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.

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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

Or

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.

15 comments

  1. Ash

    I am a regular consumer as well as a recent graducate of an esthetician program. I love this article but find I have many more questions, what sort of ingredients should you look for that actually are able to be absorb and used by the skin? I find myself perplexed shifting through the advertising fluff and attempting to find the scientific fact of the matter.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      The reality is that if it is a cosmetic, it is not legal for you to add ingredients that have a known affect on the biochemistry of the skin cells. So most of the stuff you see is marketing fluff that doesn’t have any impact when used from topical treatments. It turns out the skin is an excellent barrier and the vast majority of ingredients put on your skin will not absorb deep enough to interact with the living skin cells

  2. Marilia Isabel Tarnowski Correia

    Hey, Perry! I’m a brazilian Chemist and I started a blog earlier this year with the purpose to teach chemistry by using cosmetics as a theme to people who aren’t familiar with chemistry but do cosmetic procedures by themselves (like hair dyeing). Your blog is a great font of information and here in Brazil we don’t have anything like it in portuguese. I wanna know if it’s ok if I “translate” some of your posts and incorporate them on my blog? I’ll surely always reference you. (I said “translate” because most of your language is technical and I need to make it comprehensible to common people).

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Sure you could translate them. Just be sure to provide a link back. Thanks!

  3. Andreas

    As a pharmacist and researcher, pixie dust sounds very stupid to me but psychology is also part of of these two jobs too… and we all know that one important part of cosmetics is not just selling beauty but hopes and dreams. And hope and dreams are very good and healthy thing!
    At first, I had my difficulties understanding the cosmetics industry paying deer money for investigating ingredients and then do everything to make them not work (to avoid the cosmetic product becoming a pharmaceutical one) and just ‘keep the claim for marketing’. On the other hand, they do spend money in research others could still use and that’s already something.

    Where I really have a problem is with ingredients which aren’t there, such as ATP (adenosine triphosphate). It’s half-life is in the range of minutes to hours once diluted with water. Cosmetics formulated with ATP don’t contain any of it already when leaving the facility; stating ATP as an ingredient is a straight out lie IMHO. What they could list is ‘AMP derived from ATP’ but that won’t sell. Furthermore, the claims for ATP are only one side of the coin (what ATP does inside a cell); were ATP really present in the product and could somehow manage (using alien technology) to get into the skin, it would have very undesirable effects (it’s a ‘death signal’ on the outside of cells). Maybe some death metal fans would buy that one…
    Another thing are coconut oil derived surfactants. Depending on the synthesis, I think it very borderline to state that a product contains coconut oil when in fact it’s ‘cocoyl glutamate’ consisting of 60% purified glutamic acid laurate and 40% purified glutamic acid stearate. That’s like selling real beef as vegan because it’s made only of grass and hay.
    I admit, I like nice stories too and I like cosmetics which contain plants, but at least the story should be true and the plant (extract) really present, even if they are just unicorns and fairy dust.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Great points!

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  8. Rowena

    Great post! Thank you!
    Well I am one of “them” marketing people. And you do not have to worry about misleading me about pixie dust. I am paid to do that dirty job for you. Heehee!
    Kudos from the marketing department!

  9. Chem Student

    Fluff dust as I remember you calling it. I was shocked when I learned about it in your course! Scary but true. I think marketing needs to come up with claims that support the actual bulk of the main ingredients (Not the 1% line). Also I think the INCI system should be changed for FIL on packages. What sounds better Salt or Sodium Chloride, Shea Butter or Butyrospermum Parkii? I think consumers get scared when they read the labels and the marketing fluff dust is typically common sounding ingredients like honey nectar, collagen etc. Just my rant on the topic of fluff dust….hopefully consumers become more aware of fluff dust and demand more effective products which will then encourage better formulations.

  10. Veronica

    Great article. Theres a book called Cosmetics Unmasked which also touches on this. I’m studying psychology now, but a few years back I was studying pharmacy in order to get into cosmetic chemistry. I get the whole vitamins-in-products marketing strategy, but I don’t see the point of adding ingredients which have no appeal to the consumer and which might be bad for you. What is your opinion of benzophenone-3, or oxybenzone? (I think it is the same thing). To my understanding, it is being removed from sunblocks in Europe because of its hormone disrupting qualities, but I’ve been noticing that it is added to colognes and perfumes as well. What is a sunblock ingredient doing in my body spray?

  11. tanveer

    I really liked this post for telling things as it is.. We get sold stuff like “ceremide- cement” and “Microspheres to absorb oil” and God knows what all day long. 😀

    & at the end of the day I have noticed it is the no-fuss products like Ponds Cold Cleansing cream which boldly embrace their mineral oil heritage that work better than creams enriched with “protein-vitamin complex, that penetrated the skin to reveal younger, smoother skin” LOL

  12. Arthur Perry MD

    My favorites are the chemicals with high molecular weights that can’t possibly penetrate the skin. The 500 Dalton rule means that anything over 500 can’t penetrate. And that excludes virtually all pentapeptides and all hexapeptides. And those are the expensive ingredients… Fraud? You decide….

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