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Building an efficacious brand starts with knowing your actives.

August 18, 2017

So I’ve been asked to produce a ‘cheat sheet’ of actives. A piece of paper that allows people, at a glance, to work out what to put into their products to get an effect.  I’ve just finished that work and it’s turned out OK but I feel a bit odd about it.  You see, what I’ve done is enabled the ‘box ticker’ as well as the ‘thorough researcher looking for a starting point’.  I’ve made it easier for people to feel like they are making something good when in reality they may not be.  Maybe it doesn’t or shouldn’t matter…. Maybe I’m just over-thinking it – after all, I do that sometimes.  Maybe it would pay for me to remember that I can’t control what other people do with the information I give them, that all I can do is do the best I can do and leave it at that.  Maybe that’s true but I want to tell you what’s going through my head anyway, in the hope that should you read this, or another of my ‘cheat sheets’ you might take a moment to see what lies beneath and behind this, to see what I’m really trying to achieve and if you are willing to do that, then maybe, just maybe you will go on to make great products that we can all be proud of.

So what’s going on?

I guess to answer that requires a bit of a scene setting as to what I mean by ‘active’ and an ‘efficacious brand’.

In a cosmetic setting the ‘actives’ could be many things but often they are the ingredients that are added on top of the base to make it special, to give it the ability to do something specific.  If we use the example of a sponge cake recipe you can pretty much take that recipe and, with minor changes make a plain or chocolate or lemon or walnut and orange or Victoria sponge cake.  The base ‘product’  is the sponge while the ‘actives’ are  the chocolate, lemon, walnut, jam and butter icing – the things that make the sponge ‘special’.   Now all of this might seem bleedingly obvious to the long-term brand owner but I’m not always convinced that it actually is.  That the ‘actives’ are given the time and attention that they deserve and that’s where ‘efficacious’ comes in.

Efficacy = results.

It is perfectly possible to pop all of your actives into a product and get zero benefit. It is also perfectly possible to pop in your actives and get a right mess. Sometimes that is due to the way the formula is manufactured and sometimes it has more to do with something else.

If we take the sponge cake example again it is logical that you would add some cocoa into the cake batter to turn a plain sponge into a chocolate sponge. Adding the cocoa at the end of the process would not a chocolate sponge make!  Same actives, same concentration, totally different result (cake).  The same could be said for the jam,  add the jam into the cake batter and get an almighty mess probably,  spread it onto the cooled sponge after baking and voila, great success!

And this is where I start to worry about an active cheat sheet.  Just knowing that a plant extract, vitamin, mineral or peptide is known for a particular outcome doesn’t in its self guarantee it. In fact, with plant extracts you can quite often get a whole lot of nothing you expected unless you are in the know so we should definitely explore that more!

In our cake example I talked about cocoa being the active in the chocolate sponge but what do you know about cocoa? The cocoa that would make this happen?  What part of the cocoa plant is it? Why does it work? How come we have to put it into the sponge batter?  How much do we need to add to get a result?  Will it always work or is it sensitive to other conditions?   Again I’m sure that these are questions that go through my students and clients heads when they are weighing up their actives but it is all too easy to miss this detail when faced with an appealing sounding plant active, especially if you can then add heaps of it (such as in the case of a plant hydrosol for example) and then have it listed as one of your key ingredients!  What could be better than that!

Not all plant parts are created equal.

Ok so in order to assess whether your particular plant extract, powder or liquid is going to do what you THINK it will/ should/ could do you need to know its chemistry AND you need to know what it is about that particular plant that gives the action that you are hoping for.  Once you know that it is just a game of SNAP!

For example many people think that carrot oil is a good source of vitamin A because they have heard that carrots are full of vitamin A and may also know the cosmetic ingredient Retinol or Retinyl Palmitate which are oil soluble so assume that carrot oil contains all the vitamin A.  But that is wrong.  Carrot oil is from the seeds and the seeds are not rich in anything vitamin A related, in fact they produce a highly smelly oil which is anti-microbial – still very good for the skin but not vitamin A.   In the case of carrot the vitamin A is in nature’s form as carotinoids and in the carrot they are mostly the water-soluble type.  Carotinoids are a family of pigmented retinol-type chemicals that can be oil or water-soluble, in Buriti oil the carotinoids are what makes the oil super orange so it is no wonder that people get confused.  This may not sound like a big deal in the grand scheme of things but for me it does matter, especially if you want your customers to get a good chance of getting the result you are aiming for!   The story of ‘where’s my target chemical’ plays out across all types of plant active, not least because you get very different chemistry from different extraction methods – glycerin extracts will not give the same analytical profile (chemistry) as an alcoholic extract and both will differ from a hydrosol or essential oil.  This sometimes leads people to assuming that the whole plant leaf, twig or bark is better, that adding the powdered whole plant is the bees knees but this is also false most but not all of the time.

When adding powdered botanicals, even super concentrated ones unless it completely dissolves into the water or oil phase, such as Aloe or coconut milk powder does, it is likely that very little of that powder ever becomes bio-available during normal product use.  Many plants hold onto their chemical ‘actives constituents’ with all their might and these actives need coaxing out with either a solvent, heat, mashing or infusion.  So you can easily end up with a product that contains the potential to act but none of the joy!  Rather like me giving you one of my lovely sponge cakes but saying ‘you have to experience it through the tin I put it in’.  Not very satisfying!

