What Formulators Need to Make Superior Cosmetic Products

Posted on: September 12, 2018

Female scientist looking at test tube - learn about what formulators need to develop more innovative products at
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By Perry Romanowski

Although the number of new raw materials available to cosmetic chemists has nearly doubled in the last ten years, the performance of cosmetic formulas has not significantly improved in decades. In fact, in most areas of the cosmetic industry, the products created today are no better than and perhaps worse than products produced years ago. People still use shampoos, conditioners, nail polish, moisturizers, and the things they used decades ago. Formulators are like candle makers of old who improved candles but never discovered the light bulb.

So, what can formulators, raw materials suppliers, and cosmetic marketers alike do to ensure that the cosmetics we have 20 years from now will be more than slight iterations of current products?

To answer this question, we’ll first look at why we’re in this situation, then review the types of ingredients formulators say they need, and finally look at some suggestions for what the industry can do to increase the chances of the development of truly innovative products.

Why haven’t formulas changed?

There are a number of reasons formulas haven’t changed including regulations, lack of economic incentives, secrecy in the industry, the natural difficulty of making scientific discoveries and the industry’s focus on marketing stories for innovation.

While problems like regulatory pressures and economic factors will continue to affect formulators, there are some things that can be done to help spur on new development.

What materials would improve formulating?

I run a cosmetic science forum and polled my community to see what types of ingredients they thought would help them make superior formulas. The answers were interesting but not particularly novel.

Here is what my sampling of a few hundred formulators around the world say they want:

  • Active Natural ingredients. They want to be able to do what they can do now, just naturally.
  • New preservatives. Things that are as safe and effective as current ones, just different.
  • Multifunctional ingredients. Presumably this would help them reduce the number of ingredients and probably the cost, and make manufacturing easier.

Creating truly novel formulations or products

The following ideas could help lead to formulations with superior function.

Identify shortcoming of current products

First, we need to identify what current products lack. A big challenge with creating better cosmetic formulas is that there isn’t an easy way to identify the shortcoming of current products. Right now when a formulator wants to create a new product, we are encouraged to benchmark by finding a product currently on the market and do what we can to beat it in some aspect.

There are two problems with this approach. First, it only leads to incrementally improved products. Second, minor things like a fragrance change can overwhelm a consumer’s ability to notice performance differences.

Asking the right questions will help formulators make a superior product. Take the example of a body wash, though similar questions could apply across industries.

  • What can be improved about body wash formulas which would make them significantly better than the products on the market?
  • What would a significantly superior foam look like?
  • What would a better viscosity look like?
  • How would anyone be able to objectively say that a new body wash formula is better than a previous formula?
  • What would a product that works, say, 100 times better actually do?

We need answers to basic questions

When it comes to formulation advancement, one of the biggest hurdles is the lack of identification of the unsolved problems in cosmetic science. Unlike disciplines such as Chemistry or Biology or Physics, we don’t have a community of scientists working to solve the big problems in cosmetic science. We tend to have silos of investigation that don’t help lead to breakthrough innovations.

I recommend that Society of Cosmetic Chemists (SCC) groups around the world start asking members and publishing ideas about the greatest unsolved problems in cosmetic science. Suppliers could ask their customers for similar feedback, in order to develop materials to address unsolved problems.

We need more openness

Finally, to make better formulas we really need more openness. I remember attending a Society of Cosmetic Chemists event some years ago and listening to a talk about improved types of humectants. The speaker was great and the technology he was talking about was unique and interesting. At one point he mentioned that, while glycerin is the gold standard for humectancy, he had found a material that actually works better. Then he moved on with the rest of his talk without elaborating on the specific material. When the question time came up, I asked him which material worked better than glycerin. He said, “sorry, I can’t really talk about that.”

Now, it may have been a better business decision for him to not specify this great new humectant which was vastly superior to glycerin, but for the advancement of cosmetic science, it wasn’t helpful at all. If we are to advance cosmetic science and formulating, we’ll need more openness.

It’s only through making some changes to our industry that we can advance cosmetic science so our customers can enjoy future products that truly are superior.


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