Basic cosmetic chemistry course

When you study chemistry in college, they don’t spend much time teaching you what to do with your degree after you get out. In reality, you learn basic chemistry and some advance concepts in the subject, but you don’t learn practical information that you’ll use on a day-to-day basis on a job. That’s one of the reasons we created Chemists Corner. 

We do offer a more advanced course if you are interested in a formulating cosmetics course. But in this post, I’m going to give you a primer or a basic cosmetic chemistry course that will get you up to speed and bridge the gap between college and the cosmetic industry.

Six Areas of Focus for Cosmetic Formulating

There are really six main areas you need to know to have a good basic understanding of cosmetic chemistry.

  • Setting up your cosmetic lab
  • Choosing a target product to emulate
  • Getting a starting formula
  • Finding and identifying cosmetic raw materials
  • Making prototypes
  • Testing and refining those prototypes

Setting up a cosmetic lab

When you are hired as a cosmetic chemist out of college you typically start in a lab that is already equipped with all the things you’ll need to make cosmetic products. This is one of the big advantages of working for a sizable company right out of college.

But if you’re hired on with a startup, small company, or consultant service you might not be as well-equipped. This is also true if you want to start your own cosmetic line or make products at a lab you set up at home. So, you may need to purchase equipment to get your lab set up to do the work of a cosmetic formulator. Here is the basic equipment you’ll need.

Weighing equipment
Heating & Cooling equipment
Lab supplies
Testing equipment

You can find more detail about this equipment in our series on setting up a cosmetic lab.

Choosing a cosmetic product to emulate

Whenever you start a new project it is a great idea that you find an existing formula that will serve as a benchmark for your formulation efforts. Typically, your marketing person will propose a benchmark for you but you should also have your own benchmark that you try to outperform. Here are some guidelines on picking a cosmetic product benchmark and using it to guide formulation. benchmarking

What is benchmarking
Before picking a benchmark it’s helpful to know what it is. A benchmark is an existing formula that has many of the same characteristics that you want in your future formulation. It doesn’t have to be exactly what you are trying to create, but it should give you a target for your formulation to meet or exceed. This is the product you want to emulate. Incidentally, if you’re working with a cosmetic formulator, giving them a benchmark is the best way to ensure you get the formula made the way you want.

Factors in picking a benchmark
There are a number of things to consider when picking a benchmark but the most important things include.

1. Performance – The best benchmark is the one that performs the best and you should look at the market to find this. To find the best performing benchmark you should get samples of all the competitive products you can find and run them through a series of lab / consumer tests to figure out which is best. When I was working on hair care products, the Pantene formula consistently scored highest on both our lab and consumer tests. It’s important to note that these were blinded tests so as to not bias the results. When you are trying to identify the best performing product in your category, always do blinded testing.

2. Aesthetics – For some products, the performance is not equivalent to the aesthetics. For example, a body wash could perform great on a foam test but preform terribly on a consumer evaluation. Therefore, you should also find a benchmark that is aesthetically the strongest product on the market.

3. Market Popularity – While the best selling product is not necessarily the best performing product, you still want to make sure that your new formulation performs as well as the most popular product. No matter what, you should always be sure you compare favorable to the market leader. Use market data to find out which is the market leader. If you don’t have access to that, go to your local store and see which of the products they stock the most of.

Using a benchmark
Once you’ve picked your benchmark you need to come up with a battery of tests to quantify how well it performs. This will be highly dependent on the type of product it is but it should include a mix of lab tests and panel tests. You should use the product yourself too to get a good sense of how it performs. Be sure to conduct blinded tests so you can’t easily pick the samples. And also repeat tests multiple times to see if you get consistent results.

Benchmarks are a great way to help guide your formulations and also show data to your bosses that the formula you created is every bit as good as the competition. You should use a benchmark for every product you formulate.

Finding a starting formula

Creating new cosmetics is what cosmetic formulators are hired to do. But if you’re new to the cosmetic industry or have concentrated on one specific area, you probably haven’t had the chance to formulate many different types of cosmetics. So, what do you do when you’re asked to create a formula that you’ve never made before? You find a good starting formula.

While you could just start from scratch combining cosmetic raw materials in different proportions to see what you get, this isn’t the best way. The best way is to find a starting formula that someone else has previously created. Then, you can modify that to meet your specific needs.

Unfortunately, if you don’t know where to look, finding starting formulas isn’t easy. But here are a few sources that you can check.

Chemical Suppliers
One of the most helpful things the raw material suppliers do is create starting formulas. Of course, these formulas are usually packed with high amounts of the supplier’s ingredients but they are an excellent place to start. A couple suppliers who have good starting formulas are Croda & Stepan. For home crafters, has some good starting formulas.

The big cosmetic companies love to patent as many formulas as they can. This prevents other people from duplicating their formulas. Fortunately, it also requires them to publish (some version) of the formulas they are patenting. This makes them excellent sources for starting formulas. You can search US patents by going to the website or even better, just search Google Patents. Of course, you have to change the formula if you ever want to launch.

