Cosmetic product analysis - How do you do it?

Someone wrote in and asked the following.

If you were given a formulated scrub containing pulverized avocado seed/peel. What steps would you take to evaluated the product? What would be the challenges in formulating such product?”

I thought it would be helpful to tell you the steps I take in evaluating a product.

In summary, here are the 5 basic steps to follow when evaluating a cosmetic product

  • Step 1 – Review the ingredient list
  • Step 2 – Pick a benchmark
  • Step 3 – Evaluate characteristics
  • Step 4 – Evaluate performance
  • Step 5 – Start prototyping

Step 1 – Review the ingredient list

Presumably if you are given the product it will have come in a container with proper labeling. And if they are following the proper rules to label a cosmetic, they will provide an ingredient list. In the business, we call it the LOI (list of ingredients).

I’ve recently gone through and explained how to analyze an ingredient list  so do that to figure out what are the most important ingredients and which are the “claims” ingredients added only to tell the marketing story.

Of course, if you don’t have a sample of the product you can also look up the ingredient list online. There are a variety of sources I have used to find ingredient lists. Going to the brand’s website is where I would first check, but for the most popular mainstream products sites like Ulta, Sephora and Target are helpful. Also Amazon and eBay may have product ingredient listing (but not always). And doing a Google Image search can often lead to finding a picture of the ingredient list online.

It is important to note that some companies don’t follow the ingredient labeling rules and that some ingredient lists online are not accurate. There are also errors made when entering data which further reduces the accuracy.

Step 2 – Pick a benchmark

While the ingredient list is a good start, it’s also helpful to find a benchmark so you have something to compare your product to. A benchmark is a product that exists in the marketplace and is popular with consumers. If you are looking at a product category in general then your benchmark would be the product that is the best seller.

When I worked at Alberto Culver I had access to this information through a service we used called IRI. This gave sales data for products sold through mass market stores like Target and drug stores like CVS / Walgreens. It was pretty handy. Now, if I want to find such information it’s a bit harder. But you can look on Amazon to find the “best sellers” which can still be useful.

The whole point of finding a benchmark is using it to figure out what people who use the product expect in terms of performance.

Step 3 – Evaluate characteristics

You can get a pretty good sense of how a product will work by looking at the LOI and comparing it to the best on the market, but to truly analyze a product you need a sample. Once you get the sample you need to measure or note various characteristics of both the benchmark and your sample. This means taking pH measurements or viscosity readings if appropriate. You should also note the fragrance, color, and texture. The original question was about a scrub product so those are what I’d measure. If it were a different product, I might measure something else.

Step 4 – Evaluate performance

Performance testing is another important step in analyzing a product. As a formulator you should become expert in using whatever product you are testing. Again, the exact tests you do depends on the type of product you are analyzing. For a scrub you can test things like foaming, rinsability, and grittiness during use. You might do a desquam disc test to measure exfoliation. Depending on the claims you might also do a moisturization test with a Corneometer.

These performance tests will be a combination of lab measurements and subjective evaluations. Ideally, you will be able to get other people to try the product and answer questions about their experience. This means you’ll need to put together a questionnaire to get feedback. I find most people aren’t very good at saying why they like something or what feature they would want improved. But they are really good at telling you whether they liked something, hated it, or couldn’t tell any difference.

Step 5 – Start prototyping

Once you have all of that information collected, you can start creating your own prototypes if you were looking to copy a product or make something that works better. You can figure out a starting formula from the LOI or just get one from this list of free cosmetic formula sources. Get your raw materials and start mixing things together. Then repeat steps 3 and 4 until you’ve made a product that you or your customers really like.

And that is pretty much how you evaluate a cosmetic product.

If you are interesting in getting more details about formulating and becoming a cosmetic chemist our Practical Cosmetic Formulation course will be helpful.

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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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