Janet Gold Bass

Janet Gold Bass ’78

research and development chemist

In her 40-year career with companies like Proctor and Gamble and Conair, chemist Janet Gold Bass ’78 led and oversaw the creation of hundreds of products that we use every day, leading us to ask:

Q: How do you solve a problem with chemistry

A: “I know oil and water are not supposed to mix, but I’ve spent my whole career working against that truth. We take raw materials from plants like oils that have the right structure, turn them into surfactants, which are chemicals that “like” water (sulfates, phosphates, sulfonates and things nobody can pronounce). These structures can wrap around an oil entity and hide it from the water.

My favorite research project back in the ‘90s yielded a product that could prevent skin from getting irritation from poison ivy and deliver an SPF. It was a particularly challenging goal because of the intricacies in creating a cream that sticks to the skin to endure the rigors of gardening in the sun. After we developed a stable formula and tested performance, there were funding issues that prevented the company from getting it to market, but the development challenges were rewarding.

We created an emulsion— a cream with oil and water, despite their natural properties - that had a positive charge to allow the cream to form a thin film on the skin. We worked with a clinical lab that had to grow poison ivy in the fall and winter, so we could conduct performance testing to prove that this emulsion created a barrier strong enough to prevent the oils in poison ivy from irritating your skin. It was a particularly unique development, as most creams don’t have a charge, and it is a challenge to deliver a sun protection factor as well.

There are a lot of chemical limitations to overcome in the products that we use every day. Many times we put things together that aren’t compatible, so you have to make the product stable for as long as a consumer needs it, and make sure it doesn’t change performance over time. It is hard to make oil live in water happily ever after.”

The Chemist Behind the Curtain

Research and development chemist Janet Gold Bass ’78 has spent nearly 40 years developing products for companies like Proctor and Gamble, Elizabeth Arden, Avon, Clairol and Conair — taking products from the concept-drawing board to the lab, manufacturing and into homes across the globe. She has worked on many global brands including Pantene, Herbal Essences, Oil of Olay, Clearasil and others. Recently retired from her role as the senior director of research and development at Conair, she oversaw the creation of 100+ products each year, a team of five chemists, and details on raw material identification, stability and performance testing to maintaining quality in manufacturing.

If it sounds like a lot, it is—just not for Bass. “It’s a lot of fun. There’s always something new, there are always old problems that come back to haunt you,” says Bass, who majored in chemistry at HWS. “While experimenting, you learn so much, and you apply those learnings to your next development. When you develop products solving their issues, it is rewarding to see products hit the market, and be able to walk into a store and say, ‘I made that.’”

Bass kick-started her career developing fragrances shortly after graduating from William Smith. She later worked on the team that created the technology for perms in the 1980s, joined the Society for Cosmetic Chemists, and began developing formulas for personal care companies leading sales figures across many different markets.

“Finding new ways to solve problems is what we have been doing for thousands of years,” says Bass, who is intrigued by the earliest stories of chemistry—notably, that of Cleopatra and her alchemists, who began experimenting with the first known cold creams and face oils in approximately 52 B.C.

“When I’m stuck on a problem, I talk it out with other people and go back to the basics. In the lab, you don’t always know how things are going to work out. Experimentation is key to multifaceted problem solving.”

At HWS, chemistry was not an easy choice for Bass, who was challenged by the discipline early on. Her professors coached her to “go with your strength” and she loved lab work. Her roles as the Resident Advisor in Miller and Head Resident in Emerson Hall taught her how to manage teams — foundational lessons that remained with her while simultaneously coordinating dozens of projects, managing multiple marketing groups and solving manufacturing issues.

For Bass, the ongoing shift in how consumers measure the safety in their products, a growing distrust in companies and the misconception that “all natural” or “chemical-free” is inherently better only points to a lack of understanding of chemistry. It’s impossible, she jokes, to create a chemicalfree shampoo since water itself is a chemical compound.

“Chemistry is often misunderstood. Everything is a chemical. The desk you’re sitting at is a collection of chemical compounds. The wood, the leaves, the paper, the pen—all are chemical compounds. The cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries purify and synthesize chemicals to be safe and effective for consumer use. After all, if a product hurts your customer—chances of resale and brand success are terrible!” –Morgan Gilbard ’15


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