One the cosmetic science formulation forum we often get people looking for advice on how to improve their formulas. While each question and formulation is a little different, there is one thing nearly all of the formulas have in common. They are using too many ingredients!
I have long embraced the philosophy of formulation minimalism and there are a number of reasons why. If you are having trouble with your cosmetic formulas in terms of stability or performance, the most simple, effective solution you can try is: use FEWER ingredients. Here is why.
Problems with using too many ingredients
To understand why you should use fewer ingredients, it’s helpful first to know how the business of selling raw materials works. The marketing of cosmetic raw materials involves chemical companies first inventing some ingredient and then trying to figure out what someone might use the ingredient for in their formulating. They literally have technical service chemists who’s entire job is to take an ingredient and determine every reason why anyone would use it. The more uses for an ingredient, the better, at least from the perspective of a raw material supplier.
This means that even if an ingredient has only a tiny impact on some characteristic, the company will create sales brochures and marketing material that highlights the use of this chemical. That doesn’t mean it actually will work!
But beyond the problem of not working there are a number of other issues caused by using too many ingredients.
Cons of using a lot of ingredients
Most ingredients don’t provide a benefit
While ingredient marketers claim that their raw material has an effect, most ingredients don’t. Even if an ingredient is shown to have some positive benefit in a peer reviewed research paper that almost never translates into real world effectiveness in formulating.
Every addition ingredient in a formula increases the chance that there might be some unwanted interaction with another ingredient. This can result in stability problems which are much more difficult to solve when you have more ingredients.
Higher formulation costs
Another problem with using numerous ingredients is that each ingredient has the potential to increase the cost of your formula. There is a principle of bulk savings. This just means when you purchase a large quantity of an ingredient, you get it at a lower price. Buying 10 kg of something might cost $100 or $10 a kg. But if you buy 1000 kg, the price might be $800 which is only $8 a kg. The more ingredients you use the less likely you are to get this bulk price savings and thus your formulation costs are higher.
Space and inventory problems
In addition to the ingredient cost, using numerous ingredients can increase your storage space costs too. For every ingredient in your formula you will need a place to store it. Every drum, bag, or other container has to go somewhere. If you work at a large company this can lead to huge cost increases in both space and time to get ingredients out of storage. Using fewer ingredients helps free up inventory space.
Using more cosmetic raw materials also puts a strain on the environment. Each ingredient you use has to be created, processed and then shipped. This uses energy and contributes to global warming and other negative environmental impacts. Additionally, each ingredient has to be delivered in its own container with additional packaging. So, the more ingredients you use the more container and plastic waste you create.
Pros of using fewer ingredients
Now that you know the problems of using fewer ingredients, it’s helpful to know the positive aspects of it. In addition to alleviating the problems outlined above, using fewer ingredients has other benefits.
Better understanding of formulas
One of the problems of using numerous ingredients in your formula is that you don’t know what really makes the product work. This makes it harder to optimize or improve. By having fewer ingredients, there are less things to modify. This allows you to make fewer changes when you want to improve your formula.
Cost and performance optimization
Cosmetic formulating is a business. When you produce a product you eventually need to optimize for cost and performance. When you have numerous ingredients it takes longer, more work and is more complicated. Using fewer ingredients increases formulation efficiency.
Less chance of problematic ingredients
Finally, a big problem with product formulation now is that ingredients that had previously been considered perfectly safe are now gaining the reputation of being unsafe. Examples include parabens, sulfates, silicones and more. These ingredients are safe but social media and popular culture have propagated myths that they aren’t. Since fear mongering continually needs another boogie man, ingredients popular now may be scary to consumers later. When you include fewer ingredients, there is less of a chance that your formula contains one of those future offending ingredients.