There are a number of cosmetic science books that include formulas. Even better is that these books give explanations of why they are adding certain ingredients. You can get most of them at a large library or even buy them online. Some of my favorite books for finding formulations include.

  • Harry’s Cosmeticology
  • Handbook of Cosmetic Science and Technology, Third Edition
  • Chemistry and Manufacture of Cosmetics: Science 4th edition

If you can’t afford to purchase the books above you can find preview copies of them online via Google Books. This won’t give you the entire book but it often provides you with the pages that might have formulas for which you might be looking. Just go to Google Books, type in the search term for the formula you want and take a look.

Trade Journals / online sources
There are many suppliers who do not have formula websites so they send their starting formulas to trade magazines to publish. These trade journals have put together compilations of formulas on their websites. Some excellent resources include.

  • Cosmetics & Toiletries has the CBR

Ingredient Lists
If you really can’t find a good starting formula for the specific product you are making, then getting an ingredient list of an existing product is also a great way to get started. Get the ingredient list, then make a guess at the relative concentration of the most important ingredients and try it out. Refine, refine, refine until you get a formula you like. In the Practical Cosmetic Formulating course we go through exactly how to do this.

Remember that starting formulas are always just that…places to start. You’ll always have to modify any formula you get from any of these sources. For example, if you copy a formula from a patent, you have to modify it significantly to sell it. If you try out a supplier’s formula, you’ll often find that it doesn’t actually work or stay stable so you need to modify it.


Getting your raw materials

When I was working for a company it was pretty easy to get the cosmetic raw materials I needed for making cosmetic formulas. I would just look up a raw material, contact the sales person I knew from the company and ask for a sample. Within a day or two I would have a sample waiting for me. And if it was a material that my company already used (we had a few thousand in inventory), I could just contact our ingredients people and get a sample. It was actually much more complicated than this but I knew how to get samples anyway. 

However, now that I don’t work for a corporation and am independent, it is much more challenging to get raw materials. In fact, it’s much more challenging to even find out about them. But if you are going to be a cosmetic formulator, you’ll need to have sources for all the raw materials you might want to use. So, here is what you need to know about learning about and obtaining cosmetic raw materials.

Alright before you can get raw materials you have to know what raw materials you need to get. Learning about specific raw materials and what they do is one of the most important things you can learn to be a cosmetic formulator. I can’t go into a lot of detail about specific ingredients but in our PCF course you can get in-depth information about how, when & why to use specific cosmetic ingredients.

Learning about materials
There are over 17,000 raw materials listed in the latest INCI Dictionary and you can pretty much use any of them in your cosmetic formula. This number is actually much higher because for every material listed in the dictionary there are multiple suppliers who make materials with different trade names that can be slightly different. So, you’ll want to narrow this selection down.

You can do this by first learning about the different types of cosmetic raw materials including functional, aesthetic and claims. As I said, we cover this much more in-depth in our cosmetic formulation course.

Next, you can review things like a Buyer’s Guide. A Buyer’s Guide is a listing of all the companies that sell raw materials plus the types of materials they sell. The most useful buyer’s guides in the cosmetic industry include…

  • Happi Buyers Guide — Limited selection but useful
  • PCPC Buyers Guide — They list suppliers for over 3800 raw materials with international sourcing.
  • SpecialChem4Cosmetics — The INCI directory is an excellent source of raw material information.
  • ULProspector – An excellent source for raw material supplier information.

You can also learn about new raw materials at trade shows. The best ones for the cosmetic industry include

  • inCosmetics
  • New York SCC Suppliers Day

Getting Raw Material Samples
Once you figure out what raw materials you want to start testing, you’ll need to get samples. If you work for a big company this is simply a matter of contacting your supplier or distributor and asking for a sample. They’ll send it to you pretty fast. It is not well-known but the supplier sales people are judged on how many samples they can send out so you are actually doing them a favor when you ask for samples.

But if you don’t work for a big company it could be a bit harder to get samples. Your best bet is to develop a relationship with the sales person for the company that makes the product you want to test. This can be done at an SCC meeting or through LinkedIn. If this doesn’t work you can search Google for distributors of the raw material and ask them for samples. They may send you something.

If getting samples doesn’t work you’ll have to buy the product to do your testing. You can often buy directly from the supplier, the distributor or you may find sources of raw materials online such as through eBay or even Amazon. The website is also a good source of raw materials in the US.

Making your prototypes

Here is where you get into the lab and start mixing together raw materials. Follow the manufacturing procedure so you know what order to add ingredients (it matters) and the temperature at which you add them. You’ll also want to have a mixer going to the whole time to blend the ingredients together properly. If there isn’t a procedure that came with the formula, here’s a basic procedure that works with most formulas. 

Start with the largest volume ingredient and add the soluble powders first. Begin heating the formula to a point higher than the melting point of any solid ingredients you need to add. As it heats add the soluble, non-heat sensitive liquid ingredients. At the target temperature, add your ingredients, hold for 20 minutes then start cooling. When the temperature gets below 40C you can add the temperature sensitive ingredients like fragrances and cosmetic preservatives. Cool to room temperature and stop mixing.

