Before you start creating a product, you have to understand what makes up the basic composition of the product. This means what the type of product you want to make and what is the purpose of the product aims to improve. A few good examples are: –

In short, you need to design your formula. You need to know to understand how to layer the ingredients.

You need to know the ingredients, evaluate your formula, and make any adjustments to your formula. The key to creating your skincare is your knowledge of the ingredients. INGREDIENTS ARE THE PRODUCT. 

Check out the list of common cosmetic ingredients. Hope this A-Z ingredient guides will provide you invaluable information in your skincare formulation journey. 


1st Layer – Foundation/Base

All products have their base or foundation ingredient(s). They can be standalone on their own or a combination of oil, butter, water and wax as their foundation to create creams, lotions, and emulsions. Examples include:

Waters – hydrosols/distillates, infusions, distilled water
Oils – liquid plant fats such as almond, apricot, avocado or sunflower oil.
Butters/fats – saturated plant fats such as cocoa butter, shea butter
Waxes – beeswax, candelilla wax

The ONLY exception to this rule are masques, which are generally based on water and clays/muds.

Foundation ingredients form the backbone of most products, tend to make up at least 60% – 80%

2nd Layer – Active Botanicals

Active botanicals are the medicinal and therapeutic plants such as herbs and herbal extracts that are added to your product to give it skin-healing value.

Active botanicals are usually of herbal origin and are provided in a variety of different formats including:

– Powdered herbs, e.g. facial mask to blend with clay

– Tinctures i.e. extracts made with alcohol/ethanol

– Macerations / infusions, i.e. extracts made by infusing herbs in oils or fats

– Glycerites, i.e. extracts made by infusing herbs in glycerine

Herbal extracts are either hydrophilic (water-loving, which means that they are soluble in water) or lipophilic (oil-loving, which means that they are soluble in oil). If they are used, usually form between 5-10% of a product.

*Note: Due to global cosmetics regulations, you will not be able to make any claims for the healing value of your cosmetics formulation.

3rd Layer – Functional Ingredients

Functional ingredients do not have a specific therapeutic role but have a physical function within the product. The function could be skin-related, to do with the formulation itself, and/or related to the use of the product.

1. Humectant

A humectant attracts and retains the moisture. Humectants are frequently used in cosmetics as a way of increasing and maintaining moisture in the skin and hair, in products including shampoo, conditioner, frizz serum, lotions, creams, lip treatments, cleansers, after-sun lotion, and some soaps or body lotions.

Popular humectants in natural cosmetics include glycerin, sorbitol (sugar alcohol), urea, pyrrolidone carboxylic acid (PCA), and aloe vera. Glycerin is one of the most popular humectants used because it produces the desired result fairly frequently and is low in cost.

2. Emulsifier

Emulsifiers are used in creams and lotions to mix water with oils. Since water and oil do not mix but stay separated, emulsifier acts like an additional agent to form a homogenous mixture keeping water and oil together. Emulsifiers blend and hold together the ingredients that would not usually mix very well. In cleansing products, the ability of an emulsifier to combine waters and oils gives a final product the ability to both cleanse and condition the skin at the same time.

There are 2 types of emulsifiers.
Oil-in-water (O/W) emulsifiers keep oil drops packed in water. O/W emulsifiers are high water content and, therefore, low in cost. These emulsions are favored for their stability and flexibility, as well as their non-greasy, non-oily feel. They are used more in moisturizing products, e.g. body lotions, day creams.

Water-in-oil (W/O) emulsifiers keep water drops packed in oil. W/O emulsifiers are used for a fatty feel, offer longer moisturising effect, wash-off resistance, and barrier protection. They spread more easily on the skin, and often leave a lubricious, rich or oily feel, favored by mature clients and consumers with dry skin. These formulas tend to be less cost-effective, as oils are always more costly than water and these types of emulsions are generally more difficult to produce, e.g. night & sun protection creams.

They are derived from natural oils such as coconut, palm kernel, sunflower, wheat germ, and so on.

3. Surfactant

Surfactants are ingredients that work by becoming imbedded in both oil and water substances. One portion of the molecule is lipophilic, i.e. “oil-loving” while the other portion of the molecule is hydrophilic, i.e. “water-loving.” The way surfactants work is that when they are put on the surface of skin or hair in combination with water, the lipophilic portions of the molecules will combine with the oils on skin or hair, lifting the oils off the surface and the hydrophilic portions of the molecules allow them to be rinsed away. This is just like when you are taking a shower or washing your hands.

Generally, surfactants are used in cleansing products such as facial cleansers, soaps, body washes, and shampoos

Examples of naturally derived surfactants include Coco glucoside, Decyl glucoside, Lauryl glucoside, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Polyglucose, Glyceryl cocoate, Glyceryl oleate and Sodium cocoyl isenthoate.

4. Thickener/Gums

Thickener is a substance which can increase the viscosity of a liquid without substantially changing its other properties. Thickeners are used to enhance the consistency, volume, and viscosity of cosmetic products, thereby providing more stability and better performance. Some thickeners also have emulsifying or gelling properties, while the majority of thickeners can retain water on the skin, and thus act as moisturizers.

