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Figuring out the 1% line

A fun activity for any cosmetic chemist is to look at a list of ingredients (LOI) and try to determine where is the 1% line.  If you don’t know the 1% line refers to the place in the LOI which indicates where the concentration of ingredients is less than 1%.  According to cosmetic labeling rules everything in the formula that is used in a concentration higher than 1% is required to be listed in order of concentration.  At 1% or below, you can list it in any order.  cosmetic-ingredient-list

So, if you can figure out where the 1% line is a formulator can get a pretty good idea of the concentration of the main ingredients in the formula.

Let’s look at an example.

Here is a color-enhancing hair conditioner.

Water, Cetearyl alcohol, Glycerin, Behentrimonium chloride, Cetyl esters, Isopropyl myristate, Quaternium-80, Polysorbate 20, Fragrance, Methylparaben, Polyquaternium-37, Mineral oil, Benzophenone-3, Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate

Finding the 1% line

In doing this exercise you want to start with the last ingredient and work your way up the list to figure out where the 1% line might be.  Once you figure this out you can guess at what the formula concentration of the other ingredients might be.

It also helps to know what most of the ingredients do and some of their approximate use levels.  Since I know that Methylparaben is a preservative, there’s no reason it would ever be used as high as 1%.  So, we can figure that everything after that ingredient is also used at a level of less than 1%.  That brings us to our first principle…

Preservatives are almost never used at a level of 1%

Other ingredients like colors (except for color cosmetics) and fragrances are rarely used above 1%.  So in this list, fragrance is also probably under 1%.

That brings us to Polysorbate 20.  This ingredient is used as a solubilizer typically for fragrance so it is like that it is not used at a 1% level either.  Usually a 1:1 ratio of fragrance to solubilizer is used.  Ignoring everything we’ve looked at thus far we are down to the following ingredients…

Water, Cetearyl alcohol, Glycerin, Behentrimonium chloride, Cetyl esters, Isopropyl myristate, Quaternium-80

Educated guess at the formula

Now that we’ve narrowed down the number of ingredients we can guess at what a reasonable percentage might be for the remaining ingredients.  I know that conditioners are mostly water so this formula contains at least 90% water.  If we figure that the last ingredients, Quaternium-80, is used at just about 1% we can start to fill in reasonable guesses for the other ingredients.  Here is a reasonable starting formula.

  • Water – 90%
  • Cetearyl Alcohol – 4.5%
  • Glycerin – 1.5%
  • Behentrimonium Chloride – 1%
  • Cetyl Esters – 1%
  • Isopropyl Myristate – 1%
  • Quaternium-80 – 1%

Remember the total formula should equal 100%.

This would just be a guess and I know it is not exactly the formula because we’ve left out all the other ingredients that are less than 1%.  But this formula should get you reasonably close.

Incidentally, I could be mistaken and both Quaternium-80 and Isopropyl Myristate might be used at levels lower than 1% (say 0.75%) but it seems a reasonable guess.

Next steps

After creating this approximate formula, the next step would be to make a batch of it and see how it turns out.  Then you try tweaking the levels and adding some of those ingredients that we ignored at levels under 1%.  Eventually, you should be able to create something that performs similar to the product you are trying to emulate.

This is a fun exercise and I would encourage you to go find other cosmetic ingredient lists and try to see if you can figure out where is the 1% line.


What are cosmetic product specifications?

When you create a formula in the lab it’s rather easy to create batches that are consistently the same in terms of their physical and chemical characteristics.  This is because you use sensitive balances, you work with smaller amount and you are not typically under pressure to get something made on a specific schedule.  These same conditions are not true of production and for these reasons (and others) you need to set specifications for your finished formulas. cosmetic specifications

What are cosmetic specifications?

Specifications are a range of values assigned to a formula which dictate the physical and chemical characteristics of any batch that are acceptable for a quality product.  If some characteristic of a batch is found to be outside of the specifications the batch is either adjusted or discarded before it can be sold.  In this way, specification ensure that every consumer will have a consistent experience every time they use the product.

Who sets specifications?

