloride – NaCl) at the end of the heating process, a hard soap cake could be made – but this was expensive.Making soap was messy and dangerous and so it developed into a trade, along with the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. During the industrial era, the trade grew into a manufacturing business and new companies like Proctor & Gamble and Unilever were born. These same companies now supply soap, shampoo and hair care products to the world and they hire chemists and chemical engineers to do this. In chemistry, you learn that the animal fat and vegetable oils contain molecules called Triglycerides. When you heat a triglyceride with sodium hydroxide (NaOH) or potassium hydroxide (KOH), a chemical reaction occurs and the new chemicals, soap and glycerin, form.Fashion magazines are filled with the stuff of chemistry. They just don’t talk about it much. But behind the beauty products and clothing, you will find chemistry and technology as cool as the designs and make-up you see in the magazines. The amazing properties of polymers – large molecules that are made from repeated smaller molecule units – find their way all over fashion. Hair spray contains acrylate copolymers – the glue that helps hair stay in place. Nitrocellulose gives nail polish its tough coat. Polymer fibers weave their way into clothing and offer options to the designer’s fabric arsenal – acetate, acrylic, nylon, polyester, rayon, and spandex. Thank you for skinny jeans with spandex!New York plays host to dozens of fashion shows – but did you know that they also hold a Cosmetic Chemists trade show? This show allows cosmetic line manufactures look at new products that might make it on to the next runway show (check out the video below). Eye shadows come in colors that put a rainbow to shame with minerals from the earth – mica, iron oxides, and more. Lipstick does more than create a cute pout – they are formulated with vitamin E, emollients, and oils to moisturize. Cosmetic chemists defeat the oil and water separation by mastering emulsion chemistry to make liquid foundations and moisturizers.
The science of beauty is an art! You just might not recognize the chemistry, but it’s there backstage behind the scenes working its magic. And it is in your little black bag, so smile – you look great – and go thank a chemist.
*The alkali salt source of Sodium Carbonate (Na2CO3) is found in Mediterranean Natron deposits or Potassium Carbonate (K2CO3) from plant ash
Are you interested in the Glamorous World of Chemistry? It takes hard work but the work is truly interesting. In college, you will study chemistry, biology and physics for a Chemistry degree. A degree in Cosmetic Chemistry is typically offered out of the Pharmacy Departments at universities and covers the courses described above but adds course work on the science of our skin and hair. In either degree, because you’re a science major, you’ll spend hours in the lab. But if you like the lab work, you are set to love your career.