Article by: Perry Romanowski

As a cosmetic formulator I get the opportunity to look at a number of cosmetic formulations.  Cosmetic chemists are like artists and many will have their own special style they bring to their formulas.  (There are a number of formulators who simply copy the work of others but we’ll ignore them for the moment).

Loaded Label

Anyway, one of the most common things that I see is formulas that have a dozen or more raw materials.  Take this product for example.  Here is the ingredient list…

Aluminum Hydroxide, Anthemis Nobilis Flower Oil [Anthemis Nobilis], Ascorbic Acid, Benzyl Benzoate, Butylene Glycol, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Cetyl Hydroxyethylcellulose, Cetyl PEG/PPG 10/1 Dimethicone, Citronellol, Coumarin, Dicaprylyl Carbonate, Disteardimonium Hectorite, Epilobium Angustifolium Flower/Leaf/Stem Extract [Epilobium Angustifolium], Ethylhexylglycerin, Eugenol, Geraniol, Glycerin, Glycine Soja (Soybean) Oil [Glycine Soja], Iron Oxides (CI 77491, CI 77492, CI 77499), Isostearic Acid, Lavandula Angustifolia (Lavender) Oil [Lavandula Angustifolia], Lavandula Hybrida Oil [Lavandula Hybrida], Lecithin, Limonene, Linalool, Phenoxyethanol, Phytoecdysteroids, Polyglyceryl-2 Diisostearate, Polymethyl Methacrylate, Polymethylsilsequioxane, Polysilicone 2, Potassium Sorbate, Propanediol, Retinyl Palmitate, Sinorhizobium Meliloti Ferment Filtrate, Sodium Benzoate, Sodium Metabisulfite, Soil Minerals, Stearic Acid, Tocopherol, Tocopheryl Acetate, Triethylhexanoin, Trisodium EDTA, Water [Aqua], Zizyphus Jujuba Seed Extract [Zizyphus Jujuba]

Now realistically, how many of the ingredients in this formula are having any effect at all?  How would the formulator even know?

To be fair, a number of the ingredients on the list are components of the fragrance or are solvents and aren’t expected to have an impact on the functionality.  These would include things like Limonene, Linalool, and Propanediol.  But seriously how would any consumer (or chemist) tell whether any of the following ingredients are having any effect?

Anthemis Nobilis Flower Oil
Ascorbic Acid
Epilobium Extract
Glycine Soja Oil
Lavender Oil
Lavandula Oil
Retinyl Palmitate
Ferment Filtrate
Soil Minerals
Tocopheryl Acetate
Jujuba Seed extract

Can you tell a difference?

If the formulator removed every one of those ingredients I bet no one would be able to tell a difference.  And if that is the case, why are the ingredients in the formula at all?

I’ll tell you why.  To tell a marketing story.

There is scant evidence that any of these ingredients will have a noticeable effect when topically applied to skin.  But they do have a noticeable effect when put on the label of your formula.  People will be more apt to buy.  So cosmetic chemists drop in these claims ingredients, make incredibly long label lists, and convince people who are not in the know that things like Jujuba Seed Extract is going to improve some aspect of their skin.  It’s not.

In a world shifting to more sustainable and environmentally friendly formulations, I don’t see how this type of bloated formulating can continue.  Better is to follow a minimalist formulation approach.  It will save money, save resources and you will know that the cosmetic ingredient you add actually has some function in the formula beyond story telling.


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    I agree with Eliza, the Lauder products are most likely pre-mixed. Further evidence toward that is that they often use many of the same ingredients in a wide variety of products (almost all Clinique, MAC, Lauder, Origins etc products contain barley extract or rosemary leaf extract, etc etc). I would also venture to say that many of these, though they are labeled as anti-oxidants and whatnot, are actually probably used to add to the scent of a product, since a lot of these extracts do have pleasant scents. I know that almost every Clinique product I’ve used doesn’t contain fragrance chemicals, but it still smells nice and like a cosmetic item. Makes you wonder…

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    Hi Perry, while I agree with the minimalist approach, I do have a few ideas about some of the ingredients you mention. Take for example fragrance ingredients. Some, even in very small quantities can have a tremendous impact on the final scent of the product.

    Others like the above mentioned Citronellol, Coumarin, Limonene, Linalool are fragrance materials that often need to be labeled as such, as by IFRA they have been identified as potential allergens (in EU all potential allergens need to be on the label as per legislation).

