Disclosure: This course (along with the Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation I reviewed back in 2019) was gifted to me by Formula Botanica in exchange for my review. My relationship with Formula Botanica has expanded since I was gifted the two courses back in 2017; I am now a Formula Botanica affiliate, and I work with them in a freelance capacity doing graphic design and some formulation work. This review has not been pre-screened or approved by Formula Botanica before publishing.
What is Formula Botanica?
Formula Botanica is an accredited, completely online, award-winning natural formulation school based out of the United Kingdom. They offer a variety of courses that teach natural formulation (skincare, haircare, spa treatments, natural preservation, stability testing, etc.) and beauty business/brand management to students all over the world (they’ve enrolled over 10k students to date!). Today I am reviewing their Diploma in Organic Haircare Formulation, which launched in June 2017.
Their Diploma in Organic Haircare Formulation is £675 (approximately $924USD/ $1175CAD/ €760 as of this writing), making it their most expensive single formulation course. You will also need to invest in some niche ingredients; I spent ~$180 CAD on course-specific ingredients, even with my fairly substantial pre-existing ingredients pantry.
The Diploma in Organic Haircare Formulation has six modules, and students have two years to complete the coursework once they enrol. As with Formula Botanica’s Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation, you could really spend an infinite amount of time on the coursework if you wanted to—there is so much to explore—so you need to know when to say “enough” and move on so you can graduate!
Formula Botanica estimates 100 hours of study time for both their haircare and skincare courses, but I think one could spend significantly more time working on the haircare coursework vs. the skincare coursework. I completed my Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation coursework in roughly four weeks spread out over several months, while my Diploma in Organic Haircare Formulation was more like 12 weeks spread out over three years, and it easily could’ve been more (the three years thing being entirely my fault due to all kinds of other commitments). But more on the potential scope of work later!
How it Works
Like the Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation, the Diploma in Organic Haircare Formulation is broken down into modules with sub-topics and formulation projects that build on one another. You begin with Hair Science and proceed through Haircare Ingredients, Organic Shampoo Formulation, Organic Conditioner Formulation, Organic Styling Formulation, and finally Haircare Compliance (which helps ensure the marketing claims you make about your formulations are a-ok, regulations-wise).
Each of the six modules is comprised of PDFs, videos, interactive mini-quizzes, and in the formulation modules, sample formulations and guidelines on structuring, creating, and troubleshooting your own formulations for a wide variety of hair care products. In order to move onto the next module, you need to pass the module-end quiz with at least 80%.
I think it is really important to emphasize that Formula Botanica’s Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation is a pre-requisite for this course. The course page says the Diploma in Organic Haircare Formulation is for “formulators with some experience” (linked to the Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation), but I’d argue “some” experience is not enough to succeed in this course. In addition to being comfortable working in weights, formulating in percentages, and formulating in general, you also need to be very familiar with EU regulations in regards to things like calculating sensitizers, essential oil limits, and labelling laws in order to pass the course. These topics are not covered in the Diploma in Organic Haircare Formulation, and it assumed from early in the course that students already have a firm grasp on these topics.
The first two modules are parallel to, yet different from the Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation in very understandable ways. Module one is all about the hair (rather than the skin); its structure, how to care for it, and the physiological underpinnings of good haircare.
Module two is all about the ingredients we use in creating natural haircare products. While there is some overlap with the ingredients used in the Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation and natural skincare formulation in general, there are quite a lot of new (and harder-to-get) ingredients like natural silicone alternatives and natural cationic surfactants. I ended up ordering many of the ingredients from Skin Chakra in Germany and shipping them to the UK, picking them up on my 2018 trip to England. In the years since 2018, the ingredient availability in North America has improved in this area, so I don’t think you’d have to order your ingredients from the EU today, but you would have to make some substitutions for things you can’t get (and in Canada, you’d likely need to order some things from the USA).
Unlike in the Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation, this course drives straight into relatively complex formulations as it is expected you already know what you’re doing on the formulation front. The Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation starts with cold blending oils and butters, while the Diploma in Organic Haircare Formulation dives straight into working with surfactants, creating emulsions, and working with natural preservatives in the first formulation module (#3).
You’ll work your way through the modules, getting to know your ingredients, and washing, conditioning, and styling your hair quite a lot to test your formulations. You’ll also want to recruit testing help for your formulations—the hair typing system taught in the course (the extended Andre Walker system) identifies four main types of hair (straight, wavy, curly, and coily), with three sub-types for each, making for a total of 12 natural hair types. If you add in variables like age and the impacts extensive heat and/or chemical treatments can have on hair, that’s a lot of different hair types to formulate for and test on! Formula Botanica has made an effort to include feedback on their formulations from testers with the four major hair types; most of the feedback sheets were 50–75% complete. I understand getting feedback from people can be tricky, but given this course was released 3.5 years ago, it would be nice to see those feedback sheets completed so you can get a more thorough feel for how different formulations work for people with different hair types.
