Lab Muffin is 10 years old! The concept, that is, not me – this isn’t some sort of weird leap year thing.
In case you didn’t know, Lab Muffin started as a blog on 5 December 2011, and the first “real” blog post was on 9 December 2011 – it was on Natural vs Chemical, which the earlier, foetus version of Clean Beauty.
Now Lab Muffin is my full-time job, and I never thought it would ever come to this! It’s pretty much my dream job, so thank you so much to everyone who’s been supporting me and making this possible.
I asked everyone to send in questions they had about Lab Muffin, so this is going to be a big overview of who I am, how I got here, what I’ve learned on the way and behind the scenes of Lab Muffin – sort of like how the sausages are made.
The YouTube video is here, if you prefer watching or listening!
- What are the biggest changes within the science/skincare community since you started (good and bad)?
- Over the 10 years, name the top three most infuriating myths you’ve heard.
- How do you deal with hate and negativity? Have you ever had someone try to discredit you or seriously misrepresent your information? How did you deal with it? How do you cope with unfair, public criticism of your work?
- Do people in real life raise an eyebrow when they find out you’re a skincare content creator?
- How do you decide which companies to work with?
- Have you ever faced a situation where sponsors weren’t happy with your scientific evaluation of the product?
- Have you ever gotten blacklisted by a brand who was upset about your content? Or had them give you legal threats?
- How do you go about researching a new topic?
- Which video took the longest?
- How did you choose chemistry/other high school and uni classes? What was your educational background?
- What made you decide to go the scicomm route and not stay in academia?
- Where did the name Lab Muffin come from?
- How did your PhD/degree help you with your career, and what did you have to learn yourself?
- When did you realise you could go full time as a science communicator?
- Tips for someone who just started blogging? What kept you motivated when you had yet to develop a large audience?
- How do you get started as a cosmetic chemist? Is a PhD necessary? Was it difficult?
- What makes you happiest about doing Lab Muffin?
- What would you say is the most important part in translating science to the wider population?
- What did you study to improve the delivery of your blog posts and videos?
- What are the pros and cons of writing blog posts versus making videos?
- Is it difficult that part of what you do necessitates frequent use of social media?
- What are the best and worst parts of your job?
- What microphones, camera, lights do you use?
- What platform is most lucrative for you? Is blogging truly dead?
- Is there a point where skincare can become obsessive or unhealthy?
- What have you believed in the past that turned out to be myths?
- What are your future plans for Lab Muffin?
What are the biggest changes within the science/skincare community since you started (good and bad)?
Everyone knows a lot more of the basics now (which I like to think is partly because of me). I think that’s why people seem to be a lot more interested in knowing the details, and really understanding everything at a much deeper level.
The really nice thing about this is that I can talk about much more complex topics than I ever imagined. Things like the math behind whether or not you need indoor sunscreen, the mechanism behind how different sunscreens work. 30000 people watched me talk about electronic transitions between quantised energy levels, which to me is absolutely mind-blowing!
Related post: How Do Sunscreens Work? The Science (with video)
On the bad side, I think marketing myths have gotten a lot more complex and sophisticated, so they’ve become a lot harder to debunk. As stated in Brandolini’s Law (also known as the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle), you need to put in a lot more effort to debunk stuff than to put out garbage.
Also maybe we care a little bit too much about the details these days – perhaps we’re getting bogged down in things that don’t really make a huge difference at the end of the day. A lot of the time there just isn’t a clear-cut answer with skincare, and the best thing to do is look at reviews from people you trust and try things for yourself, rather than trying to “logic it out” from a scientific perspective.
Related post: Scientism or “Science-Washing” in Beauty
Over the 10 years, name the top three most infuriating myths you’ve heard.
Number one is probably “sunscreen is causing more skin cancer than the sun”. This is just straight up dangerous misinformation. I live in Australia, so I know a lot of people who have skin cancer, and maybe they could have prevented that with sunscreen.
There’s also the whole “beauty companies are just trying to kill you because they want to make more money” myth that a lot of clean beauty tends to promote. This is one of the reasons I started my blog – it’s basically just a Big Pharma conspiracy theory, but for beauty.