The specifications are initially set by the product development team.Traditionally, R&D takes the leading role in this process but they also get input from the marketing and market research departments for factors that will affect consumers.  As the lead product formulator, you are ultimately responsible for setting specifications.

What characteristics?

The product specifications for any cosmetic formula will vary depending on the type of product it is, but there are some commonalities.  For example, all products should have an appearance specification.  When the batch is done it should be checked for color, clarity, or any other unique appearance that the formula is supposed to have.  If your product is a blue body wash but the final batch appears green, it would fail the specification test.  Another common specification (or spec) would be odor.  Product batches should always be checked against an odor standard to ensure it has the proper odor.

Other key characteristics that get listed in the specifications would include

  • pH – A range should be set for every aqueous based formula
  • Viscosity – A range should be set for any liquid formula.  Also, the test should be done using a standard spindle and speed.

Of course there can be other specifications that are measured including product performance tests, penetration tests, moisture % tests, and more.

Ideally, you’ll set specifications for the least amount of testing required to ensure that the product is consistent.  Production people are under a time crunch and often don’t want to wait for intensive testing before releasing the final batch.

Who tests the product?

Normally, the specification testing is done by the Quality Control group at your company.  In this way there is an independent verification of the quality of the final product.  The production group is under pressure to release as many batches as they can so if they were responsible for the testing, they might pass batches which are borderline.

What happens when a product is out of spec?

Since there are numerous reasons a product could have characteristics outside of specifications there are numerous answers to this question.  Sometimes adjustments are made.  For example, if the pH is too low or high and acid or base is added to adjust the pH.  If the viscosity is off sometimes the batch is reprocessed (heated, mixed and cooled again) or an ingredient known to increase or decrease the batch is added.

If something like the color or odor is off often the batch will be blended off with another batch in a small enough proportion that the mistake isn’t detectable.

But sometimes, and production people hate when this happens, a batch is too far out of spec to be saved and it has to be discarded.

Specifications are an important aspect of formulating and as a cosmetic chemist you need to be familiar with why they are used and how you set them.  In a future post we’ll look at how to set them.


Surfactants – Does the counterion matter?

There was an interesting discussion on LinkedIn about whether Magnesium Laureth Sulfate was more gentle than Sodium Laureth Sulfate.  It’s a pretty good question and I’m not really sure about the answer.  Here is what my experience has been. SLES surfactant

Sodium and Ammonium

When I formulated at Alberto Culver we used SLS and SLES in our shampoos.  At the time about half of all the top selling shampoos used SLS/SLES.  The other half used ALS/ALES (ammonium lauryl sulfate / ammonium laureth sulfate).  This included brands like Suave, Finesse, and Salon Selectives.  What it really boiled down to was that P&G, who had many of the top shampoos, used SLS/SLES and Helene Curtis, who eventually became Unilever and had many other top shampoos, used ALS/ALES.  Since I worked on the VO5 brand we typically compared our performance to Suave which was similarly positioned.  This was convenient because they used ALS/ALES and we used SLS/SLES.

In all the testing I did there wasn’t much difference in performance.  We were not able to demonstrate any customer preference of the shampoos in home use tests and we couldn’t find any foaming or combing differences in lab tests.  As far as my testing went, I couldn’t tell a difference between the counterion used in the surfactant.    So, at least in my experience, there really is no noticeable performance difference between an ammonium based surfactant and a sodium based one.

As far as irritation goes, the CIR concluded that while both have the potential to be irritating to skin, they can be formulated to be non-irritating.

I would be curious if anyone could direct me to research that shows differently.

Other counterions

In the discussion the original question was about Magnesium Laureth Sulfate.  This isn’t an ingredient I’ve ever used.  It was commonly believed by responders in the thread that MLES is less irritating to the skin than SLES.  However, according to this research ( Paye, Zocchi, Broze XXVII Jornadas Anuales CED Barcelona, Spain, June 1998, pagg.449-456) there is no difference in skin irritation when tested in-vivo on human subjects.

So, I can’t think of any good reason to choose one of these types of surfactants over the other except when it comes to questions of supply and pricing.  The reason we used SLS/SLES was not because it was superior to ALS/ALES.  It was only because we were able to get a better price break on the sodium surfactant.  I suspect that the reason Helene Curtis used ALS was because they got a better price on the ammonium surfactant.

