The Science Behind Your Face Cream

Chatting with Naoki Saito, a research scientist with the Sensory and Emotional Research Group at Shiseido, about the HapLog, which tests skin deformation during product application to give scientists a measure of how users sense its texture

Chatting with Naoki Saito, a research scientist with the Sensory and Emotional Research Group at Shiseido, about the HapLog, which tests skin deformation during product application to give scientists a measure of how users sense its texture

Earlier this month I spent a day in Yokohama, just outside of Tokyo, where the beauty brand Shiseido has a research center. Until my visit, I hadn't given much thought to how the products I use on my face and body feel; I was more concerned that they were working - moisturizing my skin and preventing wrinkles and whatnot. But grooming is something we do for reasons beyond function; we do it because it feels good, whether we're aware of it or not. I'd heard about Shiseido's research in this area from a researcher at Columbia several months ago and was interested in learning more.

Early on in my discussion with Shiseido researchers, we got to talking about sunscreen. I know I should be wearing sunscreen everyday, but I have a hard time forcing myself to use it in the morning because of the margarine-like film it leaves behind. Shiseido has been working on developing a solution to this tactile problem. The oily coating on sunscreen exists to be water-repellant, the researchers explained. So, using a high-pressure emulsification process, the company has found a way to suspend the tiny droplets of oil mixed with powders for sun protection in water. And to prevent the water from washing away in the pool or ocean, it uses a special polymer. The company's hope is that the formulation gives the sunscreen a lighter, fresher feeling that makes consumers more likely to use it. 

Katsunori Yoshida, manager of the Prestige Products Information Development Group, explained that we all have personalized preferences for our products. For example, people in dryer, older climates might prefer a greasier finish to their face creams than people in warmer, more humid locales. In testing out various preferences, researchers at Shiseido also found that Asian women spend far more time on skin care than any other culture. And so, they created a product for them called Revital Night Cream that takes a long time to rub into the skin. When the product is first applied, it is hydrophilic emulsion, meaning that it mixes well with water. It has a fresh and pliable quality that makes it extremely spreadable. Several seconds into application, though, some of the water gets absorbed and some of it evaporates, and it transforms into a lipophilic emulsion that is meant to lock in moisture and solidify. As I rubbed the cream onto the back of my hand, I could feel how it took longer to massage into my skin than my usual moisturizer, and I could sense the texture transforming under my fingers.

Since I returned from my trip, it's been interesting to think about the people behind the products we use and how they engineer them to appeal to our senses. Next month, my research will delve into how companies shape our tactile experiences of the world in ways that we don't consider, from the melty qualities of chocolate to the coolness of Tencel leggings to the particular click of buttons in a luxury car. I look forward to meeting the scientists whose job it is to make our stuff feel better. 

Wishing you adventures in the coming month as well!

Sushma Subramanian