Cosmetic Formulation Philosophy

I recently traded emails with one of our Complete Cosmetic Chemist training program students about a cosmetic formulation she was working on. Without getting into the exact details, she was working with another cosmetic chemist to develop a moisturizing shampoo. She sent me the LOI and it had over 20 ingredients. This included a half dozen cleansing surfactants, a dozen extracts, multiple conditioning ingredients, and multiple solvents.

It was astounding that a cosmetic chemist could create such a formula. In my estimation, the formula could have been made with fewer than 10 ingredients.

But then it occurred to me that perhaps my philosophy is not typical. So, in this post I’m going to explain my formulating philosophy.

Cosmetic formulating philosophy

I’m a formulation minimalist. That is, I believe that the best formulas are the ones that use the least amount of cosmetic ingredients at the lowest level to produce noticeable differences.

Use the least amount of ingredients at the lowest levels that produce noticeable differences

This philosophy has a number of advantages including

1. Low inventory of ingredients
2. Low chemical exposure
3. Low production of environmental waste
4. Low cost of final formula
5. Low complication during scale-up

The biggest advantage of this cosmetic formulating philosophy is that it allows you a way to determine whether one formula is “superior” to another. I’ll explain this in a moment.

Not just the cheapest formula

Before getting into the specifics of the philosophy, you should know that Formulation Minimalism is NOT a philosophy of just creating the cheapest formula possible. Instead, it is about creating a formula with the greatest value for the consumer. In this philosophy, PERFORMANCE always trumps cost. However, superior performance has to be demonstrably noticeable by the consumer. Unfortunately, this is rarely true.

How to be a formulation minimalist

While I don’t have the philosophy completely worked out, I have thought about it enough to pass on these 6 tips to help you implement it in your own formulation work. Please feel free to add questions and comments at the end.

Principle 1: Less is more

The basic tenet of formulation minimalism is that fewer ingredients at lower concentrations are superior. So theoretically, the best formulation will have one ingredient at a low level. Of course, this can’t be the only thing driving your formulating efforts as it would lead to formulas that perform significantly worse than ones that have multiple ingredients. Remember that performance is a major consideration. But this idea of fewer ingredients being better can help you decide whether to add another ingredient to your formula.

Principle 2: Know why you add any ingredient

This naturally leads us to our next principle. Always know why you are adding an ingredient. As a cosmetic formulator you will frequently inherit a formula from another chemist or you might have a starting formula from someone else. Before trying to improve the formula, you should conduct a knockout experiment to determine which ingredients are most important and which aren’t necessary. You should also have a set of standard tests and run the formulas through them to determine exactly which characteristics you want to improve. How will you know that a formula has been improved with the addition of an ingredient? Testing!

Principle 3: Blind test your products

Richard Feynman said it best when he was describing how science is done in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. He says…

Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

When you are formulating you will naturally feel some affection for your creations. Formulas are like works of art. It’s how we express ourselves as cosmetic chemists. But don’t fall in love with your own work unless it is warranted. Doing blinded tests on formulas is the ONLY way to ensure that your work is as good as you think and deserving of your love. If you remain rational and continue to make judgments about your work based on results, you’ll create a demonstrably superior formula. That is the goal of formulation minimalism.

Principle 4: Always compare to a standard

This is related to principle 3 but I state it separately because it is critical. Whenever you begin a formulating effort, you should always have some target that you are trying to beat. Find a similar product or use your best performing prototype. Then when you find a prototype that beats the standard, make this the new standard. Comparing to the best standard is the only way you are going to know you’ve created a better product. And changing standards when it’s warranted should be done. Use caution however, as single experiments should never be taken as definitive evidence against a well-tested standard.

Principle 5: Start with high levels and cut back as needed

When creating a formula, don’t worry too much about using low levels. In fact, I suggest you use high levels. Use the levels that the supplier suggest and see how the product performs. The initial prototype should not be the place to start optimizing. This happens after you have something that performs well. However, at this stage you should minimize the number of ingredients you are using. This way it will be less complicated to figure out which ingredients are actually having an effect.

Principle 6: Make lots of prototypes & adjust

The final principle is all about making and testing lots of prototypes. If you want to create a great formula, the odds that you make it in one try are practical nil. So often people create a formula, then stop right after the first successful batch. Don’t fall into this trap! I know it will take longer but at the end of the process you’ll have a superior formula. Make at least a dozen prototypes to start and then a dozen more after you’ve tested those. The process you used should be make, test, adjust, repeat. Keep doing this until you’ve gotten to the least number of ingredients at the lowest level to still achieve the performance that you want.

That’s all I’ve got for the moment but I’m going to continue to develop this Formulation Minimalism idea.

Please let us know what you think. Are you a formulation minimalist? Why or why not? Leave a comment below.

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