How to Successfully Prove Psychophysiological Effects in Cosmetic Products

Interview with Jessica Freiherr, Doris Schicker and Arielle Springer,
Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV

The other day I read your study [1]. There, you describe the calming effect of a Face cream with an active ingredient. So just put some cream on and you will not be stressed anymore?

Jessica Freiherr: In principle, yes. It is much more complicated, of course, but basically we were able to show that people were less stressed after applying a cream with a particular active ingredient than after applying a placebo. We were able to measure this with physiological in combination with psychological methods. The current situation has encouraged us to extend this expertise to other applications and claims. Right now, many people feel helpless and demotivated due to the political and pandemic situation. Using a refreshing shower gel, for example, can then give us a motivational boost in the morning.

In fact – I have read that on a product before, too. Meanwhile, numerous marketers advertise the refreshing, invigorating, calming or relaxing effect. Does that really work?

Arielle Springer: It is legally regulated that product claims must not pretend to have an effect that the product does not have, and that the claimed effects must be provable. So if the claims have been validated with evidence of efficacy, of course it still depends on how the study was conducted. With the help of a valid study design, the improved well-being of consumers can be clearly attributed to the product or particular ingredient.

Jessica Freiherr: It is also important to define what improved well-being means. If we look at the variety of emotions, they can be characterized in two main dimensions. One is the dimension valence (pleasant/positive - unpleasant / negative) and further the dimension arousal (excited – calm). Within these two dimensions numerous nuances can be positioned. Both positive excitement (joy) and negative excitement (stress) are commonly known. Likewise, humans experience positive calm (relaxation) and negative calm (boredom). Manufacturers of various cosmetic products now pursue the goal of moving us from one emotional state to another.

That is exciting – how exactly can you influence emotions with a cosmetic product? 

Jessica Freiherr: Emotions can be triggered using various methods. Within our research, we take a multisensory approach. Our main expertise is in the field of olfaction, so we often use different scents to trigger emotions in our test subjects. Another claim within our research projects is to map our daily environment as holistically as possible. Accordingly, we like to combine odor stimuli with other sensory stimuli. In the context of research on cosmetic products, a combination with tactile, visual and acoustic stimuli would be possible here, i.e. the feeling of the skin or hair, the product appearance and the sounds of the skin and hair during or after application of the product.

How can you accurately measure these emotions on the human body?

Jessica Freiherr: We can measure the calming effects of cosmetic products by putting the test person in a stress state using emotional pictures and then applying the respective product. Before and after application, the subject’s stress state is measured using psychophysiological tools. These tools include emotion questionnaires, stress hormones in saliva, EEG, but also biometric measurements of heart rate, respiration or skin conductance. 

Doris Schicker: In addition to cosmetic products with stress-reducing, calming effects, products that have an energizing effect are also interesting. Such products can reduce boredom or contribute to the motivational boost in the morning. To test such effects, we induce feelings of boredom in our test subjects, for example, with the help of a so-called peg-turning test before applying the product. Depending on the desired effect of the products, we use special methods to induce specific emotions. We then measure these with the help of selected and specifically combined psychophysiological tools. This enables a test design that is tailored to the individual needs of the customer.

Assuming I had a new cosmetic ingredient and wanted to find out if it was motivating and moisturizing. What might a joint project look like then? 

Jessica Freiherr: We like to tailor our study designs to the customer’s needs. We listen carefully to the client’s goals and define the research question. In the second step, we find suitable scientific methods to achieve the desired goals. For example, a motivating effect of a cosmetic raw material could be investigated with the help of our boredom test design. We would cover the moisturizing effect of a raw material with physical measurements, e.g. conductance response.

Doris Schicker: To conduct a valid and reliable study, it is important to pay attention to several parameters. For example, it is necessary to test a product against a placebo product to be able to prove efficacy. Furthermore, we pay attention to a randomized and blind experimental design, i.e. the participants do not know whether they will receive the placebo or the (potentially active) product. In addition, we offer extensive data analysis, which provides insights into the effects of the products. Due to the scientific nature of our studies, we publish the results in peer-reviewed, publicly available and recognized scientific journals under consultation with our customers, as well as industry magazines and social media. Thus, we enable a comprehensive exploitation strategy: from technical articles to marketing and networking. 

That sounds like a lot of work. What kind of funding could be available?

Arielle Springer: There are several possibilities. In a bilateral project, we work with our partners to create an offer, which is then ordered. A non-disclosure agreement is also possible. The partner receives a report at the end, which they can dispose of freely. If several companies are interested in joint research, we can also work together in a consortium project. In both variants, the industrial partners can finance the research either from their own funds or as part of their own funding. 

Doris Schicker: In addition, we also work on publicly funded projects where partners can participate in the committee that accompanies the project. This gives the company insight into the unpublished results and allows it to steer the research according to the needs of industry. 

Once we have done the project, can we transfer the result for all products containing the ingredient?

Arielle Springer: In principle, the results from the report and publications only apply to the samples tested. However, if the products are similar, we can check for transferability or offer a follow-up project. Of course, we have to take into account that shower gel and body lotion, for example, differ greatly in their application and formulation. This could result in matrix effects that influence the release of active ingredients. These are all exciting points that we would like to do more research on in the future.

What other research is planned in this area?

Jessica Freiherr: On the one hand, we would like to continuously improve our methods for physiological measurement and work on existing problems. For example, we would like to reduce the number of cables during the measurement of physiological parameters in order to have less impact on the subjects’ well-being. We are also expanding our existing field of research to include the applications of detergents and cleaning agents, room fragrances, automotive, and food. We are currently planning a funded project to predict the psychophysiological effect of scent and skin feel of cosmetic formulations, for which we are still looking for partners.

Thank all three of you for the exciting interview! How can our readers get in touch with you if they have questions?

Arielle Springer: The best way is to contact me. We welcome all kinds of questions, challenges and exciting projects with partners from research and industry. You can find my contact information here: 

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Phone: +49 8161 491 470 or mobile: +49 1716 411 383

Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV
Giggenhauser Str. 35, 85354 Freising, Germany

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[1] Springer, A.; Höckmeier, L.; Schicker, D.; Hettwer, S.; Freiherr, J. Measurement of Stress Relief during Scented Cosmetic Product Application Using a Mood Questionnaire, Stress Hormone Levels and Brain Activation. Cosmetics 2022, 9, 97.

Jessica Freiherr
Prof. Dr. Jessica Freiherr studied nutrition science at FSU Jena and received her PhD in human biology from LMU Munich. Since 2019, she holds the professorship of Neuroscience of Sensory Perception at FAU Erlangen-Nuremberg. At the Fraunhofer IVV, she is an expert in multisensory perception in the context of product effects.

Doris Schicker
M.Ed. Doris Schicker studied scientific education at the TU Munich. Now she is doing her PhD in neuroscience at the Fraunhofer IVV on influences on human odor perception. At the same time, she works as a Senior Scientist at the Fraunhofer IVV to further explore multisensory aspects of product perception using data science methods.

Arielle Springer
Dipl.-Leb.Chem. Arielle Springer studied food chemistry at the TU Dresden and gained professional experience as a product developer in the cosmetics industry. Together with experienced experts, she is currently working as a business development manager and scientist across departments on the continuous development of the Personal & Home Care research area at the Fraunhofer IVV.

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