Article by: Perry Romanowski

I recently traded emails with one of our Complete Cosmetic Chemist training program students about a cosmetic formulation she was working on. Without getting into the exact details, she was working with another cosmetic chemist to develop a moisturizing shampoo. She sent me the LOI and it had over 20 ingredients. This included a half dozen cleansing surfactants, a dozen extracts, multiple conditioning ingredients, and multiple solvents.

It was astounding that a cosmetic chemist could create such a formula. In my estimation, the formula could have been made with fewer than 10 ingredients.

But then it occurred to me that perhaps my philosophy is not typical. So, in this post I’m going to explain my formulating philosophy.

Cosmetic formulating philosophy

I’m a formulation minimalist. That is, I believe that the best formulas are the ones that use the least amount of cosmetic ingredients at the lowest level to produce noticeable differences.

Use the least amount of ingredients at the lowest levels that produce noticeable differences

This philosophy has a number of advantages including

1. Low inventory of ingredients
2. Low chemical exposure
3. Low production of environmental waste
4. Low cost of final formula
5. Low complication during scale-up

The biggest advantage of this cosmetic formulating philosophy is that it allows you a way to determine whether one formula is “superior” to another. I’ll explain this in a moment.

Not just the cheapest formula

Before getting into the specifics of the philosophy, you should know that Formulation Minimalism is NOT a philosophy of just creating the cheapest formula possible. Instead, it is about creating a formula with the greatest value for the consumer. In this philosophy, PERFORMANCE always trumps cost. However, superior performance has to be demonstrably noticeable by the consumer. Unfortunately, this is rarely true.

How to be a formulation minimalist

While I don’t have the philosophy completely worked out, I have thought about it enough to pass on these 6 tips to help you implement it in your own formulation work. Please feel free to add questions and comments at the end.

Principle 1: Less is more

The basic tenet of formulation minimalism is that fewer ingredients at lower concentrations are superior. So theoretically, the best formulation will have one ingredient at a low level. Of course, this can’t be the only thing driving your formulating efforts as it would lead to formulas that perform significantly worse than ones that have multiple ingredients. Remember that performance is a major consideration. But this idea of fewer ingredients being better can help you decide whether to add another ingredient to your formula.

Principle 2: Know why you add any ingredient

This naturally leads us to our next principle. Always know why you are adding an ingredient. As a cosmetic formulator you will frequently inherit a formula from another chemist or you might have a starting formula from someone else. Before trying to improve the formula, you should conduct a knockout experiment to determine which ingredients are most important and which aren’t necessary. You should also have a set of standard tests and run the formulas through them to determine exactly which characteristics you want to improve. How will you know that a formula has been improved with the addition of an ingredient? Testing!

Principle 3: Blind test your products

Richard Feynman said it best when he was describing how science is done in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. He says…

Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

When you are formulating you will naturally feel some affection for your creations. Formulas are like works of art. It’s how we express ourselves as cosmetic chemists. But don’t fall in love with your own work unless it is warranted. Doing blinded tests on formulas is the ONLY way to ensure that your work is as good as you think and deserving of your love. If you remain rational and continue to make judgments about your work based on results, you’ll create a demonstrably superior formula. That is the goal of formulation minimalism.

Principle 4: Always compare to a standard

This is related to principle 3 but I state it separately because it is critical. Whenever you begin a formulating effort, you should always have some target that you are trying to beat. Find a similar product or use your best performing prototype. Then when you find a prototype that beats the standard, make this the new standard. Comparing to the best standard is the only way you are going to know you’ve created a better product. And changing standards when it’s warranted should be done. Use caution however, as single experiments should never be taken as definitive evidence against a well-tested standard.

Principle 5: Start with high levels and cut back as needed

When creating a formula, don’t worry too much about using low levels. In fact, I suggest you use high levels. Use the levels that the supplier suggest and see how the product performs. The initial prototype should not be the place to start optimizing. This happens after you have something that performs well. However, at this stage you should minimize the number of ingredients you are using. This way it will be less complicated to figure out which ingredients are actually having an effect.

Principle 6: Make lots of prototypes & adjust

The final principle is all about making and testing lots of prototypes. If you want to create a great formula, the odds that you make it in one try are practical nil. So often people create a formula, then stop right after the first successful batch. Don’t fall into this trap! I know it will take longer but at the end of the process you’ll have a superior formula. Make at least a dozen prototypes to start and then a dozen more after you’ve tested those. The process you used should be make, test, adjust, repeat. Keep doing this until you’ve gotten to the least number of ingredients at the lowest level to still achieve the performance that you want.

That’s all I’ve got for the moment but I’m going to continue to develop this Formulation Minimalism idea.

Please let us know what you think. Are you a formulation minimalist? Why or why not? Leave a comment below.

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21 comments

  1. Pingback:Is that cosmetic ingredient worth using in your formula?

  2. John Woodruff

    The EL formula quoted is a disgrace to cosmetic science. If an ingredient is listed it implies that it contributes an effect. EL and other compnaies like them should be made to explain the effects of the ingredients listed at the levels used.

  3. Tanelise

    Excellent, excellent post, Perry!

    1. Perry

      Thanks for the kind words. 🙂

  4. Perry

    @John – it can be tough being a cosmetic chemist beholden to the whims of marketing.

  5. John Woodruff

    I have recently completed formulating a range of shampoos for dry hair, damaged hair, coloured hair etc. The cleansing system has been carefully selected for each product type, panthenol, hydrolysed proteins, UV screens etc added where thought appropiate. Now marketing wants me to add a natural extract to each formula so they can write about its wondrous properties! Sometimes I feel like giving up.