Related post: Clean Beauty Is Wrong and Won’t Give Us Safer Products
My mum falls for this one a lot, which is another reason I started my blog – I was going down all these rabbit holes trying to convince my mum not to throw out all of her shampoo. Fear is a really powerful emotion that’s really fundamental to the way we humans evolved, and I think it’s just so scummy when beauty brands exploit this to manipulate customers, scaring you just to try to make a profit.
There’s also the whole idea that there’s no science in cosmetics – there is! For example, skincare is pretty much just applied medicinal chemistry. There are many reasons why the evidence doesn’t look as rigorous as it is or should be. A lot of that is just because of the legalities around how skincare is regulated. This is the whole drug versus cosmetic thing that I’ve talked about before. There just isn’t a lot of incentive for companies to run rigorous studies, even if that particular ingredient is really well supported by the evidence so far.
Related post: The Only Skincare That Works According to Science? ASAP Science video response
This leads to a lot of lazy debunkings – things like saying collagen can’t possibly work because they didn’t bother doing a literature search, the recent zinc sunscreen study where they only looked as sunscreen technologies that are 30 years old.
Related post: Do zinc sunscreens stop working and go toxic after 2 hours?
I think a lot of this comes from this idea that cosmetic science is female and frivolous and fluffy, so there can’t possibly be any science in it, even though there are multinational cosmetic companies that hire lots and lots of scientists. If you look at male-dominated areas with lots of pseudoscience, like gym junkie bro-science, cars and tech, people are a lot more careful when they debunk things. They take it more seriously and do a lot more background research, and won’t just go in there and assume they know everything.
How do you deal with hate and negativity? Have you ever had someone try to discredit you or seriously misrepresent your information? How did you deal with it? How do you cope with unfair, public criticism of your work?
Most people are really supportive – skincare creators are generally really nice!
I do tend to get more hate when I’m mythbusting, because sometimes I am talking about people’s deep-seated beliefs, and it can affect people’s businesses. So it’s understandable that people often have a pretty bad initial reaction.
Sometimes it’s even just people who are big fans of the brand – maybe they’ve tried a whole bunch of face creams and this is the one face cream that works, but the brand happens to have a whole bunch of dodgy marketing. Sometimes it’s from people who did sponsored posts for a product I criticised.
Misrepresentation it happens a lot, and I think it’s pretty unavoidable. Many of my stances are pretty complex, and it’s pretty easy to misrepresent them when they’re summarised. I’m pretty sure I’ve misrepresented my own beliefs!
I’ve had a “science” brand try to debunk my fatty acids and oils post and they just used a whole bunch of points that I addressed in the post itself.
Related post: Skincare Oils and Free Fatty Acids: The Science (with video)
How I deal with it depends on the exact situation. If it’s a common misconception or if they have a really large reach, I try to address it publicly. Sometimes I reach out to them privately and try to sort it out. And sometimes I think it’s best to just ignore it, and go out and touch some grass.
Do people in real life raise an eyebrow when they find out you’re a skincare content creator?
Yes, but it’s a bit of a mix! Some scientists – especially those in academia – think it’s really silly, because of that whole “there’s no science in cosmetics” thing. But a lot of people are really supportive, including a lot of my male scientist colleagues who think it’s pretty cool! My boss at the tutoring college who never uses social media has been super supportive. He’s always helping me out with any physics questions I have, and he lent me the thermal camera that I’ve been using.
Related post: Do We Need to Worry About Heat From Sunscreens? (with video)
How do you decide which companies to work with?
The ultimate test in my sponsorship selection process is: Will people who can’t buy this product at all (say, they live in Antarctica) get something useful or interesting out of this piece of content?
So obviously it has to be based on interesting science, it has to be scientifically accurate, and I have to actually like the product.
Related post: Thoughts on Sponsorships, Disclosures, Product Samples, Bias etc.
Most of the time, I’ve worked with brands because I’ve posted about liking their products before, and that’s why they reached out to me for a sponsorship.
If I haven’t tried the product before and I think I might like it, the brand has to send the product to me to try before I sign any contracts. There are sponsorships that have fallen through because even though the product was perfectly good, I just didn’t like it. Even if the science is interesting and I explain it well, at the end of the day people are going to ask me if I liked the product, I want to be able to say yes.
There’s been one exception where I didn’t like the product, but the brand wanted me to make purely educational content. That was the Pantene sponsorship, and that’s just because I found out I’m allergic to the preservatives they use, so I can’t actually use their products anymore.
