Hannah Sivak

Re-think the basics, re-examine the “normal”. We take too much for granted that shouldn’t. Look at other fields of expertise and see how they do things.


Known as a skincare scientist, Dr. Hannah Sivak, PhD founded Skin Actives Scientific in 2006. As her own way to put science first, Skin Actives was born out of a passion to not only help manufacture specialty proteins and ingredients but push the cutting edge of skin care technology.

Her life as a scientist began as a botany student. To this day, she follows the nomenclature rules instilled in her by Professor. A few years into her career, she found refuge at the Research Institute directed by Nobel Prize winner Dr. Luis Leloir – this changed her life forever. She subsequently earned her doctorate for Biochemical Research in Buenos Aires. Biochemistry was a whole new world where she could understand how nature works the way it does. Dr. Sivak learned, at the molecular level, how plants make the chemicals that shape our world.

Her publications include one book (available in Spanish and English), The Scientific Revolution in Skin Care, and more than 60 papers in international, refereed journals and books, dealing with different aspects of biology, biochemistry, microbiology, molecular biology and biotechnology. As a comprehensive guide to show how your skin functions and changes, The Scientific Revolution in Skin Care was written as a way to truly understand skin care ingredient lists and what each ingredient does or does not do for you.

She also served as a research fellow at the Universities of York and Sheffield, United Kingdom (1980-1990) and a Professor (Research) of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Michigan State University (1990-2002). She retired from academia in 2002, and now consults as a scientific advisor while overseeing the formulations for Skin Actives Scientific.

“When people ask me how I learned to do what I do, I have to say that it all started by watching my mother work in her kitchen – that, plus a passion for science, more than 40 years of learning from the best how to do science, long hours on the bench, and a willingness to listen to those who know more than I do.”

To date, Dr. Hannah Sivak continues to serve as a scientist, formulator, researcher, guest speaker, educator and author.

Where did the idea for Skin Actives Scientific come from?

Necessity. I was unhappy as an adviser to a skin care company because they were following my advice. They were entitled to this, of course, but no! being listened to makes for a very unhappy ego. The only way to have people follow your advice is to be your own boss.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I wake up early and start reading scientific papers about the formulation I have to prepare. I learn new science concepts every day and try to apply it to our products; it is not hard because so much of the scientific knowledge gets hidden under the rug and I enjoy getting it out from its hiding place.

I swim for a while and I think of the problem I have to solve and I usually get some good ideas while I swim. Out of the pool I go quickly back to the computer and write what I want to do. From there to the lab to test the hypothesis doing a lab test and I formulate what needs to be formulated. It is here usually that I realize that I got it all wrong but then I see a way out. I skype a colleague and ask whether I am thinking he whole thing wrong and feel reassured when he tells me I am right (or vice versa, that I got it all wrong!). So, all within a day I try a new thing and see if it works.
My mentor used to say that we need at least one experiment a day. She was right.

How do you bring ideas to life?

In formulations. It is not that hard: you get a good idea from reading the scientific literature, obtain the active chemical you want to test (this is usually the hardest step) and use a suitable serum or cream to deliver it to the skin. Then I test it on my skin. From the scientific papers I learn everything about the mechanism of action of the active on the skin and the rest of the body, including possible secondary effects that may derive from interactions you usually don’t take into account (but I do).

What’s one trend that excites you?

The use of bioidentical proteins in skin care. This was not possible just a decade ago and brings amazing possibilities to antiaging skin care and to prevent illness associated with pollution and reactive oxygen species (ROS*).

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Think outside the box. I always do.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t let bullies bully you!

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Copper is a poison. My scientist colleagues agree with me but the general public tends to look at copper as a magic remedy.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Re-think the basics, re-examine the “normal”. We take too much for granted that shouldn’t. Look at other fields of expertise and see how they do things.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

You can hide yourself from some people for some time, but not all the time from all people. Once I had no boss over me to tell me what to say, I opted from being honest all the time, even in our forum. This brought some uncomfortable comments (like “don’t have good customer service”) but in the log run if gave us a customer base that likes to “hear it like it is”. As Judge Judy (Scheindlin) says, “If you tell the truth, then you don’t have to have a good memory”

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Looked for answers in others I thought knew better. Things did not work out and we come back to what we know and know how to do it well.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Work with dermatologists to deliver products they need in their practices. At present, dermatologists are very limited in the products they use, they are either Rx with heavy side effects, or just plain barrier creams. There is a lot more they could do for their patients but it is not available. This is a huge vacuum waiting to be filled but you need money and organization because this model requires huge customer support dedicated to the physician.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Just $20. A set of foam toy swords to play with my grandchildren.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Skype. I am in contact with colleagues from around the world to ask “silly” questions and discuss science. In a big lab, you spend a lot of time looking at other people’s data, discussing papers and presenting your own data. In a company like mine, I need support from colleagues who work in different fields, and Skype is great for this.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Two. “Betrayal of trust” by Laurie Garrett and “The Emperor of All Maladies”, by Siddhartha Mukerjhee. They are not fun books but they are useful to remind me of how far we have come and how easy it may be to lose too much if we are not careful.

What is your favorite quote?

It depends on the day. Today it is “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (R.W. Emerson). It makes me feel less guilty about changing my mind so often.

Key Learnings:

  • The greatest barrier to success is a lack of self-confidence, a problem that seems to be women’s specialty. This barrier needs to be overcome if you want to succeed at anything.
  • A lot of people depend on you, get used to it. Stressing about it does not help.
  • Reading is the best source of imaginative solutions. Reserve quality time every day for reading.


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