Welcome to part two of “How to Research Your Ingredients”! Part one was all about what you should be finding out about your ingredients, and the nuance involved in some of those categories (make sure you’ve read it!). Part two is going to be about how and where to find that information! I’ve divided it into two sections—the first covers the sorts of documents/paragraphs/lists to look for when doing your research, and the types of information you’re likely to find there. The second section discusses places to find those documents/paragraphs/etc.—some more general and some quite specific. This one’s a doozy, so let’s dive in.
Places to Look: Documents, etc.
Giving product descriptions a good read-through is usually a great place to start; any good description should give you a general idea of what an ingredient is and what it does in a formulation. They can be pretty jargony, so if you don’t understand something, google it.
Formulation guidelines & notes/warnings
Many suppliers will provide a list of guidelines and vital information for formulating with an ingredient. This typically includes information like usage ranges, solubility, heat tolerance, required pH range, and possibly notes/warnings/considerations that are pertinent to the ingredient (incompatibilities with other ingredients, the potential for pH drift, etc.).
Suggested products to use ingredients in
This is usually a fairly generalized list of ideas that can spark your imagination and help contextualize ingredients. These lists are rarely anywhere close to exhaustive.
SDS (Safety Data Sheets)
Safety Data Sheets are something you should have for every ingredient you own (save them into a folder on your computer or Google Drive for easy searching). They’ll often contain useful information about the ingredient like pH, solubility, combustion point, and any risks associated with working with the ingredient (need for a dust mask, combustion points, etc.). It’s worth keeping in mind that SDS documents describe an ingredient in its pure state, and we rarely use our ingredients in their pure states, so while the information is good to have, don’t dismiss an ingredient typically used at 1% as unsafe because the SDS emphatically tells you not to eat it, etc.
You’ll probably notice the “First Aid Measures” section in SDS is usually pretty boilerplate. For instance, this New Directions Aromatics SDS for cocoa butter recommends this first aid protocol in the event cocoa butter comes into contact with the skin: “Remove contaminated clothing. Wash area with soap and water. If irritation occurs, get medical attention.” If you’ve ever worked with cocoa butter you’ll know it’s lovely on the skin—pure, undiluted cocoa butter is a beautiful emollient, and unless you have an allergy to it, it’s perfectly safe to have on your skin—so the first aid measure there, for that particular ingredient, is a bit much. As always, use your common sense.
Fact Sheets / Specification Sheets / Technical Data Sheets / Certificates of Analysis
What you’ll find in these documents varies from source to source. Individual suppliers will usually keep things consistent (Lotion Crafter, for instance, supplies both “Fact Sheets” & “Spec Sheets” and they contain different types of information, while the Spec Sheets from Making Cosmetics are more like the Fact Sheets from Lotion Crafter and their Certificates of Analysis are more like Lotion Crafter’s Spec Sheets [all links are for the company’s caprylic/capric triglyceride product]). These documents are usually an easy-to-refer-to collection of all the must-know information about your ingredient—descriptions, INCI, uses, usage rates, shelf life, etc. Carrier oils and butters will usually contain a fatty acid breakdown. I’d recommend downloading and reading everything that’s available.
Quality & Regulatory Information
This document is less commonly shared (New Directions Aromatics makes them readily available!). You’ll find information on how the ingredient was produced, claims about it, allergen information, and more.
GCMS Analysis (Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry Analysis)
This is a very cool report you can get for your essential oils (depending on where you purchase them) detailing their chemical composition. New Directions Aromatics (sample) and Mystic Moments (sample) are both great about providing this data for the essential oils they sell. The availability of a GCMS is usually a good indicator that the essential oil is authentic—I’ve yet to see a dodgy Amazon seller supply one—but not all suppliers (especially smaller ones) will have/share them (though if they are re-selling essential oils from somewhere like New Directions Aromatics you’d just need to know that, and then you could look into getting the report straight from them). Chemical composition information for fragrance oils is usually found in the SDS in the “composition” section, though it is generally provided as ranges rather than precise percentages (Sample from New Directions Aromatics for their “Christmas Eve” fragrance oil).
