Past Events

Visit to the Walgreens Boots Alliance

On Wednesday 26th February 2020, twenty-five East Midlands Local Section members were treated to a tour of the Walgreens Boots Alliance Technical Centre and Product Evaluation Suite in Nottingham.

Emma Catchpole, Formulation Manager for No7 skincare, Product Delivery, kindly arranged and hosted a day of presentations and laboratory tours. With the support of other Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) scientific and technical personnel, Emma delivered a fascinating and very enjoyable day for our members. 

The meeting started with an introduction to WBA where we learnt about the history of the site and the current activities undertaken at the site. We were then treated to three tours of different areas of the site and a much-appreciated buffet lunch. The tours of the site included a tour of the biological testing laboratory, the formulation laboratory and product development areas, and the Product Evaluation Suite.

The day provided a fascinating insight into modern cosmetics and ‘customer-ceuticals’ research and development as well as allowing us the chance to see how Boots developed from a UK centric company to a global supplier and internationally recognised brand. Boots has been developing and producing healthcare, personal care and cosmetic products at the Beeston site in Nottingham since purchasing the site in 1927. More recently, Boots has transferred the product manufacturing operations to another company operating on the same site. The transfer of the production facility has allowed Boots to focus effort on research, development and technical testing of products including claims evaluation. The Beeston site is now the hub for personal care and cosmetics product development for the global organisation. WBA is the commercial alliance formed in 2014 between Boots and Walgreens, a US based company, to establish a global health and personal care company. The WBA technical centre, built in 2006, is a purpose-built facility for product development. The personnel in the quality, safety and regulatory teams and the claims evaluation team support the WBA technical centre activities. The co-location of these support functions with product and formulation development is almost unique in this sector and provides a valuable resource for both technical and marketing personnel. 

The tour of the biological testing laboratory was hosted by Dr Yegor Doush. Yegar is a biomedical research specialist with a background in oncology research. Yegor demonstrated how donated human skin cells and skin tissue samples are used to perform in-vitro screening of potential active ingredients for skin care products. The tests used evaluate the efficacy of products in enhancing natural skin repair mechanisms under simulated stress conditions e.g. from solar radiation and chemically induced oxidative stress. Yegor explained how his team have developed test methodologies to optimise formulations with minimal levels of active ingredients. We were able to see examples of the cells and whole skin samples, the impact of an active ingredient on the cellular skin structure and the impact of addition of soothing substances on levels of inflammation in cell samples. We had a lively and interesting discussion regarding the possible challenges to consumer care and cosmetics testing which could be precipitated by our departure from the European Union. Some of us were not aware that the current regulations for cosmetic product testing in China require live animal testing which has been illegal for many years in Europe.  WBA does not conduct animal testing and supports the use of alternative methods.

Our tour continued within the wider D19 building to include the product development laboratories for formulation and testing of cosmetics and skincare products. We saw examples of various small to medium scale production facilities routinely used to create pre-commercial batches of product for initial stability studies and consumer testing. We watched one of the technical personnel, Jake Hicks, perform a small-scale production of a No7 skincare product, the lift and illuminate serum. During his demonstration, Jake explained some of the differences in formulating products using laboratory equipment compared to larger scale production. Jake provided the example of aeration issues affecting product stability in a typical 4-litre scale laboratory production unit. Jake explained that these issues could be avoided by production under vacuum using a 50-litre scale unit in the pilot plant facility.

Mark Johnson introduced the global branding of product ranges. Mark is a lead formulation scientist and was our host in the product development laboratory. Mark provided examples of the global brands and explained the differences between marketing of traditional Boots brands, and global brands, such as the No7 skincare range. Mark highlighted how the ethos of the Boots brand, as a trusted provided of family healthcare products in the UK, has been carried over to the global WBA brands. We learnt that WBA is an alliance with Walgreens, a pharmacy, wellbeing and beauty product company that is based in the USA. WBA employs around 415,000 people and has a presence in 25 countries with current business dominated by their presence in markets in the USA, UK, Europe, Thailand, and parts of the Middle East. With 9,500 stores in the USA alone, we were not surprised to learn that the majority of citizens in the USA live within a short drive of a Walgreens store. Mark highlighted how the WBA ethos of ‘inclusion’ is particularly evident in the range of formulations developed for similar products to meet differing consumer needs and cultural demands even within the UK market.

The global nature of the product development activities were also highlighted by the insights provided by our building tour host, Jill Mclaughlin. Jill provided examples from her own experience of difficulties she had encountered in transporting batches of development products across Europe. Even within Europe, temporal changes to climatic conditions, such as transiting the Alps, can break emulsions and lead to separating out of actives in formations. Jill’s insights helped explain the wide range of product stability tests we observed in the extensive physiochemical testing suites and the focus on development and testing of packaging to improve sustainability whilst also ensuring that product efficacy is protected during transit and under sales conditions.

Our final tour stage was to the Product Evaluation Building where our host, Kristina Bjoko, explained and demonstrated a number of the Claims tests performed. We learnt that all claims included on packaging and advertising of products will have been through rigorous evaluation to international standards tests using in-vitro testing in the main D19 laboratories and/or in-vivo testing in the Claims Evaluation suite. In-vivo testing in the Product Evaluation suite is performed on consenting adults who are paid for their time and expenses incurred attending the site. We saw several ‘test subjects’ in the acclimatisation area awaiting evaluation tests for the effectiveness of a moisturising formulation who were enjoying a quiet time reading magazines and books whilst awaiting their tests. Kristina highlighted that of the 40,000 people in the UK who provide product-testing services to the WBA, 5,000 of these people live locally and many regularly attend the Product Evaluation Building. Kristina discussed a recently acquired high definition camera that provides a state–of-the-art imaging device for detecting subtle differences in skin appearance. The camera is used to quantify observations made by the test subjects on product use impacts. We were impressed by the sun protection factor (SPF) claims testing set-up that included an immersion tank for testing the impact of swimming on the effective SPF of suncare products. Kristina explained that, as suncare products are more soluble in freshwater than in saline water, the method used by WBA employs a freshwater rather than seawater bath. This provides confidence that the SPF claims made on suncare products tested in the facility meet the most stringent test conditions. 

The enthusiastic and welcoming technical and support staff we met on our tour made our fascinating day at the WBA Technical Centre and Product Evaluation Building very special. Each tour stop resulted in lots of technical questions from our members and considered detailed responses from the WBA personnel we encountered. The Royal Society of Chemistry attendees provided much positive feedback throughout the site visit and afterwards.

Some of the attendees on the tour of the Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) Beeston site in Nottingham with the visit host Emma Catchpole (Formulation Manager for No7 skincare, Product Delivery) fourth from the right.

Some of the attendees on the tour of the Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) Beeston site in Nottingham with the visit host Emma Catchpole (Formulation Manager for No7 skincare, Product Delivery) fourth from the right.

The timing of this event, only a couple of weeks before the countrywide lockdown to cope with the covid19 virus pandemic, renders the good memories from our event very poignant. On behalf of all our members who attended I’d like to offer our thanks to Emma Catchpole, her colleagues and all the WBA Beeston personnel for providing us with such an interesting day out and to wish everyone all the very best throughout this difficult time and for the future.

Dr Gwenda McIntyre