Article by: Perry Romanowski
When you start out as a cosmetic formulator you will not be asked to come up with your own formulas. There may be some exceptions at small companies or contract manufacturers but at companies that have established brands and products new cosmetic chemists don’t get to be terribly creative. Instead, you will be working with base formulas.
Cosmetic base formulas
Base formulas are in-house or stock formulas that your company owns. Typically, they are recipes which have been developed over a number of years and have a lot of testing behind them. They also have a proven track record in the market and are easy for the production people to make. New chemists are assigned base formulas primarily because they are a great way to learn formulating without being too risky. Also, there are a lot of financial incentives to using base formulas
How are base formulas used?
In every cosmetic laboratory there is a list of all the formulas you create for producing products. What you will notice about these formulas is that while there may be hundred of variants there are often only a couple of dozen “different” formulas. To see the base formula in action, let’s take a look at how a company like Suave uses base formulas.
Suave has a line of products called Suave Naturals. In this line they have a number of different varieties (or SKUs) such as Coconut, Sun-Ripened Strawberry, Wild Cherry, and more. Here is their Coconut Shampoo with the following ingredient list.
Water (Aqua), Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Cocamide Mea, Ammonium Chloride, Glycol Distearate, Fragrance (Parfum), Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate, Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose, Tetrasodium Edta, Dmdm Hydantoin, Citric Acid, Ammonium Xylenesulfonate, Propylene Glycol, Tocopheryl Acetate [Vitamin E Acetate], Isopropyl Palmitate, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone, Silk Amino Acids, Honey, Ppg-9, Urtica Diocia (Nettle) Extract, Rosmarinus Offic
It’s a pretty standard formula with featuring Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate, Cocamide MEA and thickened with Hysroxypropyl Methylcellulose. Now take a look at another Suave Natural formula Waterfall Mist.
Water (Aqua), Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Cocamide Mea, Ammonium Chloride, Fragrance (Parfum), Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose, Tetrasodium Edta, Dmdm Hydantoin, Citric Acid, Tocopheryl Acetate [Vitamin E Acetate], Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone, Ppg-9, Spirulina Maxima Extract, Mentha Aquatica Leaf Extract, Nymphaea Alba Flower Extract, Blue 1 (Ci 42090), Red 33 (Ci 17200).
See the similarities? They have the same detergent system, same thickener, same preservative and same adjusting ingredients. So their base formula is…
Water (Aqua), Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Cocamide Mea, Ammonium Chloride, Fragrance (Parfum), Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose, Tetrasodium Edta, Dmdm Hydantoin, Citric Acid, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone
So every time they want to launch a new SKU of the Suave Naturals formula, they start with the base formula and add a new fragrance, color, and feature ingredients. As a formulator, you spend a lot of time adapting this base formula to the new marketing concept.
Benefits of creating a base formula
While working with a base formula can be a dull exercise from the standpoint of a creative cosmetic formulator, there are a number of benefits to using them.
1. Speeds up product development – In the cosmetic industry there isn’t the luxury of taking multiple years to create new products. At a large corporation the product development cycle happens over the course of one year at the most. This means you have to come up with ideas, validated concepts, prototypes, testing and first production runs all within a year. If you had to create a new formula every time you launched a new product, there just wouldn’t be enough time to get everything done. Stability testing alone takes 2 months minimum.
Optimize performance – Since base formulas are used year after year, there is time to tinker with the levels on ingredients to find which percentages work best. And with optimization comes optimal costing. Using a base formula allows you to reduce the cost of your formula to the lowest level possible.
Cost savings is easier – Speaking of cost savings, in addition to optimizing the cost, it’s also easier to find much larger cost reductions when a single change will have an effect on your entire line. In the Suave example above if they can find a savings in the price of their SLES they can save money across their entire line. If they had a different base formula for every shampoo formula then a cost savings in one ingredient wouldn’t have nearly the same impact.
Reduce testing requirements – Testing cosmetic formulas can be a time consuming and expensive process. However, when you have a base formula that you simply modify you don’t have to conduct as many safety tests as tests done on the base formula will typically qualify as being applicable to all your derivative formulas. It also gives you higher confidence in stability testing success.
Can be used in multiple brands – Not only does using a base formula work within a single brand but some companies actually do the same thing across multiple brands. I remember when P&G bought the Herbal Essences brand they quickly switched all the formulas over to the Pantene base shampoo and conditioner formulas. This gave them more leverage with their raw material suppliers and resulted in a less expensive way to produce two brands instead of just one. I believe they have subsequently gotten away from this strategy but you can see there are still significant similarities between the two brands.
Useful for testing new raw materials – From a formulator’s point of view a base formula makes it easier to test new raw materials. I had a base shampoo and conditioner formula in which I would post add any new raw material that was presented to me. I would test it at the highest level that the supplier suggested and compare it to the base formula without the ingredient. It was amazing how many ingredients had no impact on the performance of the formula. But it did let me screen lots of new raw materials.
While base formulas aren’t the most creative way to make new cosmetic formulas they are the most efficient and the way that most cosmetic companies launch multiple product SKUs under the same brand. I would suggest that every formulator create their own “base formulas” so you get comfortable with making them, testing them, and improving them. When you move around this industry you’ll be expected to be able to make your own base formulas.