Related post: Busting Hair Conditioner Myths: Build-Up, Silicones, Weighing Hair Down etc.
Have you ever faced a situation where sponsors weren’t happy with your scientific evaluation of the product?
It’s actually incredibly rare that I get any pushback on the facts that I talk about in a sponsored piece of content. Part of it is that I’m really choosy with my sponsorships, and the brief is actually in the contract, so you can see it before you sign.
If there’s anything in that that I’m not comfortable with – if it’s not scientifically accurate, or if there’s not enough evidence for it – then I’ll usually ask for it to be taken out of the contract if it’s a small thing. If there’s way too much in there that I disagree with, I just don’t sign the contract.
99% of the time, the edits that I have to make aren’t factual, and most of the time I get no edits. Of the edits I’ve recently had to make:
- I’ve pronounced something wrong
- I got the price wrong
- They want a particular shot in the content – maybe I didn’t show applying the product, or the label got a bit blurry
- They’ve changed the packaging since I shot it, and they want me to reshoot with the new packaging
- They want me to reword things for legal reasons, or include disclaimers (e.g. for sunscreens in Australia, there’s a specific disclaimer)
- They didn’t want me to mention a competitor because they didn’t want to risk getting sued.
There is one piece of feedback that I absolutely hate that I’ve gotten a lot less pushback on lately, and that’s changing the language of the disclosure. A few years back I used to always get asked to change “sponsored” to “partner” or “collab”. It’s also a lot easier to argue against now because Australia has clear guidelines that I can point to, and brands know they can’t negotiate with that.
Have you ever gotten blacklisted by a brand who was upset about your content? Or had them give you legal threats?
After I criticise a brand, it’s usually 50/50 whether they respond well or badly. Some brands are really nice about it – they thank me and say they want to do better. I’m sure sometimes it’s just lip service and we should hold brands accountable for making changes, but it definitely looks better from a PR perspective.
Related post: Why I don’t recommend The Ordinary’s Niacinamide and L-Ascorbic Acid powders
It’s much better than the alternative, where they respond really badly. I’ve been blacklisted a few times from different brands and different PR companies. One brand I criticised contacted my management and reminded them about their sponsorships with other creators my management looked after, which I thought was a bit much…
Related post: Sneaky Marketing? The Inkey List Succinic Acid Acne Treatment
How do you go about researching a new topic?
This really depends on the topic, and my process, as always, is a little bit chaotic!
Let’s say I’m trying to talk about a new publication. My first step is to make sure I really understand the background. These days it’s a bit easier because I’ve done so much background reading for everything else already!
I’ll read through the paper really closely, sentence by sentence, and look up anything I don’t understand. Usually this is by looking through textbooks. You do have to be a bit careful with textbooks because they’re sometimes inaccurate, since they’re not really peer-reviewed, so you have to check against other sources, your existing knowledge, and what experts think.
Usually in this process there are a lot of detours. It’s rarely straightforward, where I can just read a paper from start to end. It can take about 6 hours to read through a three-page paper!
I think a key part for working out the correct direction for a topic is just knowing who the right experts are. For example, for whether mineral sunscreens absorb or reflect UV – if you’re a dermatologist, it doesn’t actually matter which one it is as long as the sunscreen works. But a physical chemist would have to know because firstly, they’d use different methods to measure the UV protection if it reflected or if it absorbed, and secondly, the mechanism of action has to do with the microscopic structure of that chemical.
Related post: Chemical vs Physical Sunscreens: The Science (with video)
If you’re trying to work out if sunscreens cause or prevent skin cancer, then dermatologists, toxicologists and regulators would be really relevant, but a physical chemist or a coral scientist wouldn’t be relevant. So it’s really important to work out whose opinion to give more weight to when you see contradictory opinions.
Which video took the longest?
There are videos that have been sitting on the back burner for months because they just won’t quite come together – I don’t want to say the topics because I don’t want to give people false hope! A lot of these topics are things that people have suggested to me, so don’t feel like your recommendations for topics go into the ether – I write them all down and someday I hope to cover them all. But I’m only one person, and unfortunately things take a lot of time.
