What convinces you an ingredient provides a benefit? - Cosmetic Science Talk

What convinces you an ingredient provides a benefit?

In another discussion someone asked whether they should include Panthenol in their shampoo formula. I know this ingredient is used in a number of different hair care brands, but I've always just assumed it was for claims purposes.  That's because when I tested formulas with and without the ingredient no one could tell a difference.

This with/without test has always been my gold standard for determining whether an ingredient was effective or just a claims ingredient.  Results from lab tests, supplier data, other literature or theoretical notions guide whether to investigate a material.  However, if I put something in a formula and consumers don't notice any difference, I conclude that it doesn't provide a benefit.

Am I too skeptical?

What convinces you that an ingredient provides a benefit? For example, what convinces you that Aloe has any significant benefit in a formula beyond making claims?


  • definitely consumer perception via mother in law tests or monadic brief consumer use test with at least twenty people.Hair Care- salon for openers using half head studies followed by follow-up with patrons as per their perception.You have to expand from there into more sophisticated consumer testing which I think you all know.I am an open-minded skeptic and although in--vitro studies show panthenol penetrates hair shaft--absorbs water and swells to provide body, I haven't proven this as per the above.
  • Aloe? We have had consumers using our aloe cream on burns with real results, so we're in no doubt. Mind you, we use 100% concentration.
    Special interests: anti-aging creams, gels, and serums; sulphate-free shampoos; and therapeutic cosmetics.
  • edited May 26
    I have become very cynical in my old age about the vast majority of "ingredients" that are included in cosmetic products.

    That may be partially that I have more recently become involved with the formulation of topical small molecule pharmaceuticals where it is necessary to provide evidence (first to the company regulators then to the authorities) that any component of the product has a function. Stuffing a product with anything and everything that comes to hand, as some cosmetics seem to do, is just unacceptable.

    So what convinces me an ingredient in a cosmetic provides a benefit is evidence. This may be science based or practical based - provided an effect can be demonstrated. In the case of panthenol, as has been said, it penetrates hair shaft--absorbs water and swells to provide body but this effect is very difficult to observe so I would not include it in a shampoo. On the other hand, panthenol has a demonstrable conditioning, moisturising and softening effect in leave-on (or is that leave-in :) ) skin care products - especially suitable for a baby's bottom.

    I have particular difficulties all round with shampoo products which are claimed to provide numerous benefits. The function of a shampoo is, as far as I'm concerned, to clean the hair. At a stretch, I accept it might condition the hair as well. What I can't get my head round is the (sometimes wild) claims that a shampoo has almost magical properties of treating any/all malfunctions of the scalp (e.g dandruff, seborrhoeic dermatitis). Shampoos are rinse-off and only in contact with the hair or scalp for a very short time after which almost all of any "active" ingredient is flushed down the drain and lost. Wouldn't it be better to have shampoos return to their correct use and to have leave-on (leave-in :) ) scalp treatments as a separate product? OK, using a scalp treatment in addition to a shampoo and/or conditioner is extra effort but, if you are a sufferer of any disfiguring/discomforting scalp condition, you would be happy to put up with that and to know that some good may be being done and you haven't poured most of the active material straight into the sewer.
  • For skin care the time frame by which you allow user's to 'notice a difference' should be vastly different than the more immediate determinations made with hair care products. 

    Two facial products I currently use nightly (one containing a significant amount of azelaic acid / the other with small amounts of hydroxypinacolone retinoate and retinol) have made unbelievable changes in the appearance of my skin. However it took almost 60 days of once daily use before I could definitively say there was a difference and another 120 days to confirm in my mind that the changes were lasting and not attributable to other factors. 
  • Obviously, testing is the only true indicator of whether an ingredient is effective or not, but proper testing can be very expensive and time-consuming.  Unless you are the manufacturer of ingredients, it really is not to the benefit of most cosmetic brands to test the effectiveness of an individual ingredient.    

    For ingredients like Panthenol or Aloe Vera, which are widely used in cosmetic formulations, and are perceived by consumers as being effective, there really isn't much point in conducting studies as a cosmetics brand to prove whether there is a measurable benefit or not.  Those perceptions are already baked into the consumer consciousness through decades of marketing by other brands and/or ingredients manufacturers.  So, proven effective or added in for label claims, I rely on previous research and consumer perception.

    As there are many ingredients in cosmetic products there could also be a synergistic effect between the various ingredients so, unless you have an unlimited budget, as a cosmetics formulator focusing on the effectiveness of any one ingredient, unless it is a proprietary ingredient, seems to be rather futile.  I think it a better use of resources to focus on testing the effectiveness and perceived consumer benefit of the entire formulation.

