Working back a product (product to formula) (copycatting)

I'm not a chemist, i'm a business person. I am curious if any of you have ever been able to deconstruct a product and replicate it. Im aware that the ability to replicate a product would be difficult if not impossible considering the process and ingredients. Im simply curious as to the possibility of completing a formula that is in the same ballpark. And even further, to put in layman's terms, within the same row (pretty darn close to).
This question came to my mind after doing some research, picking a product and then seeing that the first choice over $100 was a La Mer product ($300 for a serum). Obviously La Mer is able to charge this much because they have the brand name to do so aside from their quality products. 

 

Comments

  • PerryPerry Administrator, Professional Chemist
    Sure, it's pretty easy to knock-off or duplicate an existing formula. Unfortunately, the performance and quality of a formula is rarely related to how much you can charge for it.  That is all about marketing.
  • What you are looking for is called product reverse engineering and you don’t even have to be a chemist to copy an existing product. La Mer soft cream isn’t  hard to reverse engineer. I have not tried to copy the original version because it’s too greasy.
  • Yeah reverse engineering is doable provided you give the time/money/resources necessary to get as close as possible (or as close as you're willing to pay for).  We get lots of clients who want reverse engineers  but they often settle for close alternatives because they balk at the process likely taking more than two weeks  and the cost of bringing in any new materials (so it goes in the world of CM)
  • PharmaPharma Member, Pharmacist
    Wouldn't it be fairly easy to reverse engineer a cream simply by using chromatography (HPTLC/HPLC/GC) and mass spectroscopy? Depending on composition (cause polymers and extracts are not so easy going) and given that you have concentration curves of reference compounds, the bulk could be copied within an hour.
  • It often takes quite some time and money, but it is totally doable as long as LOI is correct. I get reverse engineering requests from clients all the time and I usually decline them. It is interesting how many of them think that reverse engineering should be cheaper than new formula development because "the formula is out there, you JUST have to copy it". When a client actually said this to me, I actually copied and pasted the LOI and said "done" :lol:
  •  I find it much easier than creating something new. This is how I learned formulating. I just copy existing products. I only choose those ones for which I can find all important ingredients (I ignore fairy dust obviously). When I reverse engineer Chanel’s moisturizer I know it won’t separate because they have already tested it. I know that preservatives are appropriate for the ingredients used. Properly written LOI is 70% of the job. It just requires a lot of time and patience.
  • MarkBroussardMarkBroussard Member, Professional Chemist
    The ease of reverse engineering a product is all function of the complexity of the product you are trying to reverse engineer ... some are easy, some are difficult.  But, yes, generally it can be done to a close approximation with enough iterations.  As mentioned above, it's a function of how much money you want to spend trying to dupe the reference product.  As Pharma mentioned, you can go so far as to employ sophisticated analytic techniques, but that generally is going overboard.

    Most clients generally aren't looking for an exact dupe, but want to create their own variation on the theme.  
    Chemist/Microbiologist formulating in the Organic & Naturals arena under ECOCert/Natural Products Assn/Whole Foods/National Organic Program guidelines focused skincare & haircare products. 

    See website for details www.desertinbloomcosmeticslab.com
  • PerryPerry Administrator, Professional Chemist
    @Pharma - No, I don't think HPTLC/HPLC/GC would be particularly helpful in knocking off a product. You have no idea the composition of the raw materials so you would have a difficult time getting an exact concentration of the raw material used. It's more efficient to just make a good guess based on the ingredient list than it would be using analytical instruments to get the formula. 

  • Perry said:
     It's more efficient to just make a good guess based on the ingredient list than it would be using analytical instruments to get the formula. 

    This reminds me, I was recently working on an existing formula modification. A client hired a lab to formulate and manufacture their product. They weren't happy with the samples, so they sent me the LOI to get a second opinion. There were 66 ingredients out of which 45 were various botanical extracts. My guess was that they probably had them all at around 0.05-0.1% only for the claims. When I told this to them, they got curious and decided to buy the formula from the lab. All 45 extracts were present at 0.00006%. Not in my wildest dreams would I guess this. Bit still, If i were to copy it based on the LOI, I'd go wit my initial assumption of 0.05-0.1 and the end result would probably be similar, only with higher production cost. 
  • PerryPerry Administrator, Professional Chemist
    @Meemcha - Cost savings!  

    When I worked at my old company we first had a rule that no (claims) ingredient could be used at less than 0.1%. Then we figured out the cost savings of going to 0.01% was like $300,000 a year. So, the new rule was 0.01% minimum. I think by the time I left the minimum was 0.001%. :smiley:

  • MarkBroussardMarkBroussard Member, Professional Chemist
    66 Ingredients ... SMH
    Chemist/Microbiologist formulating in the Organic & Naturals arena under ECOCert/Natural Products Assn/Whole Foods/National Organic Program guidelines focused skincare & haircare products. 