Sometimes it isn’t even the volume of research that’s tricky – sometimes it’s collaboration. Every time I do a collaboration I pretty much have to start a whole new process. It takes ages trying to work out how to edit people in without misrepresenting them, and still have the video flow together really nicely.
Out of the videos I’ve done so far, the longest ones have probably been:
Clean Beauty: Editing Dr Fred Lebreux’s footage down was pretty tricky, it took me months to work out how to make it sit together! But I’m really happy with final product, and he was happy with it too.
Alcohol in Skincare: This was a collaboration with Kind of Stephen. We were trying to coordinate our research together through a Google Document, with him in Canada and me in Australia, so this was just sort of like a logistical thing. We were also sitting on it for ages trying to work out what the best way to tell that story was.
Reef Safe Sunscreen: The research actually took a really long time for this video, because when I made it there wasn’t that much published on the topic. I had a really difficult time trying to work out what the general scientific consensus was – I had to dig through coral scientist mailing list archives. These days it’s a lot easier because there have been new review studies that have been published which confirm pretty much what I worked out (I was very relieved when they came out!).
Skincare Oils and Free Fatty Acids: This also took ages because I had to skim through hundreds of papers manually. No one had really researched this topic directly, so I had to put it all together through studies that accidentally gave me the info I needed.
Octocrylene Fearmongering/I’m Propaganda: This was quite difficult because I was in a weird headspace at the time, with I had a lot going on in my life. You can also tell I got kind of ambitious about it – I had my heart set on making that whole Taylor Swift meme sequence, but I didn’t really have the skills to make it work. So that part required a lot of outside help.
How did you choose chemistry/other high school and uni classes? What was your educational background?
In high school, I was actually more interested in arts. I took drama, history, 4 unit English, 4 unit maths and chemistry. I was good at physics and biology, but I wasn’t as interested in them and I just really liked chemistry.
I really loved how chemistry explained a lot of things that I saw in everyday life, because everything could just be linked back to the fundamentals of how molecules interact with each other. Things like why you get condensation on the outside of cold drinks, why raindrops merge on a window, why you get bubbles from detergent, why dry pencil lead makes your hand dirty but dry pen ink doesn’t, how different painkillers worked.
I went to a really academic high school, and we had these lunchtime chemistry classes. My friend went to them so I tagged along – it was sort of more of a social event for me.
Here’s something that I think might be a bit unexpected – I don’t think I started off naturally good at chemistry, but because I went to all these extra lunchtime classes (mostly to hang out with my friends), I got a lot of practice, and then I got good at chemistry. I think that’s actually why I’m good at teaching chemistry – because I have an insight into what it’s like to suck at chemistry.
In Australia there’s a system where you get a mark at the end of high school, and different uni courses have different cutoff marks. There’s this stupid idea of “not wasting your marks”, so a lot of people in my high school get pressured into doing medicine or law. I picked combined law at Sydney Uni. At the time it had the highest entry mark so I “wasted” less of my marks, a lot of my friends were doing law there too, it seemed like a respectable job and it’s the top law school in the country.
I picked science as the second degree for two reasons. The main one was when I was 17, science sounded like it would be a bit more of a useful degree than arts. The second one was because I went to those lunchtime classes, I ended up being top 20 in the country for Chemistry Olympiad, which meant you could actually skip first year chemistry. So my approach was essentially picking subjects I was somewhat interested in and potentially had a career after it, and if I could get higher marks without as much effort, then even better!
My science courses were chemistry, psychology, maths, pharmacology and physiology. The idea was I could become a patent attorney or potentially go into drug design. I was really fascinated by how different substances could have really different effects on your body – different things could get you to stop sneezing or stop your headache or hallucinate or drop dead. My parents are nurses, so when I was a kid I got a lot of random stuff given to me when I was sick.
After the first three years of undergrad I paused law for a year to do Honours in chemistry. I ended up dropping law because even though I loved studying law, it turns out I hated working in a law firm.
My law firm was representing a tobacco company. I never really considered myself a super moral person – I assumed if I got paid enough then I would be comfortable giving fair representation to any party, because that’s what all lawyers should be doing. But it just slowly ate away at me that I was working so hard, and the harder I was working, the more I was helping (what to me seemed like) the bad guys win. There’s no judgment for me for people who do this kind of work – I have a lot of friends in law, and I think detachment is a really useful skill – but it just isn’t the way I’m built.
