Beauty Store Business magazine - January, 2020

The Beauty Scientist: How Dr. Ken Marenus Brings Science to Beauty

World-renowned cosmetic researcher Dr. Ken Marenus brings scientific expertise to his new role as president of ICMAD.

Dr. Ken Marenus grew into the skin he’s in. The newly appointed president of Independent Cosmetic Manufacturers and Distributors
(ICMAD), a nonprofit trade group dedicated to supporting innovative companies and independently owned businesses, didn’t start life as a beauty devotee. In childhood, he wasn’t interested in cosmetology. A California native who grew up in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood of Los Angeles, Marenus considered biology his lifelong calling. “I majored in zoology as an undergraduate at UCLA, then stayed there to obtain a PhD in cell biology,” says Marenus. After graduating in 1980, the west coast native headed east for a postdoctoral fellowship in biophysics at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University.

Two years later, he began looking for work. “I thought I’d follow a career in academia, maybe teach biology as a university professor,” Marenus shares. Several frustrating interviews revealed, however, that such institutions might not have the funding or adequate grant money needed to support the type of research this science enthusiast hoped to pursue. That’s when a recruiter suggested a consultation with a personal-care cosmetics company. Skeptical, but always open-minded, the young grad agreed to take the meeting–and that interaction forever shifted the course of his life. “I was blown away by the quality of work in which I saw those scientists engaging,” Marenus recalls. “They had the resources and opportunities to study a broad range of topics in the fields of cosmetology and skin care, which were on the verge of undergoing a dramatic change.” He wanted to be part of the action. In 1982, when Mary Kay Cosmetics offered him the job
of senior scientist in skin biology, Marenus moved to Dallas to join the iconic beauty group.


Neither his educational pursuits nor post-university professional endeavors had explored in depth the mysteries and workings of the human body’s largest organ, but suddenly the doctor found himself immersed. “I’d never focused much on skin,” says Marenus. He simultaneously accepted the position of adjunct assistant professor of dermatology at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, and spent the next four years advising students while designing experiments related to Mary Kay product development. “Immunology for skin care was just emerging as a science,” relays Marenus. Conditions like psoriasis and eczema, for example, were beginning to receive newfound attention as more researchers came to understand this fundamental truth: Skin health is inexorably linked to general corporal well-being and health.

A new opportunity arose in 1986, and once again Marenus moved cross-country, this time to New York, when Estée Lauder hired him
as a manager of biological research. The doctor was put in charge of a prestigious skin lab. The work became more demanding, his output more advanced. “This was the time in the cosmetics industry when people were just starting to make real performance claims like, ‘This facial cream used daily can help eliminate wrinkles and minimize fine lines,’” Marenus recalls. Effectiveness factors were being baked into the research, development and promotion of revolutionary new products– and it was his job to ensure they actually worked, living up to any and all purported benefits. When natural ingredients stormed onto the beauty scene, replacing chemicals and toxins whose harmful side effects were being uncovered, Marenus likewise became responsible for establishing both their safety and efficacy. He proudly took on the cause of eliminating animal testing in the late 1980s. “Since then, I’ve been committed to conducting all work and studies without lab animals,” he shares.

The next 30 years were a time of growth, for both Marenus and the beauty world in general. “Skin care witnessed a steep advancement curve, and I rode along with it, helping by introducing new concepts and materials while at the same time staying curious and always learning,” says the expert. He jumped from manager to director to vice president at Estée Lauder, finally assuming the title of senior vice president of Product Integration and Regulatory in 2007. “I’d become increasingly interested in how science and regulation come together to advance technology while keeping consumers safe, which is really the primary objective of anyone operating in this field,” says Marenus.

“As a result, I also became more involved with professional beauty trade associations throughout my three decades at Estée Lauder.” And he traveled constantly, at one point flying to Brussels once a month, along with frequent trips to Canada, China, South Korea and Taiwan to study international trade regulations and their effects on business, entrepre- neurship and product development. Though he didn’t know it yet, this was all great preparation for his next career phase–which would come as another surprise.