The other thing that people often think with botanical actives is that more is better, hence why people like ingredients that they can add to the top of their INCI list – where the higher content ingredients are.  This is also often, although not always untrue.  Many plants that are highly active can also be quite likely to initiate a reaction to the skin.  That’s actually quite an obvious statement because actives have to have an action by definition BUT if that action is to irritate, inflame or otherwise disrupt unhelpfully that is not good.  The saying ‘the dose makes the poison’ is worth remembering but that’s not all.  Knowing your target chemistry and what dose of that is required for a chance at a result helps to insure you have a fair chance of an efficacious formula that doesn’t have  any negative side effects, not least the side effect of having an overly expensive (but not very effective) product!

I guess the bottom line here is that you just have to think much more carefully about what, why, how and where these actives are and need to be to work before just diving in!

And some other little things.

The last bit I want to talk about on here quickly is the stability of the actives themselves and how knowing a little about their character can again help to boost product efficacy.

Antioxidants are big news in natural (and regular) cosmetics as they help to keep our skin in tip-top condition by helping to mop up the free-radicals that can cause us to age prematurely.  I like to think of antioxidants as our skins army of protectors but like any army, they can’t just keep on working forever, they get worn out and used up if treated harshly or put under too much pressure.  Knowing a little about what ‘pressure’ means for your little skin soldiers will help to ensure they are battle ready for the whole of your products shelf life and not just the first couple of days!  The same can go for botanical extracts whose pigments can photosynthesise, whose aromatics can evaporate or oxidise and whose essential fatty acids can again oxidise (go rancid).  Basically it is best to adopt a mindset where you really have to get to know your actives before you start with your formulation – that way you can formulate FOR them (being as though they are your products big-hitting-benefit-bringers) rather than you just trying to shove everything in at the end while hoping for the best!

Avoiding the Overwhelm.

OK so back to the cheat sheet for a minute.

With a cheat sheet we essentially create a ‘cheat’ or ‘quick’ way to access the information we need to short-cut our R&D process.  Then I’m telling you all of this and opening up multiple cans of worms.  After years of working in a technical help desk capacity for cosmetic clients I understand and appreciate that sometimes this can feel overwhelming and end to a virtual lock-down state where the potential brand owner/ product developer literally can’t move forward for fear of getting something wrong, ruining their product, putting something rubbish on the market and being found out or just causing an explosion.  If you feel like that then let’s pause a minute to think.

The way I look at it my cheat sheets are ‘door openers’ or ‘introductions’ into a complex yet exciting world.  Imagine you arrive at a party where you don’t really know anyone. The host, being a good and thoughtful person, takes your hand and introduces you to a few people (they are our ‘actives’)  now it is possible to have a perfectly nice time for a little while by just exchanging pleasantries with these people,  maybe by talking about the weather, what was on TV last night or a funny cat clip you saw on social media.  You could quite feasibly leave the party feeling that it was an enjoyable experience.   On the other hand you could take a deeper, more intense approach, especially if you happen to be introduced to someone very interesting. You might ask them about their life, their dreams, what makes them tick – who knows you might even end up marrying them – the ‘actives’ equivalent of doing some analytical and efficacy testing I guess 🙂  You get the picture….

And back to the cheat sheet. 

So I come back to the beginning and look at what this piece of work is – a simple, fast-reference resource. An introduction, a starting point,  a guide, a map.  It says very little and yet quite a lot at the same time.  Helping you to hone in on the individuals (actives) that might be able to help in your search for efficacy (results).  It is just the beginning, the rest is up (or down) to you. And I think there is value in that.

Actives Master Data Sheet August 2017

Enjoy x





4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 18, 2017 5:51 pm

    what about dihydroxyacetone in the ‘tanning’ column? i thought that was sourced from a sugar/phosphate?-bacterial decomposition type reaction..not that you were asking for suggestions..although if you did add it & then cross-reffed w/ another chart listing idiosyncrasies, then you could mention all the stuff dha doesn’t play well AHAs, & titanium dioxide &zinc oxide, etcetc..
    i personally think you are a very thoughtful, astute, & scrupulous young lady chemist-person w/ unquestionable amounts of experience & authority & to anyone who reads your blog, truck-loads of credibility & integrity.
    i, for one, am gratified to read anyone struggling w/the morality of giving any knowledge @all to numerous, unseen ignorami who could potentially blind & maim countless unsuspecting consumers..then, probably, later, try to blame it on the negligible & useless levels of parabens they felt forced to add, when it was actually the failure of their inadequate preservative system, for instance, that likely began all the trouble.
    don’t carry more than you’re obliged to, you’re already doing a tremendous service for so many readers right here.
    thank you, suki

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      August 23, 2017 6:40 pm

      Thanks for your input. The cheat sheet is for a supplier that I work with and if they don’t sell it to the public it doesn’t go on the form hence no DHA – the reason for no DHA is because of the troubles with it ‘going off’ in warm weather. Thanks for the lovely feedback though, it is a fine line we walk.

  2. halrac permalink
    August 23, 2017 6:34 pm

    Dear Amanda,

    I cannot believe nobody has thanked you already for this article and the great Data Sheet you have compiled and shared.

    Thank you!

  3. shivani permalink
    August 23, 2017 10:09 pm

    You have been so generous to share your hard work and knowledge(this cheat sheet) free of cost. Thank you very much.

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