So because of that experience, I’m a big believer in trying out lots of different things. If you think you might be interested in something, then just try it out, because you don’t really know what it’s like unless you immerse yourself in that experience. If you can’t get practical hands-on experience, try to talk to people who work in the fields that you might want to go into. Hopefully that gives you a better feel for what actually interests you and what you enjoy doing, and whether or not that field matches that.
I discovered that a lot of people become patent attorneys after getting a PhD, so doing a PhD seemed like a good way to keep both of those patent attorney/drug design paths open.
My PhD was a continuation of my Honours project, which was really interesting – it was on medicinal and supramolecular chemistry. I also made a lot of friends in my cohort and a lot of us decided to continue onto PhDs, so that was a really nice group of people to be around.
There was also the fact that the admin to change unis (let alone countries) was just a lot. I’m really bad with dealing with admin, and staying at Sydney Uni involved filling in about two pages. (Also because I got a University Medal, I had a lot of guaranteed scholarships if I stayed.) So that’s the not-very-inspiring story of how I ended up doing a PhD.
What made you decide to go the scicomm route and not stay in academia?
I’ve always really enjoyed teaching. During my PhD I did a bit of lab teaching and taught undergrad tutorials. I also did a lot of tutoring before this – my first tutoring job was at 14, and when I was a kid I invented multiple choice tests for my friends to do to join a club (yeah, I was just a really annoying child).
There’s just not that much teaching in academia – a lot of academia just revolves around research. But a lot of science communication is pretty much like teaching. That was another reason I started Lab Muffin – at the time, the general advice was that if you wanted to go into scicomm you should start a blog as a portfolio, and to show that you were truly interested in scicomm.
The main thing that got me out of thinking of academia as a long-term job was that there was a fire in my lab in 2012. It was the final year of my PhD, and I was in the lab where the fire was. I pretty much just saw my life flash before my eyes.
Our labs were organised so that all the organic chemists were on one level, and organic chemistry involves a lot of really flammable solvents. On top of every lab desk there was just basically a bunch of petrol. In my mind in that moment, I thought the whole building would just go up in flames – I could see a wall of flames exploding towards me.
It didn’t. The fire was actually confined to a really small area, but that incident affected me a lot. I had PTSD for about six months, with nightmares every single night. When I went back near the building I had this really uncomfortable skin crawling feeling, which made finishing my PhD really difficult. I didn’t publish as many papers as I probably could have, and I took a bit longer than I should have as well. That incident really highlighted that I love chemistry, but not enough to die because someone else screwed up.
After I graduated, I didn’t really know what to do. I lived in Switzerland for half a year with my partner at the time. I got really depressed, I worked on my blog, I became a moderator on /r/skincareaddiction on Reddit.
I started teaching at Matrix Education to earn some money on the side – this is a tutoring college that does usually classes of 15. They hire a lot of PhD students and they paid really well. About six months later, they offered me a full-time position as Chemistry Coordinator. I was in charge of hiring teachers, teaching and writing the teaching materials, so I got to write the textbooks and invent experiments. I sort of just fell into that role, and I found that I absolutely loved it. I stayed there until I went full time with Lab Muffin, and I still teach there a few hours a week.
Where did the name Lab Muffin come from?
This story is… not that exciting.
I knew I wanted to have a blog, I couldn’t think of a name and so I couldn’t start. I procrastinated for about four weeks and knew I just had to start, so I settled on Lab Muffin. I was sitting in a lab when I set up my first BlogSpot account, Muffin was the nickname from my partner at the time.
I told myself I could just start and then change the name later and… I just never thought up a better name, and now it’s too late.
The good thing about the phrase “Lab Muffin” is that it’s like a brand new sentence, which means it’s very search engine friendly. Even back in 2012, I would be the first result if you typed in Lab Muffin into Google. If you’re trying to pick an online handle and you want to be very easily searchable, I would definitely recommend something relatively unique and easy to spell.
If you have a really distinctive name, I’d just go with your name. (That wasn’t an option for me because there were literally 27 other Michelle Wongs back when I tried to sign up to Hotmail in 1997.)
How did your PhD/degree help you with your career, and what did you have to learn yourself?
