An interview with a botanical chemist

How does one move from chemistry, biology and oceanography into formulating skin products for a top beauty brand?

AJP chats with Annabelle Personeni, Botanical Chemist with A’kin.

1. What was your career journey towards becoming a botanical chemist?

I grew up in France in a family with strong ethical values, somewhat ‘hippie’. We ate only organic food growing up, we knew the value of slow food and looking after one’s health in a holistic way. I studied biology and biotechnology, then Master’s in Oceanography, with a thesis on algae DNA.

I have always been passionate and curious about the biology of living things and the interactions between the living beings and their environment. Very naturally, my first job was working for the French leader in botanical skin care: Yves Rocher. I was in the Phytochemistry Department, researching plants and extracting their best active molecules for use in the company’s skin and hair formulations.

I then spent 10 years at Johnson & Johnson in Australia, heading the research and development team for Johnson’s Baby in Asia Pacific. While their formulations are not natural, I gained an invaluable knowledge of designing product for safety and efficacy. I finally joined A’kin, whose formulations are much closer to my heart and values, with a strong focus on plant based actives.

This allows me to use both my initial knowledge of the chemistry of plants as well my skills in the best processes and formulations skills for natural products, which can be a challenge to formulate with an acceptable skin feel and stability due to the reduced number of ingredients that I can tap into.

2. How would you describe a typical work day?

Annabelle Personeni
Annabelle Personeni

Beside times managing the administrative parts of a new product development and regular meetings with our marketing team, I need to spend enough time reading and researching new interesting ingredients, as well as time in the lab turning them into new products.

A typical day will start with emails and project management, then I will spend a few hours in the lab making prototypes and checking the stability of samples made in the past weeks or months. All formulations must resist up to six months in a 40°C oven and not separate.

A few afternoons a week I like to spend a couple of hours reading articles on skin biology or plant chemistry and researching ingredients for a new product briefs I receive from our marketing team.

The end of the day is spent tidying up paperwork from the experiments of the day or complete some technical documentation. Documentation tasks include reviewing all the safety data available on a new ingredient I plan to use in formulations, checking the claims on artworks or preparing the technical dossier for registering the products in Europe.

3. What ‘nasties’ should we be avoiding in skincare products?

There are a number of ingredients that are not desirable in skin care but for me, allergy causing ingredients are probably the most critical. Once you have triggered an allergic reaction to a chemical it stays with you for life and you can’t come close to that ingredient without reacting badly to it. Cocamidopropyl betain, propylene glycol, or MIT (a preservative that is now being restricted in EU due to a wave of allergic reactions) are some of these ingredients. We don’t use any of these in A’kin products.

Then there are several ingredients that won’t cause any immediate problem but may have long term repercussion to one’s health due to impurities, such as ethoxylated ingredients (PEG for instance) or volatile silicones (due to lung contamination). Finally, I also avoid using silicones because of their poor bio-degradability profile in the waterways.

4. Which are your favourite skincare ingredients to use and why?

I have a few skincare ingredients that I go back to because of their simplicity yet proven performance and benefit for the skin, not necessarily the latest trendy extract that appears and disappears as fast as it arrived.

I love Shea Butter for its overall goodness to the skin, it is like a linen cloth that keeps you warm but lets your skin breathe. Vitamin C, Provitamin B5 and Vitamin B3 are three ingredients that have a strong impact on skin’s and scalp’s healthy metabolism and are used often in A’kin products.

I also favour ingredients that have strong anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties such as our unique oil-soluble green tea extract, Schizandra extract or Echium Oil. These are incredibly efficient in preventing premature ageing. My grandmother used to say, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure “, this is also my philosophy for looking after my own skin!

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