The 9 Courses to Take to Become a Successful Cosmetic Chemist

Probably one of the most common questions I get from students is, "What college courses should I take to become a cosmetic chemist?" Aside from the obvious chemistry courses, here are my suggestions on what courses to take to broaden your horizon as a cosmetic chemist:

courses successful cosmetic chemist

1. Foreign Language

From my personal experience, being able to speak another language is an excellent asset to have for any job. The field of cosmetic chemistry is no exception. One way I think that's really helped me stand out in cosmetic chemistry is my Japanese language ability. No, I'm not fluent. But I know enough where I can read packages of cosmetic products, read receipts, understand the strict business customs and language (敬語 vs 謙譲語 is a nightmare...). You get the picture. Japanese is a valuable skill to have since the country has such a huge presence in the market. In addition, if you work for a big company, you may find yourself working with a Japanese company.

What other foreign languages are helpful?  Well, in my experience:

Many companies in the industry are French-owned. There's also Estée Lauder and L'Oreal. Knowing French language and culture can help you to communicate more effectively with your overseas co-workers, accounts and/or collaborators.

There are a lot of laboratories and brands set up in Italy, so this makes my list.

This country is the leader of the latest trends right now. Although this can change due to the volatility of industry whims, learning Korean can prove to be a huge plus for a company since all eyes are there for innovation.

Chinese (Mandarin)
Many companies in the cosmetic industry work with Chinese companies for packaging purposes. Having Chinese in your arsenal in general is a great business asset since it's the most common language in the world.

2. Microbiology

While you may not have to understand all of the mechanisms of the preservatives you utilize in your formulas, taking this class will be helpful if you find yourself in a microbio lab for cosmetics. 

3. Organic Chemistry

I have never had to really apply any concepts of organic chemistry into my formulation work, but this course is helpful in understanding your raw materials. Concepts like enantiomers and understanding nomenclature may pop up a few times while on the bench. If you end up working for a raw material supplier, organic synthesis will be helpful to know since some of the ingredients you'll make may involve certain reactions.

4. Business/marketing

This is something that I wish I took advantage of when I was in university. These classes will help you to understand the functions of your marketing team and basics of the worldwide market when your product exists the lab and sits on a retailer's shelf.

In fact, I actually know more cosmetic chemists with an MBA rather an advanced degree or specific degree in cosmetic chemistry. Not only will having an MBA open up the doors for growth opportunities int he industry, but it is also helpful to have if you'd like to start your own business someday (whether it be your own manufacturing lab, line or consultation.)

5. Analytical Chemistry

While on your way to become a cosmetic chemist, you may work in quality control for a while. In this job, you will be responsible for analyzing finished formulas as well as individual raw materials (ingredients). HPLC and sometimes MS are implemented in these analyses, so taking a class to learn how these analytical techniques work can be a great skill to have when you go job hunting after you graduate.

6. Physiology

A small section of your studies may only cover skin biology, but having an overall understanding of the human body will help you to understand the different pathways that ingredients can react and enter your body. As you will learn on your journey to being a cosmetic chemist, the skin doesn't ingest things the same way as things you consume through your mouth (or perhaps you know this from common sense ;) ).

If this is such common sense, why is it important to take a class on it? Well, fear mongering is rampant in the cosmetic industry with ridiculous claims. Being able to scientifically explain why your skin can't absorb two tons of lead in your lifetime (yes, I've been told this by consumers) can help make our industry more credible. Be a part of the "everything is a chemical" movement! (Because it's true.)

7. Pharmaceutical Chemistry

I am very grateful and fortunate to have taken specific classes on this subject...for two reasons. First, you will be exposed to many case studies that will help you to become familiar with how clinical trials work. While you may not have to apply certain applications like pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics, clinical trials in the cosmetic industry are important and utilized all the time in order to make certain claims on your product's label and unit carton (box). Thus, understanding how clinical trials are set up and how to interpret whether results are relevant or not is an important application to grasp for cosmetics.

The second reason why pharmaceutical chemistry is a great course to take is because it keeps you open for opportunities in formulating pharmaceuticals if you stray from the cosmetics path. In fact, many people go back and forth between these industries! Thus, understanding how drugs interact in active sites for pharmaceutical products is an essential concept for formulating these types of products as opposed to cosmetics.

8. Statistics

This suggestion is related to the aforementioned clinical trials concept. Interpreting results of your claims will involve discussing whether or not your results are significant. If you don't understand in a statistical sense what I mean by "significant," then a stats course can greatly benefit you. In fact, statistics was a required course for me in my pursuit of my Master's in cosmetic science!

9. Writing

And finally, being an excellent writer can open many opportunities for you. Not only is a great skill to have for many jobs outside and within the cosmetic industry, learning how to articulate yourself well can help sell ideas to whomever your client is.

For example, if you work in product development and are putting together a presentation for your marketing team, good writing can help sell your pitches to your team.


If you can find classes related to understanding clinical trialspolymer chemistry and emulsion chemistry, these would be great to take advantage of as well. I unfortunately did not have any classes which concentrated on polymer or emulsion chemistry at my undergraduate program, but I learned about interpreting the results of clinical trials by taking pharmaceutical chemistry classes.

My last piece of advice is for you to take your lab sessions seriously. Since you may not have a chance to develop your lab skills before getting hired by a cosmetic company as a lab tech, lab sessions are actually a great way to hone in on your dexterity and accuracy, as well as understand lab safety. If you don't have an internship or research job, this may be the only place you can develop practical lab skills.

Check out some of my suggestions for what lab skills to develop!

Did you find this list helpful? If you are already a chemist in the industry, do you think there's something else I should add to this list? Sound off in the comments!