My PhD project was on cyclic peptides – I was making them and then exploring their uses as drugs and supramolecular scaffolds. That combined with my undergrad subjects gave me a good background understanding of things like chemistry, pharmacology, physiology and medicinal chemistry. So from that I was really used to looking at things like ligands and biochemical pathways, but I never specifically looked at anything skincare, like retinoids.
I think more importantly, I developed a lot of other skills from my PhD training and from my previous job. During a typical PhD, you have to defend your ideas against people who are kind of trying to make you break. It’s a bit toxic (some people cry), but you get used to having to really critique your own ideas, so that you can work out all the flaws before you go up on stage and have to publicly defend yourself.
Writing the textbooks was also really good training because the audience was experienced chemistry teachers, chemistry PhDs and PhD students who are teaching the material, as well as high school students. So you had to make it work for a lot of different people.
When did you realise you could go full time as a science communicator?
In 2017 I added banner ads to my blog, and that’s when I started making more money than I was spending on Lab Muffin. It started looking like it could potentially be a part-time job. I was starting to get over a thousand dollars a month without a ton of effort, and I really wish I discovered this a lot earlier, and not six years in. So yeah, my advice would be if there’s a hobby that you love doing, see if you can make money out of it earlier on!
In late 2017 I started my YouTube channel, and that’s when I started to get a lot more sponsorship opportunities and the workload started to really ramp up. By late 2018 I was working on Lab Muffin on the train to and from work, and every weekend I pretty much had no life. I worked like 70 to 80 hours a week, and was basically in lockdown before lockdown was a thing. My accountant didn’t actually believe how many hours I worked until I showed her my records!
Every Sunday and Monday (which was my weekend), I’d get out of bed, stumble across the room to my chair, and work straight from 9 am to 1 am. I went out of my room only for meals and for bathroom breaks. I do not recommend this at all – I recommend trying to figure out a way to avoid this as early as you can.
By the middle of 2019, I was making enough money from content creation that it could be a full-time job, and I was just about to burn out from working every single waking moment. I was constantly shallow breathing, I had a racing heart, my memory was getting really bad and I was starting to get these weird feelings in my legs like I was getting little clots. So I resigned from my day job.
I’m still not really good at the whole work-life balance thing, but it has gotten a lot better!
Tips for someone who just started blogging? What kept you motivated when you had yet to develop a large audience?
One of the things that really kept me going was having a nice community around me. There were a lot of other bloggers back in the day, and we all used to comment on each other’s blogs – not in an organised way, but just being really supportive. There wasn’t really an algorithm back then, so we weren’t boosting each other’s posts like you might on Instagram.
There was also this nail polish tag trend that was going around, and every week we would have Artsy Wednesday where a bunch of us would all post nail art around a specific theme.
I think these sorts of techniques still work in the age of social media – having lots of support, and working on collaborative projects.
I also felt like the content I was making just needed to be made. No one else was making scientific deep dives, and mythbusting in a way that’s accurate but also easy to understand. And there was a lot of pseudoscience going around. I felt a sort of duty to keep making my type of content.
How do you get started as a cosmetic chemist? Is a PhD necessary? Was it difficult?
Cosmetic chemist is a qualification, and I did my diploma with the Institute of Personal Care Science. It’s a very popular program that’s widely recognised in the industry.
You definitely don’t need a PhD to do it (I think you need the equivalent of a school certificate). It’s harder to understand what’s going on without some sort of science background, and you probably won’t get as deep an understanding out of it, but it is definitely doable! If you’re interested I would highly recommend it.
What makes you happiest about doing Lab Muffin?
I’m just a massive nerd. I love understanding stuff at a really deep level and then explaining it to other people I also really love the whole creative process of creating content whether it’s presentations or diagrams or textbooks or videos
What would you say is the most important part in translating science to the wider population?
I think accuracy is obviously really important, but also empathy – understanding what level of complexity people can handle, what analogies would work best for explaining something, and what feels satisfying. What tends to work really well for mythbusting is giving people a narrative that makes more sense than the myth – you have to help replace that with the truth.
What did you study to improve the delivery of your blog posts and videos?
I think the best thing you can do is just practice a lot. Make content, get feedback, and then incorporate that into your next piece of content.
I think teaching is also really helpful, because it’s like delivering content and getting real-time feedback. This doesn’t have to be formal teaching – you could just try explaining the topic you’re trying to make content about to your friends or to your family.