Sometimes that is all it takes to choose one raw material over another.


Weekend chemistry

On the weekend I like to look through Youtube and find cool chemistry videos.  Here’s one from a series called Chemistry Life Hacks which gives you tips on how to improve aspects of your life using chemistry!

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So you want to formulate sulfate free?

Somewhere along the line surfactants which contain the name “sulfate” got a bad name. It’s difficult to say exactly how this negative reputation was developed but I suspect it was the result of a clever salon shampoo marketer who was looking for a way to make their higher priced brands stand out from the more popular store brands. Since they couldn’t compete in terms of formulation performance or advertising, highlighting the negative aspects of the competition was a logical strategy. sulfate-free-shampoo

Nothing moves alternative products like fear of conventional ones.

Anyway, this idea was spread to salon stylists (who get commissions from the sale of salon brands) which then spread to consumers. Now, it’s pretty firmly established in a high percentage of people’s minds that sulfate containing surfactants are harsh, more color stripping and bad for your hair. There’s little evidence for this but it persists. So, cosmetic formulators have to learn how to formulate sulfate free.

The challenge of formulating sulfate free

The reason we traditionally use sulfate surfactants is because they are effective, inexpensive, easy to formulate and easy to thicken. Sulfate free alternatives lack many of these characteristics. Realize that you are going to have a greater challenge to make formulas that foam the same way, clean, and meet cost goals. It’s likely that you’ll need an additional thickening system as salt doesn’t thicken many of these alternative surfactants.

Options for sulfate free

There are a number of options for making a sulfate free shampoo. Here are some strategies various companies have used.

1. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate free – since SLS is the big objection one simple solution is to use Magnesium Laurel Sulfate and then advertise your product as Sodium Lauryl free. This is technically true and might be appealing to some consumers. However, it still contains the term ‘sulfate’ so this won’t be effective for most people.

2. Sodium something else – Some alternatives to SLS include
Sodium Lauryl Sarcosinate
Sodium Cocoyl Glycinate
Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate
Sodium Lauryl Methyl Isethionate
Sodium Lauroyl Taurate
Sodium Lauroamphoacetate

3. Try a non-sodium name – If you want to get rid of the sodium from your label completely, there are some other options.
Decyl Glycoside
Lauryl Glucoside
Coco Glucosides
PEG 40 Glyceryl Cocoate
Potassium Laureth Phosphate

4. Alternative detergent systems - One other option is to offer a dry shampoo based on starch. You can easily call these formulas sulfate free.

While science may not agree with the notion that sulfates are inherently bad for people’s hair, you have to make products that both your marketing department and ultimately, your consumer wants. Sometimes this means ditching the traditional surfactants for other options. To be a complete cosmetic chemist you need to know these options.


Should your products be organically certified?

There was an excellent write-up of a debate between two cosmetic industry experts about the value of having your products certified by one of the natural standards companies.  Beauty blogger and cosmetic chemist Colin Sanders squared off with Amarjit Sahota the director of Organic Monitor about the topic of organic certification.  If you are marketing in the natural or organic space it’s worth reading to see what those gentlemen think.  cosmetic organic standards

The basic arguments were that Colin thought the standards are just a marketing exercise and don’t really help sell products while Amarjit thought certification gives a legitimacy to brands that they can’t get otherwise.

Here is my perspective on the topic.  I’ll look at both the pros and cons of cosmetic organic certification.

Why you should get certified

It appeals to consumers – There is a significant segment of the population that will see certification as a good reason to specifically buy a product.  If you are marketing to those consumers your certification will definitely help you sell more product.

It’s a way to stand out among competition – Right now few of your competitors are getting certified.  If you do, you’ll have that point of differentiation in your marketing material which can help sell more product.  Of course, this will be short lived because if you do start doing well your competition can just get certified and take that advantage away from you.

It gives you clear guidelines – One of the most challenging things about green formulating is knowing what ingredients are ok to use and which ones aren’t.  Following a certification program lets you know exactly what you can and cannot use.

