Words from Wiechers: Organized Chaos

Johann W. Wiechers, Ph.D.
Johann W. Wiechers, Ph.D.

Editor's note: This "Words from Wiechers" series considers the many lessons the cosmetics R&D industry can learn from the late Johann Wiechers, Ph.D. He was a critical thinker, advisor, colleague and leader in the industry until his unexpected passing. Presenting Wiechers's insights is IFSCC Education Chair, Anthony J. O'Lenick, Jr.

In chapter 47 of his book, Memories of a Cosmetically Disturbed Mind, Wiechers reminds us:

“Mechanisms of action may be very complex and seem chaotic but you can create your own order in this chaos and only then [does] this chaos come to life. Strangely enough, I would describe the physical world as something strictly regulated with low margins of error; yet chaos theory rules by seemingly random processes. Biology may seem very chaotic (e.g., survival of the fittest and that type of stuff) and is typically characterized by much higher margins of error that we conveniently call biological variability; but it is, in fact, strictly regulated."

I suspect that often, systems appear to be chaotic because there is more than one process at work and this complicated interaction of systems make several predictable processes appear chaotic when combined.

Johann continued: “...recently, I finished writing a chapter for the book Aging Skin: Contemporary Knowledge and Future Direction, so I looked at all the different mechanisms [in skin whitening] from various angles; from a physical side; from a chemical perspective; from an enzymatic side; from a physiological angle. . . but never did I get a clear answer. From whatever viewpoint I looked at the mechanism of skin whiteners, a clear-cut subdivision was not possible.

"We all know only too well that tyrosinase inhibition is involved in skin whitening. Tyrosinase is the enzyme that catalyzes the rate-limiting first two steps of the skin melanogenesis process. Both eumelanin and pheomelanin production are reduced when blocking this enzyme. This is clearly an enzymatic mechanism and you don’t have to look too long to find a few more, such as TRP-1 and 2 (tyrosinase-related proteins 1 and 2).

"Another mechanism of action of skin whiteners is a hormonal one, involving different hormones of which melanocyte-stimulating hormone (α-MSH) is probably the most well-known representative. A third mechanism of skin whiteners is a strictly chemical one, where copper ions are extracted from the tyrosinase enzyme, rendering them inactive. A fourth mechanism of skin whiteners is a biochemical or molecular biological one, where a whole series of growth factors is involved in inducing changes in skin melanogenesis.

"But when we come to the fifth mechanism of skin whiteners, my beautiful ordering of the various mechanisms of skin whiteners is starting to fall apart. This is the physical mechanism of skin whiteners. A sun tan, for instance, is nothing more than an inflammatory reaction to sunlight. It comes from a physical effect (sunlight), resulting in a biochemical effect (the up-regulation of interleukin-1α (IL-1α)), which induces enzymes (tyrosinase) to work harder and steers a physiological effect (melanin being transported to the dendritic ends of the melanocyte and taken up by neighboring keratinocytes) to create a sun tan. Although this may all sound rather chaotic, these processes are all strictly regulated and definitely not random!

"Melanin is not the only chaotic process that is highly regulated. As we look more and more at skin barrier formation, we also find that there is a lot of order in that chaos, too. In June 2009, I [published] an article in Cosmetics & Toiletries magazine in which I described a new mechanism of skin moisturization: the stabilization of the orthorhombic skin lipid phase. But again, this biophysical mechanism is only one aspect of skin moisturization.

"You can also improve skin barrier function and therefore skin moisturization via enzymes, chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology. By this time, I am starting to ask myself whether chaos is the right word. The borderline between chaos and order is very slim."

Chaotic Behavior and Chaos Theory

Chaotic behavior exists in many natural systems, such as weather and climate.1-3 This behavior can be studied through analysis of a chaotic mathematical model, or through analytical techniques such as recurrence plots and Poincaré maps. Chaos theory has applications in several disciplines, including meteorology, anthropology,4, 5 sociology, physics,6 environmental science, computer science, engineering, economics, biology, ecology and philosophy. This theory has formed the basis for such fields as complex dynamical systems, edge of chaos theory, and self-assembly processes—and now, by Wiechers, to cosmetic science.

