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What is the best ingredient to use?

On a few occasions we’ve gotten a question that goes something like this….

“What is the best preservative to use?” or “What is the best ingredient I can use for moisturizing?” cosmetic-ingredients

A question like this is incredibly difficult because the answer depends on so many different factors about what you consider important.  To illustrate, let’s look a little more deeply at the question of preservatives.

What is the best preservative to use?

Preservatives are added to cosmetic formulas to prevent microbial contamination.  They are hugely important and nearly every cosmetic that is sold should have some kind of preservative.  But the best one to use will depend on a number of factors including…

  • Effectiveness
  • Formula type
  • Manufacturing conditions
  • Raw material sources
  • Cost considerations
  • Marketing considerations


Probably the most important consideration when you’re looking for the “best” ingredient.  This is the one that will best give you the effect for which you are looking.  In the area of preservatives there are many ingredients that will kill microbes.  Some work better than others and combinations typically work better than any single ingredient.  In my opinion as far as efficacy goes the best preservatives are Parabens and Formaldehyde donors.  Methylisothiazolinone blends are also quite effective.  Certainly, other ingredients work but they aren’t as broadly effective as these.  However, since other ingredients can work, effectiveness is not the only factor to consider when choosing the “best” ingredient.


While ingredients can be effective alone that doesn’t mean they will be effective in your particular formulation. Some ingredients are known to deactivate preservatives and some preservatives won’t work at certain pH levels.  Also, the oil content in your formula or the structure of your emulsion can all have an impact on whether the ingredient is effective.  Since you generally can’t know whether something will be effective just by looking at the formula on paper you have to test preservatives in your formulas.  And it makes sense to try different options.  Without giving information about the exact components of the formula, you can’t answer the question of which ingredient will work best.

Manufacturing conditions

The preservative system that you use will often depend on the manufacturing conditions under which you create your products.  Some plants are just cleaner than other plants and some facilities have tougher resident microbes than others.  I know one hair care manufacturer had to put Kathon in all their formulas because their manufacturing lines had a biofilm which was resistant to everything except Kathon.  The “best” preservative in their case was that one because it was the only thing they knew would work.

Raw Material Sources

This is similar to the manufacturing conditions but the quality of the raw materials that you are starting with will impact the decision of which is the “best” preservative to use.  If you are using ingredients from natural sources which haven’t been decontaminated from natural microbial residents you’ll have to use a stronger preservative.  If you use clean raw materials you might be able to get away with a less broadly effective preservative.

Cost Considerations

Of course you can’t figure out what the “best” ingredient is if you don’t have some sense of how much cost you are willing to absorb.  Sometimes the most effective ingredient also costs hundreds or thousands of dollars a pound and if you are selling your end product for one or two dollars you’ll never be able to afford the most effective ingredient.  In your case the “best” ingredient is the one the performs adequately within your cost constraints.  Ideally, you’ll get an ingredient that performs the way you want it to at the lowest possible cost.  For preservatives the ones that work the best also happen to be the ones that cost the least…parabens and formaldehyde donors.

Marketing Considerations

Sadly, there is a trend in which these marketing considerations get more attention than the more important factors I’ve already discussed.  But these are real considerations and sometimes you aren’t allowed to use the most effective, least expensive ingredients because your marketing position does not allow it.  If you are trying to sell a natural brand in Whole Foods you won’t be able to use parabens or formaldehyde donors.  You just can’t.  In that case the “best” preservative then becomes one of the organic acids, phenoxyethanol or other alternative, less broadly effective, and more expensive ingredients.

So, when you ask what the “best” ingredient is for your formulation remember to consider all the other factors before finding your answer.


Are big cosmetic companies more trustworthy?

On the Internet, big cosmetic corporations frequently get labeled as evil and there is the implication that they are trying to harm their consumers. Small companies don’t seem to experience that kind of scrutiny which is baffling to me because they are much more likely to make labeling errors, make misleading claims, and produce unsafe products. That’s not to suggest big companies are immune from these mistakes but if given the choice to buy a product from a big company or a small company, I suggest people stick with big companies. A big company just has so much more to lose than a small company. evil cosmetic corporation

Here is a report from the FDA which illustrates why I think big companies are more trustworthy when it comes to the safety of cosmetics.