What are the pros and cons of writing blog posts versus making videos?
I started making videos because I felt a bit constrained by blog posts. Some things are just really hard to show without an animation or something moving.
Videos take a lot longer though. Minus the research, a blog post would take about three hours whereas a video would take 20 hours.
Is it difficult that part of what you do necessitates frequent use of social media?
I think the most annoying thing about social media is that you have to make the algorithm happy to get any sort of reach. Your posts don’t get shown to your audience unless you tick off a whole bunch of boxes, which change all the time, and that might not be the best thing for that particular piece of content. Maybe you need to have a static post with lots of words, but the algorithm wants you to make videos.
Social media is also pretty intrusive. It’s designed to make you want to check it all the time, and if that’s part of your work then your work-life balance is a bit messed up. It’s particularly bad because I’m in Australia, so the peak times for social media are weird hours like 2 am.
On the other hand I do kind of like that the algorithm changes all the time, because I like a challenge. I have a short attention span, so I quite enjoy making lots of diverse content.
What are the best and worst parts of your job?
I think the best thing is that I’m quite a creative person, and my job can be my entire creative outlet. If you get bored of doing the same thing all the time, this job is fantastic.
The worst thing is that the harder you work the more you’re rewarded, so that’s really bad for work-life balance. Also because it’s an “internet job”, it constantly feels really insecure, like the algorithm might screw me over at any moment and I would no longer have an income.
I don’t think this is unique to making content or being a science communicator – I’ve heard similar things from a lot of people who own their own businesses.
There are also content creators and science communicators who are doing it as part of a full-time salaried job, so they won’t have the same issues.
One of the things that really helped me with time management is an app called Toggl. I use it to record how much time it takes me to do particular things, so I can better estimate how long it’ll take me to do similar things in the future. It’s really good for not over committing yourself!
What microphones, camera, lights do you use?
Microphone: Blue Yeti X (this was a PR sample)
Camera: My old Samsung S8 (I have an ice pack tied to it for this video, since it was really hot and it was overheating)
Lighting: Softbox and LED panel light
In the video I do a little behind-the scenes tour if you want to see more.
What platform is most lucrative for you? Is blogging truly dead?
This might be a bit surprising, but my ad income is actually much better from my blog than YouTube even though making videos takes so much more time. There are lots of blogs that are doing way better than me as well, especially food blogs!
I think it’s a bit harder to get established as a blog these days because Google ranks you higher if you’ve got an older website. If you’re starting a blog I’d recommend doing it alongside social media, because discoverability is a lot better.
With sponsorships, I get the most money from Instagram because I can produce a lot more sponsored Instagram content than YouTube videos, since they take so much longer to make.
Is there a point where skincare can become obsessive or unhealthy?
Definitely! I think a lot of people overthink skincare. It’s easy to take the scientific evidence too seriously. A lot of issues in skincare just aren’t that clear-cut, and the evidence is weak. I feel like a lot of myths come from just overthinking the evidence!
Whenever you see a strict rule for anything, that’s usually pretty suspect because there aren’t that many studies available on non-medical skincare. In science, you generally need lots of replicated studies to be sure about things, and that just doesn’t really exist in skincare.
I think a lot of the time getting obsessive about skincare is more of a symptom, rather than skincare causing the obsession. A lot of people come to skincare because of self-esteem issues, and skincare just becomes an outlet.
What have you believed in the past that turned out to be myths?
Pretty much every older myth I’ve debunked I’ve probably believed – for example, mineral sunscreen scattering and reflecting UV. This doesn’t happen as much anymore, because over the years I’ve become a lot more cynical. So now if there’s any new claims, I just start off not believing it by default.
What are your future plans for Lab Muffin?
I have some ideas for things that I really want to branch into, but I don’t want to say too much… I have so many ideas that I don’t take through to completion. I do think I manage to do a decent amount of stuff, but there is only one of me so it’s really hard to get everything I want done.
I don’t have plans for a skincare line – maybe in the future I could see myself collaborating with someone, but I don’t think I can start my own line. I’d probably just end up spending all day doing stuff that I don’t like, i.e. admin.
