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Challenges in Cosmetic Formulation

by james.runkle@drummondst.com

Formulating cosmetic products presents many challenges, ranging from regulations, product safety, performance, aesthetics, consumer demographic trends and claim substantiation, in addition to media scrutiny, etc.  To be a successful formulation chemist, one must toggle many priorities with limited resources of time and money, while maintaining market launch timing.  In this blog, a few of the selected challenges will be discussed.

Every Ingredient Should Have a Function.  A formulation chemist should understand the structure-property relationship and the role of each raw material in a formula.  Raw materials are tools for creating formulation options and contributing to tactile sensory, stability and efficaciousness of the formulation.  There are many cosmetic ingredients with multiple functions, providing benefits that meet consumer demands.  By understanding the ingredient function and interactions in the complex composition, chemists can develop better formulation strategies.  At times, a formulator would be asked to “tweak” an existing formulation in order to replace an ingredient in response to a supply chain issue, regulatory constraints or to meet some sensory needs requested by marketing or consumers.  Simply piling ingredients into a formula does not always provide a solution to the problem.  In fact, it can backfire and create instability, or other unwanted issues.  It is important to be familiar with the latest raw material technology by developing long-term partnership with strategic teams (both internal and external contacts).

How to Knockoff a Cosmetic Formula?1 One way to quickly become familiar with a cosmetic formulation is to “knockoff” (or duplicate) an existing formula.  Perry Romanowski published a 10-step strategy to essentially “reverse engineer” a competitor’s formulation.  This is by no means to simply create a “me-too” product, but to thoroughly understand formulation strategy and applications of raw material technology developed by competition.  It should serve as a good practice point for a novice and sometime even a seasoned formulator.  Again, the key points in Perry’s method are to (1) understand raw materials used in a formula by studying its full ingredient list (FIL), (2) read competitor’s patents and publications, and last but not least (3) create, revise and test prototypes, until the desired aesthetics are obtained.

Formulating Existing Formulation Platform.  As mentioned, a cosmetic formulator could be asked to “reformulate” an existing product formulation.  This is typically for continuation of a franchise with small modifications to the marketed formula, or a product launch with new claims, albeit based on existing formulas.  This approach can, for the most part, save time and resources on efficacy and safety testing, in addition to minimizing the potential risks from regulation and/or right-to-market.  Tony O’Lenick describes, in his many publications, “controlled modifications” of existing formulation. It is achieved by: 2 (1) minimally disruptive technology, and (2) functional formulation.  The first approach uses low concentrations of polymeric surfactant(s) to alter aesthetics of existing formulation.  The second strategy pertains to raw material replacement in a formula, i.e., replacing raw materials based on how they function in the formulation.   For certain formulation types, especially mass-market products, it is also imperative to make certain of cost effectiveness for the final formulation.

Developing New Formulation Chassis.  This brings the most challenging and rewarding experience for a formulator, i.e. to create a brand new formulation chassis with a new formulation composition that gives rise to new and enjoyable consumer use experience.  However, the challenges for formulators exist in many areas: (1) developing a stable formula with a plausible right-to-market, and more excitingly, new patent opportunities in the IP landscape, (2) meeting the microbiological, safety and regulatory requirements for the specific product launch markets, (3) achieving efficient scale-up production from laboratory bench experience, and for sustainable business sake, (4) meeting the consumer demographic trends and marketing needs, including claim substantiation and consumer communication, etc.  Due to these multifaceted challenges, this type of formulation is typically managed as a longer-term research project.

Product Performance and Sustainability from a Formula Perspective.  Long before the pandemic of 2020, the personal care industry has seen the rise of “clean beauty” demand from consumers, while the pandemic seems to have accelerated this demand.3  By definition, “clean beauty” product formulation requires the use of safe and non-toxic ingredients with proven efficacy.4  To take it further, we shall take into consideration sustainable development, in order to counteract global warming and environmental changes.4,5  What does it all mean for a cosmetic formulator?  It begins with selection of bio-based, renewable ingredients with respect of biodiversity and societal equality, and minimizing the use of fossil-based, non-renewable raw materials.  During formulation stages, one must also bear in mind the potential water usage to minimize the water footprint, and incorporation of as much as possible energy-efficient process for scale-up during production.6


Cosmetic formulation has the most exciting challenges in combining science and art in response to the unmet needs from consumers.  A formulation scientist is an artist that creates new textures and influences the sensory perception of the customers.  In this ever-changing world of cosmetic and personal care industry, formulators are the primary driving force of technology and innovation.  No matter what formulation challenges at hand, product performance and sustainability will undoubtedly be the future of cosmetic formulation.


The author would like to thank the kind review and comments from Giorgio Dell’Acqua, Hani Fares, Ben Blinder, Howard Epstein, Hy Bui, Ryuji Hara and Ronni Weinkauf.


  1. Perry Romanowski, https://chemistscorner.com/
  2. Tony O’Lenick, http://www.scientificspectator.com/tony-olenick-compilation-of-articles/
  3. NYSCC “At Home Live Series – Clean Beauty”, November 19, 2020.
  4. Giorgio Dell’Acqua, Clean Beauty – Beauty Horizons, December 15, 2020 https://digital.teknoscienze.com/beauty_horizons_1_2020_ww
  5. L’Oréal Sustainability Commitment for 2030. https://mediaroom.loreal.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/EN_Booklet_LOreal-for-the-Future_2020.pdf
  6. L’Oréal Product Environmental & Social Impact Labelling Methodologies. https://www.loreal.com/-/media/project/loreal/brand-sites/corp/master/lcorp/documents-media/publications/loreal-pil-methodologie-en01.pdf

Dr. Catherine Chiou holds a BS degree in Chemistry from National Taiwan University and a Ph.D. in Bioinorganic Chemistry from the University of Minnesota.  Catherine’s NIH Postdoctoral fellowship training in Synthetic Chemistry took place at Harvard University.  Her first industrial position was with Unilever Research US in the laundry bleach research program and machine dishwashing detergent research, including I&I applications.

Catherine began her career in cosmetic field at L’Oréal USA in 2001 in the DIMP (International Raw Materials Department).  She worked on all aspects of “innovative raw material” functions, including scouting for new supplier innovations, and managing supplier relationships.  In addition, Catherine took on a role within the PCPC INCI Committee.

Catherine is currently an Associate Principal Scientist at L’Oréal USA in the Cosmetic Application Domain, focusing on developing skin cleansing and makeup removing technologies.  Prior to the current position, she has worked in the skin care research and innovation lab as a senior formulator, contributing towards development of platform technologies and several global launches of skin care treatment products.  She is an inventor for more than 20 US and international patents.