Published: 17 March 2022  (Updated: 24 March 2022)

BLOG: Behind Beauty: Talking to Rachael Polowyj, Scientist, Writer & Author - Charting every corner of the cosmetics industry


Just five years into her career as a Cosmetic Scientist, Rachael’s tenacity and creativity has opened doors to her in every corner of the industry. CTPA caught up with her to find out where she’s landed, and what advice she’d give to others…

You’ve had a very colourful few years in the cosmetics industry, but what first attracted you to the field of Cosmetic Science?

As cliche as it sounds, it started when I was a child and was completely in love with make-up. I’d get in trouble with my mum for stealing her expensive lipstick… and using it all over my face! I was sure I was a Spice Girl, and cosmetics helped me to feel like one.

At secondary school I was the “...but why?” kid at the back of science class and thankfully had a very patient teacher. He answered my million questions and spoke to my parents about my potential. So when I chose to study fashion at college to complement my creative side, they convinced me to take Chemistry too to widen my options. I was sure I’d hate it, but I loved it! I could be inquisitive and creative.

When I was thinking about what to study at University, I stumbled on an advert promoting Cosmetic Science. There was an incredibly glamorous woman in a lab coat with someone doing her make-up in the lab. She said, “It’s a hard job, but someone has to do it”. I knew right then that someone was me!

Fittingly, you studied Cosmetic Science at the London College of Fashion. What was that like?

Well, it almost never happened! I was rejected two years running because I hadn’t got the grades I needed at A-Level. Too easily distracted by my social life! I took a job at a bank and gave myself one final crack at it, pouring my heart out in my application letter.

The College wrote back to say that if passed their Chemistry Summer School, they’d give me a shot. It transpired I got the highest grades. I’ll never forget that day. I stood in the middle of Oxford Circus and cried. I couldn’t believe I’d finally got onto my dream course.

The BSc in Cosmetic Science was everything I hoped it would be. We got to study so many different types of science and I had the chance to do a sandwich year as a Blue Sky Chemist for ingredient supplier, Azelis. My job was to create weird and wonderful things in the lab, with access to hundreds and hundreds of ingredients. My creativity went through the roof!

Later I studied a Masters at the College, looking at the penetration of an active ingredient through the skin. It was a really tough year as I was working back at Azelis while studying, but I’m so glad I persevered. An abstract of my work was submitted to the International Federation of Societies of Cosmetic Chemists who approved it to be presented as a poster.

I remember standing in the Exhibition Hall in Germany feeling so proud. There was my work, with a poster from Chanel on one side, and L’Oreal on the other. Later it would be published in Cosmetic and Toiletries Magazine too.

Being a Blue Sky Chemist sounds exciting! Did you get to create anything crazy?

For my Research Project I worked with a fascinating ingredient called Pyrogenic Silica. It was a fluffy powder that could coat water droplets, so you could turn liquid into powder products. Then, when you rubbed the powder, it burst and turned into a liquid.

I was experimenting with what we could do with this in the lab, when I accidentally over-ground it. I ran to the office to confess to my manager, but rather than being annoyed she loved it! It had turned into something spongy, with a fun bouncy texture. In fact, my manager entered it for a prestigious innovation award from the Society of Cosmetic Scientists… and we came Runner Up!

While you were studying Cosmetic Science, you tried your hand at other aspects of the cosmetics industry too? What was the motivation to do that?

It was about exploring different sides to the industry while building up my CV. During my placement year I enrolled in an online Diploma in Marketing and Entrepreneurship in case I ever wanted to start my own cosmetics company. Then, when I returned to finish the BSc I did an internship with a company called Beauty Mart, a concession in Topshop’s Oxford Street store. I checked in on the staff, looked at stock levels and how products were being presented. Through the PR side of the business I also got to attend, and cover, some amazing industry events, which is how I discovered I love writing too.

After my Masters, I took another internship. This time for the Good Housekeeping Institute as a Junior Product Tester. It was only a month but I got to review products with cutting edge equipment, look at clinical trials on consumers and report back, and meet with journalists writing for the beauty section of Good Housekeeping Magazine. It gave me a chance to experience even more aspects of our brilliant industry.

With all that exploration under your belt, what does your working life look like now?

Today I work as a Technical Key Account Manager for a company called IMCD. I love my job because I still get to work with people from all sides of the industry, helping them to problem-solve and create. We source really innovative ingredients from all over the world and share them with brands looking to innovate.

I do a lot of supplier training too.  We have so many new ingredients available that it is really important to understand the science behind them. What claims can you make? How does the ingredient interact with the body? I’m also part of the marketing sub-team, which means I keep a close eye on trends, help create our strategy, design our booths at trade shows and plan innovative prototypes and trends kits.

Around the edges of all this, I still pursue my love of writing. I am a regular contributor to Cosmetics and Toiletries magazine, and have even had the chance to become a published author through a project with the Royal Society of Chemistry and Society of Cosmetic Scientists. I was partnered with Dr Emma Meredith to write a chapter of a book they were creating. We chose to write one on ingredient myths and scares.

As Director-General of the CTPA, Emma represents the voice of the UK cosmetics industry in the face of scare stories. So I was able to learn loads from working with her, like how to set the science fairly and let people make up their own minds.  When the book, Discovering Cosmetic Science, was published with my name on the cover, I couldn’t believe it.

You’re just five years into your career but have achieved so much, what have been your highlights?

As well as becoming a published author, it would have to be publishing my Masters. Blood sweat and tears went into that, so to get that recognition was amazing. Alongside this, it has been a privilege to meet so many really powerful, inspiring women who have done everything they can to get me to where I am today. It’s such a nice change from banking where I found that it was mainly men in the senior roles. I’ve always felt that I can go places.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking about pursuing a Cosmetic Science?

I’d say, “What are you waiting for?” It’s a great industry to work in and there are so many career routes you can take. Having scientific knowledge can put you a step further too. You can go into R&D, sales, journalism, product testing. You can create your own brand. You can even transition into a different science.

I’d also say don’t be afraid to put yourself forward for opportunities. I did a lot of things for free when starting out, like offering articles and doing placements. Only offer what you can manage and what feels fair. But it’s a great way to build your network and experience.

If you can, get a student membership for the Society of Cosmetic Scientists because you get to go to monthly lectures and mingle with people in the industry. The industry in the UK is pretty small so you see a lot of the same faces.  Again, don’t be afraid to say hi. You’ll find people are incredibly supportive.

Lastly, it might be worth reflecting that while I love the science, I also love the  impact of that science on people. I still have the same love for the way that cosmetics make you feel. Like putting on a beautiful dress, they can give you a real sense of empowerment. We need cosmetics. They are not vanity, but an essential part of our lives. It feels amazing to be a part of that power. So if you’re curious to join in, I say “Go for it”!

Find us on...