    The "effectiveness" of cosmetics products are as much a consumer perception issue as a scientific issue.  We're all in competition with other brands that use label claim ingredients, so I have no issue with using certain ingredients that may not be rigorously scientifically-proven as the cost-benefit of doing so is beyond my objectives.  Hence, I rely on a balance of previous research, if it exists, and consumer/market perception.

    From a pure business perspective ... what's effective is what consumers like, perceive to be effective and what sells ... I really don't think consumers can tell any substantial difference between various cosmetic formulations ... their perceptions can be just as easily influenced by sensorials and fragrance as anything else. 
    Chemist/Microbiologist formulating in the Organic & Naturals arena under ECOCert/Natural Products Assn/Whole Foods/National Organic Program guidelines focused skincare & haircare products. 

    Provides Formulation Development and Lab-Scale Contract Manufacturing Services.  See website for details www.desertinbloomcosmeticslab.com

  • Part One of Reply

    @Perry I don’t know if you’re too skeptical.  You will know that answer by asking yourself if you maintain awareness of some important facts about what a cosmetics chemist is.  (I’m not one, but I can see quite clearly from the outside looking in that a good CosChem, as you obviously are, has several job roles combined into one.)  I will point out a couple of the roles first, and then I will answer the question of what convinces me that an ingredient/product is beneficial.  The key is that you will always need to be shifting between the roles in your work, so to balance your level of skepticism with openness.

    To elaborate upon some things already said here…

    As with many applied sciences, cosmetics chemistry is an art in addition to being a science.  Some schools of science neglect a sufficient focus upon artistic parts of their scientific specialty, because there is a longtime weird and untrue bias in schools that art is antithetical to science.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Many branches of physics and maths are highly artful, for instance.  Many cosmetics chemists speak of textures and sensorials and other effects of their formulations that are subsumed under the art part of “arts and sciences.”  Cosmetics chemists are artists as well as scientists.

    CosChems also are part psychologist—consumer psychologist and personal psychologist and other types of psychologist.  There is the fundamental psychological reason why humans use so many cosmetic products, for one.  (And on a pragmatic level for CosChems, this reason, though unpleasant, is good insofar as knowing why cosmetics markets always will expand.)  That fundamental reason is most surely the same for all peoples, even when you look across anthropological history and diverse cultures and see that cosmetics and adornment practices differ widely.  The fundamental reason is that humans use cosmetics (and fashion and other things) to elevate their perceptions of themselves above being a mortal, finite animal that will one day die.

    I don’t mean to be a downer or overly philosophical, but one must not lose sight of the basic psychological underpinnings of his work and products.  If a product is to succeed, it must first succeed on the psychological level.  All humans need an “immortality delusion” or a “mortality distraction” in day-to-day life (unlike some other animals who don’t seem to be conscious of the fact that they are mortal and will one day perish and cease to exist—at least in bodily/current identity form).  All humans fear death and decay of bodies.  Cosmetic preparations are fundamentally anti-death, anti-decay, anti-mortal (or “immortality seeking”).

    Incidentally, I offer no opinion here on what happens upon death of human or any animals.  I am simply saying that a felt sense of control over death and changes signifying the mortal state are huge human motivators particularly relevant to the work of cosmetics chemists, and this is why CosChems must always be cognizant of the overarching psychological role of their job.  No matter how realistic a human is about mortal state and no matter their belief systems about ultimate questions, there is the species-wide psychological drive to rituals of renewal provided by cosmetics usage (as opposed to, say, nonhuman animal drives to roll in mud and such things done for survival reasons).


  • Part Two of Reply

    Moving closer to answering your question, then, determining whether a product is “beneficial” encompasses several things.  It entails the science (hopefully based upon sound, unbiased studies and not the oxymoronic “scientific orthodoxy” that has infected too many realms of science today) of whether a product is efficacious and effective.  Those two are different.  An ingredient can be shown to be efficacious (detangle hair, soften beard, prevent wrinkles, lessen lines, reduce odor, decrease TEWL, etc.), but whether it is effective will depend upon things often beyond the chemist’s control (most notably user compliance with instructions and usage environment).

    As far as the type of claims I think you mean with panthenol, claims based upon efficaciousness studies that don’t necessarily translate into effectiveness in certain products, you must put on your psychologist and bioethicist hats, remember a bit about human suggestibility and perception (especially the well-documented placebo and nocebo effects), and ask yourself, “Is including the ingredient worth the *psychological benefit* to the consumers?”  You can hardly underestimate psychological benefits component in cosmetics chemistry!  (You must know how the psychological benefits are considered with packaging and price points, for instance.  Many people derive a psychological benefit from paying $75.00 for a five-dollar cream versus paying $20.00 for it.)

