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Meet the Faces

Meet the Faces

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MEET JOAN THOMAS, A MICROBIOLOGIST WHO KNOWS A LOT ABOUT THE TINY MICROBES THAT CAN SPOIL COSMETIC PRODUCTS AND THE BEST WAY TO MINIMISE SPOTS.

What is your job title and what are the main characteristics of your day-to-day work?

I’m Head of Technical Services at the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA), and as such I provide technical advice to CTPA members. I advise our member companies on a wide variety of issues, including the best way to manufacture products according to Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) and how to comply with relevant legislation. Companies might have questions about producing sun protection products, ingredients to use, how to develop the product, how to manufacture it and how to market it. As the trade association representing the UK industry, we also often get asked by the Department of Trade & Industry (DTI), Trading Standards, and EU member states for information. I help people from all over the world and use my many contacts in the industry to help research new and difficult issues. I also have to make sure that the CTPA website is up-to-date with relevant guidance, not only for our members but also for the public.

"I help people from all over the world, and use my many contacts in the industry, to help research new and difficult issues."

My other main responsibility is to run scientific committees. I love this most as lots of different companies come together to discuss issues and reach a mutually beneficial conclusion, often ending up with best practice guidance for CTPA to promote to our member companies. We have a main scientific committee made up of technical experts from companies and then sub-committees, each reporting to it on specific issues e.g. microbiology, good manufacturing practice, health and safety, sun, oral care, hair care etc. Each committee discusses topical issues and helps propose CTPA positions on legislative changes. Our industry has stringent legislation designed to safeguard the consumer and people manufacturing the product. The Association reviews all current legislation and ingredient issues in the European Union, the US and internationally, and provides position papers that help decide CTPA and member action.

What area of science (if any) do you use in your current job?

"One thousand microbes can fit in a line on a pinhead."

I did a degree in Microbiology and Chemistry, which I need to use to answer questions from members and write guidelines for our member companies when new legislation comes out, showing how this legislation affects our industry. Microbiology is about the tiny microbes all around us. One thousand microbes can fit in a line on a pinhead – they’re so tiny, it’s hard for people to appreciate that although they are very small, they are important. We have to make sure no microbes get into the products that could cause infection or the products to spoil. I also use my product manufacturing knowledge for this. I write guidelines in association with the European Trade Association and use a lot of Microbiology there.

"We have to make sure no microbes get into the products that could cause infection or the products to spoil."

Do you work in a specific department – if yes, is there a mix of speciality staff?

I work in a fairly small team of about 10 people. These people have a mixture of expertise, backgrounds and experience. I provide technical and scientific information whilst others look at environmental and regulatory issues. Because we are so small we all have to be fairly flexible and crossover on a variety of subjects.

What other departments/professions do you work with e.g. production, marketing, sales?

Nowadays I mainly work with other scientists who have a variety of expertise and roles. I also have a communications role, and as such I speak with people in marketing and other communications teams. In the past I worked a lot with marketing teams in order to identify and progress new ideas. Production departments would also have a big input. If the marketing team wanted to put a wave effect on the surface of an eye shadow or have an embossed heart in the middle in a different colour, production would tell them if it could be done in the manufacturing process.

What made you choose your current job and why in the cosmetics industry?

When I first graduated, I worked in a hospital lab, and later moved into the pharmaceutical industry. When I got married, I moved down South from Newcastle and then an interesting job came up at a large company in the cosmetics industry - they were looking for a microbiologist in manufacturing. I spent several years as a microbiologist, then Quality Assurance Manager, and then Process Quality Manager managing a staff of 45 people. During this time I was responsible for significant improvements in quality standards.

Whilst working in the industry I joined the CTPA Microbiology Committee and then later I began chairing the Committee and that’s when I began to get really involved with the CTPA. I really liked it – it is such an interesting, exciting and vibrant industry to work in. We made training videos with David Bellamy and ran workshops to educate people about microbiology.

"I worked in Egypt, where I was involved in setting up a new quality laboratory and factory."

After that, I worked as a consultant microbiologist and during this time, I worked in Egypt, where I was involved in setting up a new quality laboratory and factory. I was in charge of quality and production. They wanted someone to train the people in laboratory skills and in production quality. Because I’d been in charge of a production department, understood microbiology and GMP and had done a lot in education and training, I had the ideal experience. I used to go to Egypt for 2 weeks then came back to UK for 2 weeks. I did that for 2-3 years until the factory was on its feet, when it got an accolade from the company for the best microbiological results.

After working in Egypt I joined the staff at the CTPA in London and I really enjoy working here. I never thought working at a trade association would be so interesting and exciting before I did it, but it is.

What are the most exciting aspects of what you do?