Of course, that basic procedure will vary widely depending on what exactly is in the formulation. Here are some other things to consider.

Batch Size:
As a cosmetic formulator one of the most common decisions you’ll have to make is to decide how large a batch you need to make. To best determine this you need to first answer the question of why you are making the formula.

Why are you making it?
There are a number of reasons you might make a cosmetic batch but the primary ones include prototype development, prototype testing, consumer testing, scale-up and production. Generally, each of these will require a different size batch.

New prototype
When making a new prototype you may be tempted to make very small batches. This is particularly true when you don’t have access to a large quantity of your test raw materials. I’ve seen people create batches as small as 100g. Don’t do this. The smallest batch size you should make is 400g. It fits nicely into a 500g beaker and the quantities of the component raw materials are still large enough that you can accurately measure them. Making smaller batches increases weighing errors. Your first batch of any new formula should always be about this size. More than this is a waste of chemicals and less leads to too many weighing errors. Of course, if you are making a very simple solution formula, you can go as low as 100g as long as the ingredients are not less than 0.1%.

Prototype testing
To test a formula, you are going to need larger sized batches. The exact size will depend on the type of testing that you are doing. If it is a simple 10 person panel test, a batch size of 800 – 1000g should be fine enough. But if you are doing a full stability test, you may need to make a few kilograms of your batch. Calculate out exactly how much you need and add 10% more. When you start to make mid sized batches it’s always good to have extra in case you need more product than you thought.

Consumer test
Consumer tests typically require full sized bottles for a number of consumers. The smallest consumer test is approximately 30 people but it’s not uncommon for some home use tests to have 100 people or more. This means a batch size of 5 gallons to 50 gallons. For these types of batches you do not need to add the 10% overage factor, 3 – 5% extra is usually enough. Often you can make extra samples and run a concurrent stability test with these types of batches. In fact, you can also use this batch to do your scale-up testing.

Scale-up test
For some small manufacturers you won’t make batches just to test the scale-up of a formulation. Your scale-up batch size is your production batch size. (50 – 300 gallons). But if you work for a big company you will often have to create a scale-up test to see how the formulation will behave when it gets moved to the production sized batches (2000 – 5000 gallons). For these types of batches you do not really have to make much extra (say 1-2%) because even a small % over will be a substantial amount of product.

Before you make any batch you need to think about how much you need and calculate out exactly the amount you want to make. For smaller batches make more than you need. Also, measure as precisely as possible. For larger batches don’t worry as much about exact measurements. A larger batch size means that small measuring errors will not have a significant impact.

There are a wide variety of prototyping skills you need to develop as a formulator. Some of these include Developing new formulas, Evaluating raw materials, Finding cost savings, Replacement materials, Improve manufacturing, Scale-up, and more. These are all skills we teach in the PCF course.

Testing your prototypes

Alright, the last step. When you’ve finished your batch, test for standard quality control measures. For most personal care products this includes the pH and viscosity. You’ll also do a color check and an odor check. If these basic characteristics are off a little bit you can usually adjust the batch until it comes within specifications.

After letting the batch equilibrate over night, run some performance tests to see if the prototype performs as well as it should. Usually you’ll have some standard tests you run and a benchmark to which you compare it.

If the product doesn’t meet your performance requirements or match your benchmark, you’ll have to make some refinements to ingredient levels or to the ingredients you’ve used. The specific changes you make depends on the shortcoming of the specific prototype. This can be a long process. I once tested a few hundred prototypes when I was trying to make an improved shampoo. In fact, in 2005 I had the most shampooed head in America. I washed my hair over 1500 times.

When refining your prototypes make sure you change a minimum number of variables and make the changes significant. That means removing an ingredient entirely, cutting the level in half or even doubling the level. You want to see big differences between your first prototype and your second. That way you’ll know better how to adjust your third prototype.

When you’re satisfied with your prototype, you can run a stability test and a microbial challenge test. Knowing how to properly test cosmetics ensures you make high quality, safe, stable & legal products.

Basic Cosmetic Chemistry course

So there you have it, a basic cosmetic chemistry course which will get you on track to start your own career as a cosmetic formulator or cosmetic entrepreneur. Of course there is a ton more information you’ll need to grow in your career but if you learn about these six key areas

  • Getting Set Up
  • Picking a Benchmark
  • Starting formulas
  • Get raw materials
  • Make prototypes
  • Testing / refining

You’ll be well on your way to becoming a complete cosmetic chemist.

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How to Become a Cosmetic Chemist

The job of a cosmetic chemist, or as they call it in the UK a cosmetic scientist, requires you to do a wide variety of things both in and out of the lab. Your main responsibility will be that of a formulator. This means you mix raw materials together to create cosmetic products like lipstick, nail polish, skin lotions, shampoos, toothpaste and any other type of personal care product.

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