Article by: Perry Romanowski

One of the things that people find surprising when they first enter the cosmetic formulating business is that many of the feature ingredients have very little effect.  I distinctly remember the look on my colleague’s face when she first discovered that the expensive, salon-only brand of hair care products that she religiously spent extra money on used “puffery” ingredients to make the products sound more appealing.  A moment like this is something that nearly all cosmetic chemist and formulators will experience.

Claims Ingredients

We’ve previously talked about cosmetic claims ingredients.  Essentially, these are ingredients included in formulas to support the marketing story.  They are often natural sounding ingredients or a made-up scientific term that is supposed to connote superiority over standard products.  While they are not essential to the function of the product, they are essential to creating a product that sells.  Consumers would just rather buy a body wash that contains some natural moisturizer rather than a synthetic polymer.

Formulating with claims ingredients

So, what do formulators do?

They create the best working product that they can and then spike the formula with whatever ingredient will make a good marketing story.  Incidentally, the phrase “spike the formula” means…

to put enough of a material in the formula to be able to claim that it is in there without significantly affecting the price or stability of the product.

This means claims ingredients are put in formulas at 0.5%, 0.1%, or as low as 0.0001%.  As long as you legitimately add an ingredient to a formula, you can talk about it in your advertising and on your label.  Granted you have to stick to factual information, but if you add 0.0001% of an ingredient in your formula, it’s in there.  This means that any laboratory proven benefit of the ingredient probably won’t ever be realized in the formula.

Reasons for non-functional levels

There are a few reasons that cosmetic chemists do not put claims ingredients in formulas at high levels.

1. They are expensive.  These ingredients are so expensive that you can’t realistically make a mass market product that has a high level.  Consider an ingredient like Ribonucleic acid.  This ingredient can cost $90 a pound or more.  So, if you added it to your formula at a 1% level, you’ve added $0.90 per pound to the formula.  In an 8oz bottle of lotion, that is 45 cents per bottle just for this one ingredient.  Add to that the cost of the rest of the ingredients and the formula cost for your single bottle can get to over $3 per bottle.  Then add packaging costs, production costs, marketing, distribution costs and the price of your lotion with RNA is just too expensive to be competitive with mass market products.

So, it is highly unlikely that any mass market product will contain functional levels of these claims ingredients.

2. There is little evidence they work.  Some ingredients are known to have no functional effect but are included in formulas because they make compelling stories to consumers.  I’ll leave it to you to figure out which ingredients are like this.  But there are some ingredients that suppliers will bring to you with lots of studies demonstrating effectiveness.  Things like UV blockers for hair, collagen stimulators for skin, or anti-aging ingredient that are supposed to reverse aging.  Unfortunately, for most of these ingredients the studies that demonstrate effectiveness are poorly designed, not blinded, not tested against proper controls or done under unrealistic laboratory conditions.  There is little evidence that including ingredients like natural extracts, even at high levels, will lead to a formula to performs noticeably better.

This might sound cynical but I am certainly open to being shown to be wrong.  It simply requires a well designed double blind effectiveness study.  If an ingredient can be shown to provide superior results under these conditions, I’d happily recommend its use at higher levels.

3. Consumers don’t really notice.  Perhaps the most significant reason that ingredients like these are used at low levels is because almost no one notices if they are not.  It’s possible that you as the formulator will notice.  Over time, you should enhance your ability to differentiate between two formulas.  You should be highly sensitive to even minute differences.  But your consumer will not be trained as such.  Consumers barely notice the difference between formulas that are obviously different.  If your consumer doesn’t notice whether an ingredient is in the formula or not, it makes logical sense to reduce it to a low level.

Functional Levels?

When you learn that this is going on, it can be hard not to become cynical.  Indeed, many a cosmetic formulator becomes cynical about the technologies put into formulations.  However, I have always tried to refrain from being cynical.  Instead, I encourage all formulas to simply be skeptical of the feature ingredients used in products.  If there is some good evidence that you should use an ingredient at a high level, then you should do that.  However, you need to be certain that there is some noticeable benefit to your consumers.

Just because we want something to be true doesn’t mean it is true.

In tomorrow’s post, we’ll describe how you can ensure that you are not fooling yourself with your ingredient choices.

12 comments

  1. Ann

    Pedro — Except, please be aware that chamomile is in the ragweed family, so many people (myself included) are allergic to chamomile. Histamine response, but still an ingredient I have to avoid.

  2. Arina at Pure Natural Makeup

    Really enjoyed the article. It made real sense when you said about marketing ploys to put in an ingredient just to ‘advertise’ it. I hope that more consumers will notice these sly ploys by marketers but unfortunately when it comes to advertising, it’s difficult to get people convinced that the adverts on TV are just about getting your money so they can make money and that there is very little real time invested in caring for skin.