    See website for details www.desertinbloomcosmeticslab.com
  • PerryPerry Administrator, Professional Chemist
  • Perry said:
    @MarkBroussard - I see your 66 ingredients and Tata Harper raises you 72!

    https://goop.com/beauty/skin/new-tata-harper-serum-elixir-vitae/

    OMG 
    Next comes a new products with 86 actives for $650 :D. I'm not sure I'd pay $450 for 30 ml of concentrated fairy dust :D.

    Perry said:
    @Meemcha - Cost savings!  

    When I worked at my old company we first had a rule that no (claims) ingredient could be used at less than 0.1%. Then we figured out the cost savings of going to 0.01% was like $300,000 a year. So, the new rule was 0.01% minimum. I think by the time I left the minimum was 0.001%. :smiley:

    I need a few more decades to wrap my head around this :D. When the client I mentioned asked the lab which forms of extracts were used, they answered "it doesn't really matter, we just dump whatever we have in stock" :D
  • A good example of outrageously long LOI and ridiculous price:

    https://incidecoder.com/products/la-mer-the-eye-concentrate

    I must admit the texture is fantastic. Leaving fairy dust aside it's a very beautiful formula -  W/Si featuring really nice emulsifiers.

  • MarkBroussardMarkBroussard Member, Professional Chemist
    edited December 3
    Way too many ingredients at levels so miniscule they are guaranteed to do absolutely nothing ... a sure sign that a product developer does not have a clue what they are doing.
    Chemist/Microbiologist formulating in the Organic & Naturals arena under ECOCert/Natural Products Assn/Whole Foods/National Organic Program guidelines focused skincare & haircare products. 

    See website for details www.desertinbloomcosmeticslab.com
  • ngarayeva001ngarayeva001 Member
    edited December 3
    They just need a story. I am interested in the luxury segment, so quite familiar with LOIs and stories behind it. The original product by La Mer utilises the story about a scientist who suffered in an accident and created "miracle broth" to heal his burned skin. A "miracle" combination of petrolatum, glycerin and lanolin. These all are great ingredients, but you can't sell it alone for $220 per jar, so plankton extract (and whatever algae is there) comes handy.
  • MarkBroussardMarkBroussard Member, Professional Chemist
    How can you possibly come up with a coherent, cogent marketing story when your product contains 66 ingredients ... there's no focus.
    Chemist/Microbiologist formulating in the Organic & Naturals arena under ECOCert/Natural Products Assn/Whole Foods/National Organic Program guidelines focused skincare & haircare products. 

    See website for details www.desertinbloomcosmeticslab.com
  • Bill_TogeBill_Toge Member, Professional Chemist
    Perry said:
    Sure, it's pretty easy to knock-off or duplicate an existing formula. Unfortunately, the performance and quality of a formula is rarely related to how much you can charge for it.  That is all about marketing.
    though it doesn't hurt at all if there's a well-performing product behind the marketing, as I found out when a product I'd developed for a third party was sold onto another brand owner (who were much better at marketing their products), and it went from being an obscure curiosity to one of our highest-turnover products within the course a month
    Pharma said:
    Wouldn't it be fairly easy to reverse engineer a cream simply by using chromatography (HPTLC/HPLC/GC) and mass spectroscopy? Depending on composition (cause polymers and extracts are not so easy going) and given that you have concentration curves of reference compounds, the bulk could be copied within an hour.
    it's quicker and easier to play it by ear/hand/nose/(insert other sense here), and reverse-engineer it by comparing it to a known formula, and altering that formula to fit
    UK based formulation chemist. Strongest subjects: hair styling, hair bleaches, hair dyes (oxidative and non-oxidative) I know some stuff about: EU regulations, emulsions (O/W and W/O), toothpaste, mouthwash, shampoos, other toiletries
  • I spend hours on incidecoder reading LOIs (I know that their notes on whether an ingredient is goodie or not are irrelevant, I just like the format of having all in one place). Work of other people (and especially a successful one) is a never-ending source of inspiration. 
  • Bill_TogeBill_Toge Member, Professional Chemist
    I spend hours on incidecoder reading LOIs (I know that their notes on whether an ingredient is goodie or not are irrelevant, I just like the format of having all in one place). Work of other people (and especially a successful one) is a never-ending source of inspiration. 
    assuming the LOI is accurate - in the days when I used to try and replicate hot-fill styling products, the benchmarks often had fundamentally inaccurate LOIs, and until I started ignoring their LOIs altogether they were the indirect cause of much wasted time and premature greying
    UK based formulation chemist. Strongest subjects: hair styling, hair bleaches, hair dyes (oxidative and non-oxidative) I know some stuff about: EU regulations, emulsions (O/W and W/O), toothpaste, mouthwash, shampoos, other toiletries
  • ozgirlozgirl Member, PCF student
    I think that if I handed our manufacturer a production order for a product containing 66 ingredients I would probably be slapped in the face . I doubt the graphic designers creating the label would be very happy either trying to fit that many ingredients on the label. :o
  • @Bill_Toge, I agree and I noticed wrongly written LOIs before. Usually if it’s a large brand like L’Oreal it’s correct. I like to see how ingredients are used together. For example I have been exploring w/si recently and analyzing as many  LOIs as possible gives a good idea what is used to stabilize them. You start seeing patterns.
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