Article by: Perry Romanowski

Cosmetic formulators have to make great performing formulas. You have to get the functionality right, the formula has to be stable, and it has to be aesthetically acceptable to the majority of your consumers. However, this is still not enough to ensure you have a successful product. The last part of the formula for success is the story, or claims ingredients.

Claims Ingredients

These ingredients go by lots of different names; story ingredients, foo foo ingredients, puffery, woofle dust, pixie dust, feature ingredients and more. Essentially they are ingredients added to the formula for the primary purpose of impressing consumers and supporting the marketing story. Importantly, they aren’t expected to have any functional benefit.

These include things like vitamins, proteins, biomolecules, herbal extracts, and other pretty sounding ingredients. They can be conveniently grouped into the following seven categories.

Folk lore ingredients

Cosmetic consumers grow up with a number of mistaken beliefs about the efficacy of certain ingredients. They will have been given some advice from their mother or grandmother that convinces them to apply any manner of material to their skin or hair. Or they might have read something in a book or somehow absorbed erroneous information from pop culture. These beliefs persist even though there is limited evidence that the ingredients do much of anything. Things like washing your hair with beer, creating aspirin facial masks, aloe for moisturizing or using milk to cleanse your skin are all examples.

Cosmetic marketers tap into these mistaken beliefs and use them to help sell the story of their products. This makes marketing easier because they don’t have to spend any time convincing the consumer about the value of an ingredient. As a cosmetic chemist you need to know about these folklore ingredients as you will often be required to suggest or formulate with them.

New technology medical

Whenever there is some discovery in science that has the potential for changing people’s lives, it gets a lot of press. This is especially true for things that might affect health. Scientists or reporters will speculate about future applications of the technology and consumers often mistake this speculation with proven applications. Marketers take advantage of these misconceptions by adding unproven technologies to cosmetics. That’s why you see things like stem cells, hyaluronic acid, or enzymes like superoxidedismutase put into formulations despite the fact that there is no evidence that topically applying these ingredients has any noticeably beneficial effect.

Keep an eye on the medical technologies of the day because this will be the source of cosmetic claims ingredients in the future.

Nutritional ingredients

Another topic that is popular in the news is health & nutrition. Daytime talk shows love to tout the benefits of a diet high in this fatty acid or that kind of flavonoid. And cosmetic companies realize that if consumers believe an ingredient is good for them when they eat it, they will readily believe it will be good to apply to their skin or hair. Many consumers readily accept that if something is put on your skin it gets into your body. They do not realize just how effective a barrier the skin really is. Therefore, it makes sense to them that “if it’s good for your body, it’s good for your skin.”

Of course, this is generally untrue. Adding vitamins to hair products or collagen to skin creams will have almost no perceptible benefit to the product. But I’ve been in consumer focus groups and I’ve seen the effect that the presence of these ingredients in a story has on consumers. You want to significantly increase the chances that someone will buy your shampoo? Just add vitamins. Note, they won’t do anything to the hair.

Made up technology

Nearly everyone is impressed with technology but almost nobody understands it. That’s why words that sound “sciencey” are compelling to consumers. Marketers realize this and often come up with fake science sounding names for unique technologies that don’t really do anything. In fact, companies brainstorm a big list of these named technologies and show them to consumers to figure out which names are most preferred. When you see technologies like Hydratein, Regenium, or Provitazyme, you know these aren’t coming from the R&D department.

But consumers like these ingredients. They like having a reason to believe so you will continue to have to add them to your formulations.

Exotic sourced ingredient

Many consumers are impressed with unknown, exotic destinations. To them, this automatically confers a specialness to products or ingredients from these destinations. So cosmetic companies tap into these positive affiliations and add ingredients from rare or exotic places to boost the appeal of their products. This really depends on where your consumers are located but in the US most people think of tropical rainforests as exotic & special so extracts from there are used. But ingredients from France or Switzerland or the Arctic or any other special location / source are also impressive to consumers.

Salon & spa inspired

It’s rather obvious that consumers may want to duplicate the spa or salon experience at home. So any ingredient or treatment that they may have had during one of these visits is fair game for adding to your formulations. This is where protein hair masks and cucumber facials come from. There often is little evidence that the treatments have any special effect but people feel great when they return from the spa or salon and cosmetic companies hope to reignite those feelings. Keep an eye on what’s hot in salons and you’ll have a good idea of what the next thing you’ll need to add to your formulations.


