What makes a good cosmetic ingredient study?

On the cosmetic science forum, user PMA asked an excellent question about the effectiveness of Hyaluronic Acid in skin care products.  Specifically, the question was, “Is hyaluronic acid a better moisturizer than glycerin?”

This is a great question.  As a cosmetic chemist you are going to be faced with questions like this all the time.  You will have ingredients traditionally used for specific effects but will be inundated by raw material suppliers with new, super star ingredients.  How do you know whether you should use an ingredient or not?

Factors to consider

If you are a believer in minimalist formulation you will want to create the best performing product with optimized pricing.  This means that given the choice between two products that perform identically, you will go for the one that is the least expensive.  It also means that more expensive formulas that have superior performance are better than low cost formulas.

So, this means that the two most important factors to consider when formulating are Price and Performance.  Price is easy to figure out.  The raw material supplier will (eventually) tell you.  Performance is the tricky one.  While minimalist formulation is a useful guide but it is worthless if you can’t figure out whether the performance of a formula is better or worse than another.  This is where it is important to create good cosmetic ingredient studies.

What’s a good cosmetic ingredient study

The HA study that was referenced in the start of this post is an interesting.  You can see the whole study here.  The conclusion of the study is “Yes, hyaluronic acid is a beneficial ingredient for the skin.”

Not getting into the specific details, I would be hard-pressed to disagree with their conclusions.  We will ignore for the moment that the study was not a double-blinded one and was commissioned by a company that sells hyaluronic acid.

This study was published in the Journal of Drugs Dermatol. 2011;10(9):990-1000 which is a decent publication and is peer reviewed as far as I know.

But is it a good study?   Or rather, is it a helpful study for a cosmetic formulator?  Should you start using Hyaluronic Acid in all your anti-aging skin formulations?

Evaluating the cosmetic study

There are a number of things to like about this study, best of which is that they included a placebo.  Including a placebo is important because it answers the questions “Does this ingredient make any difference?”  As a cosmetic chemist, you should know this about all your ingredients.  Get rid of ingredients that make no difference.

Unfortunately, they make a glaring mistake in this study and it is this mistake that makes the study practically worthless for a cosmetic formulator.

They don’t include a POSITIVE control.

A positive control is one that will be known to give a positive effect.  Right not the best ingredients for giving the effects studied in this article is Petrolatum and mineral oil.  But their placebo does not contain either of these ingredients.  This is a good thing because it might get in the way of seeing any effect of HA, however, it is bad because without knowing how the effects of the best raw material choices for an effect compare to the new ingredient, you haven’t learned much at all.

In a good cosmetic ingredient study, there should always be a POSITIVE control.

Should you use Hyaluronic acid?

From the data in this paper, you can’t tell whether using HA is worthwhile or not.  It is certainly interesting but I suspect that cost and performance compared to less expensive alternatives will demonstrate that HA is nothing more than a claims ingredient.  As a cosmetic formulator, you should strive to create the best performing formulas at the lowest possible price.  I doubt Hyaluronic Acid will help in that regard.

How do you determine whether a new cosmetic ingredient is worth using or not?  Leave your comments below.


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