Have you ever purchased a brand new ingredient and then had no idea how to actually include it in a formulation? Or perhaps you’ve been wanting to create your own formulation for something that’s unlike anything you’ve ever made before, but you have no idea where to start? I ran into these challenges all the time when I first started making, but then I discovered an amazing (free!) resource that helped me seriously level up my formulation skills, and fast. While this resource isn’t a secret, per se, I haven’t seen a lot of people talk about it, and how to get the most out of it.
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Pssst… Lise and I were talking about this a few weeks ago and both decided to post about it—check out her post, too!
A tasty metaphor
If you go rummage through the cans, bottles, and jars in your kitchen you’ll probably find a bit of clever marketing on a few of them. I’m not talking about the claims of “low sugar” or “MSG free”, though. I’m talking about the recipes you can find on everything from canned soup to ketchup (Heinz’s “Great Canadian Ketchup Cake” gets shockingly good reviews).
These recipes teach you how to use the ingredient in new (and hopefully delicious ways) so you’ll use their product more (and buy more of it, of course). And, if it’s an unfamiliar ingredient, an appealing recipe on the back of the tin might be the thing that gives you the confidence to purchase it.
Food companies know these recipes help their bottom line, so they give them out freely on packaging, tear-away pads, websites, and social media. And guess what? The companies that manufacture and sell cosmetic ingredients know (and do) the same thing.
Companies like Croda, SEPPIC, and Colonial Chem share oodles of completely free formulations using their ingredients.
They want you to see how versatile their products are, feel confident using them, create products that require them, and buy lots of their stuff, so it is very much in their best interest to share sample formulations with their potential customers.
Once you know where to look, you can find manufacturer formulations for everything under the sun; micellar shampoos, colour-changing lip glosses, anti-aging lotions, vitamin-packed conditioners, rejuvenating creams, magical-sounding serums—if it exists, you can find fifty formulations for something similar. It’s honestly kind of overwhelming!
You might be thinking this cornucopia of formulations is the answer to your DIY-all-the-things prayers, but I’m afraid it’s not quite that simple.
I refer to these formulations all the time, but not usually to make them. They’re much more powerful (and useful) as part of my research and development process than as a source of ready-to-make formulations; and here’s why.
When you start looking through a stack of supplier formulations, you’ll quickly run into a few problems. Here’s how to work around them.
To see this first problem in action, let’s take a look at the ingredient list for this Gentle Hair Cleaning Oil formulation from Stepan.
Sunflower oil, grapeseed oil, baobab seed oil… yup, I know what those ingredients are. But… STEPAN-MILD® GCC? BIO-SOFT® N-411? NINOL® CAA? …what is this stuff?
These are all trade names for products—the Stepan products that this formulation is designed to showcase. These are the ketchup in our ketchup cake.
Sample formulations are usually full of trade names; some companies provide INCIs as well, which is lovely, but between trade names and new-to-you INCIs, you’re going to have to do some googling to figure out what they’re using and what it does.
Once that you know which ingredients the formulation calls for, you’ll almost certainly be left with some serious ingredient FOMO because the chances you’ve actually got the ingredients they’re using… isn’t great.
There’s a massive world of ingredients out there that we simply can’t get unless we want to start up a company and order a drum, and this is never more painfully obvious than when you’re looking through supplier formulations.
These out-of-reach ingredients are why these formulations are really more of a reference and learning resource than an actual hands-on-let’s-make-this resource. There definitely are formulations out there that you will be able to make as-written, but even with my huge ingredient inventory I find it’s pretty rare.
Here’s what I do: I research the ingredient to learn more about it, so I can better understand why it’s there. Then, I’ll look at a bunch of other similar formulations to try to identify trends.
If you’re looking for clues on how to use a new emulsifier—how much are they using in proportion to the amount of oil in the formula? You’ll likely find a range across several formulations, and that’ll give you a great place to start your own formulation work.
If you’re looking for ideas on how to structure a new-to-you type of formulation, look for patterns in phase sizes, key ingredients, and more.
This is like looking at lots of sandwich recipes and realizing the important thing is the bread and the fillings; once you’ve teased that structure out, you know where to start formulating!
When it doubt, look at more formulations, and remember that google is your friend.
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Now that we’ve cleared the ingredients section, let’s take a look at the instructions… where you’re likely to find reference to even more things you don’t have.
Manufacturer formulations are written by people with labs, for people with labs. For example, most emulsions will include instructions to use a homogenizer. Don’t be discouraged by this, though!
It’s essential you remember that manufacturer formulations are A way that works, not THE ONLY way that works. This goes for ingredients, ingredient concentrations, and equipment.
If you assume their way is the only way you’ll lose out on so many amazing, fun making opportunities.
If they call for a homogenizer and all you have is an immersion blender, try that and see if it works. If they call for a fancy ester you don’t have, try one you do have and see if that works. If it calls for a certain level of emulsifier or says the pH has to be in a certain range, test it yourself and see; I’ve been pleasantly surprised many times.
The manufacturers don’t necessarily test the absolute limits of their ingredients, so don’t feel bound by their guidelines—just be prepared for potential flops if you do decide to go rogue 😉 What I’ll usually do is put together a stripped-down formulation that uses as few ingredients as possible at supplier-recommended levels, and then try making a small batch ‘my’ way. If that works, hooray! If not, I’ll see if I can get closer to the supplier’s recommended method and see if I can get it to work that way. I’ll also re-visit the formulation and see if perhaps more emulsifier or more thickener can fix things.
Sometimes the formulations shared by suppliers will just be plain out-of reach. Either the ingredients are too different from anything you can get, the manufacturing method really does require something you don’t have, or the product is a drug (you’ll find many deceptively simple sunscreen formulations on supplier websites, but remember that a “sunscreen” isn’t actually a sunscreen until it’s been proven to work with expensive, professional lab tests).
It’s a bummer, but hey, it’s basically the formulation equivalent of croissants; a delicious thing that I’m happy to have someone else make for me!
These formulations generally aren’t guaranteed to meet regulatory requirements where you live, and aren’t put through the same paces a formulation being developed for sale would be. You’re still responsible for all that due diligence and testing.
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Now that you know how to best use these sample formulations—basically, look for patterns and trends rather than trying to make them as-written—here’s where to find ‘em.
I usually look at UL Prospector’s Personal Care & Cosmetics section first—they have literally thousands of formulations! You can browse the formulation titles and description without an account, but you’ll need an account to download the formulations. A UL Prospector account is free, but you do need a business email address (a firstname.lastname@example.org address, not a email@example.com address) to sign up. Formula Botanica students can also get a free account.
Here’s a selection of manufacturer and distributor formulation databases that are free to access.
- Colonial Chem
- Alchemy Ingredients
- Lucas Meyer Cosmetics
- The Innovation Company
- Natural Plant Products
In addition to manufacturers, many of the suppliers we shop with also share formulations; Making Cosmetics and Lotion Crafter have the biggest databases I’ve found, but be sure to look around the websites you shop on—you could find a treasure trove!
A major bonus of supplier formulations (compared to manufacturer formulations) is that they’re designed using ingredients the supplier sells, so even if you don’t have everything, you could actually get everything if you wanted to.
And of course, I’ve shared over one thousand free formulations here on the blog over the last twelve years, and you’re more than welcome to reference those for inspiration, too!