If you need help as you work through the course you can use the Ask a Tutor forum (searching through previous posts and/or creating a new post with your question), and you can also reach out to the Formula Botanica community through the private Formula Botanica Facebook groups. Formula Botanica has both tutors and student mentors on staff (over a dozen as of this writing), so there is lots of support available.
The modules build on one another, and the quizzes include content from previous modules as well as the pre-requisite course. The quizzes are automated and are the only thing you are graded on throughout the course until your final project when you are asked to develop and submit two different formulations for grading. You’re tasked with formulating two different products for a particular consumer with a particular need, demonstrating how your formulation choices come together to meet that need for that specific target customer. In addition to the formulating, there is quite a lot of writing and some photography involved to make sure you communicate everything clearly.
Natural Skincare vs. Natural Haircare Formulation
Throughout the course, Formula Botanica emphasizes the entrepreneurial opportunities available to anyone who starts up a truly natural/organic hair care brand; they say they haven’t yet found a professional haircare brand that meets that standard. I would like to say that I suspect this is the case because natural hair care products are a lot harder to formulate than natural skincare products (for which there are many brands all over the world). I’m going to try to explain this with a bit of a food & cooking metaphor on the nature of formulating natural haircare vs. formulating natural skincare—because as someone who does both, it’s hard not to.
Metaphor: let’s say natural skincare is like cooking vegetarian food. The majority of the ingredients we cook with are already vegetarian, and there are heaps of vegetarian alternatives for many non-vegetarian ingredients. If I’m making vegetarian lasagna, I can easily leave the meat out and make it extra cheesy, or I can choose to use one of the many plant-based ground beef replacements on the market. The rest of the dish was already vegetarian—it’s mostly tomato sauce, pasta, and cheese. Generally speaking, eating vegetarian is not that hard.
Likewise, if I’m making a lotion and want it to be natural, I’ve got plenty of natural emulsifiers and preservatives to choose from. The carrier oils, hydrosols, humectants, vitamins, and more are often already natural, so it’s usually not too hard.
With that in mind, I think formulating natural hair care is a lot more like cooking for a vegan & gluten-free diet. There are a lot more nuances, and it can be a bigger challenge to create effective products. Non-vegan ingredients and gluten are in a lot of foods, many of which can be surprising to the uninitiated. Many products have to be re-thought from the ground up to get the desired end result. If you’re looking to make a vegan, gluten-free cake you will almost certainly get much better results sourcing a cake recipe that was designed from the get-go to be vegan and gluten-free rather than taking a conventional cake recipe and swapping out the eggs, butter, and pastry flour for vegan and gluten-free alternatives. That’s not to say that can’t work, of course, but in my cooking experience, if a recipe is that fundamentally unsuited to what it needs to be, it’s best to start a bit closer to where you want to end up. And if you love to bake, you’ll know there’s a variety of unique ingredients, strategies, and techniques that vegan/gluten-free baking employs to create tasty things. It’s not a quality or value judgement—it’s just different, and I’d argue natural haircare is as well.
So, while all of the lovely ingredients you use in natural skincare formulation are still available to you when formulating natural haircare, depending on the hair you’re formulating for and the products you’re creating, those ingredients may not work for your formulation. Haircare also does quite a few jobs that don’t have good skincare parallels, and as such, need different ingredients. We don’t usually want “hold” in our skincare, for instance, nor do we seek to protect our skin from intentional and repeated exposure to 370°F hot tools. The ingredients that do those jobs in conventional haircare don’t always have good natural alternatives (or at least ones that are available to home crafters). I imagine this will change as the companies that create these ingredients continue to innovate (I’m certain the demand is there!) and those innovations eventually make their way down to us and our 100g purchases, but as of this writing, there’s definitely still room for improvement in the realm of ingredient variety and availability. Just as it took a while for Beyond Meat and the like to be developed and become readily available (in Canada, at least), it will take a while for more awesome natural haircare ingredients to be developed and become readily available.
Formula Botanica does a good job of presenting sample formulations and formulation structures that use what we have available to us as smaller makers. They have several haircare equivalents to that vegan, gluten-free cake recipe—formulations that zoom out to examine the challenge, and then devise unconventional ways to solve those challenges that utilize the technologies we have available to us. It’s great, but it is a starting point—you will need to stretch your formulating wings and work hard in order to create awesome, all-natural hair care products to meet all your hair care needs.
I also think hair care products have the potential to be a lot stronger “yay” or “nays” for users, and a series of hard “nays” can be discouraging as a formulator. When it comes to something like a lotion, I haven’t found many that I despise. I might not like the smell, or it might be too greasy for my tastes, but it’s usually nothing I can’t finish up by using it on my feet. When it comes to haircare, though—a leave-in product that’ll richly nourish 4b type hair would likely be unusable on my 1b type hair. I’ve heard from readers with curly hair that they are very particular about which cationic emulsifier is in their conditioners as they notice a huge difference between behentrimonium methosulfate (BTMS) and behentrimonium chloride (BTMC), while I’m perfectly happy with either. So, I think different hair types are likely to find success more easily in some areas of natural haircare formulation than others. I found that the shampoos I made ended up working really well for my hair with fairly few iterations, while styling products were a lot more challenging, with early versions leaving my hair stringy and flat. If your hair is more tolerant of oils you may have an inverse experience!
