Article by: Perry Romanowski

One of the biggest trends in cosmetic formulating is the trend towards making “natural”, “green” and sustainable formulations. This represents a challenge for cosmetic chemists because you are essentially limiting the number of raw materials that you get to start with. It’s a bit like telling a painter to create a picture using only 3 colors rather than an entire pallet. It can be done, but the results may not be as impressive.

Here are the top challenges that natural formulators will face.

1. Determining what natural means.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is to figure out what your company considers “natural”. There is no single definition and the number of different standards that are out there are overwhelming. As a formulator, you’re going to want to get specific direction on exactly which ingredients you’ll be allowed to use and which ones you can’t. If your company doesn’t know, then you should just choose one of the leading natural cosmetic standards and stick with it.

2. End product performance.
Once you know which ingredients you are limited to, the real challenging part begins, formulating good performing products. There is one truism about consumers and “natural” products.

Consumers will not sacrifice performance quality for more natural formulations

This means you’ll have to find an acceptable benchmark filled with synthetic compounds, and try to match the performance. This is a difficult task especially when the best performing surfactants, moisturizing ingredients, thickeners and most every other cosmetic raw material are synthetic compounds.

3. Adequate preservation.
Related to the previous one, preservation of your product will be a challenge when following almost any natural standard. When you can’t use parabens or formaldehyde donors as preservatives you have to make formulation compromises that can significantly impact performance or end user experience.

4. Formulation cost
Another problem for natural formulations is that they cost more than synthetic formulations. The difference doesn’t have to be crazy, but you should expect 50% or higher formulation costs.

5. Figuring out how natural you are.
Even if you do a diligent job of picking the right natural raw materials and matching performance benchmarks, you still may not be natural enough. While your raw material supplier may have given you a natural surfactant the first time, they may spike it with synthetic sources to “boost” the performance (say adding parabens to make the ingredients last longer). To ensure that you are meeting natural standards, you’ll need to work with the suppliers, getting all the appropriate paperwork. This can be a hassle.

Formulating natural products is an added challenge for cosmetic chemists but it also ensures that there will be more work in the future.

If formulating natural formulas is of interest to you, be sure to check out our Formulating Naturals Cosmetics course.



  1. Avatar
    Mark Fuller

    Great post! I have seen my Natural Formulating jobs triple since just the first of the year. To best get the job done, you need to discuss all these issues with your client. They must have realistic expectations in order to ever be satisfied with the end result. I would have to qualify that by saying in just the last 3 years the “pallet” has expanded and the performance gap has narrowed. Cos of course is an issue.
    I would really like to demonstrate a great example of the gap. I occasionally have clients send me products that they like in the market so that I can evaluate the product and identify how to best deliver similar performance in some aspect. Of course the first thing I do is prepare a Bench Analysis CofA (viscosity, pH, etc). These metrics are useful in matching these qualities later on.
    Then I go a little more low tech. I use the product myself when applicable. This is a great way to better see the high points of the product.
    Well, yesterday I received a sample of a great shampoo from a well known Organic company. The product is available in Whole Foods. Fortunately I read the label first and noted that the directions said to shake first. Well I did and used the product. The color was unusual and it reflected the direct color of the base and additives. Secondly the viscosity was much lower than a shampoo from a traditional manufacturer.
    Had I judged this product from a traditional stand point I would have been disappointed. But knowing the Whole Foods restriction on artificial colors and carbomers for their most stringent lines, I was more accepting and appreciative of the Formulation.
    If I had sent a similar product to a client without preparing them in advance, it would have been immediately rejected. We are used to think flowing shampoos. This is not possible always in the Natural market but it is offset by the perceived value in the safety of the materials.

    1. Avatar

      I love that idea of “demonstrating the gap”. Also, if the product is being sold at Whole Foods, you might have a consumer group who is a little more willing to compromise on product performance. However, your target has to be as good as the best product at Whole Foods.

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