  3. Eliza

    Thank you so much, Perry, for the inspiration and keeping us on our toes 😉 I don’t agree with everything you say, although I do take your word on it based on your huge experience. For example I love natural stuff, I love what it does to my skin, I love how it feels and how it smells. I grow a lot myself and enjoy it hugely. Also there are the ‘all natural types’ of people (wholefoods etc) that do feel/smell the difference, simply cos they have been exposed to those characteristics longer. I agree: not your typical consumers, but consumers none the less. That niche market is btw one of the few that seems to grow steadily, a peculiar fact in this economy.

    Personally I also love my chemicals. I see them as siblings to whom I try to give equal love and attention. For me it’s not a question of OR OR but of AND AND. Especially if the palette of equally effective ingredients would be made available in both categories.

    The fact that there are data gaps or less-than-perfect studies, doesn’t mean extracts just don’t work. Sometimes there is a long history of traditional uses and knowledge that science needs time to catch up on. Sometimes science does catch up, but marketing still runs away with it (pomegranate anyone?).

    I do hope that more and more well-designed studies will appear on the effect of botanicals and also hope to personally do something about that. And with BBE (biobased economy) more attention and money will go into bio-science anyways. I try to stay positive 🙂

    1 final note: when it comes to flavor or fragrance formulation botanicals can also have another use, many of them just taste or smell awesome, even in very small % as they are blends of many very complex (fragrant) chemical structures . And some others are terrible (neem oil bleah!) 😉

    1. Perry

      Thanks so much for your comments Eliza. You are correct that niche consumers certainly will show a preference for some chemicals over others. And these are the types of consumers that are especially important to small companies because they represent a real market that big companies will deem too small to go after. P&G only wants billion dollar brands so a niche market isn’t on their radar.

      I agree with you. It would be nice to see some well-designed studies that can either back up the traditional use or show there is no effect. Being positive is always a great way to go. Which reminds me of a line that I always like to use…Keep your attitude like my blood type = B positive

  4. Nancy Liedel

    I gave in. I’m ashamed to say it, but in my area, Ann Arbor, MI, it sells better the more, “natural,” it is. Whatever that means. The customer wants it loaded up with tons of extracts and natural actives and no preservatives. Um, no. We use some natural stuff, but it’s all preserved and tested. I’m not going to do what a certain company that rhymes with plush did to me, all lotion and gel shower products I bought at a sale separated well before the use by date.

    So, I give here, and explain that BTMS isn’t going to murder you in your sleep. Just help give you nice conditioner. It’s a losing battle, but since I make conditioner bars, I need it.

    Frustration. I do make it a habit of, “If I can’t put it in so it’s above the preservative, I’m not using it. Unless it shows remarkable efficacy. I sometimes use Allantoin in my lotions and at about .5%. In the case of Allantoin, I can use up to 2% as long as I make no medical claims, but more than a percent, or in some cases, half a percent and there’s no more efficacy. So, I refuse to waste it. I don’t put it in anything meant to be a second layer. Blush, for example. Just wasted there.

    1. Perry

      This isn’t something to be ashamed of. It is the reality of the cosmetics business. People don’t simply want the best formula. They also want a great story. I look at it a bit like being a chef. Sure, everyone can make an omelet and they even use the same ingredients. But that doesn’t mean every omelet has to be the same.

      I think the number one thing you will find about cosmetic consumers however is that they want products that work. They may tell the market research people that “natural” is all important but if the product doesn’t work to solve their problems, they won’t continue to buy it.

  5. Pingback:How to determine the level of cosmetic ingredients

  6. Pedro

    I’d add number 4: many natural extracts can be very irritating and phototoxic in high levels.

    Anyway, in my personal opinion, if you have to add natural extracts tosupport marketing stories, is better using a natural extract that is supported by some evidence than using a natural extract that isn’t supported by any evidence. For example: if you’re formulating an “after-sun moisturiser”, is better to put chamomile extract than lavender extract. Because there is some evidence (not good, I know) showing chamomile extract can be interesting in this case. But there isn’t any evidence (even weak) to support lavender extract. So, instead of lavender, use chamomile. At least you’ll feel better. (It was just an example…).

    1. Perry

      Very good point Pedro. It is important to have supporting data like this even if it is weak because it helps support the marketing claims.

  7. Mark Fuller

    Excellent. A very well written explanation. I deal with Claims level Botanicals on a daily basis.

    1. Perry

      Thanks Mark!

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