One of the first things you’ll notice when you begin in the cosmetic industry is that most of what you learned in college about chemistry doesn’t directly apply to your job…..
What is a starting formula
A starting formula is basically a recipe that tells you how to make whatever type of product it refers to. It contains a list of ingredients, their proportions, the way to put them together and specifications for how it should look when you’re done. The closest thing to a formula that you may have encountered in college was in Organic Chemistry lab. These lab exercises involved following a series of experimental steps to convert some starting chemicals into a new chemical. I distinctly remember a lab synthesizing N, N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET). Of course, cosmetic formulating is different than organic synthesis. Generally, formulators mix together chemicals and hope nothing happens.
Why would you use one?
To some, using a starting formula might seem like cheating. Theoretically, if you know all your raw materials and what they do, you should be able to come up with a basic formula by just guessing at the proportions. And some chemists do this. But the vast majority of formulators begin with a starting formula for the following reasons.
- Inherited formulas – If you’re new to a company, they’ve got formulas they’ve been making for years before you got there. Their consumers already like the product and their manufacturing department has figured out how to produce the product efficiently. Typically, new formulators are hired to tweak existing formulas, not create completely new ones.
- Formulating faster – When your company or client wants to make a product that is completely new to you, then using a starting formula will help you learn the technology and the basic range of ingredients you need to make a product work. It is much faster to start with an existing formula than to make a new one right out of your brain.
- More efficient – While you could create a formula based on a theoretical description of all the raw materials a product needs, this may require dozens of raw material samples from a variety of different suppliers. When you begin with a starting formula you drastically cut down your options making formulating more efficient.
You certainly don’t have to begin with a starting formula, but unless you have decades of experience formulating a wide range of products, using a starting formula is where most cosmetic chemists begin.
Where to find reliable starting formulas
In the old days, the places to find starting formulas was limited. There was your company’s old notebooks, the pages of classic industry text books like Harry’s Cosmeticology, supplier’s printed formularies or in the trade journal’s monthly formulary column. Clever chemists could also get starting formulas from patents. And for the most part, you can still use all those sources, but paper printing has given way to digital publications.
The sources mentioned thus far were relatively reliable and you could count on coming up with a decent product if you followed the published starting formula. But with publishing on the Internet being so easy there are many more sources to find starting formulas such as blogs, social media, online videos, and raw material supplier websites. Unfortunately, the quality of these newly available sources is questionable. Many recipes you find online don’t actually work. Stick to more reliable resources published by suppliers, trade journals and qualified experts if you are trying to make a good formula.
How to use them
Wherever you find your starting formula, the next step is to use it. Here are some tips.
- Make it just the way it is written. This means get the suggested raw materials. Use the suggested amounts. And put it together in the way described. Don’t substitute ingredients or use more or less based on your whims. You want to make the first prototype as exact as possible.
This will provide the baseline from which you can further iterate and make improvements.
- Characterize the formula – Once you have it made, you want to create as many measurements about its various characteristics as you can. Of course, check it against the starting specifications (color, pH, viscosity, etc.). But also compare it to a benchmark product you are trying to emulate. Specifically, do some in use performance testing.
This will let you know what you need to improve to make a better formula.
- Perform a knockout experiment – Many starting formulas have excess amounts or numbers of ingredients that aren’t necessary. You can perform a knockout experiment to determine which ingredients are really needed. This is done by making a series of formulas in which you leave out or “knockout” one of the ingredients and replace the missing volume with the main solvent. Once you finished, you’ll have a series of batches that show you how crucial each ingredient is form the formula.
This will let you know what ingredients have the most significant impact on the formula.
- Iterate to create a better formula – Now that you know what ingredients are important you can start experimenting. You can reduce or increase the level different ingredients. You can substitute out similar classes of ingredients for the ones listed in the formula. You can adjust levels to optimize for cost or performance. This is where the real work of the cosmetic formulator happens.
Eventually, with enough prototypes and testing, you should end up with a formula that looks a lot different from the starting formula but is superior in performance and cost.
Some final tips when working with starting formulas
- Avoid violating a formulation patent – while you can find starting formulas in patents be sure that the formula you end up with based on it doesn’t violate the patent.
- Don’t market starting formulas – Using a starting formula is a great place to begin your formulation efforts. But don’t go to market with a starting formula. You need to make sure that the formula is stable and works for your purposes. Always make some optimized changes to a starting formula.
- Supplier formulas are usually bloated – While formulas from suppliers are incredibly helpful remember that they are made to highlight the supplier’s ingredients. That typically means they have higher levels of the supplier’s materials than you actually need. This is good for raw material sales, but maybe not great for your formula needs.
- Don’t optimize too much – Finally, when you’re making a new formula focus mostly on performance. Don’t worry as much about optimizing for cost. That’s because you know in a year or so your marketing people will come to you and ask you to make the formula less expensive. This is when you optimize for cost.
Using a starting formula is a great way to begin the process of making a new product. You can learn how to make things of which you are unfamiliar and also discover where formula improvements might be made. The suppliers found here on UL Prospector are a great source for some of those starting formulas. Just remember, they are a place to start, not a place to end.
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