According to this report Johnson & Johnson (a big corporation) issued a recall of their Clean & Clear Morning Burst Hydrating Gel Moisturizer. This affected about 8500 units. Apparently, the product was mislabeled because during manufacturing someone used a combination of raw materials 1,3 Butylene Glycol and Dimethicone rather than Dimethicone alone.

I’m sure this kind of mistake happens on occasion at every cosmetic manufacturing facility both big and small, but it is only a big company that would do anything about it.


Because there is no way the FDA would be able to catch this kind of error. It is essentially invisible. In fact, the only way that the FDA learned of the error was because J&J reported it themselves.

The amount of money that this will cost J&J might approach $1 million. To a big corporation, this isn’t much but to a small company this would ruin them. Does anyone believe a small cosmetic company would report an invisible mistake to the FDA and initiate a product recall that could destroy their company? I don’t think so.

When it comes to product safety, consumers should trust the big guys. This is not to suggest that the big companies are perfect but all things being equal, they are just a safer bet.


Interview:  Dr Satish Nayak

interview starts at : 14:10

Satish Nayak is the Director of Research and Development for Kemin Personal Care. He joined Kemin Dr Satish Nayakin 2008 as a Scientist for Kemin Industries Discovery Research group where he was the project manager for Chemistry and Biochemistry projects. Currently in his position, Satish is responsible for innovation, quality control and customer laboratory support for personal care ingredients.

Prior to coming to Kemin, Satish worked as a Post-Doctoral Assistant at the University of Chicago, where his research was focused on developing biological models to understand the effect of proteins, particularly enzymes on cell surfaces.

He holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from Ramnarain Ruia College in Mumbai, India and he received a Master of Science in Analytical Chemistry from the University of Mumbai in India. Satish also obtained his Doctorate of Philosophy in Chemistry (Polymer) from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia.

Contact Dr Nayak at Kemin.

Cosmetic Science news

Papains cause reactions

Here’s an interesting story about a natural enzyme that may be causing some strong allergic skin reactions when it’s included in cosmetics.

Papain is an enzyme ingredient used in industrial production because it is great at degrading proteins. But when it comes in contact with human skin it can cause a strong allergic reaction.

According to researchers the way that this reaction happens is that papain induces a breakdown of the cellular connection within the skin. This causes a loss of the barrier function and inflammatory cells infiltrate the skin. After about two weeks of being exposed to papain, researchers found relevant anti bodies in work done on mice. They also developed an allergic sensitization to papain.

Anyway, you may be tempted to include the ingredient in a formula as a natural exfoliant but it’s not advisable. Your consumers just may have a reaction that you didn’t intend.


Color changing makeup

There isn’t a lot of innovation going on in the cosmetic industry, at least in terms of technology. The reality is that the products out there work pretty well and it is hard to make them better. Until someone figures out a radically different way to address problems people use cosmetics to solve, formulations will only get incrementally better. That’s why I like to see products like the ones outlined in this story about color changing products. This may be a little gimmicky but color changing products provide a novel angle on products that can otherwise be dull.

Here are six different products that change color when they are applied. Perhaps you could think of some way to make your formulations stand out by adopting a similar strategy.

Alright, let’s look at the products.

Smash box has a product they call O-Glow. You put the product on your skin and it changes to a red color that is supposed to match the color of your skin. They say it works because of the chemistry of your skin but it is really just a pH color change. The user’s skin doesn’t have much to do with it. But it is a clever product.

Next is a color changing lip balm from Sephora. This one claims to work with your body’s natural pH level to change color form a light pink to a bright fuchsia. I’m not sure how it works but I know some of the FD&C colors will change shade depending on the pH. It uses Red 27 and Red 22 so those probably are pH affected.

Next is a CC cream from Tony Moly. It starts out as a white color then supposedly changes to the color of your complexion. As if it can detect what color your skin is. I suspect that it is just a standard shade that looks good on most everyone’s skin. There is no ingredient list so I can’t say how the technology works.

