Welcome to Byrdie's series, The Hustle. We're profiling BIPOC women and woman-aligned folks in the beauty and wellness industries who are usually behind-the-scenes. From the cosmetic chemists formulating your holy-grail serum to CFOs driving the biggest beauty companies forward, these women are the definition of career goals, and they're getting real about the journeys that led them to where they are—the highs, the lows, and everything in between.
Abena Antwi is the cosmetic science savant behind Burt's Bees products. For the past 15 years, Antwi has risen through the ranks at the conscious beauty brand, going from senior scientist to associate director of product design. Though she now holds a prominent position in beauty, she never imagined she'd work in the industry. As a chemistry student at Kean University, she planned to work as a pharmacist. However, an internship at L'Oreal changed everything. Ahead, Antwi discusses her passion for creating makeup and skincare products, the best career advice she's ever received, and what brings her joy outside of work.
What sparked your interest in science?
My interest in science began when I was a child in Ghana. My uncle was a pharmacist. Growing up, we did not have much money, so he would give us medication when we were sick. I remember I got malaria three times and almost died. But, my uncle was able to help me. Since then, I have always connected with science and wanted to be a pharmacist. I wanted to help people, so they didn't get sick as quickly or die the way people were dying around me growing up.
How did your desire to become a pharmacist evolve into a cosmetic science career?
As I finished my third year in college, I worked as a pharmacy technician at Walgreens. I planned to get into pharmacy school, but I got offered two internships. One was at Merck, and the other was at L'Oreal. The L'Oreal one was closer to my house, so I decided to move forward with it. I thought I'd get another opportunity with Merck or another pharmaceutical company the following semester.
My first project at my L'Oreal internship was making lipstick. I became so interested in it because I didn't know cosmetics had so much chemistry involved. I thought: I could do this for a living if I got the opportunity. So, I asked them if I could come in and work without pay after the internship. They let me go into the lab once a week while working at Walgreens. And then, during my last year of college, I never applied for the pharmaceutical test. I realized there was a little more opportunity in the cosmetic industry—you could go into formulating or even work in the analytical lab. And right before I graduated, L'Oreal was looking for chemists, and I got a job offer.
I realized there was a little more opportunity in the cosmetic industry—you could go into formulating or even work in the analytical lab.
Did you have an interest in beauty growing up?
I've always been very interested in skincare and hair care. I started braiding hair when I was seven years old. I grew up in Ghana, so all of our products were natural. I would mix coconut oil, shea butter, and vanilla because we didn't have money for lotion. I'd also make lip balms. So, I've always loved the art of combining things. It's funny that I ended up at Burt's Bees, using these natural ingredients.
How did the opportunity to join the Burt's Bees team come about? What made you want to work there?
I wasn't looking for a job at the time. But, somebody told me they were looking for chemists. I came in for an interview and saw how entrepreneurial the company was. It was like a family, whereas I came from a big company. At Burt's Bees, you were able to wear a lot of hats. During the interview, they told me about the creative and formulation process. They talked about their love for natural ingredients and sustainability. They take pride in making products that are good for the skin and the planet.
You've been at Burt's Bees for almost 15 years. What's been the most exciting product launch you've worked on?
I always say there are two products. The first is the 2-In-1 Diaper Cream And Powder ($10). One day, I was in the lab and wondered if I could turn cornstarch into a cream formulation. I wanted it to go on like a cream but turn into a powder. I played around with this formulation and showed it to the company's CEO. He immediately removed his socks and started rubbing the product onto his feet. That became my first patented product. I also worked on a Vaseline alternative called the Baby Multipurpose Ointment ($9).
I love our skincare products as well. We launched our "Sensitive" line, which has aloe and rice milk in the formula to minimize redness and irritation. It's gratifying to work on projects that help people with their skincare issues.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Being a product designer is a great role. I get to use my chemistry background and work with the chemists to develop products. If I were to go to the lab today, I'd be able to help them with some projects we have going on. I'll help them adjust the formulas based on our benchmark. We go back and forth and create different variations until we land on an approved formula. I'll also work with my marketing counterpart to build a concept around our format. I also work with our packaging and sales team. It's a very cross-functional role that I'm in right now. But, the most rewarding part is seeing the product in Walmart or Target.
It's gratifying to work on projects that help people with their skincare issues.
What advice would you give students who want to become cosmetic chemists?
I would tell them to get a mentor in the cosmetic industry. I've helped mentor a lot of kids throughout my 22 years in the industry. Having someone that can give you an overview of the field is helpful. I'd encourage them, especially women, to take plenty of science classes. It will be hard, but the result is a rewarding career. It's also important to know you don't only have to be in the lab. You could focus on manufacturing, developing raw materials, or clinical research. There are different ways to get involved.
Outside of work, what brings you joy?
I have two boys who play high school soccer, so I spend a lot of time watching them play. I also love to cook. I'm also working on a few projects right now in Ghana. Burt's Bees sent me to Ghana in April to see the women who make the shea butter. I was able to meet these ladies and mix shea butter with them. While there, I purchased a whole bunch of supplies for a nearby school. And when I visited, I found out they needed toilets. They had one bathroom for 300 kids, and it was not flushable. Since April, I've been working to help raise money to build 10 flushable toilets for the kids.