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What happens when you work with a formulator

August 30, 2012

Work at Realize Beauty is quite diverse and one of the things that we get involved in is the  formulating of products.  We don’t have and won’t ever have our own cosmetic brand and so, just like that old car advert (or Queen song) everything we do, we do for you!

So, how does that process work and what are you paying for?

In a nutshell you are paying for a few things:

  • The time it takes to develop and test your ideas
  • Our expertise in the given area
  • The samples, packaging and post required to do the job.
  • The final experimental  recipe including ingredients listing and supplier information.

The important thing to note here is that it is you, the customer that sets the challenge and we use our judgement to gauge our ability to meet that and while we may have made other shampoos,  creams or potions before we have never made yours.  As such all work is ‘experimental’ and results are not guaranteed.

Now before you go ‘hold on, that’s a bit rubbish that you can’t promise that you will meet my brief’  let’s have a think for a minute……

Formulating cosmetics is a tricky business made even trickier by the fact that everyone wants something different, unique even.  Many customers want products that are highly active, that contain cutting edge ingredients or that are bigger and better than anything seen before.   For us the fun part is in working towards achieving that as it gives us a really good chance to test out our skills and even learn new things.  But the bad part is that things don’t always work out as planned and that’s why we split our development payments and avoid making too many promises straight up.

Before we take on a new job we ask for customers to fill out a development brief. This is quite a detailed document that helps us get into the customers mind and better identify the key aspects of the required formula.  We also ask for a benchmark so that we have an idea of how customers want a product to look, feel or perform – the benchmark isn’t always something we copy, it is most often something to be inspired by or to help with the communication process – a sort of style guide if you will.  After receiving and reviewing this we have a much better idea of the project and can then quote both in terms of time and cost.

What we are quoting at that stage is based on the following considerations:

  • How confident are we that we can do the job as outlined?
  • How long do we think it will take in hours.
  • How many sample submissions are likely to be required.
  • How much is the formula worth.

Our confidence is high when we have successfully created a similar product before.  This confidence usually means that the job will take us less time but we will charge more per hour for it (basically the price works out about the same).  That might sound weird but it is no different to any other industry, you get the trainee hairdresser and the cut takes longer but costs less.  Get the expert and you pay more but get a quicker, better cut. You pay for their expertise and you save time.

When our confidence is low we point out why.  This may be that we haven’t done this sort of formula before or it may mean that the brief is very complex and we can’t judge how it will go until we start.  In this case we either take on the job or we don’t. If we do take on the job we quote at a lower rate for our time as we are investing in our learning.  The customer also benefits from that learning in terms of lower costs although the flip side is that the project may take longer than anticipated and in the worst case scenario the desired outcome may not be reached.

The other points are quite self-explanatory and are worked out based on our experience.

Once everything has kicked off and we have a formula brewing things get interesting and customers often want to change things a bit.  They may want to add fragrance variants or increase the fragrance level, may want to use a different preservative or re-think the product positioning and want to add more ingredients.  These things are all OK but may require a re-quote.  We do out best to accommodate running changes but some things push a formula over the edge and for that reason we need to run more testing (we learned that from experience!).   This can be frustrating but believe me, better to take an extra month in the lab than cost a fortune in the factory.

During formulating we do run some simple stability and efficacy testing but not to any recordable level.  Generally speaking we will run freeze/ thaw stability, leave samples on a sunny window sill for a month or so, pop them into an oven for a week and/or run them through a centrifuge. We also evaluate emulsions under the microscope.   This does tend to screen out fundamental flaws in the physical stability of a formula but we have no way of knowing how the product stacks up microbially without running either a micro count or PET test.  These tests are tricky to do on lab batches as the conditions in the lab are often ‘dirtier’ than what you will find on a plant. Plus samples of ingredients are more likely to be contaminated than full packs even when good handling procedures are used.   Therefore our choice and level of preservative is always based on theory with some experience and as such can sometimes miss the mark.

So, we finally have a sample that the customer wants to approve, what now?  At that point the formula is prepared for hand over, the final invoice is sent and once paid the formula is handed over.  This is where the fun can really start!   Our formulations are experimental in as much as we will have only made lab batches by this point due to the nature of the service.  This doesn’t mean that our formulations are useless, it means that the purchaser then has to invest in help with scale-up and may have to make some adjustments to that formula before going to market.  This is all perfectly normal and all manufacturers who take on customers with their own formulations are prepared for this.

It is usual for customers to take a lab formula which has probably only been made in 500g batches to a manufacturer who then wants to make a 10 or 20Kg pilot batch before going to a 50 or 100Kg batch and then to a 1Mt or more batch.  This is because the formula has to be tested on the factory equipment, with the factory standard brands of materials and with their manufacturing limits (in terms of heating and cooling times, stirring speeds etc).   In addition stability, PET testing and panel testing should be done once the scale-up has got to a commercial scale (20Kg is generally OK for doing this for  small customers).

Sound Complex?

Well it isn’t really.   In a nutshell when we formulate for people we are mostly charging for the physical time and applied knowledge that  it takes to work towards your goals and the learnings that go on during that time.  If things go well, and they often do a beautiful new formula is achieved but if things go wrong you are not left empty handed.  As long as we have received the appropriate payments (the first installment usually) we will hand over all learning, samples,  incomplete formulations and supplier info up to the point that we got to.  This may sound like worthless info but in my experience getting people 70-80% there (which is what we tend to do even when things fail) is still golden as the framework is there just waiting for some tweaking and polishing which a manufacturer can often do.

So that’s it really,  it is a partnership in science investigationing that is always evolving, sometimes challenging and always interesting and while I am sure that other formulators have their own ways of doing things I think ours is quite fun.

Let’s get cooking!

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