Washington: Anyone who has gone through the stress and discomfort of raw, irritated skin knows the relief that comes with slathering on a creamy lotion. Now, researchers have found the first direct glimpse of how a cream or lotion is molecularly structured, and it's not quite what they expected.
The researchers will present their results at the American Chemical Society (ACS) Fall 2019 National Meeting and Exposition. "The long-term stability and clinical properties of cream are determined by its fundamental structure," says Delaram Ahmadi, the graduate student who has conducted the study.
"If we can understand the chemical microstructure of the cream and relate that to the structure of the skin, then perhaps we can better repair the compromised skin barrier," adds Ahmadi. "We wanted to improve the science around cream formulation so that companies could more rationally formulate them to get exactly what they want. The most significant thing we found is that the textbook picture of the structure of cream is very naive," says one of Ahmadi's research advisors, David Barlow.
Formulators have mostly inferred the structure of these emulsions based on indirect measurements, Barlow explained. But his group took a direct approach, with Ahmadi analysing the cream using X-ray and neutron scattering techniques to determine how the ingredients were dispersed. Ahmadi and Barlow are at King's College London, and their co-investigator, Jayne Lawrence, PhD, is at Manchester University.
The cream is usually thought of as stacks of lamellae, or membranes, composed of surfactants and co-surfactants that maintain oil droplets dispersed within the water or vice versa. To reveal a cream's true structure, the researchers started with an aqueous cream formulation from the British Pharmacopoeia that contains two co-surfactants and a sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS) surfactant.
They also incorporated a diol known to act as a preservative. One by one, Ahmadi replaced each ingredient with heavier isotopic versions. The researchers then scattered x-rays and neutrons off the selectively isotope-labelled samples and, from the resulting patterns of scattering, determined the location of each ingredient and the aggregate it formed within the cream.
The results were surprising. Although they observed co-surfactants in the lamellar layers as predicted, the surfactant was not there. "The surfactant peak profile suggested that the molecule formed micelles in the cream," Ahmadi adds. In addition, the preservative was not found in the aqueous layer, where scientists have always presumed it would be. It was, in fact, residing in the lamellae.
Preservatives have an antimicrobial effect, thereby prolonging shelf-life. Formulators had assumed that to be an effective antimicrobial, the preservative had to be dissolved in the water layer. So, Ahmadi says this finding could mean the creams are essentially self-preserving.