Marenus retired from Estée Lauder in 2018. “I was at home, chilling out, getting back into playing the guitar,” he says. His wife Donna, also newly retired from her career as a schoolteacher, was happy with their carefree days together. Then, as before, a job recruiter showed up at his door. “The ICMAD folks found me, and suddenly we were discussing the possibility of my joining the team as president,” says Marenus. The notion held appeal for a couple of reasons.

First, by managing the administration, programs and strategic planning of this nonprofit group, along with leading the charge on legislative advocacy, public relations and community outreach, Marenus had been offered an unexpected chance to effect genuine, lasting change. “Here was a tremendous growth opportunity to get into a trade association and structure it the way I thought it should look, helping it grow to the point where it becomes a beacon for independent beauty markets,” he explains. And second, he felt that perhaps he wasn’t done yet. There was still something left to give back. “The thing about the world of beauty is that it’s full of authentically nice people,” shares the pro. “I love this industry, which gave me my career and let me grow.”

He officially came out of retirement on July 1 of this year, working from his home office in Long Island, New York. A typical day might involve numerous conference calls and continuous emails between Marenus and the main ICMAD office in Texas, or with top beauty players representing business, technical and legislative interests. Some mornings he wakes up at 4:00 a.m. and takes a train to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to discuss how a stronger alliance could be forged between the FDA and ICMAD, to the mutual benefit of both agencies. The work is varied and exciting. “And I’m still in the house, so Donna is still happy,” says Marenus.


There are four basic pillars that Marenus identifies as the most important points of focus when it comes to his task of making ICMAD an ever-stronger supporter of creativity, innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit that drive global cosmetics progress while supporting independently owned businesses of all sizes.

The first is education. “We service everyone from small startups comprised of just a few innovators or guys with marketing degrees, to medium-size companies, to the people who operate large beauty conglomerates,” says Marenus. “A main tenet of our work is to provide basic information, so everyone knows what constitutes a safe product.” For example, manufacturers now use far fewer preservatives like parabens and formaldehyde when formulating cosmetics and personal-care items, which on the whole has boosted long-term health and even decreased links to cancer. But there’s a downside: Preservatives prevent bacterial and microbial growth. So you can’t nix them entirely; the trick is getting reliable information about which natural preservatives (cold-pressed plant oils, vitamins) to swap instead. That’s just one of many domains where Marenus is organizing webinars and seminars to guarantee ongoing, easily accessible data and tutorials. He wants to revamp the ICMAD communications plan by launching a newsletter or beauty digest that might be released quarterly, along with a larger annual beauty guide, plus flash alerts to announce breaking news or special launches.

The second pillar involves legislation. “We all operate under the basic belief that both products and our environment should be kept safe and clean, and we ask for reasonable laws to support those concerns,” says Marenus. Often that requires bringing sound science to the discussion, so as to correct certain misconceptions held by regulators.

Networking comes next. “We want to enable new participants to interact with more-established or knowledgeable pros who can offer the expert insight and services needed to achieve long-term success,” says Marenus. ICMAD’s membership totals roughly 900 entrepreneurial beauty and personal-care companies, many of which are based in Southern California. “I don’t know if it’s the movie industry or all the celebrities, but that’s become the hot spot for startup cosmetics,” marvels Marenus. While Los Angeles and New York City are easy areas for pros to meet and mingle, his aim is to create more local events in cities like Chicago, Boston, Austin and San Francisco, so suppliers and brands might have the chance to join forces in additional regions of the country.

The final area of focus spotlights member services dedicated to providing certificates of legitimacy and other forms of validation to burgeoning entrepreneurs. Beauty pioneers are key to keeping this world fresh and moving forward. “A skincare product is complex: It does many things, by employing multiple ingredients,” says Marenus. “To design a good cosmetic offering is hard–but it would be impossible without innovation.” He believes there’s been a drop off in technological breakthroughs since the 1980s, when alpha hydroxy acids first hit markets, revolutionizing skin exfoliation. “I was there at the start, and I know what a paradigm shift they were for the industry,” says Marenus. For the first time, it became possible to precisely improve skin turnover, achieving a fresh dermal layer that was visibly smoother than the one sloughed off. Nothing quite as exciting has happened in the interim–but the doctor can sense action brewing. Says Marenus, “We’re due for something big.”