Manufacturers and suppliers create and readily share sample formulations using their ingredients to give you ideas on how to use them, and they are an incredible way to learn. There are nearly 10k (ten thousand!) freely available on UL Prospector (discussed in the next section), and hundreds (if not thousands) more on supplier websites and in industry publications. There are so many free sample formulas out there for you to look at and learn from! Here’s a random sampling of some of the ones on UL Prospector: “Milk Becoming Water Tonic” Make-up Remover from SEPPIC, “OptiMiracle” Foundation from Dow, “Play Do” Shapeable Body Moisturizer from BASF, “Soft & Full” Mascara from Dow, ‘Silky Gloves’ Bio-Collagene Hand Cream from The Innovation Company®… and literally thousands more. They are just starting points—you likely won’t have all the ingredients, you won’t be equipped to make all of them at home, some will be better than others, and some will be more useful/relevant than others, but you can still learn from ’em. Analyze, research, make things (small batches!), take notes, and learn up a storm!
A good sample formula is basically a jump-start for using a new ingredient and/or for making a new type of product. For ingredients—not only can you see how it’s used (pre-dispersed, melted, cold processed, etc.), but you can also see how it is used in the context of a full formula (rather than just being told “use at 5–10%”). If it’s an emulsifier, how does the percentage used in the formulation relate to the size of the overall oil and water phases? What is it paired with? For thickeners—what is the format of the final product (bar/cream/body wash/etc.), and how much is used? You can use that information to start to understand how to work with the ingredient and how to develop your own formulations using it. If you’re looking at formulations for a new sort of product—what’s in it? What job is each ingredient doing? Could you do that job with a different ingredient? Does that job need to be done at all? How does everything come together to create a functional product? Research, experiment, and learn!
These sorts of documents will typically be prepared and shared by the manufacturer of the ingredient and can be everything from multi-page reports on the performance of the ingredient compared to similar ingredients to beautiful brochures to catalogue-type documents. Out of everything else I’ve listed these sorts of materials are most likely to be biased towards the product, but they usually still contain valuable information—just don’t take all the claims in them as gospel truth until you’ve got some experience with the ingredient.
Relevant scientific studies & peer-reviewed papers
These sorts of reports and studies are unlikely to focus on any one brand of product but can be wonderful ways to learn about how certain categories work in our products and with the skin. As always, be critical when reviewing these sorts of reports to ensure the information presented is relevant and unbiased. A sample size of three? Probably not hugely relevant. Is there zero human data, and/or are the exposure levels/types vastly different from what you’d typically use? Was the study sponsored by a company that would benefit from the results (for example, a soap company sponsoring a study on the benefits of soap)? Think critically and use common sense when deciding how much weight to give a study.
Places to Look: Sources
This list certainly isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a good starting point for your research. Everything here is straight from industry (manufacturers, suppliers, industry publications, etc.) or recognized experts like Robert Tisserand, and there is a truly overwhelming amount of information available from all these sources! This information isn’t precious or secret (and it’s usually free!), you just need to know where to look. These sources are where I find much of the information you’ll find in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia, surfactant table, and preservative table. Opinions and experiences (especially your own!) are also valuable, but given how subjective (and readily available!) they are it’s a good idea to start research with facts—from there you can layer experiences on top of a solid understanding of the ingredient, which will often help you make better sense of your experiences!
The companies you purchase your ingredients from should be the first place you check for information about them. If the company doesn’t provide much data on its products you might want to consider shopping elsewhere if you have the option to. I’d consider bare minimum information to be the INCI of the ingredient, a basic description of what it does, some recommended usages, usage rates, solubility, any big must-knows, and shelf life. More information is always better, and information needs vary from product to product—use your common sense. Many suppliers use tabs on their product pages to sort this information, so make sure you’re clicking on those! It’s also worth reading through any available reviews and/or Q&A sections on product pages if suppliers respond to them (TKB Trading is great for this). There’s often great information to be gleaned about how to work with your ingredients there.
If your supplier doesn’t provide a lot of information on an ingredient you can also try checking with other suppliers that sell the same ingredient and provide better documentation. Make sure you’re reading part 1 to understand some of the nuances of doing that, but it can be a good workaround if the suppliers in your country don’t supply great data. Google Translate can really be your friend here!
