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Cosmetic Formu­lation: A Beginners’ Guide [Updated 2024]

Cosmetic formu­la­tions are more important to consumers than you might think:

A survey found 72% of consumers want brands to explain what ingre­dients do, 42% feel they don’t get enough info about ingre­dient safety.

Another study showed that 90% of consumers prefer natural ingre­dients.

What This Guide Covers

But don’t worry, cosmetic formu­la­tions are not as compli­cated as they seem!

With this guide, we’ll walk you through the basics of cosmetic formu­la­tions. We’ll cover every­thing from funda­mental concepts to case studies and practical steps, all broken down in a way that’s simple to under­stand.

Whether you’re a newbie or ready to dive deeper, we’ve got every­thing you need to know.

Here’s what we’ll cover: 

  • Ingre­dients 101: What goes into Cosmetic Products?
  • Case Studies: Analyzing Popular Cosmetics
  • Step-by-Step Guide: Cosmetic Formu­lation Process

Ingre­dients 101: What Goes into Cosmetic Products?

Let’s start by breaking down the most common and basic ingre­dients.

Becoming more knowled­geable about these ingre­dients will help you under­stand what goes into your products and empower you to make informed choices. 

Ingre­dient TypeExamples
1SolventsWater, Ethanol, Propylene Glycol
2Emulsi­fiersLecithin, Sorbitan Oleate, Polysorbate 20
3EmollientsShea Butter, Jojoba Oil, Squalene
4Preser­va­tivesParabens, Phenoxy­ethanol, Sorbic Acid
5FragrancesLinalool, Citro­nellol, Geraniol
6ColorsTitanium Dioxide, Iron Oxides, Ultra­ma­rines
7ThickenersXanthan Gum, Guar Gum, Carra­geenan
8AbsorbentsKaolin, Bentonite, Silica
9FillersMica, Talc, Nylon-12
10Flavouring AgentsVanillin, Menthol, Cinnamal
11Humec­tantsGlycerin, Sodium Hyalu­ronate, Propylene Glycol

1. Solvents 

Think of solvents as the base or the ‘mixing bowl’ in which the ingre­dients of a cosmetic product are united.

They play an essential role in dissolving ingre­dients.

For instance, they can help to break down color pigments or retinol, making them easy to blend with other components.

Water, oils, and alcohols are common solvents. For example, water is often used in creams, while oils are found in makeup. 

2. Emulsi­fiers 

Have you every tried to mix oil and water?

It’s not possible, right?

Emulsi­fiers are agents that help mix oil and water-based ingre­dients seamlessly. 

Products such as oils or balms may not require emulsi­fiers as they consist only of oil-based ingre­dients. Conversely, toners and gels are heavily water-based and thus may not need them either.

However, many cosmetic products including creams, lotions, and hair condi­tioners absolutely rely on the mixing abilities of emulsi­fiers.

3. Emollients 

If a product makes your skin feel smooth, it’s the emollients working their magic. They fill the gaps between skin cells, making it smoother.

Oils, esters, and fatty acids are types of emollients.

You’ll find them in moistu­rizers and lipsticks.

4. Preser­va­tives 

They may not sound exciting, but preser­va­tives are crucial.

They stop bacteria and mold from growing and increase the product’s shelf life.

Some common preser­va­tives include parabens and sodium benzoate. 

5. Fragrances 

Fragrances can elevate your cosmetics, adding an alluring scent to your products.

However, fragrances aren’t just there to smell good.

They create an intimate connection with its user and increase the chance of a reorder.

6. Color Pigments

Color pigements are essential for all types of color cosmetics.

Color pigments are tiny particles that reflect and absorb light to produce different visual effects. In cosmetics, pigments can be both natural (like beetroot extract) or synthetic (made in a lab). 

They are essential to add the desired color to any product.

They also enhance the look of your products, making them look more aesthetic.

When you look at the Ingre­dients, you can easily spot most of them by the CI prefix.

7. Thickeners 

Thickeners provide stability to cosmetic formu­la­tions, improving their viscosity and texture.

This leads to a product with the desired consis­tency, whether it be a thick cream, a pourable lotion, or a solid stick. 

8. Absorbents

Absorbents, also known as matti­fiers, are tasked with the job of absorbing excess facial oil, often lending their skills to products like oil-free moistu­rizers and matte lipsticks.

Beyond aesthetic appeal, matti­fiers enhance product endurance on the skin, preventing makeup from sliding off due to heat or perspi­ration.

9. Fillers

Next up, we’ll talk about fillers.

Despite their simple name, fillers do more than just ‘fill’.

Fillers bulk up the feel of the product, give it a clean look on your skin, and even play a role in adjusting color.

Some even offer other added effects, like a matte finish or a little extra sparkle. 

10. Flavouring Agents

They’re a key component in lip products, giving that distinctive taste to your lipsticks and balms.