    When looking at the longer ingredient lists like that from Estee Lauder my hunch is that such formulas are a mash-up of pre-made mixtures like for example mixtures of silicones, emulsifiers, colorants, polymers and preservatives. Or with botanicals some suppliers offer mixtures of extracts that are so-called ‘synergistic’. (I suspect that’s a new trend as I come across such things more and more).

    I think that as a cosmetic chemist, when looking at a label, one can group some ingredients and come to shorter lists like: fragrance (contains x, y, z), preservative (contains …. ) etc.

    Also I think there is a growing trend of ‘transparency’ towards consumers by listing the INCI on the websites with a quick explanatory ‘cosmetic dictionary’ or even ‘science’:

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      Hello Eliza,

      I didn’t mean to imply the fragrance ingredients weren’t important. Quite the contrary, they are important even in tiny amounts. So are colorants & preservatives and a host of other ingredients.

      The ones that are not proven include all the ‘fluff’ ingredients that are just thrown in to increase the length of the label. You’re probably right about the Lauder product. It’s much more likely that they include blends of ingredients rather than separately adding all those.

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    Out of curious, Shiseido bough this brand (Bare Escentuals) recently and is changing the formulas for more minimalist ones.

    Shiseido has the most minimalists formulas I’ve seen. Here an example (it’s a body wash):

    Water, Sodium Cocoamphoacetate, Hydrogenated Castor Oil PEG-60, Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate, Citric Acid, Glycerin, Tocopherol, Phenoxyethanol.

    No, the list ins’t wrong. There are only these eight ingredients – and this products works very well as a body wash.

    IMO most cosmetics could be made with only about ten ingredients.

    On the other hand, the most non-minimalist formulas I’ve seen is from Estée Lauder. Here’s a typical moisturizer from Estée Lauder:

    Active Ingredients: Octinoxate 7.5%; Octisalate 4.0%; Oxybenzone 2.50%; Titanium Dioxide 1.1%; Inactive Ingredients: Water, Dimethicone, Butylene Glycol, Pentylene Glycol, Phenyl Trimethicone, Glyceryl Stearate, Behenyl Alcohol, Trioctyldodecyl Citrate, Polymethylsilsesquioxane, Octyldodecyl Stearoyl Stearate, PEG-40 Stearate, Polyglyceryl-10 Pentastearate, Gentiana Lutea (Gentian) Root Extract, Polygonum Cuspidatum Root Extract, Thermus Thermophillus Ferment, Hordeum Vulgare (Barley) Extract, Fumaria Officinalis Flower/Leaf/Stem Extract, Citrus Medica Limonum (Lemon) Fruit Extract, Hydrolyzed Rice Bran Extract, Laminaria Saccharina Extract, Hydrolyzed Rice Extract, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract, Artemia Extract, Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Seed Extract, Triticum Vulgare (Wheat) Germ Extract, Cholesterol, Caffeine, Propylene Glycol Stearate, Octyldodecyl Neopentanoate, Polyglyceryl-6 Polyricinoleate, Tocopheryl Acetate, Sucrose, Glycerin, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Linoleic Acid, Lecithin, Squalane, Sodium PCA, Urea, Isopropyl Titanium Triisostearate, Ergothioneine, Sodium Dehydroacetate, Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate, Polysorbate 20, Sorbitan Laurate, Sodium Hyaluronate, Citric Acid, Propylene Glycol Laurate, Glycyrrhetinic Acid, Trehalose, Polyquaternium-51, Hydrogenated Lecithin, Fumaric Acid, Alumina, Palmitoyl Hydroxypropyltrimonium Amylopectin/Glycerin Crosspolymer, Ammonium Acryloyldimethyltaurate/VP Copolymer, Cyclodextrin, Nordihydroguaiaretic Acid, Ascorbyl Tocopheryl Maleate, Xanthan Gum, Stearic Acid, Silica, Fragrance, Ethylbisaminomethylguaiacol, Manganese Chloride, Pentaerythrityl Tetra-Di-T-Butyl Hydroxyhydrocinnamate, Disodium EDTA, Phenoxyethanol, Chlorphenesin.
    May Contain: Titanium Dioxide, Zinc Oxide, Iron Oxides, Yellow 5 Lake, Chromium Oxide Greens, Mica, Ferric Ferrocyanide, Chromium Hydroxide Green, Carmine, Bismuth Oxychloride, Blue 1 Lake

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      Wow that is a lot of ingredients!! I can’t imagine that the Lauder formula really needs all those ingredients.

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