Just because we do not have a clear understanding why some system works does not mean we cannot study it and learn at least some predictive models that will allow us to make modifications. If a multi-component formulation were studied until it became fully understood, the amount of work would be enough for a full doctoral thesis. This is because the ingredients do not exist alone but in complicated interactions with other ingredients. These interactions are the crux of cosmetic products.

In fact, we can make small changes to our formulations and observe changes to properties by adding surface active polymers. This concept of "Minimally Disruptive Technology" was published in 2015, and adapts the concept of minimally disruptive medicine (MDM).7 MDM seeks to advance patient goals for health, health care and life using effective care programs designed and implemented in a manner that respects the capacity of patients and caregivers and minimizes the burden of treatment—the healthcare footprint—that the care program imposes on patients' lives.

Minimally Disruptive Formulation

Applying this concept, in what we now refer to as "Minimally Disruptive Formulation," is an effective approach to product development. The approach depends upon the ability of personal care formulators to provide products that have consumer-perceptible differences that meet a market need. Since aesthetics are a key attribute of personal care products, the ability to alter these aesthetics to provide a different consumer perception with minimal change to the formulation is a cost-effective way to develop new products.

The fact is a polymer, properly chosen at a concentration of 10% or less, will provide to the formulation: 1) a lowering of surface tension, 2) an alteration of feel, 3) a change in cushion and playtime, 4) a change in gloss, and 5) a perceived difference to consumers that the product is different from the formulation not including given additives. This makes silicone polymers valuable at low concentrations, to create formulas perceived as new products.

To put it another way, “If a personal care product is compared to a gourmet meal,8 polymeric additives would be the spice, not the meat or potatoes.”7 This means small amounts of the polymer added to great formulas will bring out the desired properties to a consumer, to amaze and delight them. Thus, formulators can make small but major modifications to formulas in a very efficient way by modifying well-known formulations with different aesthetics.

The Lesson

Let me end as Wiechers started, “Mechanisms of action may be very complex and seem chaotic but you can create your own order in this chaos and only then [does] this chaos come to life."

Perhaps the creation of his “own order” is, in fact, by why Johann’s order is still as fresh in 2019 as it was when he wrote this, in 2009.


1. Chaos theory (accessed Feb. 11, 2019). Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaos_theory#cite_note-Lorenz1961-8.
2. Lorenz, E.N. (1963). Deterministic non-periodic flow. J Atmospheric Sci 20 (2) 130–141, doi:10.1175/1520-0469(1963)0202.0.CO;2.
3. Ivancevic, V.G., and Ivancevic, T.T. (2008). Complex Nonlinearity: Chaos, Phase Transitions, Topology Change and Path Integrals. Springer. ISBN 978-3-540-79356-4.
4. Mosko, M.S., Damon, F.H. (eds.) (2005). On the order of chaos. Social Anthropology and the Science of Chaos. Oxford: Berghahn Books.
5. Trnka, R., and Lorencova, R. (2016). Quantum Anthropology: Man, Cultures and Groups in a Quantum Perspective. Prague: Charles University Karolinum Press.
6. Hubler, A. (1989). Adaptive control of chaotic systems. Swiss Physical Society, Helvetica Physica Acta 62 339–342.
7. Minmally Disruptive Medicine (accessed Feb. 11, 2019). Retrived from https://minimallydisruptivemedicine.org.
8. O'Lenick, A.J., Jr., et al. (accessed Feb. 11, 2019). Silicones in personal care products: Polydimethyl siloxanes, organosilicone polymers and copolymers. Retrieved from https://plasticsurgerykey.com/silicones-in-personal-care-products-polydimethyl-siloxanes-organosilicone-polymers-copolymers/.
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