It may be adopted by government agencies – While these standards are not accepted by governments around the world there is definitely a push to get them adopted.  If you already are certified you’ll be ahead of your competition if (or when) this type of certification becomes mandatory.

Why you shouldn’t get certified

Consumers don’t know what it means – If your consumer doesn’t know what the certification symbol means it’s not going to do much for your sales.  At the moment these certification groups have not done enough marketing to make consumers away they exist.

It costs money – This type of certification is not free and can represent a significant cost, especially if you are a small brand.  If you have to decide between spending money on certification or spending it on other marketing, you’ll be better off going with other marketing.

It restricts your formulating – For the cosmetic formulator this is the biggest problem.  These certification programs tell you exactly what compounds you can and cannot use.  They will be the ones who dictate your formulations and your ability to create new products.  This will make it much harder to create products that perform as well or better than your competition.

You give up control of your formulas – Ultimately, when you follow a certification program you give up control of your formulation efforts.  Someone else restricts what you can use so all of your future products will be limited to what some other company tells you you can make.  Do you want to restrict yourself in this way?  Do you want to limit your ability to innovate?  You also open yourself up to yearly inspections which isn’t desirable to most companies.

So should you get organically certified?

Only you can answer this question for yourself and your company.  If your consumer is someone who is impressed by organic certification and it makes them buy more of your product, then you absolutely should get certified.  However, if your consumer is like most people and has no clue what certification means or why it matters to them, you’re better off following your own natural standards and claiming that your products are natural / organic.  It’s really only a question you can answer.

What do you think?  Should formulators get their products certified?  Leave a comment below.



It’s a common misconception that cosmetic companies lie to sell products.  This is generally not true.  In fact, in the US it is illegal to lie in advertising to sell products, even cosmetics.  So you might wonder how cosmetic companies get away with selling products that don’t deliver.  cosmetic claims

For that they have to be creative with their claims.  As a cosmetic chemist you will often be called upon to help support claims (especially numerical ones) but some impactful claims are meaningless and don’t require much technical expertise.  Here are some of those.


To the consumer this claim means that the product won’t cause any allergic reactions.  It connotes gentleness and safety.  Of course, that’s not what it legally means.  According to the FDA, hypoallergenic means “whatever a particular company wants it to mean. Manufacturers of cosmetics labeled as hypoallergenic are not required to submit substantiation of their hypoallergenicity claims to FDA.”

Dermatologist tested, Clinically tested

Claims like this seem like they mean that there was some extra special testing done and that a dermatologist somehow endorses the product.  But what it really means is that the company sent their product out to an independent lab and had them do some type of testing.  The exact testing could be Kligman moisturization protocol or could be a stability test.  You can’t really know so it doesn’t mean anything.  And to validate the claim “dermatologist tested”, you simply have to have a dermatologist involved somewhere along the way.  It could be as simple as a signature after reviewing the results of the study.

Doctor brand (or celebrity)

Speaking of doctors here’s another cosmetic claim that doesn’t mean much.  Just because there is a doctor or celebrity in the name of the brand or endorsing the product there is no guarantee that the product will be any extra special or of a higher quality.  Dr brands are typically made by contract manufacturers who don’t have nearly the R&D budget of big companies.  This claim does not guarantee a superior product.

“With” Advanced technology or some ingredient

Consumers are led to believe that since a formula contains an ingredient that must be why the product works better.  Of course, this isn’t true.  If you read the claims closely you’ll see that the way they are written the claim actually says that the product has the function.  “With” just refers to the fact that an ingredient is in the formula.  You can put a drop of Superoxidedismutase in your formula but that doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to do anything.


When consumers read a claim like “Helps delay the natural signs of aging” they can imagine the product will pretty much do whatever they want.  They come up with what they think are signs of aging and they come up with what they believe “helps” means.  But the reality is that the world “helps” can mean pretty much anything and the cosmetic manufacturer can easily satisfy the validity of the claim.  When a consumer sees the word “helps” in a claim they should pretty much ignore the rest of the sentence.