Another color changing product is the Le Rose Magic Lip Gloss from Givenchy. This product goes on clear and is supposed to make your lip color brighter. It has Red 21 in it so that color must be affected by either a pH change or exposure to air.

Finally, there is the custom color blush from Stila. They claim that it adjusts to your color based on the pH level of your body. I suspect it is just using the same color changing technology as the color changing lip balm.

While these products are more hype than effective the color changing effect is a novel aspect of the product and it would qualify as a truly innovative technology. I’m just not sure if it is a worthwhile innovation. We’ll see.


Animal free meat

Finally, here’s a story about a technology that I have been following since it was first written about in the mid 1990’s. It’s not cosmetic related but it is really intriguing. The technology is animal free meat and the latest development is that the price of one of these lab grown burgers has dropped from $325,000 for the first one produced to $11.36 for the most recent one. That’s a pretty good cost cutting measure in just 2 years.

The idea behind the animal free meat technology is to take a few cattle stem cells and grow them up in a petri dish. They are able to make the cells differentiate into muscle cells and they keep propagating. Those cells merge into muscle fibers and you end up with something that looks like a short pink rice noodle.

Imagine a world some day where we don’t raise cows but instead create all our meat in laboratories. It could have a huge positive impact on our environment! I’m really excited to see this technology develop. I know it’s not cosmetics but I wonder, is there something similar that we can use this technology for in our field?

Perhaps plant-free extracts from endangered plants?

Cosmetic Formulating

Levels of natural

  • Level 4 – Greenwashing
  • Level 3 – Formulating to a natural standard
  • Level 2 – Formulating to the USDA organic standard
  • Level 1 – Using something from nature



Speaking in St. Louis on May 19, 2015

C&T Summit – June



Sun Damage in the Dark – Yes, in the Dark

Here is some surprising research that suggests a new angle to explore in the formulating of skin care and sunscreens.dark-sunscreen

Contributing authors – Meaghan Lee-Erlandsen and Dr. Nora Khaldi of Nuritas
Guest post

We at Nuritas have always thought that sun damage occurred during sun exposure and ended immediately after returning indoors. To our surprise, recent research published in Science and conducted by Prof. Douglas E. Brash, Clinical Professor of Therapeutic Radiology and Dermatology at Yale School of Medicine, and co-authors, shows that most sun damage occurs hours after exposure, even in the dark!

As many of us know, too much sun exposes the body to high amounts of ultraviolet radiation (UV) which damages the DNA in melanocytes, the cells that make melanin (melanin is what gives your skin its color). What we didn’t know is that most of this damage happens hours after sun exposure.

This DNA damage is a major cause of skin cancer and in sunny places such as Australia it accounts for 80% of all newly diagnosed cancers1. Indeed, two in every three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 702. This of course is not limited to warm countries as one may unfortunately underestimate the effects of UV on the skin in areas where clouds are a common feature (UV light can go through clouds) or in colder regions with sunny skies. Indeed, one in every three cancers diagnosed globally is a skin cancer. We wanted to understand a little more of Prof. Brash’s recent finding and thus asked him to provide us with a layman’s summary of this work as well as tell us if he forecasts any possible solutions.

Prof. Brash explains “My co-authors and I found that the ultraviolet radiation interacts with melanin to cause cyclobutane dimers for hours after the UV exposure ends. A cyclobutane dimer occurs when two adjacent ‘letters’ in DNA attach to each other and bend the DNA, preventing the information inside the DNA from being read correctly which is the start of DNA damage. We found that nearly half of the DNA damage associated with the cyclobutane dimers occurs after sun exposure.”

More precisely he explains that what was ultimately happening during this process was that the UV rays activated two enzymes that combined to excite an electron in the melanin, the energy generated from this excitation (known as chemiexcitation) was then transferred to the DNA, thus creating the same DNA damage that sunlight had caused hours before. This type of excitation of electrons has only been previously seen in smaller marine animals and bacteria.

So is this a dead end, or could there possibly be some solutions? Prof. Brash thinks that this is not all
bad news. The slow pace of these events provides an opportunity for products and creams that may be able to intervene in this process and eventually block this chemical reaction from happening.

