Clare works on improving the formulation of hair care products. She tells Josh Howgego what it’s like to work on products that are seen on supermarket shelves

Cartoon scientist, female, long hair, clip board

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A career in chemistry might be challenging and intriguing but few would consider it glamorous. Claire Wagman’s career could be the exception. As a formulation scientist at Unilever, Claire is responsible for working out the best proportions of different ingredients in hair care products like shampoos, gels and styling products. Each formulation has to be just right for its purpose – to cling to hair just the right amount to leave it shiny but not so much as to give a feeling of stickiness. It’s sometimes a tough balance to maintain but it is Claire’s job to make it happen.

Claire’s time is split between the lab, where she cooks up new mixtures of products and in the office and field analysing the results. Newly invented additives can be incorporated into existing shampoo base mixtures, or occasionally, she’ll build up a formulation from scratch.

Each batch must be tested. Claire designs trials for each product to assess if it’s doing what it needs to. Generally the preparation is loaded onto real hair samples and then trained assessors assess these and give their opinions. Claire uses statistical analysis to calculate what the best formulation is. Small changes in the formulation can have subtle effects on the end product. She needs to plan effective studies and an ability to think problems through independently.

Juggling projects

Working in a large company like Unilever – one that is responsible for manufacturing many of the household products you’ll see on the supermarket shelves – means being involved in several ongoing projects at once. One of the most challenging parts of Claire’s job is keeping all of these under control and managing her time so that the results for the most urgent pieces of work are delivered quickly.

Intellectual property is also an issue in corporate workplaces. In the event of a corporate dispute over a product with a competitor, Claire’s lab book is a valuable piece of evidence. It can prove where and when a particular experimental result was obtained, which could lead to patents being secured. This means Claire needs really good organisational skills to ensure all her work is accurately documented and filed.

Training and payoff

Companies like Unilever want to help their employees reach their full potential, as having the best people means they can beat their competitors. Claire is given access to great training opportunities. She enjoyed her trip to the US last November for international standard formulation training. Claire enjoys her work and takes pleasure in seeing the skills she developed in her degree to help develop products that will eventually be sold across the country.

Pathway to success

2010–present, Formulation scientist in hair care, Unilever.

2008–2010, Depilatories (hair removal) assistant, Reckitt-Benckiser.

2006–2007, Sandwich placement, quality control chemist, GlaxoSmithKline.

2004–2008, MChem degree at the University of Reading.

2002–2004, A levels in chemistry, biology and geography, St Peter’s College, Bournemouth.

Originally published in The Mole