Stimulates, Refines, Restores, Revitalizes, Promotes, Enhances

These are other terms that mean something else in the mind of the consumer than in the mind of the marketer who is selling the product.  Consumers might think stimulate means to produce more.  So a claim like “Stimulates new cell turnover improving the appearance of lines and wrinkles” might mean to them that more skin cells will be produced.  No, they won’t.  The manufacturer knows they could support this meaning (and if it actually did that it would be a drug).  Rather, they mean something else more akin to the word “encourages” which can pretty much mean anything they want.  Claims like “supports”, “improves” or “energize” would all fall under this category.  In fact, one of the ways marketers come up with these claims is to look up the word “stimulates” in a thesaurus and use a synonym.

Free from…

Here’s another claim that marketers use because consumers think it means something that it doesn’t.  When a consumer reads a claim like “Sulfate free” or “Free from parabens” they automatically believe that there is something dangerous or bad about those ingredients.  They further figure that if this particular product doesn’t contain those things then it must be safer or more gentle to use.  Of course, this is completely wrong.  Products that are “free from..” any specific ingredient are not more safe than products that contain those ingredients.

However, the cosmetic company isn’t saying their product is safer (if they could actually support that claim they would say that).  Instead the company is just letting the consumer assume that’s what they mean.  All the company is saying is that the product doesn’t contain some certain ingredient.  Products also don’t contain “uranium” or “cyanide” or “botulism” but you don’t see marketers calling that out on their products.  The industry trade groups are discouraging this type of labeling but it still goes on in the US.

Incidentally, these types of claims are not allowed in the EU any longer.

Cruelty free

Ah, a bonus one I just remembered.  Consumers believe that this means that the product wasn’t tested on animals.  That’s probably true.  But what the consumer doesn’t know is that all the ingredients in the formula were at one time tested on animals or that the manufacturer could have just paid someone else to do the testing and still claim cruelty free.  It’s a term that means something to the consumers but doesn’t mean what they think it means.  Whether a business practice is cruel or not is a matter of opinion.

So there you have it eight of the most common claims you’ll find on cosmetics that don’t mean much of anything.  Of course, just because the claims are misleading doesn’t mean the products don’t work.  Anti-aging products do help skin look and feel better.  It’s just not as sexy to claim that your product “with petrolatum” moisturizes all day long.


Cosmetic Formulating – Working with Base Formulas

When you start out as a cosmetic formulator you will not be asked to come up with your own formulas.  There may be some exceptions at small companies or contract manufacturers but at companies that have established brands and products new cosmetic chemists don’t get to be terribly creative.  Instead, you will be working with base formulas.   cosmetic formulating

Cosmetic base formulas

Base formulas are in-house or stock formulas that your company owns.  Typically, they are recipes which have been developed over a number of years and have a lot of testing behind them.  They also have a proven track record in the market and are easy for the production people to make.  New chemists are assigned base formulas primarily because they are a great way to learn formulating without being too risky.  Also, there are a lot of financial incentives to using base formulas

How are base formulas used?

In every cosmetic laboratory there is a list of all the formulas you create for producing products.  What you will notice about these formulas is that while there may be hundred of variants there are often only a couple of dozen “different” formulas.  To see the base formula in action, let’s take a look at how a company like Suave uses base formulas.

Suave has a line of products called Suave Naturals.  In this line they have a number of different varieties (or SKUs) such as Coconut, Sun-Ripened Strawberry, Wild Cherry, and more.  Here is their Coconut Shampoo with the following ingredient list.

Water (Aqua), Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Cocamide Mea, Ammonium Chloride, Glycol Distearate, Fragrance (Parfum), Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate, Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose, Tetrasodium Edta, Dmdm Hydantoin, Citric Acid, Ammonium Xylenesulfonate, Propylene Glycol, Tocopheryl Acetate [Vitamin E Acetate], Isopropyl Palmitate, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone, Silk Amino Acids, Honey, Ppg-9, Urtica Diocia (Nettle) Extract, Rosmarinus Offic

It’s a pretty standard formula with featuring Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate, Cocamide MEA and thickened with Hysroxypropyl Methylcellulose.  Now take a look at another Suave Natural formula Waterfall Mist.

