We’re kicking off 2020 with a bit of a multi-part guide on how to research your ingredients—a super important skill! I often hear from people who have bought something but they don’t remember what for, so they’re left with an ingredient with no defined purpose or use. I want to empower you to be able to figure out what to do with that ingredient on your own—you shouldn’t need a blogger for that sort of thing when there are so many wonderful resources out there!
Most of the ingredients we use are manufactured by companies that want us to use their ingredients, so much like that printed-on-the-can casserole recipe using that specific tinned soup, they give us great information on how to turn their emulsifier or thickener into something fabulous. You just need to know where to look and what to look for! Today’s post is about the type of information you should be looking for as you dive into your research—we’ll talk about where to find that information in a future post 😊
What do you need to know?
Pssst… you might notice that these headings have some commonalities with the information I collect about ingredients in the Humblebee & Me DIY Encyclopedia, which is a pretty good place to do some research 😉
Many products are sold using either a common name or a trade/brand name instead of the INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) name. You want to be sure you know what the INCI name is because it will tell you what you really have—especially in the case of trade names as different manufacturers/sellers can have different trade names for the same product INCI. Homecrafter suppliers may not be allowed to resell an ingredient from a manufacturer under the original trade name, so they may devise their own, or they may choose to sell the ingredient on INCI alone.
In the case of a common name, you’ll likely encounter those for ingredients that are, well, more common—carrier oils, butters, waxes, essential oils, etc. For example, you are much more likely to find a product labelled “cocoa butter” (the common name) as opposed to Theobroma Cacao Seed Butter (the INCI). The INCI will not tell you if the ingredient is refined or not, so in the case of butters and carrier oils it is definitely worth looking at both names + product descriptions. This is also true for countries of origin and processing methods.
Trade names are more common for products like surfactants, emulsifiers, preservatives, and other more processed ingredients. For instance, the INCI for Olivem1000 (Olvem1000 is the trade name) is Cetearyl Olivate (and) Sorbitan Olivate, while the INCI for the similar-sounding Olivem300 is Olive Oil PEG-7 Esters. Despite the similar-sounding trade names, the INCIs show that these two ingredients are not the same.
Ingredients can be sold under many different trade names for two big reasons: suppliers renaming them, and multiple companies manufacturing them and using different trade names.
One example of an ingredient sold under different names due to re-naming is an emulsifying wax with the INCI Glyceryl Stearate (and) Cetearyl Alcohol (and) Sodium Stearyl Lactylate. I have found this product sold as “Emulsimulse”, “Ritamulse SCG”, “NatureMulse”, “Emulsifying Wax SCG NF”, and “ECOmulse”. “Ritamulse SCG” is the trade name assigned to it by the company that makes it (Rita Corp), but it can be found sold under several other names—and it’s the INCI that gives that away. If you were purchasing on the basis of the trade name alone you might end up with multiple tubs of the same product.
To further add the possibility for confusion, there are also many products that are manufactured by different companies that will have different trade names, but the same INCI. A search for “Cocamidopropyl Betaine” on UL Prospector turns up the following product names that all have the same INCI: OLI-4402 Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Caltaine® C-35, BETADET® HR, BETADET® HR-50K, MIRATAINE® 50 OC, TEGO® Betain F 50… and 50+ more. Suppliers will not always tell you which brand of an ingredient you’re getting, so for that reason, it’s generally best to get as much information as you can from the supplier so you know it’s specific to the product they’re selling (I’ve found drastically different values for pH and melting points across different brands for products with the same INCI value but different manufacturers).
Sometimes brand/manufacturer really matters—I know bath bomb makers are very conscious of the precise brands and grades of baking soda and citric acid they use to create their products because some types of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) will produce very different results than others. If you’re making something with a familiar ingredient from a new supplier, start small and keep an eye on things to make sure things are going as usual! If something goes a bit cattywampus, a slight (but meaningful) variation in an ingredient may be the reason.
Bonus: checking and knowing INCIs allows you to better compare prices across different suppliers!
Purpose/ job/ why it would be present in a formulation
This is possibly the most important thing to know/understand when it comes to an ingredient. If you don’t know what it does/why it would be useful, how are you going to use it? Generally speaking, this information should be provided by your supplier, but it might be pretty generic—it’s an “emulsifier” or “preservative”, but perhaps not much more. Some suppliers are better about providing extensive data than others; I’ve found Lotion Crafter to be fantastic for providing documentation, so even if you didn’t purchase the ingredient from Lotion Crafter it’s worth checking to see if they sell the same product (look at the INCI!) and then referring to their documentation on it.
If you can find a “fact sheet” or “data sheet” for the ingredient, that’s great. These are documents created by suppliers and/or manufacturers that often detail the benefits/uses of the ingredient. These documents can contain studies about all kinds of different elements of the product, sample formulations, lists of uses & benefits, explanations of how the ingredient works, and more. If you look up BTMS-25 on a supplier website you’ll likely learn that it’s a cationic emulsifier that’s good for hair conditioner. If you look it up on UL Prospector and download the datasheet from Croda for their INCROQUAT™ BEHENYL TMS you’ll get a five-page document comparing it to alternative conditioning ingredients, detailing how quaternary ammonium compounds work, and more. Keep in mind that these documents are marketing materials, and as such, it’s safe to assume some bias towards the product.