    Is it unethical to manipulate consumer perceptions like this?  If you are not being deceptive or advertising false claims (and it always goes without saying that you’re creating safe products), then I doubt it can be unethical.  That is because (per the point I made above) humans need a daily diversion from mortality awareness, as they need a felt sense of control over mortality, which you are giving them with your products, the claims of your products, and their rituals of using your products.

    It is also ethical because (putting on your artist’s hat here), beauty, increases in beauty, and desirability are largely perceptual and not objective.  (There are some algorithms that demonstrate beauty is based upon some universal physical/mathematical relationships, despite there being variation and diverging parameters, but mostly beauty is exceedingly subjective.)  Whether or not your product has effect a, b, or c, the very act of the people using it often will shift their perceptions.  Using your product makes them more beautiful (or stately or desirable or <insert subset of beauty adjective here>) merely because they use your product.  It’s tautological, I know, but when they feel more beautiful simply for using your product, then they appear more beautiful (or whatever adjective).  As an artist with your products, you are conferring beauty upon the world/users.

    So, say you include Ingredient X in your Super Wow Face Serum and you think it’s only a fluff ingredient.  Let’s say the studies are mixed/inconclusive (very typical!).  But you are well within your right to say that, “Studies show that Ingredient X reduces the appearance of <insert culturally undesirable trait here>.”  Well, your belief that Ingredient X isn’t worth much will disagree with many others’ beliefs that Ingredient X is worth a lot.  And besides that, you are not only chemist, but also artist and psychologist.  You must judge it artistically and psychologically, and not only chemically.  Maybe Ingredient X just looks beautiful (even appetizing) on the LOI for Super Wow Face Serum, as does the packaging centered around Ingredient X.  The scent you include to mimic or complement Ingredient X is wonderful.  Ingredient X confers some effects, for sure, even if you can’t spend the man hours to disentangle sole effects versus synergistic effects, and even if the effects aren’t statistically significant.  The point is that even if Ingredient X doesn’t satisfy you on the chemical level and you are not personally wowed by the Super Wow Face Serum, there are many people who will be.  You create for your specific audiences as part scientist and part artist and part psychologist you see.

    What if the benefit of Ingredient X is *only* psychological?  Still there is valid reason to include it.  Perhaps the people using Super Wow Face Serum experience a brief, calming reverie in the mornings as they apply it, thinking about fields or orchards or childhood memories of Ingredient X, and then throughout the day they might briefly recall gentle associations with Ingredient X that make them happy.  It doesn’t matter.  Whatever Ingredient X means to them helps them in their daily lives.  Whatever sensorials you design for the Super Wow Face Serum usually have psychological benefits that enhance quality of life beyond the proven effects of Ingredient X.  This is the psychology of the people applying something to their bodies becomes something part of their bodies.  It is very powerful!  (And it also works in the opposite direction of absorbing vitality/beauty, as seen in the often-misplaced fears of applying Ingredients J, K, or L to bodies, where people fear a bad/ugly thing becomes part of their bodies.)

    What convinces me if one of my products is beneficial?  It is the people’s self-reports.  That unscientific thing is the final arbiter.  For efficaciousness, I require repeated and reliable and valid studies.  For effectiveness, I require usage and photographic (“before and after”) logs.  But I emphasize that the latter two won’t mean a thing unless the product first passes the users’ psychological tests.

    Finally, to know if you are too skeptical (everybody goes through routine phases of being too skeptical, too uncritical, too rejecting, too accepting, etc.), examine your mindset to see if you are giving all the parts of your work (scientist, critic, designer, artist, psychologist, etc.) their due considerations.  I realize it is much more of a difficult balancing act to be a cosmetics chemist than some other types of chemists or scientists, but CosChems also have the opportunity for richer rewards derived from a wider playing field of creativity.  So it’ a fair trade I think.  [end reply]

  • edited August 11
    I think it's good to have a set of "science folks" who are skeptical about, for example, Tumeric Essential Oil, and other "holistic folks" like Dr. Axe who believe it cures torn knees, depression, and cancer.  I can research it all, and figure it out. There should be some work involved, right?

    When it comes down to it, it's always about the ingredients.  But keep in mind that science tells us that eating actual green leafy veggies is always better than swallowing a vitamin pill -- because there are undiscovered substances in the actual plant.   
  • I assume the question should be asked "what is a benefit?"  Is the benefit suppose to be emotional or physical?

    If you are asking for scientific proof or data this will be very hard to come by for most things that are suppose to be benefit...

    The with and without testing is on a physical level.

    Most people just want the knowledge they are at doing the bare minimum using something that is suppose to be good for them.  This is an emotional level.

    Whether or not it ACTUALLY cures or corrects a concern is another story.
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