A wide number of consumers suffer from the naturalistic fallacy. They hold the mistaken belief that natural things are good. Part of this belief is that synthetic things are bad, but we’ll ignore that for the moment. This strong affinity for natural things means that marketers constantly look for you to include the latest herbs, extracts, flowers, fruits, or natural oils in your formulations. The vast majority of these ingredients have minute effects but their effect on sales is significant.

As a formulator, you must create formulations that are effective and aesthetically appealing. However, this is not enough for creating a successful cosmetic line. Consumers like using products because of the effectiveness of ingredients like petrolatum and sodium lauryl sulfate, but they buy products because of the stories and erroneous beliefs associated with claims ingredients.


  1. Avatar

    So, the sole purpose of adding these ingredients at the low (affordable) levels is to make some marketing claims. I get that.

    What are the guidelines for making claims based on these ingredients you talked about here?

    What kind of substantiation (if any) is needed in the US?

    What is the best way to interpret “truthfulness” and stay out of trouble in this context?
    Do you have a good resource about this?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      In the US it is illegal to make false claims. So, you need evidence to support any claim you are making. Imagine if you were sued and someone claimed your claim was false. You need to be able to refute them in court. This is the kind of evidence you need.

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    Hmmm, based on this article one would be led to believe that nothing really works and it’s all hype. I agree hype works on most consumers considering emotion spurs consumption more than anything, but I also know some of those folklore recipes work rather well from my own personal experience. I also know some of those synthetic ingredients can wreak havoc on hormones and result in disorders, from my own experience. So my question to you is, what works without harming, in your professional experience?

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      Maybe I don’t know what you mean by “works”. Nearly every cosmetic works. All shampoos will clean hair, skin moisturizers moisturize skin, color cosmetics color your skin. So, I’m not at all saying nothing really works. I’m saying everything pretty much works.

      When you say folklore recipes work, what do you mean? Works to do what?

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        I guess my understanding of this article is that every ingredient category listed is ineffective. Each section contains a statement regarding its lack of effectiveness and supporting evidence which translates to me, as a consumer, as it does not work. Which I was asked your opinion of what really does work. Perhaps not how you meant it but certainly how I perceived it. And in my experience, I’ve used remedies such as the aspirin mask and natural ingredients, such as vinegar with positive results from both. I believe the results are the evidence and reason these old recipes continue to recycle.

        1. Avatar

          Ah, ok. I just got the sense that you thought I was saying that cosmetics do not work and I wanted to clarify that I do believe cosmetics DO work!

          But you are right. I listed these ingredients as “story” ingredients because cosmetic chemists specifically put them in formulas even though we know they do not do anything special when included. It is important to have these ingredients in formulas however, because consumer believe they work. Consumers will buy products with these type of ingredients in them more than they will buy products that don’t have them. But as far as improving an existing cosmetic, they don’t have any measurable effect.

          I could tell you what works but you need to be more specific. What works for washing hair? Sodium Laureth Sulfate and most any other detergent works. What works to moisturize skin? Petrolatum, glycerin, and mineral oil are scientifically proven to work best. So, if you ask me what works for a specific problem, I could give you better answers.

          As far as your experience goes, I can’t comment really. You say you have positive results but I don’t know what that means. Vinegar is acetic acid and can certainly affect how it makes your skin feel but there is a reason it is not sold as a cosmetic. Other things just work better.

          Aspirin masks have some rationale for how they might work (see this blog post) but it is not going to be as effective as better proven ingredients like BHA (salicylic acid).

          Folk lore ingredients can certainly have some effect but if they were really effective cosmetic scientists would use those ingredients in the formulations all the time.

          1. Avatar

            Ok, I understand your point now. Naturally, our views differ because you have the perspective of a chemist & all that entails, while I am a consumer & esthetician but my own experience with ingredients drives my opinions. For example, I avoid sulfates of any kind because they damage my hair & irritate my eyes & skin terribly, I also find petrolatum to be drying. I avoid mineral oils as well. Apple Cider Vinegar makes a great facial toner for my acneic skin while aspirin masks help to calm breakouts, however, I agree that salicylic acid is better at healing pimples. Interesting site, I plan to read more of your posts.

  3. Avatar

    thank you for the update. Merry Christmas

  4. Avatar

    thanks Perry.

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