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Why do big brand products have so many ingredients? I want to keep it simple.

July 16, 2014

I get asked this quite a lot and sometimes I don’t get asked why but I do meet with prospective brand owners who have decided that their philosophy is simplicity with what few ingredients they do want having to be pure, natural and recognisable (ie: nothing that sounds like a chemical).  Commercial brands often seem like a chemical soup with ingredient lists stretching into 15 or maybe 20 ingredients and making the same but different – with only say 5 natural lovely things is ultra appealing.

I get that.

But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you can be at risk of oversimplification where instead of a safe, natural concoction you end up with either microbe soup or a physical wreck.

Here are eight ingredient categories that your newbie or stripped-back beauty product maker often overlooks:

  1. Chelating agents.   Chelating agents help a preservative system to work by mopping up any trace impurities (and there will be some, even in organic oils, clays and extracts) that are floating around in your formula.  These impurities, left to their own devices will feed that little micro army and could have your product overwhelmed and unsafe in no time.  There are synthetic chelators such as EDTA and more natural chelating agents.  I like Sodium Phytate although it is very expensive in comparison and not quite as effective most of the time.
  2. Viscosity modifiers in emulsions (creams).  This group of ingredients  help change the thickness (viscosity) of the product – pretty obvious hey?  But they also do more than that, they can help to stabilise your water phase and make the whole product more robust – less likely to fall apart on storage.  They also affect the flow or rheology of your product and that impacts on how it comes out of your packaging, how easy or hard it is to rub in, how far and fast it spreads on the skin and even how light or heavy the product feels. Finally your thickener may or may not have a yield value- strength to hold particles.  This yield value determines whether it can hold up those micro beads and scrub agents you placed into your shower gel or exfoliating cream.  Simple, common examples of viscosity modifiers would be Xanthan gum (natural, gel like viscosity, relatively low yield value) and Carbomer (synthetic, smooth flow and varying yield values but can be very high).
  3. Rheology modifiers.  Yes these can also thicken your formula (just as viscosity modifiers can influence how a product flows) but we primarily use rheology modifiers because of their flow characteristics rather than because of how thick they can make a product.   Because flow and thickness can be very important in a cosmetic it is not unusual to find formulations containing two or even three viscosity/ rheology modifying ingredients to achieve the perfect flow, thickness and performance.  Examples of rheology modifiers are:  Modified guar gums (natural through to some that have synthetic groups added. These may not really thicken much at all) to the carbomers (there are well over 100 different carbomer grades to meet different formulation requirements and impart various flow characteristics.  There are also clay based rheology modifiers and other acrylic acid based polymeric ingredients.
  4. Oil phase structure building ingredient.  Thickening and structuring the oil phase of an emulsion or the only phase of a balm – lip or otherwise is another rarely thought up thing for newbies but believe me, it can mean a whole lot of difference when your lovely oil rich product is destined to be used in a hot climate – 30C plus. While natural waxes do make a product thick they don’t always give it structure which is why when many simple, natural products melt they sort of fall apart rather than gently softening to a more liquid state.  Structure agents for oils come in various forms with the most common being hydrogenated vegetable oils (natural) or ozokerite wax (synthetic).
  5. Secondary emulsifiers.  The self emulsifying wax blend has made making a cream easy peasy but it doesn’t mean that all of those creams will be commercially viable, elegant or stable.  In the commercial world we often use combinations of emulsifiers to find the sweet spot between a stable emulsion and a great performing product.  Combinations can lower the overall price and give a variety of novel textures and rub-in characteristics. They can even help improve active delivery and SPF performance (if that matters).
  6. A preservative.  OK so this is where I start to roll my eyes.  I can’t go past a week without someone asking me if it is really necessary to use a preservative in their formula – preservative meaning something/ anything that sounds chemical naturally derived or not.  While there are a couple of products that can get away without one most of the time – bath salts, sugar scrubs, some balms – cosmetics are a microbe banquet and it is the preservative that keeps them safe.  For the ‘I only want to use ingredients that are natural and sound healthy’ crew we have the radish and elderberry extract combo although I have had mixed results with that in products and the combination does have to be used in a high dose making it expensive. For everyone else there are a wide range of natural,  nature-identical and synthetic options available.
  7. More than one preservative.  I never, ever, ever see small brands using more than one preservative or pre-made blend and that is usually because these brands don’t have the budget to do the testing to find an optimal solution.  It is rare for a big cosmetics house to use just one preservative or blend across all products because different products have different micro risks attached, different pH, manufacturing conditions and packaging considerations.
  8. ‘Fillers’.   This one applies to the mineral make-up makers who  crave simplicity.  Often the so-called fillers in a mineral make up are what gives it the amazing glide, long-wear characteristics, soft-focus effect, oil absorbing properties or coverage.  There are a huge amount of ‘fillers’ or additives that can be put into mineral make up derived from natural and synthetic sources but some common ones are: Boron Nitrite,  Magnesium Sulfate, Talc, tapioca starch or kaolin.

There is so much more to cosmetic product development than I can say here.  If you are interested please check out my Cosmetic Chemistry course details on the New Directions website or contact me for more information as rather than just make the whole thing more complex and confusing learning how these things REALLY work will open up a whole new world of creative possibility.

The next cosmetic chemistry course is on in Sydney from 25-26th July 2014.

Welcome to my world.

Amanda x

6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2014 6:33 pm

    hi amanda, thank you for your blog, but i still do not find an clear compact answer why cosmetic companies do use 20 or 30 ingredients in their cream?

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      July 16, 2014 6:45 pm

      Hi Monique, the article was meant to highlight the fact that a well developed and safe formula will be more complex than a simple ‘crafter’ formula and that might end up being another 10 or so, there is no one-size-fits-all simple answer and of course there are some big brands with very few ingredients. It is just that I get this question all the time. If you add a chelate, a rheology modifier, an extra emulsifier and a second preservative plus something to buffer pH (could be two chemicals, usually is) there’s 6 chemicals. Then there are the actives – you might have 3 of those plus maybe 5 extracts in some products. Then there are the other things that go into the water and oil phase. It soon adds up.

  2. July 17, 2014 11:24 am

    It is also important to point out that large brands formulate their products with the 8 ingredient categories because their products sit ‘idle’ for extended periods of time (manufacturing, shipping, sitting on the shelf, etc.) and require stabilizers. Many natural, less than 5 ingredient products typically have a faster production-to-user time and therefore do not need many of the 8 ingredient types. Those products typically also suggest using within 6 months to a year to preserve the integrity of the product.

    Great post!

    • July 17, 2014 11:34 am

      That is so true, yes thanks for bringing that up as it does also make a case for fresh, simple skincare as long as you are close to your client base.


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