It’s getting harder to be a cosmetic formulator these days. It used to be you could mix together any reasonable ingredients to get the performance you wanted and everyone was fine with it. Formulators didn’t even have to list the ingredients on the products!
But times have changed. Now, you need to not only achieve product performance, but you have to do it with ingredients that are acceptable to your marketers, government regulators, and discerning consumers. That means a lot of standard, reliable ingredients have to be avoided. We’ll examine which ones in the rest of this post.
Banned by regulators
Before continuing, it should be noted that there are some ingredients banned for use in cosmetics. FDA bans these 10 ingredients (or classes of ingredients) while the EU lists over 1300. This is a misleading comparison because the EU regulations list ingredients that no formulator would use in the formulation. For example, Arsenic & Cyanide are banned by the EU but not by FDA.
Of course, just because an ingredient isn’t banned by FDA doesn’t mean you can use it. The overreaching rule in both regulatory frameworks is that it is illegal to produce unsafe cosmetic products.
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While regulatory agencies ban ingredients for proven health concerns, there are a number of sources that call for ingredient bans without supporting science. These include NGO advocacy groups, natural marketers, biased retail outlets and misinformed bloggers. And despite the fact that an ingredient is perfectly safe to use, your company may ask you to avoid it due to its reputation. Here are some ingredients you may have to avoid in your formulating.
Pretty much all formulas need preservatives, but lots of cosmetic marketers want to use the phrase “preservative free.” This puts formulators in a bind. Also, since preservatives are meant to kill cells, it’s not surprising high levels can have negative side effects. Some of the most effective and reliable preservatives – including Parabens, Formaldehyde donors, and Methylisothiazolinones – have developed such poor reputations that many formulators just avoid them. Even an ingredient like Phenoxyethanol is viewed negatively among some consumer groups.
There are some alternatives. For example, some formulators have had success using organic acids and their salts: Benzoic Acid, Sorbic Acid, Potassium Sorbate or Sodium Benzoate. Benzyl Alcohol and Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate are other options. These aren’t nearly as easy or effective to work with, but they can work in some systems.
Surfactants are the most widely used functional ingredients in cosmetics but some of them have developed poor reputations. Unfortunately, this includes some of the most effective and versatile ingredients. Some consumers would prefer to avoid Sulfates like Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate. Also, you may want to stay away from diethanolamines like Lauramide DEA or Cocamide DEA.
Finding surfactants that don’t include the word “sulfate” or have an “-eth” in its name is one option for formulators. Betaines can be a good substitute for diethanolamines. Expect your formulas to be more expense and not work as well, but consumers may be more inclined to buy them.
Since a number of the best conditioning ingredients come from synthetic chemistry and the petroleum industry, they have naturally developed a bad reputation. This includes ingredients like Petrolatum, Mineral Oil, and Propylene Glycol. Silicones also get swept up in this anti-man-made ingredient furor, so Dimethicone and Cyclomethicone are not good replacements.
Alternatives for these ingredients include materials derived from plants like natural oils, butters and waxes.
Talc (hydrous magnesium silicate) is a powdered ingredient used in cosmetics to absorb moisture and as a filler. The primary concern about talc is that it is linked to ovarian cancer. This is based on a study published during the 1990s. Subsequent reviews of all the available data has demonstrated that talc is safe when used as directed. The most recent talc data supports this position. However, science doesn’t always matter, as demonstrated by the fact that cosmetic companies have recently lost a few high-profile court cases related to talc.
Some alternatives to talc include Corn starch, Tapioca Starch, Oat Flour and perhaps Baking Soda. They won’t work for all talc formulas but they are worth a shot.
We add fragrance to cosmetics to make products smell better or to reinforce a marketing story. Cosmetics without fragrance just don’t sell as well. Unfortunately, some groups have convinced consumers all fragrances are awful.
You can make some of your formulas without fragrance but they won’t be as well-liked by most consumers as fragrance-containing alternatives. You might try using natural oils instead of fragrance.
Without colorants, most cosmetic formulas would be yellow or brown. Color cosmetics would not exist. Some groups have declared that artificial colorants are carcinogenic. As usual, this claim is not supported by science.
In fact, of all the ingredients in cosmetics, colorants are the most highly regulated. Each batch of colorant must be approved by FDA prior to use. FDA also monitors the safety of colorants. Any color additive that is found to cause cancer in animals (or humans) may not be used in cosmetics.
That means the alternatives to color your products are strictly limited. You may be able to find some natural extracts that impart color but remember if the purpose of adding an ingredient is for color, then you are only allowed to use approved colorants from the FDA or EU.
As you attempt to formulate with only ingredients that are acceptable to your consumers and your marketing department, there are two things to keep in mind.
- Consumers want products that perform. If a product avoids all the buzz-word bad ingredients, but doesn’t solve the consumer’s problem, they won’t buy it again.
- Consumers are not as ingredient wary / knowledgeable as you think. Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean most consumers are aware of the negative reputation of ingredients. The reality is that most consumer just don’t care.
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15 Responses to “The Bad, the Banned, and the Maligned: Formulating with Your Hands Tied”
This is a very accurate article. As we perform Formulation Development on a regular basis, as well as specializing in Compliance and Regulatory, we see this first hand every day.
Education is key. I think we are really seeing a large gap between the need and want of our industry. The need to use certain materials to create a stable formula, or a luxurious experience, and the want to avoid any and all potential negative social media. This is an ever evolving target.
