Formulating More Natural Products: A Discussion

Editor’s note: The cosmetics industry comprises as many views about formulating as there are members, and approaches to natural products are possibly the most diverse. This diversity is a reality not only within R&D, but also among consumer types. Herein we present the views of a self-proclaimed “granola” chemist, whose ideas represent one camp of thought and inevitably will spark debate, whether readers agree or disagree. In addition, we present some opposing reactions and counter-reactions throughout, to balance the opinions presented and promote conversation; none are intentionally depicted as “right” or “wrong.” Readers are invited to engage in this discussion on the Cosmetics & Toiletries magazine LinkedIn group.

To assist formulators interested in “going beyond green” and developing formulas including fewer synthetic chemicals, which have the potential to enter the body transdermally, presented here is the mindset of a “granola” cosmetic chemist, whose key strategy is: When formulating a natural product, remove all the water. Water should be added only when absolutely necessary, i.e., where a thickener or salt is used to bring back the viscosity in shampoos and liquid soaps. Although it is a universal solvent, in many cosmetic formulations, water is added to reduce cost, and with its use comes issues. Further, when added as filler, consumers believe they are getting more active product than is actually delivered.

Reaction: Water also is used to hydrate and to impact sensory experience. We as an industry generally create for consumer pleasure, not just performance.

Counter-reaction: Regarding hydration, water does not usually enter the skin from the outside; it typically is trapped beneath the skin by conditioners and occluding materials.

As a first consideration, before being used, water must be adequately purified, preserved and emulsified, and the preservatives and emulsifiers used are not for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness or altering the appearance of the skin; they are included to control the water. Especially in the United States, where the average woman puts countless chemicals on her skin each day, excessive exposure to these materials is unnecessary and considered by many consumers, including this chemist, as potentially unhealthy.1

Another aspect to the “granola” chemist mindset is energy and resource consumption. The shipping itself of water unnecessarily uses resources and creates a larger carbon footprint, as does using more water than is needed in a formulation. Consider a formula to consist of two phases, A and B; A being the water and B being everything else. The same amount of water, energy, etc., is needed to process B as it is to process A, and B could be a stand-alone formula. Therefore, reducing unnecessary water content reduces resource consumption as well.

Reaction: Limiting water is of interest to some brands—so this concept is relevant. But there is major skepticism even within brands. At one conference, a similar argument was presented but the speaker admitted you sometimes use more water with anhydrous cleansers when you use them in the sink. So what water are you saving by not adding some grams in a product and using another quart of water in the sink?

The most critical issue with water is that it allows biological growth. When this occurs, the consumer can be seriously injured; in six isolated mouthwash-related cases, there were even reports of death when health-compromised consumers were exposed to Gram-negative bacteria. To overcome this, formulators use preservatives, some of which are known endocrine disrupters and whose traces have been found in the bloodstreams of some individuals. But there are ways to formulate without them; products with no water are bio-contaminant- resistant. Thus, this author proposes: remove the water.

Reaction: There are conflicting results in preservatives research. In the end, it is consumer belief that drives formulating decisions. While some companies avoid parabens, others use them, having found no issues. Really, what is more dangerous than exposure to preservatives is omitting them and having a serious infection occur. Preservatives are still needed in anhydrous products. They can be low amounts but antioxidants and preservatives are regularly used; capryl glycols, glycols, etc.

Counter-reaction: Regarding anhydrous products, even starting materials such as silicones are not preserved because they contain no water.

Naturally occurring cosmetic materials are generally safe, and building on pure organics such as oils, butters, waxes, etc., will result in a greater concentration of actual product per product volume. The use of non-water organic systems also provides a less hostile environment for additives. By folding actives into the organic system, an encapsulated environment is formed, reducing pH issues, bacteria attack and oxidative issues. Further, formulating high organic systems is fairly simple for lotions, creams, balms, etc., since the entire formula can be oils, butters, waxes and actives. To introduce water-soluble actives, which are commonly used in the skin care industry, it is suggested to dissolve them in -OH containing materials. Even more advanced foundation formulas, such as launches coming from New Zealand,2 use natural oils in place of water.

Reaction: There is a huge movement in the industry to make and use materials that do not impact the environment but sometimes a natural product is not so green if you look at the processing it takes to get it into the formulators’ hands. Considering these natural oils, their processing greatly impacts the environment.

The real challenge of formulating more naturally is with cleansers, where the ideal formula is generally an all-natural liquid system that foams and causes no soap scum buildup. Achievable? This author has not seen it yet. However, high organic syndet-type systems are a step in the right direction.

Reaction: Would you not require water from the sink to wash this off? And would more water then be needed since there is no emulsion or water in the product?

Counter-reaction: You would require water to rinse. This is for water and/or waterless products.

Waterless hand cleansers for automotive mechanics are based on the principle that “like dissolves like,” to remove grease and oils from workers’ hands. This is why they are structured with high oil/solvent content. The non-foaming shampoo brand Wena, for example, uses this principle by cleansing the hair with a conditioner-type formula. These formula types use enough surfactant to clean; however, due the amount of oil ingredients present, they prohibit foaming. Generally though, any oils left behind could be perceived as conditioning to the hair and skin, depending on the elegance of the formula.

As an example, one organic system uses shea butter as the primary ingredient. Key to its formulation is neutralizer reduction to saponify most of the butter to soap, leaving the remainder as the “super fat” emollient. Of the many neutralizers available, potassium hydroxide is generally used to produce a “soft” soap. However, natural soap content brings a huge issue of soap scum. More than 85% of American households have hard water, which, with true soap, produces soap scum. To mitigate this, admittedly distasteful to the “granola” chemist, synthetic surfactants are an aid. It is important to select a syndet that is not highly diluted in water, as this allows a non-preservative end product.

To achieve such a cleansing system, the formulation starting point involves producing the final soft soap system; i.e., saponified shea butter; olive, castor, sunflower, jojoba and rice bran oils; stearic acid; essential oils; Aloe vera; and oatmeal. The selected syndet should then be titrated until no soap scum is detected when washed with hard water. This titration also can be carried out until a lotion-like system is achieved. Finally, as the job of the “granola” chemist, continued improvements to the system should be made to keep the system as natural as possible without adding unnecessary ingredients. For instance, alternatives to the syndet should be substituted as soon as they become available.

Reaction: The reality is, preservatives are still needed in most products, even makeup. 


In this author’s opinion, water is mostly introduced to cosmetic formulas for cost reduction, and it must be controlled by purification, emulsifiers and preservatives. Many of these ingredients are undesired and considered unhealthy by some consumers, including this chemist. It is therefore the job of the “granola” chemist to go beyond green and produce non-water systems. The remaining challenge is the development of cleansing/foaming systems, a starting formulation for which is suggested here.

Reaction: While makeup may not require the inclusion of water, the jump to water as being “bad” because it needs preservatives and other ingredients is a tough point to take. Such products made without water cannot even come close to the aesthetics or performance without an emulsion; if there was a way to do it, the author would have a breakthrough.

Join the debate in our LinkedIn group.


Send e-mail to [email protected].

a Wen Hair Care is a product of Guthy-Renker.
1. R Arditti, Cosmetics, parabens and breast cancer, Women’s Community Cancer Project Newsletter, Women’s Center, Cambridge, MA USA (2004)
2. (Accessed Nov 12, 2012)

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