Article by: Perry Romanowski
One of my favorite times when training new cosmetic chemists is the moment they learn that many of the ingredients cosmetic companies put in their formulas are added for reasons other than their direct function. The look of puzzled enlightenment when they realize that the beauty product marketing they’ve accepted thus far is exaggeration is…well…priceless.
Perhaps by the end of this post, you might experience that look too.
What are puffery cosmetic ingredients?
In the cosmetic science business, non-functional ingredients that are added to your formula to support marketing stories have a variety of names; puffery ingredients, featured ingredients, woofle dust, and pixie dust have all been used to describe these ingredients. They usually have some of the following features.
1. They sound impressive
2. They provide a story that consumers find compelling
3. The are trendy and probably featured in a magazine article
4. They are endorsed by some “expert”
5. They are expensive
6. They are used at low levels
Basically, these ingredients are added to help convince consumers that their beauty product is special and will provide miraculous results.
Which of these sounds more compelling to you?
“Our product combines a blend of naturally charged biominerals with powerful botanical ingredients to create an exclusive anti-aging technology”
“Our product combines petrolatum with cetyl alcohol to create an exclusive anti-aging technology”
Obviously, the first one. But the truth is, the functional claims of this product are provided by ingredients like petrolatum, mineral oil and cetyl alcohol. They just don’t sound as good.
Examples of puffery ingredients
There are a wide variety of cosmetic ingredients that are added as puffery ingredients but they roughly fall under one of the following types.
Vitamins — Everyone knows that vitamins are good for your diet and you need them to live, but consumers also have the erroneous belief that if something is good to eat, then it’s good to put on your skin & hair. The truth is there is very little evidence that topically applying most vitamins to your skin will have any effect. (Vitamins A & C are exceptions and can have an effect if properly formulated). There is no evidence that vitamins in your hair care products will have much effect. Some claim Vitamin B can increase hair strength but I’m not convinced by the available science and my own experience.
Whether they are functional or not, adding vitamins makes your cosmetic products more appealing to consumers
Proteins — These are another type of compound that consumers know about and are naturally inclined to believe they are good for them. When eaten, they are good for people. When slathered on their skin and hair, not necessarily. Proteins like collagen and elastin are added to skin creams. Silk, keratin, and other exotic hydrolyzed proteins are added to hair products. These ingredients aren’t added because of the effect they have (they don’t do much). They are added because consumers and marketers like the stories they convey.
Natural ingredients — Some beauty product companies are so enamored with natural ingredients, they add dozens and dozens which make their ingredient statements look like novellas. These include extracts from all kinds of plants from fruits, vegetable and herbs, taken from exotic places in the world like the Amazon rain forest or the mountains of Switzerland. You’ll find things like marine extracts and organically grown strawberry extract. If it’s natural and someone can squeeze some juice out of it, someone might ask you to put it in your formulas.
These ingredients rely on a belief in folklore to convince people they do something. More often than not, they are non-functional.
High tech ingredients — Sometimes marketers like to impress consumers by telling them a high tech story. To help support this story, you’ll be asked to add things like Stem Cells, Nanosomes, or ingredients with completely made-up high-tech sounding names. As with the other puffery ingredients, these high tech wonders frequently have some science to back up the story but almost never to back up their functionality delivered from a product.
Is cosmetic ingredient puffery right?
Admittedly, ingredients like this have always made me a little uneasy. It seems like trickery and worse, like lying. But the truth is, people who buy beauty products do not always want the “truth”. They don’t want to think that chemicals like Sodium Lauryl Sulfate or Petrolatum are what really makes their cosmetic products work. They would rather like to believe in the story that it’s Aloe that moisturizers their skin or it’s the Coconut Oil that gently cleanses their hair.
This is what people buy.
Whether we like it or not, as a cosmetic scientist we are in the business of creating great, functional products that people buy. If you create a brilliant formula that no one ever purchases, you’ve failed. Puffery ingredients entice people to buy products.
The ethical cosmetic chemist
Here are a couple of guidelines to use when adding pixie dust ingredients to your formulas.
1. Stay honest with yourself. Be careful not to fall for your own story. If you think the great high-tech ingredient you’re adding to your formula is really making a difference, be sure to conduct a blinded, placebo controlled study to see what effect it really has.
2. Stay honest with your marketing people. Your marketing department desperately wants a product they can tell consumers is vastly different (and superior) to the competition. They will believe the marketing of other cosmetic companies. Resist the temptation to mislead your marketing group by telling them that these puffery ingredients will actually have a significant benefit. In the vast majority of cases, they won’t.
3. Always make great products. Don’t use the stories available from puffery ingredients to cover-up some low quality formulation. It is your responsibility as a cosmetic chemist to create the best formulas you possibly can.
See this article for more on what the FDA has to say about cosmetic puffery.
What do you think, is it right to add ingredients to your formulas that you know are not adding a functional benefit? Leave a comment below.