cosmetic ingredients
Article by: Perry Romanowski

The hardest parts of creating a cosmetic formula are deciding which ingredients to use and figuring out how much to put in your formula. In this post we’ll look at both of these aspects of cosmetic formulating. cosmetic ingredients

What ingredients should you use

As we have previously written, there are three main types of cosmetic ingredients found in formulas

  • Functional
  • Aesthetic modifiers
  • Claims

When deciding what ingredients to use you have to first figure out what you want your product to do. Answer the question, what is the purpose of the product?

Function of the ingredient
Most products have some obvious function like cleansers which clean, moisturizer that make skin look and feel better, conditioners that make hair easier to comb, or color cosmetics that deliver a specific color. Once you figure out the function of your product, you can decide which functional ingredients are appropriate to include. For example, when making cleansers you should include detergents. When making skin creams, you need to include moisturizing ingredients. Identify the functional ingredients that can help you achieve the function of the product. To figure out these you need to research the variety of functional ingredients available. Information like this can be found at supplier’s websites or aggregator sites like ULProspector.com or Knowde.com

There may be a secondary function to your formula. This would be true of something like an anti aging cream in which you want to make a formula that moisturizes but also combats signs of aging. For formulas like this you might include active ingredients to combat wrinkles, age spots, sagging skin, or other specific skin problems.

Once you pick the functional ingredients, you can go through and identify ingredients meant to improve the aesthetics of the formula, and include things like preservatives, thickeners, fragrances, colors, and more to make the product look, feel, and smell the way you want.

Starting formula
Instead of starting from scratch, you could begin with a published starting formula. We have a whole list of places you can find free cosmetic formulas to help. When using a starting formula you may find either INCI names or Trade names for the ingredients. If the formula uses trade names then you can easily find the supplier of the ingredient and use that. However, if the formula uses INCI names then you’ll have to find individual suppliers for each of the ingredients. At this point in your formula development, it’s easiest to just get ingredients from suppliers you’ve either worked with in the past or are readily available from your usual sources.

What you have available
If you’re working at a company that already has an inventory of cosmetic raw materials, it often makes sense to use ingredients that you already have available. If you are making a body wash and your company uses Sodium Laureth Sulfate for a shampoo formula for a different brand, it makes sense to use SLES for your body wash too. That leads to economies of scale and your manufacturing and purchasing people will appreciate your thoughtfulness. It will also cut down on work for you because you won’t need to do the work to certify another raw material supplier. When making a formula, it’s usually easier to work with what you already have.

What you can get
Sometimes you might not be able to get an ingredient listed in the starting formula. This can be because it’s produced by a big company that doesn’t sell to small companies or it may be an ingredient not available in your country. Not all the ingredients listed in the INCI dictionary are available everywhere in the world. In these cases, you’ll need to identify substitute ingredients based on what you are able to get. Finding local suppliers can be done by going to trade shows like New York Suppliers Day or InCosmetics. When picking substitute ingredients you’ll want to first identify the function of the ingredient you were going to use and find something with a similar function. Of course, this doesn’t always work as come ingredients might have the same function but don’t work the same in a formula.

The price of the ingredient
After you’ve considered function and whether you have the ingredient, it makes sense to also consider the cost of an ingredient when picking one to use. To make a suitable profit for a cosmetic product you’ll need to keep your ingredient costs low. When searching through functional ingredients, be sure to consider the cost. Lower is usually better. However, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes an ingredient can cost more on a per pound basis but actually contribute a lower cost to your formula because it is more effective at lower use levels. Always keep costs in mind when you are creating formulas for sale.

Ingredient quality & consistency
For formulators using standard ingredients from known suppliers, it is not difficult to get raw materials that are high in quality and consistent from batch to batch. But if you are working with smaller suppliers, distributors, or with natural ingredients, it can be hard to get reliable ingredients. This is one of the reasons working with synthetic materials is better in terms of producing a consistent product. These type of ingredients are not dependent on the weather and growing conditions to have consistent products. When picking a raw material to work with, be sure to use ingredients that will be consistent from lot to lot.

Ease of manufacturing
Finally, you’ll want to also consider how easy it will be to use an ingredient during manufacturing. Scooping a few grams of a powder and putting it in a beaker with a high speed mixer is a lot different than having to dump bags of a powder into thousands of gallons of water. There are just some ingredients that are easy to work with in the lab but extremely difficult to work with in production. And if your manufacturing people are focused on the speed of making a product, they don’t want to have to use ingredients that are difficult to use. When deciding on the types of ingredients you include, be sure to think about how easy it will be to scale up and manufacture large quantities of the product.

How much do I use

After picking the types of ingredients to use you’ll want to figure out how much of the ingredient you should use. There is no hard and fast rule but here are a few tips which will guide you in deciding what level to use.

Look for supplier’s recommendation
This is the most important tip. Whenever a raw material supplier markets an ingredient, they will list a range of use levels with a highest and lowest level suggested. Now, you can’t exactly rely on these levels to be accurate as the supplier has a vested interest in getting you to use a higher level of the ingredient than you necessarily need. However, as a starting place I find it’s good to just begin with the highest level suggested. You can always reduce the level after you’ve made a prototype and have started optimizing the formula.

Find example formulas
You can often get a better estimate of how much of an ingredient to use by looking at example formulas. If you are using a starting formula then you’ll know what level of most ingredients you should use. But if you are making a formula from scratch you can still look at example formulas to find out how much they use. You should not be trying to reinvent the wheel every time you make a new formula. Take advantage of existing information to help guide you in choosing a starting level.

Optimize the level
Of course, once you make your first prototype using a starting formula or a formula you created yourself, you’ll want to optimize the level of ingredients. You can do this by looking at the cost of the formula and lowering the levels of the most expensive ingredients. Or you can cut back on ingredients that have a high level. Generally, your formulation strategy should be to use enough of an ingredient to get the effect you want but no more. This will be good from both a cost and product safety standpoint.

Percent activity in formulating
Incidentally, when you are deciding on a starting level for a raw material it is important to understand the concept of percent activity. Most liquid raw material are not supplied as 100% ingredients but instead are water solutions (or other diluent). So, if you buy SLS it is usually sold as a 28% solution. You can find the activity of an ingredient by looking at the specification sheet. Usually, it is listed as % solids.

If you have a formula that calls for 30% SLS, the product doesn’t actually contain 30% SLS. It contains 30% of a 28% solution. By multiplying the % solids by the % required in the formula, you can find the % activity. Therefore, a formula calling for 30% SLS only contains 8.4% SLS.

When comparing the function of different ingredients, it’s important that you compare them on a percent actives basis. So, make sure you use the same active level of SLS if you are comparing it to Decyl Glucoside.

Formulating cosmetics takes a lot of practice and over time you will get a sense of what ingredients do, why they are added and how much to include. But it is a never ending process because every formula will be different. That’s what makes formulating products so fun!

About the Author

Perry Romanowski

Perry has been formulating cosmetic products and inventing solutions to solve consumer problems since the early 1990’s. Additionally, he has written and edited numerous articles and books, taught continuing education classes for industry scientists, and developed successful websites. His latest book is Beginning Cosmetic Chemistry 3rd Edition published by Allured.

2 comments

  1. Igor

    Hello Perry,
    Thank you for your interesting articles. Could you advise what certifications or tests should be requested from small suppliers who work with natural ingredients to confirm quality and safety of their raw materials? Location is Europe. Thank you.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      It’s tough to get verification of natural ingredients but at the very least you’ll want % solids, pH, color, odor. And some kind of independent verification that the product is what they say it is.

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