Hopefully this was interesting and gave you an insight into how Lab Muffin works! Fingers crossed there’ll be a 15 year version as well. Thank you so much to everyone who’s been supporting me and allowing this to become my full-time job, especially if you’ve been following since back when I was doing nail art. I think it’s really cool that we’ve built up this nerd community over the last decade, and hopefully it keeps going!
11 thoughts on “Lab Muffin 10 Year Q&A”
Michelle you are always so informative and entertaining! My skincare knowledge has grown leaps and bounds since I found your blog, and I’ve been a skincare junkie for over a decade. Congrats on a decade of educating us!
Dear Michelle, happy 10 years anniversary! I love your blog, you have taught me so much about skincare ingredients and sunscreens. Thank you very much for your work!
Loved hearing all the behind the scenes stuff! And thought it must be twice as much work, thank you thank you thank you for providing a video AND a text based option for your readers! I can usually scrape together the time to read something but not to sit and watch a video, so I’m so appreciative that you’ve included both of us kinds of readers/viewers when producing your content 🙂
Happy 10 year anniversary! And thank you for all the hard work you did put in and continue to put in.
Watching your videos and reading your blogs has shaped my own career path. I feel encouraged and comforted hearing your experience which is great because I am constantly questioning my life decisions! I’m in grad school now for biochem, and I hope I can do some sort of science outreach job upon graduation. I really appreciate your mythbusting, we gotta spread the word on the bogus talk!
I’ve so enjoyed your posts! You’ve really transformed by beauty routine for the better. I recently came across a sunscreen that claims to last for 24 hrs (https://onlyskin.sg/shop/series/for-face/cpr-the-only-rescue-kit-you-will-ever-need/). Can you take a look and let me know? One of the reasons I’m skeptical is that it contains Avobenzone, admittedly stabilized by Octocrylene & Octinoxate, which has me confused as to how it could possibly last for 24 hours. Is this just bogus? I also found the ingredient I think they use (quantasphere) and can see only an 80 minutes water resistant claim there…
You are the HG of skincare bloggers <3 thanks for all your hard work and curiosity – you have helped me out with so many questions about skincare and so many queries I didn't even know I had to begin with! You always make me want to find out more about the world around me. Also, very reassuring to hear you didn't start out good at chemistry, but became excellent through practise and effort. I wasn't great at science in school, and I've always wished I pursued my interest in science further after school and not let my insecurity about not being smart enough stop me. This is great encouragement to learn more 🙂
I actually really, really appreciate that you do blog posts alongside your videos because I don’t usually have the attention span to sit through a video.
I also am genuinely grateful that you are here and you do the work that you do, because it really is so difficult for laypeople to push through all the makeup/skincare marketing and figure out what’s worth spending money on out of our limited budgets. You cut through the thousands of options and help me stave off getting overwhelmed by decision fatigue. So, thank you for that.
This was a nice read and I enjoyed following along on your account of your 10-year journey. Here’s to another 10 (at least)!
Thank you so much! It’s really good to hear that it’s appreciated, because it usually takes a few hours to convert a video to a blog post :’)
Happy anniversary! I’m one of those that’s been following you since magnetic nail polishes were a big deal, and I have learned so, so much. Thank you for sharing all this with us! I’d also like to thank you for the blog posts of videos, is much easier for me- I’m Deaf, and video content isn’t always the most accessible to me. Just wanted you to know I appreciate the extra attention and work you put in. Hope you have many more happy years here!
Thank you so much for all the work you do. As a guy who knew nothing about skincare, finding your blog was a godsend. I got a lot of value out of your e-book and don’t know how I would have ever navigated the 1000s of products available without it. Really appreciate your straightforward presentation style, confidence, and that you write these blogs which I can skim and refer back to much more easily than videos.
I had a bit of a skincare-is-a-snake-oil-scam viewpoint initially albeit based on nothing but “vibes” and cynicism, but I stumbled on your blog and connected with also being a chemistry nerd (I feel like there’s so few in SciComm). Was immediately won over by your intelligence and communication style and became a believer. I’ve learned a lot and am so glad there’s someone willing to do not just the scientific homework, but distill it down into wonderfully written little posts I can bookmark. So glad we have you to share your opinions and recommendations – idk if I’d have ever gotten into skincare without such a great facts-forward resource. Wish there was a Lab Muffin for everything and hope the blog keeps going for a long time