Regulations are changing and evolving, social media is updated everyday (with no regulation about what these people are saying) sometimes statements about ingredients are not true, and sometime they are, consumers and marketers have no way of knowing.
Formulating is definitely becoming more challenging and keeping us on our toes. I say better busy than bored. At least we are learning new aspects of formulating and raw material suppliers are really starting to understand the need and releasing more and more new materials, which can fit this developing industry.
Thanks for the comments Sara.
I think the only way to really combat this is to better educate consumers. That’s made more difficult with all the misinformation published by fearmongering groups and some cosmetic marketers.
It’s quite challenging being a competent formulator in this day and age of #alternativefacts.
I tell my clients to focus on performance instead of trying to appeal to fear mongers, but they find it hard to ignore the trend. What makes matters worse is that their is so little consumer faith in the FDA right now that NGO’s can taut whatever non-sense they want to desperate buyers.
Just to add more salt to our wounds: According to the American Academy of Dermatology’s most recent symposium, alky glucosides are now the 2017 allergen of the year. So formulators need to be apprised of allergens as well
On some level, it’s a benefit to professional formulators. We have to remake perfectly fine products using different ingredients. Job security I suppose.
Ouch! So much for “natural” surfactants
Hello Perry, I enjoyed your article. Education is so difficult in a climate where consumers mistrust science but will give credence to fear mongerers. Further to your comments about color, not only do any potential naturals have to be FDA or EU approved, but they must be specifically approved for use in cosmetics. Approval for food use is insufficient. Many peoples are confused by this detail.
Excellent very much needed. I think that this article should not be limited to professionals in the industry.
It needs to go out to the consumers, who for years (thank you internet) have had the wool pulled over their heads and the money taken out of their pockets. The entire “beauty Industry” and the trade magazines need to publish this. The entire industry has been fooled.
Thank you for such a “must read” and should go Viral article.
I’m not surprised. We had allergy reports very soon after using a refatting / glucoside combination in a body wash.
Perry as you say, I think the only solution here is to educate the consumer. Here however we have a more than difficult task as people believe very easily this type of sentences:
“”X ingredient is bad and corporates use it because they do not care for consumer, just money….and if the ingredients is legal it is just because public institutions are paid by them….””
I just hope people get tired of reading this over used type of sentences….
This conversation is a bit of a filter bubble. PhD chemists in the U.S. are not required to take one course in toxicology. Yet they are ready to make pronouncements about toxicity and safety. Additionally, this back and forth assumes that chemical haircare products, once rinsed off, do not go anywhere. But they do. They go to estuarine environments, bays, marshes, and oceans, where some have decidedly harmful effects on aquatic life. There is no question that outrageously unscientific and bogus claims are being made by smaller companies in the haircare space. But there are also some big companies making bogus claims. It makes you wonder where the FTC is. However, the idea that dousing hair in polymers, quats, and silicones is ok just doesn’t square with trichology or dermatology or common sense. We have to ask: if 20,000 woman filed complaints to the FDA about hair falling out (some had all their hair fall out) after using WEN products, that probably wasn’t all due to telogen phases. More and more people are going to want truly natural emollients, thickeners, preservatives, surfactants, and fragrances that are not synthetic, petroleum based, allergens, or questionable in terms of toxicology. What if the chemical food industry tried to defend artificial ingredients in its processed foods? How far would that go? The future is writ large here and defending quats and PEGs will not win the day. People want things on the outside of their body that they would put inside their body. That is why they are confused, to be sure, but also suspicious, and thus prey to what I call Internet science, which is not science at all. Listen to the customer. Don’t try to make them wrong.
Thanks for your comments. You seem to not be considering a few points.
PHD Chemists who study the toxicology of cosmetic ingredients do take toxicology courses. The people who make pronouncements about the safety of ingredients are Toxicologists & people with PHDs in Toxicology. The people who declare cosmetic ingredients are not safe are not Toxicologists nor have they taken courses in Toxicology.
The environmental impact of cosmetic ingredients has not been adequately studied. Claims that they are harming wildlife are not based on any studies but rather unsubstantiated guessing.
Very few “bogus claims” are made by large companies. The claims may be misleading but making downright false claims is not how large cosmetic companies work. And the NAD takes action when it receives complaints.
Just because 20,000 women filed complaints to the FDA about a product doesn’t mean the product caused the problem. It means that it was a social media phenomena that caught the interest of a number of consumers. There is nothing in WEN hair products that would cause people’s hair to fall out. They use the same ingredients as everyone else. Other explanations are more likely.
Many natural ingredients are questionable in terms of toxicology and lots of them are also known allergens.
I’m sure the food industry does defend artificial ingredients in processed foods. Why is that a problem? If ingredients are safe, they are safe. It doesn’t matter if they are artificial or natural.
You might want things on your body that can go inside your body but there are ingredients that we eat (e.g. cinnamon) that you certainly wouldn’t want to put on your skin. I believe consumers want products that work and are safe to use. The vast majority of people are not looking to eat their cosmetics.
I agree people should listen to consumers. They shouldn’t lie to them by telling them synthetic cosmetics are unsafe. They aren’t.
I agree 100%. I am working endlessly to come up with the facts on all the ingredients I use and placing it on my website. That way, at least, my clients can read the FACTS and make a knowledgeable decision. The scare tactics that some of these groups are using should be illegal, I swear. I’m shocked at some of the things they are listing as “bad”. Ridiculous, really.
Paul, thank you very much for your comment! It is so reassuring to hear an unbias opinion from an expert. Do you work in the filed of skin care formulations? I am working on a new project and would need a formulator.