Cosmetic formulators have to make great performing formulas. You have to get the functionality right, the formula has to be stable, and it has to be aesthetically acceptable to the majority of your consumers. However, this is still not enough to ensure you have a successful product. The last part of the formula for success is the story, or claims ingredients.
These ingredients go by lots of different names; story ingredients, foo foo ingredients, puffery, woofle dust, pixie dust, feature ingredients and more. Essentially they are ingredients added to the formula for the primary purpose of impressing consumers and supporting the marketing story. Importantly, they aren’t expected to have any functional benefit.
These include things like vitamins, proteins, biomolecules, herbal extracts, and other pretty sounding ingredients. They can be conveniently grouped into the following seven categories.
Folk lore ingredients
Cosmetic consumers grow up with a number of mistaken beliefs about the efficacy of certain ingredients. They will have been given some advice from their mother or grandmother that convinces them to apply any manner of material to their skin or hair. Or they might have read something in a book or somehow absorbed erroneous information from pop culture. These beliefs persist even though there is limited evidence that the ingredients do much of anything. Things like washing your hair with beer, creating aspirin facial masks, aloe for moisturizing or using milk to cleanse your skin are all examples.
Cosmetic marketers tap into these mistaken beliefs and use them to help sell the story of their products. This makes marketing easier because they don’t have to spend any time convincing the consumer about the value of an ingredient. As a cosmetic chemist you need to know about these folklore ingredients as you will often be required to suggest or formulate with them.
New technology medical
Whenever there is some discovery in science that has the potential for changing people’s lives, it gets a lot of press. This is especially true for things that might affect health. Scientists or reporters will speculate about future applications of the technology and consumers often mistake this speculation with proven applications. Marketers take advantage of these misconceptions by adding unproven technologies to cosmetics. That’s why you see things like stem cells, hyaluronic acid, or enzymes like superoxidedismutase put into formulations despite the fact that there is no evidence that topically applying these ingredients has any noticeably beneficial effect.
Keep an eye on the medical technologies of the day because this will be the source of cosmetic claims ingredients in the future.
Another topic that is popular in the news is health & nutrition. Daytime talk shows love to tout the benefits of a diet high in this fatty acid or that kind of flavonoid. And cosmetic companies realize that if consumers believe an ingredient is good for them when they eat it, they will readily believe it will be good to apply to their skin or hair. Many consumers readily accept that if something is put on your skin it gets into your body. They do not realize just how effective a barrier the skin really is. Therefore, it makes sense to them that “if it’s good for your body, it’s good for your skin.”
Of course, this is generally untrue. Adding vitamins to hair products or collagen to skin creams will have almost no perceptible benefit to the product. But I’ve been in consumer focus groups and I’ve seen the effect that the presence of these ingredients in a story has on consumers. You want to significantly increase the chances that someone will buy your shampoo? Just add vitamins. Note, they won’t do anything to the hair.
Made up technology
Nearly everyone is impressed with technology but almost nobody understands it. That’s why words that sound “sciencey” are compelling to consumers. Marketers realize this and often come up with fake science sounding names for unique technologies that don’t really do anything. In fact, companies brainstorm a big list of these named technologies and show them to consumers to figure out which names are most preferred. When you see technologies like Hydratein, Regenium, or Provitazyme, you know these aren’t coming from the R&D department.
But consumers like these ingredients. They like having a reason to believe so you will continue to have to add them to your formulations.
Exotic sourced ingredient
Many consumers are impressed with unknown, exotic destinations. To them, this automatically confers a specialness to products or ingredients from these destinations. So cosmetic companies tap into these positive affiliations and add ingredients from rare or exotic places to boost the appeal of their products. This really depends on where your consumers are located but in the US most people think of tropical rainforests as exotic & special so extracts from there are used. But ingredients from France or Switzerland or the Arctic or any other special location / source are also impressive to consumers.
Salon & spa inspired
It’s rather obvious that consumers may want to duplicate the spa or salon experience at home. So any ingredient or treatment that they may have had during one of these visits is fair game for adding to your formulations. This is where protein hair masks and cucumber facials come from. There often is little evidence that the treatments have any special effect but people feel great when they return from the spa or salon and cosmetic companies hope to reignite those feelings. Keep an eye on what’s hot in salons and you’ll have a good idea of what the next thing you’ll need to add to your formulations.
A wide number of consumers suffer from the naturalistic fallacy. They hold the mistaken belief that natural things are good. Part of this belief is that synthetic things are bad, but we’ll ignore that for the moment. This strong affinity for natural things means that marketers constantly look for you to include the latest herbs, extracts, flowers, fruits, or natural oils in your formulations. The vast majority of these ingredients have minute effects but their effect on sales is significant.
As a formulator, you must create formulations that are effective and aesthetically appealing. However, this is not enough for creating a successful cosmetic line. Consumers like using products because of the effectiveness of ingredients like petrolatum and sodium lauryl sulfate, but they buy products because of the stories and erroneous beliefs associated with claims ingredients.