At Nuritas, we find this groundbreaking research incredibly important as further information and understanding of one of the most common cancers in the world is vital to finding healthy and innovative treatments for all stages of its development. Perhaps in the near future our sun creams will contain an added ingredient that will inhibit the long-lasting effects of UV, perhaps these ingredients could be peptides!

Here’s to keeping your skin safe and enjoying a happy and healthy sun-filled summer!


Premi S, et al. Chemiexcitation of melanin derivatives induces DNA photoproducts long after UV exposure. Science 20 February 2015: Vol. 347 no. 6224 pp. 842-847 DOI: 10.1126/science.1256022

1 http://www.cancer.org.au/about-cancer/types-of-cancer/skin-cancer.html

2 http://www.cancer.org.au/about-cancer/types-of-cancer/skin-cancer.html

3 http://www.who.int/uv/faq/skincancer/en/index1.html


This post was written by Jane Barber

The Natural & Organic Products Europe Show in London (19-20 April 2015) was packed with independent retailers, buyers, distributors, wholesalers, importers, exporters and, a couple of cosmetic chemists! NOP-London-2015

The Show was divided into sections – food and drink, beauty and spa, health and living. Over 200 natural beauty, personal care and cosmetic companies showcased more than 300 new products and Natural Health Magazine hosted the annual Natural Health Magazine Beauty Awards. Both New Zealand based Antipodes and Jane Iredale, a primarily mineral makeup brand picked up 7 awards.

I was surprised to see so many new start-ups exhibiting, all with some pretty impressive packaging and branding. Buzzwords being “wild crafted”, “non-GMO”, “cruelty free”, “gluten-free” and “vegan”. The natural and organic market is going strong, with the products available expanding exponentially. Those who wish to jump on the bandwagon will face some very tough competition.

Looking at the products displayed, there seemed to be a fair number of anhydrous balms with an emphasis on unique botanicals and some delectable essential oil blends. But there were not as many hair care products as I would have expected.

All in all it was a fun, worthwhile and inspiring event. Afterwards I wandered over to the food section, who knew there were so many varieties of chocolates, nuts and juices on offer.

Learn more about Jane at her website Making Skin Care


Does alcohol cause skin irritation?

I recently received an email asking me about why a company would include alcohol (denatured) in their skin care formulas.  They were under the impression that alcohol caused skin irritation.  They are not the only ones as the folks at Paula’s Choice list alcohol as a skin irritant.  I had heard this same claim over the years but I’ve also heard the opposite, alcohol does not cause irritation. So I looked into it further. alcohol irritant

Alcohol less irritating than surfactants

In 2007, there was research published in the British Journal of Dermatology which looked at the questions “How irritant is alcohol?”  In the study they did patch testing with anywhere from 60-100% alcohol and compared it to both a positive control (SLS) and a negative control (water).

Their conclusion – Alcohol did not cause skin irritation.

Alcohol-based hand rubs cause less skin irritation than hand washing and are therefore preferred for hand hygiene from the dermatological point of view. An alcohol-based hand rub may even decrease rather than increase skin irritation after a hand wash due to a mechanical partial elimination of the detergent.

This was a small study (only 15 people) but if there was a positive result you could have much more confidence that alcohol was an irritant.

Then I found this chapter in the book Infection Control Updates entitled “Skin Irritation Caused by Alcohol Based Hand Rubs.”  This is really an excellent reference resource as it goes through the biology of skin and the causes of irritation.  But when they looked at alcohol specifically couldn’t find any support for the notion that alcohol caused skin irritation.

The Lancet even recommends using alcohol hand sanitizers.

So, based on the evidence that I could find you should have no problem including denatured alcohol in your topical skin care formulation (at least in regards to skin irritation).



Interview:  Robert Tisserand starts at 2:00

Robert is an international speaker, educator and industry consultant who has helped to bring widespread professional and public recognition to aromatherapy. In the past few years, he has inspired live audiences robert-tisserand-essential-oilson 4 continents, including, in 2014, Prague, San Paulo and Beijing. He tracks all the published research on essential oils, and has 40 years of experience in aromatherapy product development. His 1977 text, The Art of Aromatherapy, has been translated into 11 languages, and his co-authored book Essential Oil Safety is regarded by aromatherapists as the industry standard for safety guidelines.

