Learn about what it's like to work in certain scientific careers with our interviews with STEM professionals!
Valerie George is currently the Senior Director of Research & Development of Hair Color at John Paul Mitchell Systems. She graduated from Kent State University with a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry before continuing graduate work in Chemistry at Marshall University. Ms. George began her cosmetic chemistry career in makeup in 2010 and has been an active member of the California Society of Cosmetic Chemists (SCC) since 2011. She served as the 2016 Chair of the California SCC, was elected to serve again as the 2018 Chair, and was recently appointed to the National SCC's Committee on Scientific Affairs.
1. What inspired you to pursue a career in science/chemistry?
I had a natural affinity to science as a child. I was always interested in how things worked, or where things came from. My parents bought me a microscope when I was in 3rd grade. I was hooked! I put everything I could under there. A few years later, they got me an environmental chemistry set. I knew I was destined for a life in science.
2. What led you to the cosmetics industry?
I had an obsession with perfumes and homemade cosmetic goods when I was in college. As a consumer, it never occurred to me that chemists are behind our everyday beauty products. When I moved to Los Angeles in 2010 after graduate school, and was looking for a job, I noticed all these companies hiring for cosmetic chemists. My mind was blown! I thought to myself, “You mean I can get paid to make lipstick for a living?”
3. How did you get to where you are in your career path?
I started out in skincare. I really enjoyed it, but I wasn’t hooked. I saw an opportunity at Paul Mitchell to work in hair care, and I took the leap. I enjoyed it much more than skincare – when your hair looks good, you feel great. I enjoy all colors of the visible light spectrum, and wanted to learn how to formulate hair color, which requires a vast knowledge of chemistry and hair biology. I have spent the last 2 years and counting with two mentors that live on the other side of the world, learning how to formulate reactive hair color and bleaches. I have found my true calling in life – I love being a hair color chemist! To get to this spot, I had to work hard to learn as much as I could about hair color science - it’s one of the few areas in cosmetic chemistry you still need to learn from another person, and the training is intense.
4. What types of skills are required in your role?
To be a cosmetic chemist, a background in chemistry is a must. I personally believe that it is valuable to have biology courses as well, so the basic principles of skin and hair physiology can be understood. It also helps to have a good grasp on mathematics. The rest of the equipment and testing can be learned on the job, but it’s good to have a solid foundation in science.
Networking is a huge part of our industry, and it’s common for chemists to interact with marketing and ingredient salespeople – so I would say people skills are extremely beneficial.
While I’m behind the color tube at Paul Mitchell, I also am responsible for leading an amazing team of chemists who formulate hair care at JPMS. Leading a team is not just about being able to direct chemists with cosmetic science; it requires the ability to mentor people and foster an innovation environment focusing on education. I credit the year I spent teaching high school chemistry with that leadership skill!
5. What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job?
The most enjoyable part of my job is when a fellow chemist on our team gets a formula approval from our testing salon. Formulating is a lot of work and it’s so rewarding to see the success spread across their face in a huge smile!
6. What is the most challenging feature of your work?
The biggest challenge of being a cosmetic chemist is all of the regulations. It can be very frustrating to reformulate products that you already worked so hard on because a regulation has changed. I try to tell myself it is job security!
7. What advice would you give to students trying to pursue a career in the cosmetic industry? Are there any resources you would recommend?
Network, network, network! It’s very challenging to get your foot in the door at a great company. It’s that old cliché – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. I highly recommend to join the Society of Cosmetic Chemists as a student member. They have 19 chapters all over the United States. Their mission is to advance the field of cosmetic science, which is done by meetings and events. It’s a great place to network!
If you’re also interested in seeing what the life of a cosmetic chemist is like, you can follow @cosmetic_chemist on Instagram!