I love travelling to Brussels and meeting people of different backgrounds and cultures. When looking at legislation in the EU, USA and Japan there are so many cultures and views very different from ours. So, reaching a compromise on guideline documents with the British Standards Institute and ISO (International Standards Organisation) is difficult with so many different opinions. At the last ISO conference in Paris, there were people from the US, Japan, France, India, Korea, Brazil, Iran, Jordan, Thailand, and South Africa. We had to get everyone to agree, which is not easy when you are working with lots of different languages. Everyone wants agreements on what’s the best way to manufacture products, how to test the effectiveness of sunscreen, and what SPF means. Harmonised agreements help with trade both ways. I like meeting all these different people.

Is there anything you don’t really enjoy in your day-to-day work?

Not much. I don’t like filing but everything is on the computer now, which has made life a lot easier. Keeping information is important but I have a technical co-ordinator and a technical information officer to help.

Are there any specific skills that are essential to have in the job you do?

I couldn’t do this job without my academic experience, but everything I did in industry helped. The Quality and Production experience is extremely useful.

Could someone come into your job straight from school? What skills/qualifications would they need?

You couldn’t do this job straight from school; you would need a degree. We would consider taking a new graduate, but the industry experience is really very important. A new or recent graduate would be sent to lots of companies to experience how they operate and how products are made. Sandwich courses and distance learning can help provide the industry experience.

The BSc course at the London School of Fashion in Cosmetic Science is a really good sandwich course taking 4 years. The SCS Distance Learning Diploma is also an excellent course and takes 1 year. It looks at all the relevant aspects of cosmetic microbiology, chemistry, legislation, developing a product, perfumery, stability studies and safety testing etc. You can enter this course with A-levels.

"I love travelling to Brussels and meeting people of different backgrounds and cultures."

Did your previous job prepare you for this one?

In a way, all my previous jobs led to what I’m doing now. My specialised knowledge of microbiology and quality assurance, and having ‘hands-on’ experience of what is involved in the manufacturing process really helps me give the best advice to companies on all aspects of producing cosmetic products.

Is there anything you wished you had studied or done differently when you were younger?

I have really enjoyed all my working life and worked ever since I left university. I did French and German at school but never used it. I wish I’d concentrated more on it. I wish I could speak them more fluently and had run the languages alongside my degree courses. It would be great now I work in Europe. I would also love to learn Spanish. I also wish I hadn’t dropped Geography because I love travelling now, but at the time I thought it was boring!

At school what did you think you would do for a living? For instance, did you envisage your sciences being used in the cosmetics industry?

No I was not aware of it as a career. I was going to leave school at 15 without a doubt. I told all my family and friends I would. I was heavily into going to jazz clubs, and I met someone who worked in a medical laboratory in a hospital and I thought it was fantastic; so I thought I would train to do that. It was doing microbiology and at the time microbiology and virology were relatively new sciences and seemed very exciting.

My father was a teacher and said I wasn’t to leave school, so I stayed, and now I’m very glad I did, and then went on to university. I still worked in a hospital after my degree but a lot of the exciting things I’ve done since, I wouldn’t have been able to do without a degree. A lot of jobs were only open to graduates, but now there are more options and people can get qualifications whilst working and can get jobs without a degree.

What subjects are you glad you studied? Were there any that were not immediately obvious as useful to your career but now are proving helpful, e.g. languages?

I’m very glad I did microbiology, which also covered virology and immunology (understanding allergic reactions) and chemistry. Languages were very useful – they helped me work in Egypt. Maths and physics have also been useful, and I’m glad I know a little bit but I still don’t think I’m good enough at them!

Later on in my career I also did a Diploma in Management Studies at Leicester University and this was a big help in appreciating all the management, marketing and commercial aspects of industry. I also qualified as a Lead Auditor with BSI (British Standards Institute) for assessing Quality Management Systems such as ISO 9000 (International Standards Organisation). This proved to be extremely useful in industry.

I wish I knew more about computers. I use them all the time and I have a “Blackberry” type device that picks up all my work emails which is brilliant when I am travelling. Most of the time it’s okay but sometimes it has a mind of its own and does something I can’t work out and I don’t know how to fix it – but we have experts to help on hand here.

With your skills and qualifications, what do you hope to achieve next in your career?

I’m interested in worldwide harmonisation of standards, procedures and guidance that help companies to trade more easily and in running training workshops locally and worldwide to support these. I have been so lucky. I have enjoyed my career so much and met a wonderful variety of people to work in a very exciting industry.

What’s the best way to minimise spots?

Gently wash your face with soap or cleanser to get rid of any dirt, oil and bacteria that could block pores. It is important not to spread the bacteria in the spot to other areas of your skin so use clean tissues every time you wash, and if you do have to use a towel, put it in the washing machine each time to kill any bacteria so that they do not spread to other areas of your skin. Pat your skin dry – do not rub the spots - you may make them worse. Remember, your fingers and nails can be a source of contamination so if you scratch a spot or if you rub it and it opens, be careful to wash your hands thoroughly using a nail brush and a medicated hand cleanser to avoid spreading any bacteria.

You may need to do this routine for at least 4 weeks before you see an improvement. If necessary wash with medicated skincare products (ideally not more than twice a day – always follow the instructions). If your spots do not clear up, go and see your doctor – you may need some extra treatment.

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