The Three Types of Cosmetic Raw Materials

Did you know that there are only 3 main categories of cosmetic raw materials?  Really all of the ingredients used in cosmetics can be put into one of these three categories:

  • Functional
  • Aesthetic Modifier
  • Claims

There is a little overlap and of course these categories can be divided up further but as a chemistry student or formulator, it’s helpful to know these main categories.  The idea to look at cosmetic ingredients like this was inspired by the work biologists do in cladistics - the practice of grouping organisms based on similar characteristics.  I present you with our version of cosmetic ingredient cladistics. (click to enlarge)

cosmetic ingredients

We can go a bit deeper in future posts but let me explain the main categories.


Functional cosmetic ingredients are ones which actually have an effect on the body that the formulator wishes.  You cannot make a useful cosmetic product without including at least one functional ingredient. However, you could make an entire cosmetic using just one functional ingredient.  Vaseline has built a huge brand on a single functional ingredient cosmetic (Petrolatum).

Functional ingredients include cleansers, conditioning agents, colorants, fragrances, reactive ingredients, film formers, and drug actives.  Every cosmetic you’ve ever used or made has at least one functional ingredient.

Incidentally, functional ingredients are the ones that cosmetic chemists most want new raw material suppliers to make.  The number of significantly different functional ingredients has not increased in many years.  I suppose because it’s hard to create a really new functional ingredient.

Aesthetic modifiers

The most common and abundant type of cosmetic raw material is aesthetic modifiers.  These are ingredients which help to make delivery of the functional ingredients more acceptable.  They are the compounds that help the ingredients spread, dilute the ingredients, make them more stable, and improve the look and feel of the overall product.  The sub-category of aesthetic modifiers includes solvents, cosmetic thickeners and stabilizers, preservatives, fragrances, pH adjusters, plasticizers, fillers, appearance modifiers, anti-oxidants, anti-irritants, and delivery systems.

When you look at the ingredient list of most cosmetics, most of the ingredients are aesthetic modifiers.  Since these ingredients don’t have any functional benefit formulators try to minimize the amount of aesthetic modifiers used.  This helps keep costs down and simplifies production.  However, these ingredients do play a crucial role in the creation & experience of using a personal care product so it’s important for a formulator to have a thorough knowledge of them.

Claims ingredients

While people use cosmetics to improve the way their skin and hair looks and feels, this isn’t the primary reason that they buy cosmetics.  Consumers buy cosmetics because they like the story that the product tells.  They like the packaging or the way that the product looks and smells.  And to help support the marketing story and the claims made about the product, formulators have to include claims ingredients.

Claims ingredients (sometimes called fairy dust) are ingredients added to a formula at a low level for the primary purpose of getting to put the ingredient name on the label.  This includes ingredients like natural extracts, vitamins, proteins, biotechnology, and fanciful made-up ingredient names.  They are not put in the formulas to have any measurable effect and almost invariably they don’t.  However, most consumers need a story to believe when they buy their cosmetics and these ingredients help support that story.  Brands that don’t include claims ingredients are much less successful in the marketplace.

So there you have it.  The Kingdoms of Cosmetic Ingredients.  In a future post, we’ll look at some of the subcategories.


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