There are many beauty experts out there who really, really know their stuff. But, when it comes to understanding the science behind skincare, discovering new ingredients and combining them to their maximum, flawless-complexion potential, no one tops the know-how of a cosmetic chemist. As luck should have it, we were able to chat with one of the best, Stephen Ko, a cosmetic chemist and skincare expert, who regularly shares his passion and expertise of all things beauty on the blog Kind of Stephen. Recently we caught up with Stephen to learn more about the luminous world of skincare science, nabbing beauty tips and secrets along the way. Oh and, did we mention he has amazing skin? Enough said. Read on!
What sparked your interest in cosmetic chemistry?
I've always liked skincare and cosmetics. I had really bad acne when I was younger, earlier than the rest of my grade, so it affected my self-esteem a lot. I would read the ingredients lists constantly and try to figure out what was working for me and what wasn't. That's when I realized that I could try making my own products, so I did - in my mom's kitchen.
When I started at university I slowly began to realize that cosmetic chemistry was an option as a career for me, so I started designing my curriculum to get skills for the market. Unfortunately, unlike Europe, there aren't many cosmetic chemistry degree programs in Canada.
I know for myself, I definitely missed out on a lot of things due to low self-esteem. When I had acne, I wasn't social and very shy - I would actually skip school and stay at home if my skin was particularly inflamed. While I'm not a ninja of confidence now, my self-esteem has definitely improved along with my skin. If I can help someone in a similar situation as I was deal with their skin issues a little bit, that'd make me very happy.
As a cosmetic chemist & a skincare expert, what do you look for when picking a new skincare product?
I actually don't shop a lot, but I tend to look at the ingredient list before the marketing. The ingredient list doesn't actually tell you as much as you would think, so it's only a weak predictor of whether or not a product will work for you.
I do tend to pick up samples though, which give me an idea of the texture, smell, and whether or not I will have a reaction to the product.
You have AMAZING skin. Can you share some of your skincare secrets?
I think consistency is the most important thing. I wear sunscreen even if I don't plan on being outside much, just to get into that routine. When I say consistency it also means to not use your products too often. That's a big problem when it comes to treating acne especially. Acne treatments, though effective, can also cause irritation - which exacerbates inflammatory acne, so part of consistency is having the self-control of using the treatment over a longer period of time and being patient for results.
Let's talk about ingredients in cosmetics. Is there one ingredient you always avoid? Or love? Or is the combination of ingredients more important than individual ingredients?
There isn't really any ingredient that I specifically avoid, however I tend to steer away from essential oils and fragrances - as they can be irritating. They're also complex mixtures of compounds which we don't often fully understand what they're doing to our skin.
In my opinion, the overall formula of the product is more important than individual ingredients. There are ingredient mixes that are essentially 'tip-ins', it's a mixture of a bunch of different things that you just pour in a tiny bit - then boom! You have 10-15 fancy plant extracts on your ingredient list. What's not revealed though is that they're just for marketing, the amount is negligible.
I tend to favour products that are almost designed like pharmaceuticals. The vehicle is formulated to optimize skin delivery for a few actives. Niacinamide, retinoids, Vitamin C as ascorbic acid, and some peptides are always great choices!
On your blog, you say that most people are interested in chemistry but don't know it yet. So interesting. How do you think beauty can help people become more interested in science?
Well I know for myself, I never was interested in chemistry until I wanted to understand more about some of the earlier lotions that I was making in my kitchen. That's when I enrolled into a chemistry degree. But even then, most of the stuff you learn isn't directly relevant - you still have to spend a lot of time self-teaching, and really motivating yourself. The university education has provided me with the tools to learn on my own.
That being said, the reason I was never interested in chemistry was because I didn't understand how much it affected our daily lives and how influential it was in cosmetics. Chemistry was always presented to me as cool experiments, or how to make TNT, steel, or pharmaceuticals. Had someone shown to me the chemistry behind my sunscreen, or how the emulsion in my lotions were stabilized - I think I would've started studying chemistry a lot sooner. I'm hoping to ignite that spark in my readers!
Recently you wrote that you're starting a YouTube channel. This is so EXCITING! When can we expect to see more of your lovely face & what are your goals for your channel?
I'm hoping to get my YouTube channel going in a few months! I've got most of the equipment and I'm hacking together a studio. I think the main hurdle is mental, I need to get comfortable on screen!
There are many things that I think are easier explained in person, which is why I'm doing this - sometimes I worry that my writing is too long and confusing!
Okay, this one is loaded. What currently excites you about Korean beauty industry & what are your hopes for the future of the industry?
I like the sense of fun that that the Korean beauty industry is bringing to the Western beauty market. Korean marketing tends to be lighter, more playful, and less about "fighting" against your skin. I think it's more supportive of self-esteem and self-care, whereas Western marketing tends to be "anti" this and that and "gives you the effects of a laser".
My hope is to see the industry shifting towards being more sustainable, both environmentally and ethically. You know, I often wonder about the conditions of the workers that are making our products - especially mass brands in countries where labour rights aren't the strongest. I think people are more aware of the ethical cost of cheap clothing, but I don't think it's caught on when it comes to a $1 lipstick yet. Of course, there's more room for automation when it comes to cosmetics, but many of these factories are quite opaque and mysterious. I've seen some terrible working conditions for cosmetic workers in North America, so I do wonder and worry quite a bit.
Between studying, working & all your projects you are one busy man! What is the one skincare product you can't live without?
Definitely my sunscreen! I'm currently using the Ombrelle Complete SPF 50+ Kids, because it has ingredients that offer good UVA protection - unfortunately in Canada and the US companies don't test for UVA protection. I also do like Asian sunscreens with a high PA rating, though they're harder for me to purchase. My skin pigments very easily, so I have to be very careful about my sun exposure!
Thanks Stephen for taking the time to share your knowledge!
– Team Ohlolly
All images were provided by KindofStephen.