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The Mysteries of R&D, Part I

By: Art Rich, PhD
Posted: June 22, 2010, from the July 2010 issue of GCI Magazine.

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There are two types of protection mechanisms: organic sunscreens and inorganic (physical) sunscreens. The organic sunscreens function by having the chemical molecules absorb the UV energy before it reaches the skin. The inorganic types function by reflecting the sun’s rays away from the skin. The original inorganic sunscreens produced the familiar opaque, white “lifeguard nose” effect. New technology has reduced the size of the particle so that it appears to be transparent. Remember, there are no chemical-free sunscreens—only organic and inorganic ones.

A Look at Other Product Types

Bath and Body. Bar soaps are formed by reacting animal fatty acids or vegetable oil fatty acids with lye, also known as sodium hydroxide. Once the reaction is complete, the lye (also used in drain cleaners, concrete, etc.) is no longer harmful. Soap is an effective cleaner, but will also strip natural sebum deposits from the skin, causing dryness. Various additives— such as fragrance, moisturizers and mechanical exfoliators—can be included in a soap formula. Per U.S. Food & Drug Administration classifications, plain soap (with no additives) is not classified as a cosmetic, and need not contain an ingredient list.

So, how does a chemical mass become a bar of soap? In mass-produced soap, once the chemical reaction is complete, little gnome like artisans carefully carve the hardened mass into the soap bar shapes that are easily recognized ... well, not quite, but chemists are allowed to have a sense of humor. Actually, the mass, while still soft and pliable, is forced through an extruder—quite like the way pasta is formed. After cutting to the proper size, these “noodles” are blended with the proper additives and fed into a press whose die mold is in the shape of the soap bar. Once pressed, the bar is ready for its final steps of packaging. Shower gels are detergent systems that provide an enriched body cleansing experience. The use of detergents makes them immune to the effects of hard water—the loss of foaming effect and production of soap scum on shower/bath stalls. The detergents are modified to reduce irritation while still providing a rich foam, and special thickeners are added to produce the gel. It is the skill and knowledge of the formulating chemist that provides for the proper consistency without being gooey and slimy. Technically similar products include foaming facial cleansers and liquid hand soaps Powdered bubble bath products develop a higher foam. Often water softening additives are included to give a “silky” bathing experience.

Hair Care. In shampoo, the detergent type and foam stabilizers are fine-tuned to provide both an effective and aesthetically pleasing hair cleansing system. A rich and billowy foam is best for a luxurious feel. A tight foam (small, closely packed bubbles) is preferred for a shower gel/shower cream, while a loose and lacy foam is desired for a facial cleanser. The detergent ingredient in shampoos is selected for its foam qualities as well as for its mildness properties.

In hair care, soap is not recommended. Issues with hard water will eliminate the desired foam quality and leave a dulling film deposit on the hair.