While they don’t play a functional role, flavoring agents enhance the sensory experience of the product.

11. Humec­tants

Humec­tants work by drawing moisture from the deeper layers of your skin or directly from the air to the surface.

You’ll mostly find humec­tants in products designed to boost hydration like moistu­rizers, creams, serums, and face masks.

Case Study 1: Nivea Face Creme

Let’s have an in-depth look at one of the indus­try’s staple products – Nivea Creme.

This well-known and beloved skincare solution is a paragon of effective formu­lation, offering an interesting case study for our explo­ration.

We’ll unpack the ingre­dients analyze the formu­lation:

Type / FunctionIngre­dient Name
SolventsWater
EmollientsMineral Oil, Petro­latum, Glycerin, Micro­crystalline Wax, Lanolin Alcohol, Paraffin, Decyl Oleate, Octyl­do­de­canol
Humec­tantsGlycerin
ThickenersMicro­crystalline Wax, Lanolin Alcohol, Paraffin, Aluminum Stearates
Emulsi­fiersAluminum Stearates, Magnesium Sulfate, Magnesium Stearate
FragrancesFragrance
pH AdjustersCitric Acid
Preser­va­tivesMethyl­chlo­ro­isothia­zo­linone, Methyl­isothia­zo­linone
  • Solvent: Helps to dissolve other ingre­dients and make the overall cream easy to spread.
  • Emollients: Soften the skin by sealing in moisture. They fill in gaps in dry skin, creating a smooth surface.
  • Humectant: Attracting moisture to the skin, keeping it hydrated and helping it look plumper and healthier.
  • Thickeners: Lend texture to the cream, making it soft and easy to apply. They also increase the stability of the formu­lation.
  • Emulsi­fiers: Ensure all the other ingre­dients mix evenly and prevent the oil and water-based ingre­dients from separating.
  • Fragrance: Gives the cream its pleasant scent, enhancing the sensory experience of using the product.
  • pH adjuster: Balance the pH of the formu­lation, ensuring it’s safe and comfor­table to apply to the skin.
  • Preser­va­tives: Preventing the growth of bacteria and fungi in the cream. This ensures the product lasts longer and doesn’t cause skin infec­tions.

Case Study 2: MAC Lipstick

Next, let’s examine another example — MACs’ lipstick.

Even though it’s different from face cream, you’ll see they share some simila­rities.

Let’s have a look at the key components in a MAC lipstick:

Type / FunctionIngre­dient Name
EmollientsDimethicone, Tridecyl Trimel­litate, Phenyl Trime­thicone, Dimethicone Cross­po­lymer
ThickenersPolyethylene, Hdi/Trimethylol Hexyl­lactone Cross­po­lymer, Silica Dimethyl Silylate (Nano)
AbsorbentsZeolite, Kaolin, Alumina
FillersSilica, Polysi­licone-11
Preser­va­tivesCaprylyl Glycol
Emulsi­fiersPolyhy­dro­xys­tearic Acid
FlavorsFlavor (Aroma), Sodium Saccharin
Antioxi­dantsTocopherol (Vitamin E)
ColorsMica, Titanium Dioxide (Ci 77891), Iron Oxides (Ci 77491), Iron Oxides (Ci 77492), Iron Oxides (Ci 77499), Bismuth Oxychloride (Ci 77163), Blue 1 Lake (Ci 42090), Carmine (Ci 75470), Orange 5 Lake (Ci 45370), Red 6 (Ci 15850), Red 21 (Ci 45380), Red 28 (Ci 45410), Red 30 (Ci 73360), Red 6 Lake (Ci 15850), Red 7 Lake (Ci 15850), Red 22 Lake (Ci 45380), Red 28 Lake (Ci 45410), Red 30 Lake (Ci 73360), Red 33 Lake (Ci 17200), Yellow 5 Lake (Ci 19140), Yellow 6 Lake (Ci 15985)
  • Emollients: These keep the lips feeling soft and smooth by sealing in moisture.
  • Thickeners: These are important for giving the lipstick enough body and sprea­da­bility. 
  • Absorbents: They help manage oil and shine on lips.
  • Fillers: Used in lipstick to achieve a smooth, creamy texture.
  • Preser­va­tives: Keeps the lipstick safe from bacterial and fungal growth.
  • Emulsi­fiers: Makes sure all ingre­dients mix well together without separating, providing a homogenous product.
  • Flavors: Give a pleasant taste to the lipstick.
  • Antioxi­dants: Protects lips from environ­mental stressors and also helps to keep the product fresh.
  • Colors: Provide the range of colors you see in lipsticks.

Cosmetic Formu­la­tions: Step by Step

Creating a successful cosmetic formu­lation is, in essence, a step-by-step process that seamlessly blends science and market under­standing.

Here’s a detailed walk-through of this process: 

Step 1: Project Briefing and Defining Important Key Metrics 

First and foremost, assembling a detailed project brief is vital.

