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Top 7 Cosmetic Chemist Myths

As cosmetic formulators, we are supposed to be scientists. Rational, curious, and willing to modify our beliefs based on new information. But we are mostly humans who suffer from confirmation bias, personal beliefs and good ol’ fashion stubbornness.

I’ve met some cosmetic chemists and formulators that hold some “interesting” beliefs that don’t quite hold water. Admittedly, in my younger years I believed many of these things too. However, there is no arguing with facts no matter what you want to be true. Here is a list of some of the most common cosmetic science myths that cosmetic chemists believe.

1. Expensive raw materials are better.
Formulators get introduced to raw materials from suppliers all the time. Sometimes these ingredients can be incredibly expensive, say $1000 per Kilogram or more. I often heard chemists lament that if they could only add some really expensive ingredients to the formula, they could make products that perform much better. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true. If you do a blind study of the best performing cosmetic formulations, it is not the most expensive formulas that work the best. Very few ingredients are better moisturizers than Petrolatum which is a pretty inexpensive ingredient! Just like cosmetic products, expensive ingredients are not always better ingredients.

2. Results of a small study are believable.
You spend a lot of time testing your ideas and often you run a quick study and make a great discovery like you’ve made hair stronger or you’ve improved skin moisturization for 24 or 48 hours. Many cosmetic chemists will just run with this information and believe it to be true. They may even get their boss or marketing group excited about it. But this is a mistake. Small studies are rarely predictable of what a larger, controlled study will show. Whenever you get great results from a small study, repeat and repeat again. There are lots of inadvertent & invisible mistakes that can happen. That’s just the nature of science. Unfortunately, the business side of the cosmetic business will pressure you to stand behind small studies because they support what marketing wants to say. Try to avoid this at all costs.

3. Competitors have superior technology.
It’s easy for you to develop “technology envy” when you see one of your competitors come out with a cool new product or they sell a lot more than your brand. You may even field a market research study that demonstrates their products score better than yours. This could cause you to develop the notion that your formulas aren’t as good. Sometimes that is true. But most times, your competitor’s formulas are not better than yours. Market success is only loosely tied to the performance of the formula. And your competitors have nearly all the same tools that you’ve got. There is no reason a small cosmetic company can’t produce products every bit as good as the big cosmetic companies.

4. Natural or organic ingredients are better/safer.
Astonishingly, I hear more and more formulators claiming that they only use natural and organic ingredients and that somehow makes their formulas better or safer. They are not.

5. If a technology is patented it is useful.
Thousands of patents are granted each year to cosmetic companies. You might even be impressed when you read on someone’s LinkedIn profile or resume that they have dozens or more patents. While it’s great to get patents, the truth is most cosmetic patents are based on technicalities and obscure discoveries that have very little commercial relevance. Often, the most useful thing about a patent is that you can advertise it on your packaging and call your product “Unique”.

6. Consumers can tell subtle differences between formulas.
This is one of the most troubling things about being a formulator. Consumers are easily fooled by superfluous factors. You can spend months improving foam height or creaminess. You can devote hours developing statistically significant, provable, incremental improvements to your formulas. You can do all this but if you use the wrong fragrance or the wrong color or the wrong packaging, all your work will go unnoticed. No matter what your market research group thinks, consumers are terrible at evaluating how well a formula works. The vast majority of consumers just don’t notice subtle differences.

7. Marketing people are clueless.
While this one might seem true (and for many individuals it probably is), your marketing department isn’t completely clueless about your products. They just have a different perspective on product development. While chemists are focused on what the final product will look like and how it will perform, marketers are more focused on what consumers want and what they will believe. Marketers just assume that the scientists will come up with products that can deliver on what consumers say they want. This causes them to suffer from wishful thinking which can come off as clueless. However, in the cosmetic industry it is extremely difficult to stand out if you focus only on product performance. We need people focused on marketing to successfully sell products.

Remember, people don’t buy a product the first time because of how it performs. Performance affects whether they re-buy a product but it’s marketing that gets them to try it the first time.

Got any myths that you’ve heard from cosmetic chemists? Leave a comment below

{ 6 comments… add one }

  • DragOn 10/08/2012, 1:22 am

    1. Expensive raw materials are better.
    Define “raw”.
    Define expensive: compared to what?
    I prefer to work with raw materials as they are better and less expensive.

    2. Results of a small study are believable.
    Results of a small study vs. No study is more reliable. Results of a study not supported by a company marketing a product = more so. Multiple studies of same component by third parties. Further to the above point. Where would we be without it? Pharmaceuticals would be in a heap of trouble. And let’s face it, that’s where a great deal of relevant research is taking place and being applied. Literally…which can very readily be maximized elsewhere…petrolatum and urea…nah…urea, ok…but there are far nicer ingredients with proven effects. Traverse the SC and all that sort of thing. GLA, also useful in some of the vegetable oils. Some just smell good. Feel nice. Re: the vitamin component, sub clinical amounts= useless. Many are marketed as “high” in whatever…ppm…so what?

    3. Competitors have superior technology.
    Everybody and his dog has superior tech. But can you work with and maximize what you have on hand?

    4. Natural or organic ingredients are better/safer.
    I prefer “natural” and that is a fluffy term at best. (*) Organic? Unless you are genuinely worried about pesticide residue there is no difference. And if you are that terrified, opt for synthetic, and save a forest from becoming agricultural land

    5. If a technology is patented it is useful.
    LOL…

    6. Consumers can tell subtle differences between formulas.
    What kinds of differences? Parfum/ stench factor? Greasy/ Grotty? Once people are aware that the packaging and scent doesn’t improve the mix, they are far more inclined to worry about the ingredients. All of a sudden $100.00 for water/ oil/ emulsifier and 3 actives components starts looking a tad ludicrous.

    7. Marketing people are clueless.
    Quite the contrary. They are clued in on every aspect of marketing possible. It’s the consumers that are clueless and fall for the line of tripe of the marketing team.

  • Lise 10/07/2012, 2:28 pm

    Thanks Perry.. been trying to access your site w/o luck for a couple of days now. I will definitely check these links out (and am already finding studies on coconut oil that shows it most definitely brings more to a mix than mineral oil.) :)

  • Lise M Andersen 10/05/2012, 9:15 am

    Perry, I would absolutely love to hear your take on this: you write few ingredients are better moisturizers than petrolatum. Petrolatum doesn’t penetrate the skin – or can it? My research has brought me to the conclusion that the molecule size of petro-based oils is larger than (most — if not all) vegetable based oils, and therefore does not penetrate, but just builds up on top of the skin – eventually clogging pores. My personal experiences using petrolatum-based moisturizers was a clogging of pores with subsequent visible increase in pore size. In switching to vegetable based oils the condition reversed. I have seen this in several others as well (even one tester well into their 70′s reported ‘shrinking pores’ after switching to vegetable based products). Surely petrolatum is not the ideal moisturizer if it just building up on the surface of the skin to the point of clogging pores? Look forward to your input.

    • Perry 10/05/2012, 9:33 am

      Hello Lise,
      I have no inherent affinity for Petrolatum and would be happy to use something else if the replacement worked better. But study and study demonstrates that Petrolatum is the best ingredient for decreasing the transepidermal water loss in skin. Vegetable oils just do not work as well.

      While your concern about petrolatum clogging pores is reasonable, there is no evidence that it happens. In fact, petrolatum is noncomedogenic (does not cause acne). And it’s a myth that pores change size. No skin product can increase or decrease the size of your pores. At best they can modify the appearance but if you took measurements of your pore size before and after using a product, you will find no difference.

      I look at things from a scientific standpoint and have no vested interest in how things turn out. The bottom line is that the controlled scientific studies that have been done demonstrate that petrolatum is the best moisturizing ingredient. This is why cosmetic companies continue to use it. If something else tested better in laboratory / blinded consumer tests, we would switch. Vegetable oils just don’t work as well.

      • Lise 10/05/2012, 10:05 am

        Hey there Perry – thanks for your input. It’s still not quite clear to me whether or not petrolatum can penetrate the skin – also to what degree it may or may not clog pores. I have tried to find some testing/documentation/studies on this for what feels like ages, but have been unable to. Do you know if testing has been done on vegetable oils compared to petrolatum? I’d appreciate it if you had links or could point me to where I could find any info.

        I admit my affinity with vegetable oils is from personal experiences, and you could very well be right that it is a myth that pore size can change, but it stands to reason that a clogged pore is going to appear larger, doesn’t it?

        Finally, I think you are commenting on vegetable oils purely from a ‘can it replace petrolatum’ perspective. Vegetable oils bring extras to a formula in that they are carry the vitamins, etc of the plant they are derived from, so they are doing double duty in many formulas.

        I realize vegetable oils can be a real bucket of worms to work with (shorter shelf life, undesired scents, no insurance of uniformness in each batch etc etc). From a mass-production standpoint, I’m guessing they will always loose out to petrolatum. This is perhaps reason enough for the industry to favor petrolatum and not bother about testing/using vegetable oils… just a thought.

        • Perry 10/05/2012, 3:45 pm

          Whether petrolatum (or any other ingredient) penetrates the skin depends on what you mean by that. Petrolatum definitely penetrates below the surface into the stratum corneum and the upper layers of the epidermis. It will not penetrate to the dermis but then again, practically no skin ingredients penetrate that far down into the skin. Here is a study that demonstrates the amount of petrolatum adsorbed by the skin over time. This study found that after 20 minutes, 48% of the petrolatum remained on the surface, meaning 52% had adsorbed below the surface of the skin. I couldn’t find a similar study on vegetable oils.

          As clogged pores go, there just is no evidence that petrolatum clogs pores any more than vegetable oils. And the fact that it is non-comedogenic further supports this notion. But as can be seen in this study there are a number of natural oils (including hydrogenated vegetable oil) that are comedogenic. This doesn’t mean everyone will have a reaction but it means some people will.

          As far as vitamins from vegetable oils, I’ve not seen any research to support additional benefit in formulations from the vitamins you might receive from oils. The only vitamins that have been proven to help skin include Vitamin A and perhaps Vitamin E. None of the other vitamins have been shown (from topical application) to have any affect on skin. They just do not penetrate deep enough to affect skin cell activity.

          You point out all true things about the challenges of working with vegetable oils, but those factors could be worked around if the formulations really provided some superior function. Vegetable oil is used in cooking all the time and that industry is able to get a suitable, high quality stock of the ingredient. The cosmetic industry could get a suitably consistent ingredient too. A reason to do that just hasn’t been demonstrated.

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