Who is this course for?
At a bare minimum, this course is for those who have already graduated from Formula Botanica’s Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation. Your chances of passing this haircare course are pretty low without it, even if you’re an advanced formulator. Intimate and detailed knowledge of European Union cosmetic regulations are a requirement for passing, and these regulations are not covered at all in the Diploma in Organic Haircare Formulation course materials. You’d undoubtedly learn a lot about hair care formulation, but you wouldn’t likely pass the course, and that would be a bummer.
After that, you need a strong interest in formulating natural haircare. The Diploma in Organic Haircare Formulation is clearly made for those who want to create their own natural/organic hair care line, but you certainly don’t need to have entrepreneurial aspirations. Natural haircare formulation is a challenging undertaking, so you need the interest and determination to carry you through all the iterations and testing you’ll have to do in order to create great products. This is true for all kinds of formulating, of course, so if you love natural haircare don’t take this as a deterrent by any means!
Thoughts & Observations
I enjoyed Formula Botanica’s Diploma in Organic Haircare Formulation. It introduced me to new ingredients, new types of formulations, and presented many new challenges to work through and problems to solve. I also learned a lot about hair—its structure, how it changes as you age, and different hair types. I also really like the feedback from real-world testers with different hair types (though these feedback sheets were not complete at the time I downloaded the course materials).
The course is all about natural hair care made with natural ingredients, so you won’t find information about synthetic ingredients in it beyond a few passing mentions and the odd illustrative comparison. Formula Botanica does not set a strict definition of what “natural” is, encouraging their students to define “natural” in a way that fits within their personal/brand ethos. That said, I don’t think you could complete this course without the use of more “engineered” natural ingredients like natural silicone alternatives and cationic surfactants.
The Diploma in Organic Haircare Formulation has the same solid approach to teaching formulas I came to expect from the Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation, though the formulations are more complex and technically challenging. Formula Botanica does a good job of sharing inventive new formulation approaches throughout the course as well as continually encouraging students to innovate on their own. I really liked the ongoing encouragement to experiment, and the continued emphasis on how widely varied different hair types can be.
I think this course also does a great job of emphasizing the importance of customer education. Natural haircare will not be the same as conventional hair care, and the course materials discuss how to manage customer expectations throughout a transition to natural hair care and encourage success—for both the brand and the customer. I also liked the emphasis throughout the course on professional standards and conduct.
I really appreciated that the course materials call out the limited abilities of all haircare. Hair is dead, and there are limits to what can be done. Haircare cannot heal damaged hair, and it’s important formulators and brand owners understand this and help their customers understand that as well.
I would have really liked a rubric or marking guideline for the final projects, giving a breakdown of how much each element of the project was worth (in hindsight, this applies to Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation as well). There are a lot of components, and I believe students should know what components are the most important so they can allocate their efforts accordingly.
As I said in my Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation review, I think one of the biggest strengths of Formula Botanica is their Facebook group online classroom. The community of students, tutors, staff, and student mentors there is very active and encouraging. I do prefer to “lurk” in the big global group, but I have joined their Canadian sub-group and have participated a bit there, mostly on ingredient sourcing, and it’s been a wonderful resource! They have regional groups all over the world, and I think those have the potential to be brilliant for organizing group ingredient orders as well as making some nearby formulator friends.
If you are passionate about natural haircare, the Formula Botanica Diploma in Organic Haircare Formulation is a great way to deepen your understanding of the hair, learn to formulate a wide variety of haircare products, and kick-start your natural haircare brand (if you want to start one). If you aren’t completely dedicated to natural-ness you will still learn a lot, and all of the formulations you’ll learn could be modified to include synthetic ingredients if you wanted to (though you won’t learn about those synthetic ingredients in the course).
I do think this course is a lot more work than the Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation, so be prepared to do a lot of experimenting, testing, innovating, and iterating as you work through this course and launch into your natural haircare formulation journey.
If you are considering enrolling in the Diploma in Organic Haircare Formulation, but have not completed the Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation, I highly recommend you complete the Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation first. You can read my full Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation review here, but broadly speaking, the skincare course is Formula Botanica’s foundation course—it’s where you’ll learn all of the basics and ensure you have the skills and knowledge to succeed in the Diploma in Organic Haircare Formulation.
Happy hair care making!
April 2021: Formula Botanica is currently offering a free four-part formulation masterclass! You can sign up here 🙂 I highly recommend it, especially if you're wanting to see how Formula Botanica works.
The Diploma in Organic Haircare Formulation and Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation courses were gifted by Formula Botanica.