As we welcome 2022 I wanted to suggest a few “New Year’s Resolutions” for formulation—these are lessons I’ve learned over the years that have taught me so much, and I wanted to share them with you. There’s certainly no pressure to adopt any of ’em, but if you’re looking to level up your formulating this year I think working one or two of these “resolutions” into your workflow will do wonders ❤️

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Try your ideas & be ok with them failing.

One of the biggest types of questions I get are people asking if they can try something different from what the formulation specifies, and if that change they want to try will work. I really want to encourage you to just try it. Do it and see! There is no better way to learn.

Not sure where to start/worried about experimenting safely? Start small. I recommend perusing the Substitution lists I include at the end of my formulations to get an idea for what is likely to be a totally a-ok change to test out. You can also look up the ingredients in the Humblebee & Me DIY Encyclopedia; every entry provides substitution suggestions. Start by making a few different versions of one of my formulations using some of the substitution suggestions I provide. Read up on the original and new ingredient and make a hypothesis about how the swap will impact the product. Make observations, take notes. How did that different carrier oil impact your lotion? What did you think of cetyl alcohol instead of cetearyl alcohol in that balm? Was your hypothesis correct?

Another place to explore new ideas is with process—the how of the making. Why a certain tool is called for, and would another might work instead? Could that ingredient could go in the cool down phase? Why is that water soluble ingredient in the oil phase? Try it as written, and try it the way you’re wondering about. See what happens 😄 Maybe you’ll find the “as written” has some logic to it… maybe you’ll find it’s someone else’s “I’ve just always done it that way” and you’ve learned something new!

The Tale of the Curdling Body Wash

Try things you’ve read don’t/won’t/can’t work.

In another round of “try it and see”, I’d really encourage you to try things you’ve read will fail/be awful. Start small to reduce potential waste and set out to see for yourself.

Sometimes you’ll make something that is pretty darn bad, but there’s a lot of room under the umbrella of “bad”. What kind of bad is it? Is it bad for a body butter, but could make a great lip balm? Is it too greasy for a body butter, but that greasiness would work wonderfully for a massage product? Think out of the box! What is the formulation at a very basic level? What characteristics does it have, and what sort of product might those characteristics be a feature for rather than a flaw?

If what you make is truly, unusably awful, figure out why that happened so you never do it again (or, more likely, so you can recognize it when it happens again 😂).

Sometimes you’ll learn that a “don’t do that” from one person is based in personal preference rather than formulation failure. Perhaps you’ll agree with that person, but perhaps you won’t! I know I was wary of high glycerine content in formulations for ages after reading lots of glycerin = unbelievably tacky and awful. I eventually tried it and was very pleasantly surprised!

One of the boundaries I’ve been enjoying playing with in this realm is preservation. I used to immediately write off lots of ingredients and ideas because I thought they’d be impossible to preserve. A few years ago I finally started actually trying those ingredients and formulation ideas and holy moly, that opened up a whole new world of possibilities!

Stop trying to find hard answers to soft questions.

The world of formulation is full of big, soft, squishy questions that don’t have concise answers. You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to find hard answers for those squishy questions. Learn to recognize soft, unanswerable questions and learn to be ok with an answer being “it depends”. In fact, I think there’s a good argument to be made for expecting the answer to be “it depends”—from there you can start introducing specifics and teasing out some firmer answers.

Examples of soft questions (and some of the many many followup questions that would be required to get anywhere close to an answer):

  • What is the best preservative?
    • What else is in the formulation? What is the formulation? Who is the formulation for?
  • Can I use a different preservative than the one called for in this formulation?
    • What else is in the formulation? What is the formulation? Who is the formulation for? Does the formulation contain anything that conflicts with the preservative?
  • How much essential oil can I use?
    • Which essential oil(s)? What is the formulation? Where will it be used?
  • What’s the best emulsifier?
    • What do you want to make? What are you looking to achieve?
  • How much emulsifier do I need?
    • Which emulsifier? What’s the formulation? What are you looking to achieve?
  • What’s the rule for using a liquid emulsifier instead of a solid one?
    • Which liquid emulsifier and which solid one? What is the formulation? There is no simple “rule of thumb” for conversions like this—depending on what precise emulsifiers you’re looking at, it may not even be possible without dramatically re-working the formulation.
  • How long will this formulation last?
    • What is in the formulation? In what concentrations? How is it packaged? How will it be stored? How will it be used? How good was your GMP?

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Be curious & research

Research your ingredients.

Read ingredient lists for everything you can get your hands on. See something you don’t recognize on an ingredient list? Research it!

Look at formulations (from manufacturers, suppliers, and other makers who share theirs), and analyze them. How big is each phase? How much of each ingredient did they use? Look at ingredient ratios! Are any of those levels really different from what they’re used to? Which preservative did they use? Is there a listed target pH? What’s emulsifying it? What’s stabilizing it? How (and why) does it work?

Wonder why something was done a certain way? Research it, think about it, and try to figure out if it had to done that way, or if it could be done another way. Think it could be done another way? Try it and see!

Read all sorts of things that you aren’t certain will be useful—you never know what’ll float to to the top of your brain at a later date when you need it!

My Review of Modern Cosmetics: Ingredients of Natural Origin

Let things percolate

Many of my best formulations and biggest formulation breakthroughs have come from giving myself the time to let things percolate; from stepping away and coming back to challenges. Work on something until you stop making progress, and then set it aside. Continue to create, learn, and research, and eventually come back to the project when inspiration strikes (this often happens when your other formulating efforts lead you to a new idea that you can try with an older project!).

Once you think something is done, let the actual formulation sit for a while, too. Leave it on a shelf for months to see if the formulation holds. Does it split? Thin? Thicken? Harden? Spoil? Label, date, and wait!

Sometimes percolation will kick in months or years after you thought you were done with something—that’s a big part of my Bee Better series!

Extend your timelines

Give your projects and goals more time than you think you’ll need; you’ll likely be glad you had it, and your end result will probably be better. It’s far better to finish something early than to panic about missing a deadline (especially if it’s a self-imposed deadline!).

Those are my suggestions! Do you have any formulating resolutions this year? What formulation resolutions would you recommend to a new formulator?

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