  6. cydnontero

    Actually, one ingredient labels long listed might not necessary mean they have used so many ingredients for their products. It so happened that most of the ingredients we are using are already in blends made by our suppliers. However in labeling, of course you have to declare the INCI names of the ingredients we used. And that thing makes the list so long. 🙂

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  9. Valerie

    I am looking for a supplier of Sodium Levulinate. Can you send me the information to purchase this product.

  10. Pedro

    I’ve noticed that Japanese cosmetics usually contain less ingredients than American cosmetics.

  11. Terry Ruvo

    Perry – thank you for this wealth of information!
    Maybe you can anserw this question? As a consumer what is the bang for the buck…I heard some of these ingredients below can be very helpful – depending on theh concentration, is there any truth to it? How much is ingredients altered?
    Peptide Blends – Oligopeptides ,
    Emblicaâ„¢ (Phyllanthus Emblica Fruit Extract) – a medicinal plant grown only in India used since ancient times.
    Glycyrrhiza Glabra (Licorice) Root Extract – the most effective form of Arbutin are added skin lighteners.
    Lumiskin – a breakthrough material designed to enhance skin’s glow and luminosity.
    Sodium Levulinate – a completely natural preservative.

    1. Perry

      @Terry – You pose a difficult question. Helpful for what? I’m assuming for improvement in skin.

      1. Peptide blends – Oligopeptides. Peptide blends can be a wide range of ingredients that are as different as skin and hair. A peptide is just a sequence of amino acids and depending on how they are put together, they have different effects on the body. I am not aware of any evidence that demonstrates any peptide delivered from a standard skin care formula would have any additional benefit to skin. Marketers might disagree.

      2. Embilica – No scientific evidence that it has any effect when delivered from a skin product.

      3. Licorice root extract – Not significantly effective as a skin lightener.

      4. Lumiskin – No. May be a breakthrough ingredient but is not nearly as effective as hydroquinone.

      5. Sodium Levulinate – You can not adequately preserve a formula using only this ingredient.

  12. John Woodruff

    II have only just come across this posting but wholeheartedly support minimalistic formulation. Colin Hession once wrote “Don’t add cost without adding value” when discussing cosmetic formulation. The ingredient listing posted by Pedro would owe more to a belief in homeopathy than to the proven attributes of the majority of ingredients at the level used in this formulation.

  13. Perry

    @Robin – that’s a good point although some consumers find long lists of ingredients to be a negative.

    But if you want a long list, it’s easy enough to add a claims ingredient from an extract supplier. There are plenty of specialty blends.

  14. Robin

    But the consumer will be more attracted by some product
    which contains a lot of ingredients.
    what can we do for this situation?

  15. Anjali

    I am a strong formulation minimalist. I try to keep the formula as simple as possible. We can always add ingredients when needed, but we would not know what went wrong if the formula contains too many ingredients.

  16. Pedro

    I’m not a cosmetic chemist, but as a consumer with sensitive skin I prefer cosmetics with few ingredients.

    I don’t understand why cosmetics made by Estée Lauder have so many ingredients!

    A typical Estée Lauder’s formula:

    Cyclopentasiloxane, Water, Polysilicone-11, Dimethicone, Hdi/Trimethylol Hexyllactone Crosspolymer, Silica, Butylene Glycol, Yeast Extract, Scutellaria Baicalensis Extract, Morus Nigra (Mulberry) Root Extract, Sigesbeckia Orientalis (St Pauls Wort) Extract, Salvia Sclarea (Clary) Extract, Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Fruit Extract, Hordeum Vulgare (Barley) Extract, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower Extract, Triticum Vulgare (Wheat) Germ Extract, Zea Mays (Corn) Kernel Extract, Glycyrrhiza Glabra (Licorice) Root Extract, Narcissus Tazetta Bulb Extract, Boswellia Serrata Extract, Silybum Marianum (Lady’s Thistle) Extract, Fish (Pisces) Collagen, Polysorbate 40, Ethylhexylglycerin, Caffeine, Cholesterol, Hydrolyzed Fish (Pisces) Collagen, Pentylene Glycol, Whey Protein, Pantethine, Creatine, Glycine Soja (Soybean) Protein, Glycerin, Peg-10 Dimethicone, Sodium Pca, Ammonium Acryloyldimethyltaurate/Vp Copolymer, Linoleic Acid, Glyceryl Polymethacrylate, Polyquaternium-51, Squalane, Propylene Glycol Dicaprate, Acetyl Carnitine Hcl, Acetyl Hexapeptide-8, Phytosphingosine, Sodium Hyaluronate, Adenosine Phosphate, Aminopropyl Ascorbyl Phosphate, Peg-8, Disodium Distyrylbiphenyl Disulfonate, Lecithin, Palmitoyl Oligopeptide, Disodium Nadh, Caprylyl Glycol, Decarboxy Carnosine Hcl, Laurdimonium Hydroxypropyl Hydrolyzed Soy Protein, Sodium Beta-Sitosteryl Sulfate, Fragrance, Sodium Chondroitin Sulfate, Tocopheryl Acetate, Hexylene Glycol, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Sodium Chloride, Xanthan Gum, Disodium Edta, Phenoxyethanol, Titanium Dioxide, Mica

    1. Perry

      @Pedro – That’s an excellent question! This formula could be drastically simplified without impacting the performance.

      1. Sylvain Bellerose

        I think I can reply to this question. It’s to make the product more difficult to reproduce at home by amateur chemist. So much information online and ingredients are so easy to come by. This long list looks intimidating.

        1. Perry Romanowski

          You make a good point.

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