Skip to content

The Evolution of Formulating.

February 14, 2018

mad scientist

I just found that image here: Apparently there is a quiz you can take to see if you are a mad scientist already.  Nice!

Not picking on anyone in particular but here’s a snippet of an email conversation I just had:

Client: “What comes first? Stability or effectiveness?”  after working on applying some formulating fixes that I just suggested and having varying results.

Me: “Both matters, that’s why formulating is so hard”

Client: “Haha. Ok. Touché.”

Of course I tried to be a bit more helpful and to be honest I wasn’t trying to be an arse, I just wanted the client to realise that this thing they are trying to do IS hard, everyone finds it hard, well, everyone that actually explores their concept that is.

Let’s talk about that.  Let’s talk about the evolution of becoming a formulator.

So, you are bored with your life and you notice that everyone seems to be having fun on Instagram, getting tonnes of attention and living a great life by making skin care products.  It looks sooooo easy, there are recipes everywhere, forums, online courses, chat rooms, books, stores and everything. You too could f**king ACE this!!!!!

That’s stage 1:  Believing you are going to be awesome at this, that it is simple and that it is 100% fun.

You get stuck head-down-bum-up in some ‘research’ which I am convinced is now just code for semi-structured web surfing and you come across a recipe.  The recipe looks exciting, lots of people have tried it and you don’t need much in the way of equipment to get started – you start to wonder why you ever spent $100 on an eye cream and develop an unhealthy distrust of big brands their corporate greed and huge packaging and marketing budgets.  Fluff, all fluff you tell yourself, it’s what’s in the pack that matters, it’s all about the sciencing!

That’s stage 2: Knowing that you are going to ace it because you have just done more reading than you did through your entire schooling.  You start to wonder why nobody has tapped you on the shoulder with the offer of an Honorary Doctorate.

Then the time comes to make this freaking awesome recipe – you opted for a cream, many people do. What could be more sciency and impressive than a freaking cream for goodness sake!  It’s going to be awesome.

You mock-up a Bain Marie on your stove top by balancing a bowl in a saucepan and then another. You stop for a minute to try to work out how to cut your block of beeswax, then for another minute to try to work out how to ‘weigh’  1 teaspoons worth and then decide just to guess ‘because it can’t matter too much, this stuff is good for you right? It’s all good.

You have read somewhere (everywhere?) that beeswax is a great emulsifier but your recipe has another emulsifier specified so you feel that this cream is going to be bullet proof, awesome and double-strength.  Once again you debate how to ‘weigh’ your pelletised emulsifier and once again you opt for a hybrid mixture of teaspoons and guessing figuring that close enough is good enough.

The oils and butters go in and it goes into the pot and then it’s onto the water phase.  Water….. Tap water, distilled water, mineral water, holy water or demineralised water?  You decide that rain water blessed by the moon gods is the only authentic water there is and with that your water phase comes to life.  There isn’t usually much else going down in a simple internet cream recipe water phase so you pretty much just stand there and watch the water boil.

And then you wait……

You have a thermometer of the old school type. You check the water phase then the oil phase then water then oil and so on and so forth, trying to get them both to match but you can’t.  You settle when they are both between 75-85C and cross your fingers hoping that in doing so you won’t ruin your chances of forming this emulsion and you don’t.

The oil goes into the water then you whip the shit out of it with your bar mix.  Oh yeh baby, it’s white and creamy and is close to looking like something out of a Mr Whippy Ice Cream van and you are happy.  You stop whipping just before you get RSI from holding down the bar mix button and you are glad you did as the mixer is now awfully hot and looking like blowing up!  You decide to speed up cooling by popping the mix in the freezer for a minute while you have a cup of tea.


Out of the freezer comes the cream and shit, it’s lumpy but still a warm in patches. Back to the bar mix and a bit more whipping seems to bring it back into line.  You add the fragrance and preservative and BAM the job is done.  You are a genius, it was true!

And that’s stage 3 completed:   The Great Success.  You LOVE your cream, it is the best cream you have ever tried. Your friends love your cream, your granny wants you to make some for all of her friends and even your dog loves it. You have literally and figuratively made it and you feel like a champion formulator.

Now stage 3 can last for many years if you are lucky my friends of the internet.  Some people even become formulators when they reach stage 3 – they might even become teachers at this point. I see this sometimes and I run, usually in the opposite direction because I know that it is usually only when something terrible happens that the veneer of your success starts to hit you (or maybe not in some cases).

So let’s fast forward to the person who has completed stage 3 then has a cream that starts to develop a micro or stability issue or they start selling and people start asking questions.  Let’s fast forward to there.

Your Insta-famous and lucky for you, you’re attracting people with your bright labels and sassy style. You are earning money and you feel like the Queen (or King) of everything! Nobody is asking you too much, nobody is questioning you and everything is peachy until one day they do start with the questions.

“Does that contain palm oil” they say.

“Are there any parabens?”

“Is that fair trade”

“Your product didn’t work on me”

“You are too expensive”

“My product separated and I want my money back”

“Is the cream supposed to have black specs in the top?”

“This cream is too sticky”

Welcome to stage 4. The overwhelm. 

Stage 4 of being a formulator is where you feel like you can’t please any-effing-body.  You thought you did ALL of the research but now people are worrying about things you didn’t even think about and all of a sudden your perfect formula doesn’t look quite so bullet proof any more.  You start to lose your confidence and this is where people do either one of two things, 1) look for someone or something else to blame or 2) go back to the drawing board and hopefully get some qualified help.

Time moves on slowly now, you solve one problem, you create another.  You move on from that and customers tastes have moved on too. You then look up to find that your competitor is now doing something weird with coconuts and you want to know how to do the same. You are on a journey and you start to realise that you are still only at the beginning…………

Stage 5: The Humbling.

So this is where I am most of the time I guess.  At the spot when I know all of the very many and varied ways that life can come and shit on your formulation parade but luckily I have been there and done that a few times and usually have a few ideas of what to try to fix it when ‘it’ happens.  But ‘it’ takes time to solve,  requires investment, may not produce a practical solution, may not even be possible in the applied way that the customer wants it and that’s hard, really hard but that’s what stage 5 is all about. WELCOME TO REALITY!  This is the point where you realise that cracking open the Champagne just because your emulsion looks nice is premature UNLESS you have tested it, where you realise you do need a pH meter and not pH papers.  Where you understand  that the first version that looks good enough can probably be optimised and where you can meet your customers genuine questions with applied information and a plan.

This is where I try to help people get to, if I can, at least for their little patch of formulating reality.

The customer that I was talking to is no doubt fast-tracking through this list for THAT particular formula and I’m hoping they reach stage 5 by the end of the week as they really are putting in the hard yards and seem to have the right attitude and inclination so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.  But to be at stage 5 is not to have all of the answers, you do realise that don’t you?  No, stage 5 is all about knowing most of the questions and having the tools, the mindset and the stamina to want to go on the quest to answer those questions.  Nobody makes it to stage 6 in this game.

Stage 6: The Grand Master of Formulating Genius.

There ‘ain’t no such thing mate, there is always another issue, another desire, another trend and another innovation and that, my friends, is the beauty of this game.  You are always just practicing and that’s OK.






3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 15, 2018 9:35 pm

    Oh those stages… and yes, that humbling seems the more I do, the more humbling it is. Thanks for another great read.

  2. February 22, 2018 12:19 pm

    Yes to all this! Thank you!


  1. The Evolution of Formulating. | Pretty Random Health and Beauty Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: