Article by: Perry Romanowski

Interview starts at 6:00

Details: Kathleen Norris is Director of eMarketing and Analytics for the Formulator Sample Shop, a supplier of specialty ingredients for the cosmetic, personal care and toiletry industries. She previously kathleen-norrisserved as the Marketing Manager of North America at Active Concepts where she helped develop and lead the implementation of marketing strategies to support this territory as well as coordinate marketing and sales promotions. Through extensive travel with the North American Sales Team and Distributors (both in the US and Canada), Norris brings with her knowledge of industry trends and the ability to help analyze market information enabling customers to make effective product choices to build their companies. Norris began her career with Active Concepts in 2011 on the technical marketing team. She holds a degree from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill and has been active in the Society of Cosmetic Chemists.

Contact Kathleen : LinkedIn

Formulator Sample Shop website

Cosmetic science – Three types of cosmetic raw materials

If you go through the INCI dictionary which is the ingredient dictionary listing all the ingredients used in cosmetic products, you will find that there are over 15,000 possible things to choose from.  This seems like an amazing array of compounds and it is.  To learn every ingredient would be pretty difficult.  Fortunately, there is a lot of overlap in how these ingredients are used in cosmetics.

I used to be a biology major and one of the things I liked best about that subject was the area of Cladistics (or taxonomy if you like).  Cladistics is the study of grouping similar species together.  So lizards and snakes are grouped together as are cows and people.  Anyway, I thought there should be a similar classification system for cosmetic raw materials so I put one together.

When you really look at all the cosmetic raw materials and why they are used in formulations, they can be grouped into 3 main categories.  Really all of the ingredients used in cosmetics can be put into one of these three categories:


Aesthetic Modifier


There is a little overlap and of course these categories can be divided up further but as a chemistry student or formulator, it’s helpful to know these main categories.

We can go a bit deeper in future posts but let me explain the main categories.


Functional cosmetic ingredients are ones which actually have an effect on the body that the formulator wishes.  You cannot make a useful cosmetic product without including at least one functional ingredient. However, you could make an entire cosmetic using just one functional ingredient.  Vaseline has built a huge brand on a single functional ingredient cosmetic (Petrolatum).

Functional ingredients include cleansers, conditioning agents, colorants, fragrances, reactive ingredients, film formers, and drug actives.  Every cosmetic you’ve ever used or made has at least one functional ingredient.

Incidentally, functional ingredients are the ones that cosmetic chemists most want new raw material suppliers to make.  The number of significantly different functional ingredients has not increased in many years.  I suppose because it’s hard to create a really new functional ingredient.

Aesthetic modifiers

The most common and abundant type of cosmetic raw material is aesthetic modifiers.  These are ingredients which help to make delivery of the functional ingredients more acceptable.  They are the compounds that help the ingredients spread, dilute the ingredients, make them more stable, and improve the look and feel of the overall product.  The sub-category of aesthetic modifiers includes solvents, thickeners, preservatives, fragrances, pH adjusters, plasticizers, fillers, appearance modifiers, anti-oxidants, anti-irritants, and delivery systems.

When you look at the ingredient list of most cosmetics, most of the ingredients are aesthetic modifiers.  Since these ingredients don’t have any functional benefit formulators try to minimize the amount of aesthetic modifiers used.  This helps keep costs down and simplifies production.  However, these ingredients do play a crucial role in the creation & experience of using a personal care product so it’s important for a formulator to have a thorough knowledge of them.

Claims ingredients

While people use cosmetics to improve the way their skin and hair looks and feels, this isn’t the primary reason that they buy cosmetics.  Consumers buy cosmetics because they like the story that the product tells.  They like the packaging or the way that the product looks and smells.  And to help support the marketing story and the claims made about the product, formulators have to include claims ingredients.

Claims ingredients (sometimes called fairy dust) are ingredients added to a formula at a low level for the primary purpose of getting to put the ingredient name on the label.  This includes ingredients like natural extracts, vitamins, proteins, biotechnology, and fanciful made-up ingredient names.  They are not put in the formulas to have any measurable effect and almost invariably they don’t.  However, most consumers need a story to believe when they buy their cosmetics and these ingredients help support that story.  Brands that don’t include claims ingredients are much less successful in the marketplace.

So there you have it.  The Kingdoms of Cosmetic Ingredients.  In a future post, we’ll look at some of the subcategories.




  1. Julie

    Interesting article. Thank you for writing this. I only wanted to formulate something that actually works. So I’m a bit confused about this Claims part.
    “Claims ingredients (sometimes called fairy dust) are ingredients added to a formula at a low level for the primary purpose of getting to put the ingredient name on the label. This includes ingredients like natural extracts, vitamins, proteins, biotechnology, and fanciful made-up ingredient names. They are not put in the formulas to have any measurable effect and almost invariably they don’t. ”

    What about if it is formulated with the amounts recommended by the manufacturer?
    for example: ” clinical trials on women 20-40 show a significant decrease in brow wrinkles when used twice a day at 3-5%.” Why would I want to formulate it with less than the 3-5% if that is what the trial was done at?
    Also- Can I still make the claims if it is substantiated by the manufacturer’s clinical trial results?
    I’m assuming this has to do with ingredient costs, but it makes no sense to me to formulate a cup of coffee if it’s not the proper percentage to water.

    thank you

    1. Perry Romanowski

      The manufacturer recommendations aren’t really based on anything. Unless they cite independent evidence of effectiveness I wouldn’t put much faith in the clinical trials of manufacturers. If the trial was done at 3-5% certainly you should try it at that level but also try it at a much lower level. You’ll likely get the same (which is no) effect.

      No, you cannot support your claims with the manufacturers data. What if the manufacturer didn’t actually do the study? You would be on the hook for lying even if you were using data you thought was true. The ultimate responsibility for claims substantiation lies with the product manufacturer.

      People buy cosmetics because of the story. True you need the product to work but the things that make products work (like petrolatum, mineral oil, glycerin, etc) are not things that can make your product stand out. Consumers would much rather buy Aloe Vera lotion than Petrolatum lotion even thought the Petrolatum lotion works better. This is the same reason people will spend $500 on a cosmetic that cost only $2 to make. It’s all about the brand and the story, not the formula.

      1. Claire

        Why do you say Petrolatum lotion works better than pure Aloe Vera, or say pure coconut oil?

        1. Perry Romanowski

          It is a better occlusive agent so it moisturizes skin better than Aloe Vera or Coconut oil. Coconut oil also is comedogenic so it’s not good to use on the skin.

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