Thickeners can be completely natural like waxes. Natural derived thickeners are polymers that work by absorbing water to swell up and increase viscosity, examples guar, xanthan, cellulose, locust bean, and acacia.

5. Exfoliant

Exfoliants are compounds used to scrub away that debris on the top layer of dead epidermis cells of the skin, thereby leaving the skin appear smoother and fresher. Exfoliation not just help to remove dead skin cells, it also helps to keep pores clean and promotes blood circulation, which will give your skin a healthy, more youthful glow. Exfoliation also helps your moisturiser and skin care treatments penetrate better.

Exfoliation can be achieved either mechanically by utilising ingredients with an abrasive texture which are rubbed onto the face or body to remove dead skin cells. Some useful natural ingredients that exfoliate on a mechanical level are:

– Oats or oatmeal.
– Ground rice/rice powder.
– Ground almond/almond meal.
– Bamboo powder.
– Fruit seeds, eg strawberry, raspberry.

Chemical exfoliation chemically uses natural acids such as AHA (alpha hydroxy acids) and BHA (beta hydroxy acid) to exfoliate the skin.

6. Clay

Clays possess the ability to absorb excess oils, dirt and impurities from the skin, exfoliate, cleanse and invigorate the skin. The high mineral content of clay rejuvenates the skin while the texture of the clay removes dead skin cells, improves circulation to the skin, removes debris and impurities from the pores.

Each clay has a different mineral composition, and each clay offers different benefits within skincare. Each clay can absorb oil and impurities, but each clay can differ in the level of absorption.

Clays can be used in facials, body powders, body wraps, soaps, lotions, creams, bath salts and more. Cosmetics clays can also impart their natural color to the formulations.

Some examples of cosmetics clays activated charcoal, bentonite, Dead Sea, green clay, kaolin pink, and red clay rhassoul.

7. Soluilzier

A solubilizer is a mixture of ingredients that allows a small amount of ‘hydrophobic’ (insoluble in water) ingredients to be dispersed in water or water-based products. For instance, if you want the essential oils to blend with the hydrosol, you need solubilizer. In general, 1:4 or 1:8 of essential oil to solubilizer, how to check with the supplier’s recommendation. The percentage in the formula for the solubilizer increase, the hydrosols reduces accordingly. The solubilizer is mixed directly with the oils, and this is then added to the water.

Solubilizers are more water soluble than emulsifiers and are used to incorporate very low level (usually less than 2% total oils) into an aqueous formula such as a shampoo, shower gel, toner to obtain a transparent formula.

For natural solubilisers, it is recommended to start with six parts solubiliser to one part oil (1:6). If the product remains cloudy or oil is floating on the surface, more solubiliser should be added. Example of Symbiosolv clear plus, Natragem S140, Sepiclear G7, Tegosolve 55, and Plantacare 810 UP

For synthetic solubilisers usually start with three parts solubiliser to one part oil (1:3). Examples of synthetic solubilisers PEG 40 hydrogenated castor oil, Polysorbate 20 and Polysorbate 80.

Functionals can be incorporated from 5-40% of a product, 5-10% for very functional products like masques and scrubs

4th Layer – Additives

Additives are related to functional ingredients but are deemed to be either an ‘added extra’ or a legal necessity. They are optional ingredients, such as vitamins, colours or preservatives.

Some examples of natural additives include:

– Citric acid which is used as an acidity regulator to lower the pH of your product
– Vitamin E which is used as an antioxidant to prevent rancidity from occurring
– Beetroot powder which is used to colour your product

Additives usually form between 1-10% of the final product.

5rd Layer – Aromaceutical

Aromaceuticals are the fragrances in cosmetic formulation, and these ingredients offer a variety of therapeutic applications. In natural and organic skincare, the aromaceuticals are pure essential oils that are extracted from plants. The use of essential oils are simply for their lovely fragrance, however as they also offer amazing benefits to the skin

Generally, stick with 1-2% for most of the formulations.

6th Layer – Aesthetic Modifiers

Aesthetics are the final flourish on a product, the compounds that help to improve the look and feel of the overall product. The sub-category of aesthetic modifiers includes fragrances, plasticizers, fillers, and appearance modifiers.

These ingredients do not have any functional benefit, one way to help keep costs down and simplify productions is to minimize the amount of aesthetic modifiers used. Generally, it should make up 1-2% of the final product. However, these ingredients do play a crucial role in creating customer experiences, so it is important for marketing and appearance.

Claims Ingredients

Claims ingredients, can also be called fairy dust, are ingredients added to a formula at a low level for the primary purpose of getting to put the ingredient name on the label and make a marketing claim. This includes ingredients like natural extracts, vitamins, proteins, biotechnology, and fanciful made-up ingredient names.

These ingredients may not have any measurable effect and not much of the impact on the way the products function, but they help to create a marketing story. Most consumers need a story to believe, and these ingredients help support that story. Customers buy because they like the story that the product tells, the packaging or the way that the product looks and smells.

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