This is a fabulous and massive industry database with colossal amounts of information about every ingredient you could ever dream of working with (and then some!). As of this writing, there are over 21k ingredient entries! UL Prospector is always one of my first stops to learn more about my ingredients. Their free membership provides instant access to all kinds of SDS, marketing materials, sample formulations, spec sheets, and more. Sign up is open to those with relevant business interests and has to be approved by UL Prospector; you can learn more here. If you have a “work” email address (one at a domain you own, not a free server email) be sure to sign up with that; my initial registration using a Gmail address was denied.
You can often find the same information available on UL Prospector and more on manufacturer websites (Dow, Univar, Innospec, Stepan, etc.), though of course it is limited to the products made by that specific manufacturer. Some provide the information freely, some require registration, and some will need to approve your registration before they allow you access. Different manufacturers will have different requirements, but if you have any sort of a business in this area that’s usually sufficient to sign up. Signing up will usually get you a subscription to their email newsletters as well.
I love this database! It contains extensive, nuanced information about the ingredients we use in our products. I recommend it over the more popular EWG Skin Deep database—click that link to learn why. In addition to their extensive ingredient database, you’ll also find articles on how the industry is regulated, information on specific product categories, a blog, and articles discussing common safety misconceptions about ingredients. Make sure you explore all the tabs under each entry!
The reports shared by the CIR are typically long and quite dense (Command/Control + F is your friend!), but are packed with great information about ingredient safety (including how it was determined) and usage. Entries on CosmeticsInfo.org will often refer to findings from the CIR in a more distilled manner (with links to the full report), which is a nice shortcut.
This is an industry magazine/website that has tons of articles about cosmetic formulation, relevant research, ingredients, skincare, hair care, and more. You can also get access to sample formulations from a variety of manufacturers. Digital access is free, but you do have to sign up. (Be sure to check out their ingredient search as well—it’s a separate free sign up from the magazine website.). This is by no means the only such publication, but I do like this one!
A massive database of scientific studies—if you want to learn more about the scientific research behind why X ingredient may or may not be good for the skin or hair, this is a good place to look. You can access thousands of abstracts for free, but the full studies are not always freely available. For some suggestions on how to access full papers, click here.
Modern Cosmetics: Ingredients of Natural Origin
This is a lovely textbook all about natural ingredients—you can learn more about it with my full review. I frequently refer to it for information on carrier oils, butters, gums, and more.
Have some time to spare at the shops? Hit up the toiletries section and start reading some labels (or review ingredient lists online)! Compare lists within categories, and see what trends start to emerge, especially in regards to marketing claims. Are you seeing the same ingredients (or ingredient combinations) pop up across multiple products marketed as “gentle”, “moisturizing”, “waterproof”, “natural”, etc.? Go research those ingredients! Reading ingredient labels for professionally formulated products can be a great way to learn. This is very much an exercise in pattern recognition, so gather as much data as you can. It’s also helpful to use the products so you can see how they perform, but that (obviously) requires you to have the product to use, which isn’t quite as free as reading ingredient labels. Comparing the ingredient lists of products that have worked well for you and ones that haven’t is a great way to learn—if you don’t have personal experience, I like to search for relevant Reddit threads (I usually look in the Skin Care Addiction & Makeup Addiction subreddits) for recommendations and then research the products that I read about (both ones that people love and ones people hated).
A simple search of this massive repository can turn up incredibly helpful passages from shockingly relevant cosmetic chemistry textbooks you’ve never heard of!
This comprehensive tome is a must-have for anyone who works with essential oils. It thoroughly discusses the safe usage of every essential oil I’ve ever heard of (and more)! I highly recommend getting the ebook version rather than the print version so you can make use of the digital search function.
Essential Oil University
This is another interesting source for information about essential oils, focussing mostly on fair pricing and the purity of different products on the markets. Dr. Pappas’ Essential Oil University runs independent GCMS on commercially available essential oils to determine their authenticity. For $300USD you can hire him to analyze an essential oil for you, and he also has a database of the reports he’s already done that you can peruse if you’re looking to get an idea as to if a certain brand is reputable or not.
Ok, I think that’s it! Thanks for reading the whole post 🙂 Do you have any tips, tricks, or sources you’d like to share? Leave ’em in the comments!