Why natural extracts are not put in cosmetics at high levels.

One of the things that people find surprising when they first enter the cosmetic formulating business is that many of the feature ingredients have very little effect.  I distinctly remember the look on my colleague’s face when she first discovered that the expensive, salon-only brand of hair care products that she religiously spent extra money on used “puffery” ingredients to make the products sound more appealing.  A moment like this is something that nearly all cosmetic chemist and formulators will experience.

Claims Ingredients

We’ve previously talked about cosmetic claims ingredients.  Essentially, these are ingredients included in formulas to support the marketing story.  They are often natural sounding ingredients or a made-up scientific term that is supposed to connote superiority over standard products.  While they are not essential to the function of the product, they are essential to creating a product that sells.  Consumers would just rather buy a body wash that contains some natural moisturizer rather than a synthetic polymer.

Formulating with claims ingredients

So, what do formulators do?

They create the best working product that they can and then spike the formula with whatever ingredient will make a good marketing story.  Incidentally, the phrase “spike the formula” means…

to put enough of a material in the formula to be able to claim that it is in there without significantly affecting the price or stability of the product.

This means claims ingredients are put in formulas at 0.5%, 0.1%, or as low as 0.0001%.  As long as you legitimately add an ingredient to a formula, you can talk about it in your advertising and on your label.  Granted you have to stick to factual information, but if you add 0.0001% of an ingredient in your formula, it’s in there.  This means that any laboratory proven benefit of the ingredient probably won’t ever be realized in the formula.

Reasons for non-functional levels

There are a few reasons that cosmetic chemists do not put claims ingredients in formulas at high levels.

1. They are expensive.  These ingredients are so expensive that you can’t realistically make a mass market product that has a high level.  Consider an ingredient like Ribonucleic acid.  This ingredient can cost $90 a pound or more.  So, if you added it to your formula at a 1% level, you’ve added $0.90 per pound to the formula.  In an 8oz bottle of lotion, that is 45 cents per bottle just for this one ingredient.  Add to that the cost of the rest of the ingredients and the formula cost for your single bottle can get to over $3 per bottle.  Then add packaging costs, production costs, marketing, distribution costs and the price of your lotion with RNA is just too expensive to be competitive with mass market products.

So, it is highly unlikely that any mass market product will contain functional levels of these claims ingredients.

2. There is little evidence they work.  Some ingredients are known to have no functional effect but are included in formulas because they make compelling stories to consumers.  I’ll leave it to you to figure out which ingredients are like this.  But there are some ingredients that suppliers will bring to you with lots of studies demonstrating effectiveness.  Things like UV blockers for hair, collagen stimulators for skin, or anti-aging ingredient that are supposed to reverse aging.  Unfortunately, for most of these ingredients the studies that demonstrate effectiveness are poorly designed, not blinded, not tested against proper controls or done under unrealistic laboratory conditions.  There is little evidence that including ingredients like natural extracts, even at high levels, will lead to a formula to performs noticeably better.

This might sound cynical but I am certainly open to being shown to be wrong.  It simply requires a well designed double blind effectiveness study.  If an ingredient can be shown to provide superior results under these conditions, I’d happily recommend its use at higher levels.

3. Consumers don’t really notice.  Perhaps the most significant reason that ingredients like these are used at low levels is because almost no one notices if they are not.  It’s possible that you as the formulator will notice.  Over time, you should enhance your ability to differentiate between two formulas.  You should be highly sensitive to even minute differences.  But your consumer will not be trained as such.  Consumers barely notice the difference between formulas that are obviously different.  If your consumer doesn’t notice whether an ingredient is in the formula or not, it makes logical sense to reduce it to a low level.

Functional Levels?

When you learn that this is going on, it can be hard not to become cynical.  Indeed, many a cosmetic formulator becomes cynical about the technologies put into formulations.  However, I have always tried to refrain from being cynical.  Instead, I encourage all formulas to simply be skeptical of the feature ingredients used in products.  If there is some good evidence that you should use an ingredient at a high level, then you should do that.  However, you need to be certain that there is some noticeable benefit to your consumers.

Just because we want something to be true doesn’t mean it is true.

In tomorrow’s post, we’ll describe how you can ensure that you are not fooling yourself with your ingredient choices.

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