Join the Essential Oil Course!

Cosmetic Science News

Avoid Papain in your formulations.  It causes skin allergies.


Learn more about the essential oil course

AOCS annual meeting


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Claims for your natural cosmetics

I spoke at the Twin Cities Holistic Seminar last month and then attended their companion trade show.  That’s where a number of cosmetic industry raw material suppliers were showing off their latest “all-natural” cosmetic ingredients, or at least ingredients that could be incorporated into natural cosmetics.

In going through the literature I collected I was struck by all the “natural” claims being made and thought it would be useful to record them here in case any of you are working on an all natural line and need some marketing claims.

Common natural cosmetic marketing claims

Naturally sourced


Not ethoxylated

Boron free – I didn’t even realize boron was a negative thing in the natural world.

Not animal tested

Preservative free

High bio-based content

Sourced from renewable plants

Allergen free

Vegetable based



Ecocert, COSMOS, NPA certified

Created from natural ingredients

Sulfate free surfactants

I’m sure there are more so feel free to post some in the comments.  I’ll try to expand this list over time.

Interested in natural formulating?  See our free natural formulating video series on the subject.

Garmin band


5 Steps For Getting Replacement Raw Materials

There are a number of reasons why you might want to find a replacement for a raw material you currently using.  It could be because the supplier can’t get you the ingredient, you can save money on your formula, the product is no longer stable, or for marketing reasons you want to change.  This is probably the motivation for this forum member who wants to find a natural alternative to petrolatum.  cosmetic-ingredient-alternatives

If you’re going to switch out a raw material you can do it in the most efficient way by following these 5 steps.

1.  Understand what the ingredient does in the formula

If you inherit a formula as most formulators do, there are probably ingredients included for which you are not sure the function.  You need to figure this out before you switch for something new.  Also, you may think you know the function of the ingredient but it could have multiple functions in your formula.  To best figure out the importance of an ingredient for which you want to find a replacement, do a cosmetic knockout experiment, comparing your full formula versus the formula without the target ingredient.  This will give you an idea of the performance impact of the ingredient plus the aesthetic impact on the formula.

2.  Find potential replacements

Once you know the full impact of the ingredient on your formula you can find potential replacements.  The easiest thing to do is to ask your suppliers for their suggested replacements.  Certainly, you should get samples of those ingredients.  But a single ingredient replacement might not work.  You may have to find multiple materials to replace all the functionality of a single ingredient.  For example, Guar Hydroxypropyl Trimonium Chloride has both a conditioning effect and some thickening effect.  Instead of finding a single ingredient to replace it you could find a new thickener (e.g. Hydroxyethylcellulose) plus a conditioning ingredient (e.g. Polyquaternium 7).  Sometimes it’s not a simple replacement.

3.  Create prototypes

Once you get your potential ingredients start making your prototypes.  Ideally, you can make multiple formulas at the same time using the same ingredients.  When you compare replacements you should keep as much the same as possible.  Also, be sure to create a control sample so you know how your new formula compares to your current formula.  Take special note of any manufacturing changes you have to make to incorporate the new ingredient.  This will be important when you write the manufacturing instructions later.

4.  Test prototype functionality

After you’ve made the prototypes you’ll want to test them to see if they function the way you want them to.   See how they compare to your control formula.  Of course, you only need to test the formulas that hold together properly.  If they separate or don’t look right either try again or reject that replacement alternative.

The specific tests you run will depend on the type of formula you are making.  Foam tests for cleansing products, moisturizing tests for moisturizing products, etc.  For all your formulas you should have a standard battery of tests that you routinely conduct and compare your prototypes to those standards.

5.  Test prototype stability

Finally, if any of your replacement ingredient prototypes look promising you’ll want to do a stability test to make sure it stays together.  Having a great functioning product is great but if it isn’t stable you won’t be able to sell it.  I recommend doing functionality tests before stability tests however because there is no point in finding a stable product that doesn’t perform the way you want it.  Plus, you can always fix a formula that has stability issues.  You can’t improve a functional deficit without having to repeat your stability test.  Remember, stability tests should always be the last test you do.

