The history between chemistry and cosmetics is a long one, and it’s constantly evolving. Cleopatra’s beauty makers would grind elements on stone cosmetic palettes to create kohl eyeliner. And to this day, Turkish rose oil is the primo ingredient used in top-of-the-line beauty products. Even still, much like our food, most of us don’t give a lot thought to how our favorite lipstick or go-to foundation end up on the shelves of drugstores and makeup counters everywhere.
In truth, formulating a beauty product and taking it to market requires a team of people with wide-ranging talents. If you love makeup, regardless of your particular area of interest, there’s a career path for you. The options available to ambitious women span from cosmetic chemist to makeup artist to brand executive and everywhere in between.
With this in mind, we’re launching a new series of interviews with the beauty industry’s top makers and shot-callers. BeautyMakers will profile a new girl boss every two weeks for an exclusive, inside look at the inspirational women who work in concert to launch the innovative products and platforms that make our lives more beautiful and fun.
To kick off the series, we sat down with L’Oréal chemist Balanda Atis. In addition to formulating some of our favorite makeup products, she’s also responsible for spearheading the L’Oréal Women of Color Lab, where a team of scientists are hard at work, developing a full spectrum of color cosmetics for women from diverse backgrounds.
Continue reading to hear what Ms. Atis had to say on a range of topics—marrying her love of science with cosmetics, what inspires her, and, of course, the makeup she swears by.
Tell us about your journey in the beauty industry. How did your career with L’Oréal come to be?
Balanda Atis: My journey in cosmetics began several years ago. First I worked on developing personal hair care products, then I went on to formulate sun care products, followed by professional hair dyes and baby products. I was fortunate to gain such varied experience working with a wide range of personal care products early on.
After that period of time, I was offered a position at L’Oréal and I came on board as a chemist in the mascara lab. So my formulation work at the company started with mascaras.
Tell us about the transition from working on mascaras to working on custom foundations? Was there a learning curve?
Balanda Atis: There was definitely a learning curve, but it wasn’t horrific. At the time (of this transition) I was working on my masters degree in cosmetic science, which touched on a lot of these specific elements. While I had not worked on cosmetics prior to my position at L’Oreal, the masters program gave me the opportunity to study cosmetics. So, I was able to develop my skills. Graduate school was extremely helpful in furthering my career.
What inspired the creation of the L’Oréal Women of Color Lab?
Balanda Atis: The creation of the lab came after several years of research, stemming from a desire to expand upon the limited cosmetics available to women of color. We realized early on that there was room for improvement in foundation products specifically to address color-matching issues, such as the products being too red, too orange, too muddy or ashy.
We wanted to create products that were more realistic and more natural for women of color, so we collected quite a bit of research from women who represented 57 countries of origin. In that study, we realized a lot of work needed to be done to capture a full and encompassing body of work that would address their needs. With that, L’Oréal realized this was an area that needed to be developed more, and the company created the Women of Color Lab.
You have to consider everything when developing custom makeup. It’s not just about your natural skin tone. The region in which you live also has an effect on the appearance of the color of your skin. For example, in more northern regions where there’s not as much sun exposure, the skin tones will look very different from those of southern regions with tons of sun exposure. The color of the skin will be drastically different. We had to travel to different regions and climates to better understand what those changes look like and how to use that information to create better shades for different populations of women worldwide.
How has your own experience with makeup influenced your work?
Balanda Atis: Growing up, I loved to explore and play around in my mother’s makeup drawer. And, what I discovered was that some products just did not look good on my skin. I learned early on about the challenges of finding makeup products that work well with my skin tone. In terms of foundation, there just weren't many options available to me. Of course, I could get away with wearing lipstick or lip gloss or something like that, but outside of that there really weren’t too many options available to me in terms of cosmetics.
As I grew older and progressed in school, I realized I wanted to do something in science. I've been fortunate to marry my love of science with my love of cosmetics.
How is your & L’Oréal’s approach to cosmetics research different than that of other companies?
Balanda Atis: I can’t quite say what other companies are doing, but I believe our approach is quite novel in the sense that we really communicate with consumers beyond just engaging in conversation. We try to understand what their needs are as well take a scientific approach to figuring out what their needs are. Our approach is dual-ended, which we believe is necessary to come up with a solution that really works.
Your career with L’Oréal has included some significant breakthroughs in the development of color cosmetics. What are you most proud of?
Balanda Atis: In terms of Women of Color, the biggest success would be the creation of a range of foundations to address women of different ethnicities. Women are beautiful in so many different ways, but when we're able to have something that further enhances our inner beauty, it's a definite win-win. I think the creation of the foundation shade range is probably my largest success here.
Lancôme recently rolled out their new custom-made makeup, Le Teint Particular, which features cutting edge skin-matching technology. Were you involved in the development of this product? If so, can you tell us a bit about the process?
Balanda Atis: Yes, I was involved. This project was one of my babies as well. Le Teint Particular is truly groundbreaking in the sense that you’re able to go to a makeup counter and customize a look just for your needs. You can customize the level of coverage, add moisturizing properties and make it something designed specifically for you. It’s a wonderful experience and at the end you walk away with the perfect color match.
Where do you draw your inspiration and ideas from?
Balanda Atis: Day-to-day life. Your life experiences dictate what you should focus on. I’ll find inspiration from a woman at the bus stop who’s makeup looks not-so-great in the sunlight because she’s chosen the wrong shade or the young girls at the schools I visit who are passionate about science. These all inspire me and keep me motivated.
One especially inspiring moment happened while we were touring around the country collecting skin tone measurements. We frequently had young girls approaching us and asking us questions about the project. When they found out we were chemists, their curiosity was incredible. To hear them say things like, “I want to do what you do” and, “One day I want to be like you” helped me get through some of those long hours and encouraged the team to get through to continue on to the next step of our research.
What other untapped opportunities would you like to explore?
Balanda Atis: We’re always looking to further our knowledge of our consumers. Our goal is to find out what’s untapped for them. We ask ourselves, “Which of our consumers’ needs has gone unmet?” and “What do we need to work on that hasn’t been worked on?”
Take, for example, eye shadows. Shadows could be improved upon for better pay off on different people’s skin tones. That’s something we want to look at more closely. So, depending on the needs of our consumers, we are always looking at ways to innovate.
Which foundation do you swear by?
Balanda Atis: My favorite foundation is one I created! That would be L’Oréal ParisTrue Match. If I’m looking for a long-wear formula, I go with LancômeTeint Idole 24H Foundation. It all depends on my particular needs for the day.
What is the go-to makeup product that you can’t live without?
Balanda Atis: My favorite lipstick is L’Oréal Paris 8HR Le Gloss. If I leave the house without this product, I guarantee I’ll miss it throughout the day—it’s the best! It offers the perfect amount of shine, and the wear is phenomenal. I don’t often do a bold lip, so this product gives me just the right amount of color.
Which other BeautyMakers would you like to hear from—makeup artists, social media managers, creative directors? Let us know in the comments below!
About the Author:Kate drives the day-to-day creation of content, aiming to inspire and inform Makeup.com readers by delivering the latest beauty tips, tricks and trends. As an employee of L’Oréal, Kate sources and tests the best beauty products from across the entire brand portfolio.