Water (Aqua), Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Cocamide Mea, Ammonium Chloride, Fragrance (Parfum), Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose, Tetrasodium Edta, Dmdm Hydantoin, Citric Acid, Tocopheryl Acetate [Vitamin E Acetate], Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone, Ppg-9, Spirulina Maxima Extract, Mentha Aquatica Leaf Extract, Nymphaea Alba Flower Extract, Blue 1 (Ci 42090), Red 33 (Ci 17200).

See the similarities?  They have the same detergent system, same thickener, same preservative and same adjusting ingredients.  So their base formula is…

Water (Aqua), Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Cocamide Mea, Ammonium Chloride, Fragrance (Parfum), Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose, Tetrasodium Edta, Dmdm Hydantoin, Citric Acid, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone

So every time they want to launch a new SKU of the Suave Naturals formula, they start with the base formula and add a new fragrance, color, and feature ingredients.  As a formulator, you spend a lot of time adapting this base formula to the new marketing concept.

Benefits of creating a base formula

While working with a base formula can be a dull exercise from the standpoint of a creative cosmetic formulator, there are a number of benefits to using them.

1.  Speeds up product development – In the cosmetic industry there isn’t the luxury of taking multiple years to create new products.  At a large corporation the product development cycle happens over the course of one year at the most.  This means you have to come up with ideas, validated concepts, prototypes, testing and first production runs all within a year.  If you had to create a new formula every time you launched a new product, there just wouldn’t be enough time to get everything done.  Stability testing alone takes 2 months minimum.

Optimize performance – Since base formulas are used year after year, there is time to tinker with the levels on ingredients to find which percentages work best. And with optimization comes optimal costing.  Using a base formula allows you to reduce the cost of your formula to the lowest level possible.

Cost savings is easier - Speaking of cost savings, in addition to optimizing the cost, it’s also easier to find much larger cost reductions when a single change will have an effect on your entire line.  In the Suave example above if they can find a savings in the price of their SLES they can save money across their entire line.  If they had a different base formula for every shampoo formula then a cost savings in one ingredient wouldn’t have nearly the same impact.

Reduce testing requirements – Testing cosmetic formulas can be a time consuming and expensive process.  However, when you have a base formula that you simply modify you don’t have to conduct as many safety tests as tests done on the base formula will typically qualify as being applicable to all your derivative formulas.  It also gives you higher confidence in stability testing success.

Can be used in multiple brands – Not only does using a base formula work within a single brand but some companies actually do the same thing across multiple brands.  I remember when P&G bought the Herbal Essences brand they quickly switched all the formulas over to the Pantene base shampoo and conditioner formulas.  This gave them more leverage with their raw material suppliers and resulted in a less expensive way to produce two brands instead of just one.  I believe they have subsequently gotten away from this strategy but you can see there are still significant similarities between the two brands.

Useful for testing new raw materials – From a formulator’s point of view a base formula makes it easier to test new raw materials.  I had a base shampoo and conditioner formula in which I would post add any new raw material that was presented to me.  I would test it at the highest level that the supplier suggested and compare it to the base formula without the ingredient.  It was amazing how many ingredients had no impact on the performance of the formula.  But it did let me screen lots of new raw materials.

While base formulas aren’t the most creative way to make new cosmetic formulas they are the most efficient and the way that most cosmetic companies launch multiple product SKUs under the same brand.  I would suggest that every formulator create their own “base formulas” so you get comfortable with making them, testing them, and improving them.  When you move around this industry you’ll be expected to be able to make your own base formulas.


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Soap bar in a microwave

This is pretty cool.

Did you know what happens to a soap bar when you put it in the microwave for about 2 minutes?  It loses all its air.


The science of cosmetics

Here’s some good weekend reading about cosmetic science.  They cover some good information but unfortunately, the non-science based EWG gets referenced at the end.  It’s a bit of an embarrassment for an organization like the Australian Academy of Science.

There was a discussion where the Skin Deep database was referenced as a source for raw material information on our cosmetic science forum.  I’m glad to see that most of the cosmetic scientists there aren’t fooled by the misinformation on the EWG site.  Sadly, people outside the cosmetic industry (including other scientists) don’t realize the flaws.