Clinical testing - fact checking of beauty promises
Do anti-aging skin care products actually work? As a clinical scientist, Melissa Gerwitz takes a close look at wrinkles, lines and dark spots to ensure BASF product claims are true. She holds a degree in Bioengineering and Biomedical Engineering from Syracuse University and has spent several years in academic research. As the last hurdle before a new product gets the pass to the market, Melissa determines if years of research tests out as validated.
What kind of scientist are you? What are you researching?
I work as a clinical scientist at BASF’s very own clinical testing center in Tarrytown, New York. Having clinical testing is an important step to the success of a personal care product, and my role is to support research studies from start to finish – I help craft the study protocols, analyze the data and develop new research methods. Over the years, we have built up our database to have over 2,000 potential product testers from all age groups and demographics. When we plan for a study, we can recruit our test persons very specifically – let’s say we need women in a certain age range, with a certain skin type and wrinkles around the eyes. We punch these requirements into our database, and it generates a list of names for us to call. We usually run four or five of the bigger monthlong studies, for example on anti-aging effects, and several smaller research studies each year.
What is your research goal?
For the personal care products, it's hard to market them without supporting data. Cellular models – basically some cells in a petri dish – are used in the development of these products, but that's not very convincing for our customers since human beings are very different from a petri dish of cells. That’s why once our development team has done all the work and confident they have a good product or a good ingredient, they send it to us, and we recruit people from our community to test it. Does the product moisturize well? Does the product eliminate all your wrinkles? The cosmetic industry is very fast paced and ebbs and flows with current trends. We are always looking for something new and exciting, something to claim for our product that no one else has claimed before. That’s where my team supports the process by identifying, validating, and developing specific product claims and unique selling points.
We are the last step in product development because oftentimes we don't know if the product is good to go until we test it. Even if it did well in the cellular models, it doesn’t necessarily mean it works for humans. It can be really crushing to tell the researchers from the initial stages of development: I'm sorry, but we didn't see anything in this ingredient that you spent more than a year researching.
What kind of tools are you using for your research?
There are so many tools that I love, I'm a nerd about that sort of thing. For example, there is one tool called the epsilon which measures skin moisturizing levels. For the longest time, we used a so-called corneometer for moisture tests, where you basically just put it to the skin and it will give you a number, and the higher the number, the more moisturized you are. But now we use the epsilon, which produces an actual image of the skin’s moisture level and texture. And the brighter the pixel in the image, the better the moisture level. It’s a cool image that’s easy to understand because you can really see the differences, as opposed to just looking at bars on a graph. Also, it shows the skin in very great detail, all the ridges and little lines – therefore, it’s very useful for anti-aging research.
Another eye-opening tool we have is an imaging booth that has a special UV flash which will show all of the sun damage that is underneath the skin. It’s not anything we can perceive with the visible eye, but the imaging booth will show all the spots under the skin that are waiting to come out later on in life. So, I'm a very pale skinned person and I’ve never been as good with sunscreen as I should have been. I was training one of my colleagues on this instrument and suddenly, I saw all the sun damage spots I have. After that, sunscreen is built into my daily routine!
What trends do you see in skincare?
Digital tools for customized solutions are certainly trending. There are small devices you can carry around in your pocket that link up with your phone and measure your facial moisture at various points in the day to let you know when it’s time to apply some lotion. Customized solutions are becoming really popular in personal care. Oily skin, acne, forehead winkles – in the future, you will take your measurements to have a cosmetic formulation blended specifically for you.
Another change in consumer demand we see is a shift towards biobased ingredients. Consumers are requesting sustainable alternatives, and it is important to make a change: the more we use bioactive products, the less we use products with a high environmental impact. Most of the time, the same job can be done with a conventional product, but biobased products make a huge difference when it comes to the resourcing footprint. There's an increasing consumer appetite for it, and hopefully biobased solutions will become more affordable and therefore accessible to a larger group of consumers.
What do you like about your job?
I especially like having personal relationships with my trial subjects. Back in university research, I was working in a bacterial biofilm lab. And while the research was very theoretically interesting, I was kind of by myself in the lab with these cells. In my current job, I have a relationship with the panelists who come in regularly; we get to know each other, and I learn how their kids are doing in school and all that. To me, this is really rewarding.
Did your work change your own consumer behavior? Do you think or shop cosmetics differently?
To my eternal shame, I'm haven’t always been as big a product user as I should have been, and I didn’t follow a strict skin care regimen. However, after starting this job, I’m more interested in the ingredients and have started picking the products I use by their formulations. Before, I had the perception that it was all marketing, glitz and glam, one soap is as good as any other. But now I have more insight and know how the skin reacts to different ingredients.
One of my favorite BASF products is PatcH2O®, a hydrogen patch that does a great job moisturizing the skin and the scalp. We tested it and all the panelists were impressed by how soft it made their skin feel. As someone with dry skin myself, I really appreciate products like that, so it became one of my favorites. I’m still early in my career and fairly young, but I’m sure at some point in time, I will become more enthusiastic about the anti-aging products.