Think of this as a blueprint for your vision.

Write down your desired texture, color, moistu­rizing capacity, and any other essential attri­butes.

Be crystal clear about your expec­ta­tions for this product. Don’t leave anything to inter­pre­tation. And don’t forget to commu­nicate to the manufac­turer about your pricing objective (target price) for the product.

Step 2: Drawing Inspi­ration from Successful Products 

Having an existing product as a blueprint often provides a good starting point for new formu­la­tions. It acts as a rough benchmark, or you reengineer it 1to1. Either way, you can then change it according to your liking.

As per a report by Cosmetics Business, these successful products’ influence leads to consistent quality and innovative breakth­roughs in new develo­p­ments.

Step 3: Conception of Formu­lation 

Once the preli­minary steps pave the way, formu­lators take over. They meticu­lously select and blend various ingre­dients like emollients, thickeners, preser­va­tives, fragrances, and colors.

The goal is to precisely meet the project briefing’s outlined targets while maintaining quality and safety standards.

Step 4: Creating the first Sample

Now that the formu­lation of your chosen cosmetic product has been conceived, the exciting stage of actually creating that first sample begins.

This process is where the concept becomes a tangible reality.

Keep in mind, perfect cosmetic products, like Rome, aren’t built in a day.

The primary blend a manufac­turer makes, influenced by popular products of a similar kind, isn’t the final product.

It’s merely the starting point for your product. 

Step 5: Sample Revision and Perfection 

There is typically only a limited number of free revisions set by the cosmetic manufac­turer, so you have to make them count.

Use your senses — how does it feel when applied? Is the scent pleasing? How does it sit on the skin after some time?

Take detailed notes as you evaluate each charac­te­ristic.

As a formu­lator, it’s their respon­si­bility to assure every aspect aligns with what the consumer wants. 

Once you’ve identified areas requiring impro­vement, commu­nicate these with your manufac­turer.

Be articulate and precise — use specific language and give clear direc­tives.

Remember, vague feedback gets vague revisions, and that’s not something we can afford with a limited number of oppor­tu­nities to get it right. 

Following this process, your manufac­turer will revise the sample to meet your updated guide­lines.

And then repeats the cycle — revise, perfect, and repeat. 

Step 6: Choose a Packaging

Packaging, a critical yet often overlooked aspect of cosmetics, can greatly affect a product’s success.

Many manufac­turers opt for pre-existing packaging options for cost and conve­nience, with a wide variety of bottles, jars or tubes available.

The selection should align with a product’s size, price point and the compa­ti­bility of packaging materials with the cosmetic formu­lation.

Your packaging is the first point of contact with your customers, so let it make a good impression and mirror your brand image.

Step 7: Compa­ti­bility- and Stability Testing

Now, we’re ready to dive into the final integral phase of cosmetic formu­lation: ensuring the product’s stability and compa­ti­bility. 

During the compa­ti­bility test, the product is exposed to varying condi­tions, such as different levels of light, tempe­rature fluctua­tions, and changes in moisture, to scrutinize how well the ingre­dients play together.

Signs of potential issues could include separation of components, altera­tions in the hue, or an unexpected change in texture. 

Stability testing is the check­point that guarantees the product’s quality longevity.

Here, the core aim is to assure us that our cosmetic product maintains its essential physical, chemical, and microbial charac­te­ristics intact throughout its lifespan, regardless of storage condi­tions or how it’s used. This involves examining parameters like pH level, viscosity, scent, color, and the efficiency of the preser­va­tives within the mix. 

FAQs about Cosmetic Formu­la­tions

How much does cosmetic formu­lation cost?

The cost of cosmetic formu­lation can vary widely depending on factors like the complexity of the formula, the source and quality of ingre­dients, the volume of production, and the cost of testing and compliance.

For a custom formula, it might cost anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars per formula.

To avoid these develo­pment costs, you can start with a pre-made formu­lation (private label cosmetics).

How long does it take to formulate a cosmetic product? 

The timeline for cosmetic formu­lation also varies. It could take anywhere from a few weeks to several months, or even a year.

Depending on factors like the complexity of the formula, the time it takes to source and test ingre­dients, the need for stability and compa­ti­bility testing, and the process of obtaining all necessary regulatory approvals.  

What factors can influence the cost and timeline of cosmetic formu­lation? 

Some key factors include the complexity of the formula; the quality, availa­bility and cost of ingre­dients; the volume of production; the time and cost involved in testing, compliance and obtaining regulatory approvals; the need for custom packaging; and any special requi­re­ments or challenges associated with the product type or the intended market.

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Charlotte Wagner

"After my Bachelor & Master's degree in Beauty Management at the mAHS (media Akademie Hochschule Stuttgart), I work full-time in consulting for start-ups and medium-sized companies in the cosmetics industry.
I discovered my passion for writing at an early age, so that I pursue it as a as a hobby author."

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