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September 9, 2021
Science & Sustainability

Inside the Bottle: You Don’t Need to be a Chemist to Understand Cosmetic Formulation

Yashi Shrestha

Understanding cosmetic formulation is fundamental to succeeding in today’s transparency driven market. We know what you’re thinking....cosmetic formulation sounds absolutely daunting! It is very much a scientific process but it also allows for flexibility and creativity. Much like baking, there are some basic conventions that apply and there is always room for originality. 

Formulation usually begins with a vision. However, with thousands of ingredients to choose from in the market, building a formula can be very overwhelming and even when you already have ingredients in mind, turning them into a finished product is complicated. From ensuring you have the right texture, to meeting safety and sustainability standards, there is a lot to consider. 

In this post, we’ll take you inside the bottle by providing you with an overview of the essential components of a cosmetic formula. Whether you plan to create your own formula or you need to review one provided by a formulator, this post will help you tackle either of those tasks - fearlessly.

Creating a base

Solvent + Functional ingredients = Base

The most abundant ingredient in any cosmetic formula is the solvent. Solvents act as carriers in the formula which means they help to dissolve and deliver the active ingredients. For example, solvents make skin creams spreadable, toning mists sprayable, and eyeliners glidable. A base, which is the foundation of a formula, can be water-based, oil-based, alcohol-based or powder-based. In each of these cases, the solvent determines the “base”. 

The next step in building your base is the addition of ingredients commonly known as functional ingredients. These materials define the purpose of the finished product. Some examples of a functional ingredient include: a cleansing agent if you are formulating a shampoo, an exfoliant if you are creating a scrub or a colorant to create the perfect shade of eyeshadow. 

Ensuring stability

Once you have your base established, you'll need to ensure that the product can withstand different environmental stressors such as temperature changes, moisture levels, light or UV exposure and bacterial growth. Selecting the right stabilizers will help your products defend against microbial growth, withstand extreme weather conditions, and extend the product shelf life.   Some examples of stabilizers include: pH boosters, preservatives, and chelating agents. 

The pH is especially important as it not only impacts the functionality of the ingredients, it is also a key to maintaining healthy skin. A high pH can be corrosive to the skin’s natural barrier and can often lead to severe skin irritation. On the other hand, very low pH can be useful in treatment products (ex. chemical peels) but is not advisable for everyday use.

💡Fun fact: Skin pH can vary by individual, life stage, and location on the body. Research cites an average range between 4 and 6. 

Another important step in ensuring stability is the addition of emulsifiers. Formulating skincare products often requires combining immiscible ingredients such as oil and water to create an emulsion. The emulsifier prevents the mixture from separating once it has formed.

Creating aesthetic appeal

Creating a product is complicated - we know. Consumers want functionality, but they also expect an experience. A host of scientific and psychological resources have been devoted to this very concept, sensory perception in cosmetics. Research shows that aesthetically pleasing products leave a lasting impression on consumers. So how do you balance functionality with aesthetics? Balance is achieved through strategic selection of ingredients! Ingredients such as thickeners, texturizers, colorants, fragrance, and flavor agents can improve the sensory experience.

You'll need to consider at least three out of five senses (sight, smell, feel) and sometimes taste if the product is applied on the lips. Many ingredients can impact the color or smell of the product and it is important to thoughtfully select each ingredient to meet desired aesthetics. If you are formulating a clear shampoo, you’ll opt for raw materials that are clear, white or translucent after processing. Opaque ingredients will affect the final appearance of the product so search for clear alternatives instead. Similarly, if you want the product to have a light scent without adding fragrance, some materials have innate scents such as plant extracts and floral waters.

Claims & Benefits

Once you have an aesthetically pleasing, effective, and stable base in place, you can begin to focus on providing your customers with benefits through active ingredients. Also referred to as key ingredients, actives are the key to launching a marketable product. You can often find these ingredients highlighted on the front of the packaging or mentioned in the product description. 

Active ingredients in cosmetics products have a wider scope than in over-the-counter drug products. In cosmetics, active ingredients can be a nourishing oil sourced from the Amazonian forest, the cactus extract that can withstand torrid heat, or a botanical extract that replicates retinol’s anti-aging benefits but without the associated irritation. Actives can be the  differentiating factors for a product.   For example, if a consumer is shopping for a hair conditioner to help manage breakage, the product with strengthening ingredients will capture their attention. 

There is a recommended use level for every active ingredient, at which it is most effective in providing the benefits. These levels are assigned based on clinical studies and claim substantiation tests performed by the ingredient manufacturers. Using the ingredients at the recommended use levels will ensure the ingredients are indeed active and your product level claims are authentic. Within Novi, you can find this information on the “Technical Details” tab of the trade material’s profile. 

Brand Positioning & Distribution Strategy

Every brand has their own unique market positioning. Whether your brand aims to be vegan suitable, gluten-free, 100% bio-based or even have preservative-free products - a formulation guideline exists. Your brand can differentiate itself from competitors by incorporating new and innovative ingredients into product development. Our “Marketplace Highlights” newsletter showcases unique packaging components, the newest fragrances and the most innovative ingredients in the market to keep you up to date on current trends.

Raw material suppliers are constantly innovating new ingredients as well as redefining traditional ingredients. Previously, a brand looking for protein had one option, animal based. Today, dozens of alternatives exist but can be difficult to find. On Novi, we make this easy through AI technology. Our policy filters incorporate factors you select on a source level. For example, by formulating with a verified vegan suitable ingredient, your brand is in the best position to achieve the coveted "Vegan Certified" seal. Formulating on Novi ensures that all of your ingredients are in compliance with brand standards, retailer ingredient policies and sustainability goals.


By considering all of these factors, the brand can measure and mitigate risks on a product level:

  • Functional ingredients that deliver → one step closer to award winning
  • Effective & appropriate use of stabilizers (used according to product characteristics - pH, etc) → challenge/microbial test will be favorable; positive stability testing in various conditions
  • The right combination of aesthetic boosters → ensures consumers will have an excellent sensory experience
  • Using an active ingredient at the recommended use level → higher chance of the product having a positive clinical study or other consumer testing
  • Sourcing the right ingredients → Meet sustainability goals, consistent brand positioning and more likely to receive retailer/certifying body approval;


Congratulations, you’re an honorary chemist! Now that you’ve been equipped with the knowledge of what goes inside the bottle, you can begin to confidently build your dream product. Remember that each component of a cosmetic formulation is an intricate puzzle piece, with a unique but equal contribution to the final product. Regardless of whether you are a veteran brand, an up & coming brand or even a pre-launch brand - Novi has a solution for every aspect of the product development process. You can source ingredients, build your formula and find a compatible packaging all in one platform. Since Novi processes all relevant data at scale, you can develop your products feeling confident that they meet your brand standards, formulation goals as well as the criteria defined by your distribution strategy. 

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