As a beginning cosmetic formulator you will most likely not be given the responsibility to create your own formula from scratch. More likely, you will inherit a formula from a previous chemist and be asked to modify it in some way. It is just more efficient for cosmetic manufacturers to make slight modifications on existing formulas rather than create completely new ones for new products.
So when you get the formula you’ll see all these ingredients in there and have to guess at why they were added. It turns out there are only a few reasons that cosmetic raw materials are added. Learn them and it will help you figure out your formulas faster.
The functional ingredients are the ones that actually make the cosmetic product work. These would include the detergents, conditioning agents, moisturizers, colorants in make-ups, and any other active ingredient that provides a benefit to the consumer. Functional ingredients are the raison d’être for cosmetic formulas. To make working products, every cosmetic must have at least one of these ingredients.
Cosmetic raw materials are not pretty and many smell bad too. So, to make cosmetics more appealing we add ingredients that improve the aesthetics. These include thickeners, fragrances, and colorants. Other things like pearlizing agents are also added to improve the opacity or visual appearance of the product.
While aesthetic ingredients effect the way the formula looks and smells, experiential ingredients effect the way that the consumer interacts with the product. These ingredients are added to improve the feel of the product on skin, speed up the rinse-out time, or effect the quality of the foam. Technically, fragrance can also be considered an experiential ingredient. Experientials are not meant to affect the major function of the formula, however, they are used to make consumers like the product better. They are not essential but nearly all cosmetic formulas will have some type of experiential ingredient.
The functional raw materials can rarely be used as a complete formula themselves. They just don’t feel good, smell good, or spread evenly. They also can be irritating in a concentrated form and typically would lead to a formula that cost way too much. Therefore, the bulk of a cosmetic formula is a diluent which is inexpensive and compatible with the majority of the formula. For aqueous or emulsion based formulas, water is most commonly used. You can’t beat the cost and safety record of water. For oil-based formulas, an ingredient like Mineral Oil might be used. Powder diluents are called fillers and would include an ingredient like Talc. Usually, the diluent is the first ingredient listed on the LOI because it is the most abundant. Diluents will be found in almost every cosmetic formula.
Since many cosmetics are mixtures of water and oil, you need to add ingredients specifically to stabilize the formula. These would include emulsifiers and polymers that can help keep products from separating over time. Preservatives are also considered stabilizers as they help to increase the length of time that a product will remain usable. Finally, certain antioxidants and chelating ingredients are added to prevent color changes and to help boost the effectiveness of the preservatives.
Whenever you create a cosmetic formulation you set certain specifications to ensure that the same product is made each time. However, there are raw material variations so even if you followed the recipe perfectly, you could still end up with a formula outside the specifications. For this reason, we add ingredients to the formula that can adjust things like pH, viscosity, color and other characteristics in the specifications. If you don’t want to have to discard large batches of product, you’ll need adjustment agents in your formula.
Speaking of large batches, some ingredients are added just to make the product process go faster. While you can quickly make batches of products in a beaker, those same formulas don’t work as well in a 3000 gallon tank. Some ingredients are added just to make production faster and more reliable.
The final category of ingredients are claims ingredients. These are added to formulas specifically to give your marketing department something to talk about in advertising. They help to create the story of a product and usually support claims about effectiveness. The ingredients aren’t typically expected to have much functional benefit and can be swapped out for different claims ingredients when you want to launch a new product. They are used at low levels and are often cut even lower when you need a cost savings. Ingredients like herbal extracts or botanicals are examples.
That’s it. When you inherit a formula the first thing you should do is to categorize the ingredients into one of these groups so you can figure out what things to change or not. Claims ingredients can typically be changed however you like without impacting the product experience while functional ingredients must remain the same if you want the product to continue to work. But we’ll save suggestions on formula changes for another post.