Much of your time as a formulator will be spent finding replacement ingredients either for cost savings reasons, marketing reasons, or just trying to improve your formulas.  Following these 5 steps will help make the process more efficient and effective.



Biochemistry Terms that Cosmetic Chemists Should Know

When I was in high school I learned about cloning and thought it would be a great idea to clone myself.  I wasn’t particularly serious about it however, it was the basis for my choice to study Biology in college.  Clearly, I could have used the services of a better career counselor. cosmetic-epigenetics

Anyway, Biology was a fine enough subject to study.  There is lots of interesting stuff to learn and it was not particularly hard.  Chemistry was much more difficult.  I switched to Chemistry in my second senior year because I had a Chemistry minor and there were more jobs for people with chemistry degrees than biology degrees.

I’m glad I had my background in Biology though because these days concepts from biochemistry are making there way into cosmetic chemistry.  In fact, many of the new, most interesting cosmetic technologies are taking advantage of research done in biochemistry.  As a formulator for skin and hair products, it will be helpful for you to know the meaning of some of these terms so you can both take advantage of new technologies and not be snowed over by the marketing material of your raw material suppliers.

Epigenetics – This is the study of changes in biology that are not the result of genetic differences.  It refers to changes in the transcription of DNA to proteins.  It turns out that genes alone are not the whole explanation for why some proteins are expressed and others aren’t.  This has huge implications for cosmetics as there may be ingredients that can have an influence on the expression of genes.  Look for lots of advance cosmetic technology coming out of this research in the future.  See the wikipedia post on epigenetics for more

Proteomics – This is the study of proteins, their structure and their function.  Lots of research is going on to find proteins that can halt the aging process.  This has the potential to lead to some breakthroughs in topical cosmetic products.  It’s worth checking out the wikipedia entry on proteomics.

Amino Acids – The basic building blocks of life.  These compounds which contain an Amine group and a Carboxylic acid group are strung together to make proteins and everything else in the body.  There are 20 of these that occur naturally and are the basis for all life on Earth. Cosmetic marketers have used amino acids for years as a claims ingredient.  There is scant evidence that they do much more than moisturizing when put on the skin or hair.

Peptides – Any sequence of amino acids made up of less than 50 amino acids strung together.  They could be a useful anti-aging technology but mostly it’s just hype.  We did a whole post on cosmetic peptides.

Proteins – The chemicals the make life work.  They are long chain polymers made up of amino acid building blocks.  They can take on numerous structures depending on the way they fold.  I really believe the future of all cool new raw materials will be based on proteins.  Consumers are familiar with the term even if they don’t know exactly what it means.

Enzymes – A special type of protein that causes some type of biochemical reaction to happen more quickly.  They are catalysts.  Most consumers are familiar with the term but don’t know exactly what it means.  They just know it is some kind of important science.

Protease – An enzyme that breaks down a protein.  Some anti-aging products are said to stop the proteases that break down important skin proteins like collagen and elastin.

Stem Cells – These are basic cells that have not differentiated and can be coaxed into becoming any type of cell in the body.  The stem cells in the dermis are the source of all new skin cells that are produced.  There is a lot of research going on to use stem cells in future treatments but the technology is not particularly advanced.  This hasn’t stopped cosmetic marketers from coming out with products that contain stem cells.  The stem cells aren’t viable and they don’t do much in the formula but consumers have heard of the term and many of them find it a compelling reason to buy the product.  We wrote a post on stem cells in cosmetics.

Bioreactor – This is a technology for mass producing compounds using bacteria, yeast or other microbes. You get the right bacteria strain, feed them, shelter them and they’ll make you all kinds of useful ingredients.  This technology could represent the future of cosmetic ingredients since it has the potential to replace all petroleum derived ingredients.

I’m sure there are more terms and if you think something should be included, leave it in the comments below.  Also, if you wanted even more terms from biochemistry, go see this biochemistry glossary.  It really is a fascinating subject.