You’ll also want to think critically about the ingredient and why it might be present. Let’s take a moment to think about cocoa butter; it often smells like chocolate, so scent could be a reason for inclusion. It’s a hard, brittle fat, so it would also contribute hardening/structure to a product—but this would depend on concentration. It’s also a smooth, relatively fast-absorbing emollient, and it would bring those characteristics to a product as well. Which of those jobs is important to the specific product/formulation? Some of them? All of them?
Appearance & scent
Fairly self-explanatory. Please smell things before you work with them so you don’t accidentally ruin something by adding a really stinky ingredient to your product. Some versions/batches of ingredients are smellier than others, so while I might not have had an issue with a certain amount of an ingredient in a formulation, it might end up being a total stink fest for you if we have different suppliers, or if your nose is more sensitive than mine.
Also, be sure to note viscosity; if you want to make a mist but one of the ingredients is really thick, will you still be able to mist the end product? If you’re making something liquid will this new ingredient solidify it, or vice versa?
Usage rate: both recommended and maximum allowable, if available
How much do you need to get the job done, and what is the most you can use? These values aren’t always the same.
Suppliers will usually provide a range for recommended usage rates, and that can give you a really good idea of how much you should buy. If a preservative is used at 0.1–0.5% then you know a 30mL (1fl oz) bottle will go a long way! If a carrier oil can be used at up to 100% you might want to get more than 30mL (1fl oz) if the price is right.
I like to check with Cosmetics Info to see if they have a maximum allowable concentration listed from the Cosmetics Ingredient Review (CIR). (You can also check the CIR website, but I find Cosmetics Info to be more user-friendly—the CIR is likely to give you a 40+ page PDF report to go through!) If you check the Cosmetics Info entry for Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate (SCI) you’ll see it is listed at “safe for use as a cosmetic ingredient at 50% in rinse-off products and 17% in leave-on products.” I have found many different usage recommendations on supplier websites, with 3–40% being the most common. That recommendation certainly makes sense for many types of formulations (50% of Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate (SCI) would be a lot for a liquid product!), but it’s good to know what the safe maximum is as well.
Some ingredients (think carrier oils & butters) will have recommended usage rates from suppliers that make sense for certain sorts of formulations (for example, New Directions Aromatics recommends using cocoa butter at 5–20% in soap)—these tend to be more guidelines than actual “rules”. You could make soap from 100% cocoa butter if you wanted to!
When it comes to essential oils, I recommend Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals by Robert Tisserand & Rodney Young. Essential oils are a vast and complex topic, and each one has its own considerations. As such, blanket recommendations aren’t terribly helpful.
What is your ingredient soluble in—water, oil, alcohol, propylene glycol, nothing?
This comes up most often with surfactants and emulsifiers, though it’s always a good thing to pay attention to. Is your ingredient anionic (negatively charged), cationic (positively charged), non-ionic (no charge), or amphoteric (charge varies with pH)? Non-ionic and amphoteric ingredients generally play nicely with other ingredients, charged or not. As anionic and cationic ingredients will have opposing charges, combining them in products can cause instability.
Required pH Range
Some ingredients require a certain pH range to function optimally (or at all). Note if this is the case for your ingredient; this is most common with actives and preservatives, but can also pop up with gelling agents and surfactants that can vary in viscosity with pH.
Melting/ Combustion Point
So you know when things will melt, and so you don’t set things on fire! Give this a read for more information on melting points in anhydrous products. Keep in mind that volatile liquids like cyclomethicone can have very low flash/combustion points, and that can present safety concerns.
Skin feel/ absorption speed
This is most relevant for ingredients that are used in higher concentrations, especially in leave-on products. Think oils, butters, cosmetic powders, waxes, etc. You aren’t likely to notice the absorption speed of something that’s used at 1%.
Key strengths & weaknesses
This category can be pretty broad and can encompass all kinds of information. Does your research show a carbomer is especially tolerant of electrolytes? Strength! Does an emulsifier also have great moisturizing properties? Strength! Something is really stinky? Probably a weakness. A new ingredient requires a very specific pH to function? Not a weakness, per se, but definitely a consideration—especially if other ingredients you want to you might require different pH environments.
Remember to keep in mind that almost all strengths and weaknesses can be inverted—a strength becomes a weakness and vice versa—in some situation or another. Maybe you don’t want that emulsion to be extra moisturizing, so suddenly that moisturizing emulsifier isn’t the best choice. Perhaps you love the smell of that stinky ingredient, so it becomes an asset!
How to work with it
Does the ingredient go in the oil phase or the water phase? Is it heat-sensitive? Combustible? Incompatible with certain ingredients? Does it need to be pre-melted, pre-dispersed, or pre-something-else’d? Know these things!
Storage & shelf life
Pretty self-explanatory! The shorter the shelf life, the smaller the amount you should purchase.
Ok, that’s my list! Did I miss anything? Leave it in the comments!