Everyday Science: Beauty Regimen

This one is for the beauty enthusiasts. From haircare to skincare to just having that extra pop, chances are you’re using a ton of products in your beauty routine. So you probably should know what makes up these products. When you’re done, head on over to our DIY products page for some quick tutorials in creating your favourite products right in your kitchen! 🙂

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Shampoo & Conditioner

Shampoo is generally made by combining a detergent (see my previous post on soaps), most often sodium lauryl sulphate with another chemical added as a co-worker to form a thick, viscous liquid. Added to this are other ingredients such as salt (which helps to adjust the thickness of the liquid), preservatives and fragrances. Shampoos function similar to most soaps (formation of micelles, hope you were paying attention!) Many shampoos are pearlescent (meaning they have a sort of “pearly” glow). This effect is achieved by addition of tiny flakes of waxes e.g. glycol distearate, and many also include silicone to condition the hair and keep strands in place.

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Hair conditioners are added to the hair in order to change its texture and appearance of hair. Before the 20th century, natural oils have been used to condition human hair. (A conditioner popular with men in the late Victorian era was Macassar Oil). However, the invention of modern conditioner came right at the turn of the century when a perfumer Édouard Pinaud presented a product he called Brilliantine at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Since then, conditioners have evolved to become thick liquids made to coat the cuticle of the hair itself. Some common conditioner ingredients include:

  • Moisturizers – to hold moisture in the hair. Moisturizers contain chemicals called humectants – substances that suck up water and are used to keep things moist. Some include natural oils
  • Reconstructors – usually containing a protein which will penetrate the hair strands and strengthen their structure through forming crosslinking chemical bonds with the hair.
  • Detanglers – these either the hair surface by changing the pH (more on that soon) or by coating it with chains of molecules
  • Thermal protectors – usually heat-absorbing chains of molecules known as polymers, shielding the hair against excessive heat, caused by, e.g., blow-drying, curling irons
  • Glossers – light-reflecting chemicals which bind to the hair surface. Usually silicone
  • Oils – essential fatty acids (EFAs) which help dry hair become more soft and pliable. The scalp produces a natural oil called sebum but when that is low, EFAs are the closest thing to natural sebum

Fun fact! Conditioners are usually acidic (here’s the pH note). Lower (acidic) pHs add hydrogen ions the the amino acids in keratin. Keratin is an important protein component of hair. These extra hydrogen ions give your hair a positive charge which creates more hydrogen bonds among the keratin scales. This gives your hair a more compact structure. Conditioners get their acidity by the addition of organic acids such as citric acid.

Hair Mousse & Curl Activators

These days, it seems everyone wants fantastic looking curls, or to eliminate frizz from theirs. Hair mousse has long been a staple for curly tresses, and new curl activators are created every day for anyone who wants perfect curls.images (8).jpg

Mousses and curl activators generally have the same ingredients. First of all, the most abundant ingredient is of course water, which basically holds everything together. Also present in most mousses is some form of alcohol – the alcohol helps to dissolve the chemicals in the water and produces the signature foam which is easy to break up.

Resin is probably the important ingredient present in mousses and curl activators. Resins are formed from polymers (which are just long chains of molecules stuck together). The resin chains form a resistant film on your hair which grips to the strands and prevents the mousse from being brushed off easily. This resin conditions the hair and allows you to comb/brush your hair how you want it, and good resins will prevent your hair from becoming stiff after applying the mouse. A type of resin known as a cationic resin is formed by blending the resin another film to give a firmer hold on the hair.

Finally, emulsifiers are used to help blend the product creating foam. Some mousses and curl activators add other added ingredients such as vitamins, silicones, sunscreens, and dyes.images (7).jpg

Cosmetics & Makeup

There are way too many single make-up products for us to look at each of them individually so instead, we’ll look at some of the common ingredients that pop up in most products and see what they do.

Colouring agents/pigments

From your favourite lipstick to your sexiest eyeshadow, chances are many of your makeup products contain colouring agents and pigments. But what exactly gives these powders and creams their bright hue?

Cochineal insect

Some natural colours can come from plants, e.g. powder from beets, and some are extracted from animals: a red dye carmine comes from a scarlet coloured parasitic insect known as the cochineal.  Some colours also come from mineral ingredients such as iron oxide, mica flakes, and coal tar.



Pigments can be split into two main categories:

  • Organic pigments, made from carbon-based molecules. The two most common organic pigments are lakes and toners. Lake pigments are made by mixing a dye colour with a substance like alumina hydrate which doesn’t dissolve in water. This creates and insoluble dye, used mostly in water-resistant and waterproof cosmetics. Toner pigments aren’t combined with anything else so they don’t usually have these water resistant properties.images (9).jpg
  • Inorganic pigments, generally metal oxides (metal + oxygen). These aren’t usually as bright as organic pigments, but they give you a more longer-lasting colour because these pigments are more resistant to light and heat.

Glimmer & Shimmer

For a fun night out, some people like to apply some kind of glitter/shimmer product to give them that extra pop. These shimmering effects can be created via a range of materials but two of the most common ones are mica and bismuth oxychloride.

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  • Cosmetic mica typically comes from a crystal found in metamorphic rocks known as muscovite (also known as white mica). It naturally forms in flaky sheets which can be crushed up into a fine powder made up of thousands of tiny particles. Each of these particles in the powders are able to refract (bend) light, and with all these particles bending light in different directions, the shimmering effect we all love is created. Another technique involves coating Mica with titanium dioxide. This gives a whitish appearance when you all at it straight on, but from an angle it produces a whole host of gorgeous iridescent colours.
  • Bismuth oxychloride (known as synthetic pearl). This compound is found naturally inside a rare mineral known as bismoclite, and is used to create a silver grey pearly effect.


Primers are usually either water-based or silicon-based. Silicone-based primers tend to “stick” better than water-based primers and are usually harder to remove. Some primers also have sun protection factor (SPF) to protect your skin against harmful UV rays.

Foundation primers aid in applying foundation more evenly and smoothly, and makes your foundation last longer. Some contain antioxidants such as A, C, and E, grape seed extract and green tea extract.  These antioxidants prevents oxygen from the air reaction with some of the chemicals in the makeup and causing damage to your cells.

Eyelid or eye shadow primers are similar, but made specifically for use near the eyes. These aid in the smooth application of eye shadow, prevent it from accumulating in eyelid creases, and improve its longevity. Mascara primer is usually colourless and thickens and/or lengthens the lashes before the application of mascara for a fuller finished look. It may also help keep mascara from smudging or flaking, and some claim to improve the health of the lashes. Lip primers are intended to smooth the lips and help improve the application of lipstick or lip gloss, and to increase the wear time of your lip colour.

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This weekend as you’re preparing for that hot dinner date, or tomorrow when you’re getting read for work, you can take a few seconds to remember what’s inside some of these products. Understanding how beauty products work is the first step in choosing the products that work best for you.

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