Words from Wiechers: Less is More

Johann W. Wiechers, Ph.D.
Johann W. Wiechers, Ph.D.

Editor's note: Our "Words from Wiechers" series considers the lessons cosmetics R&D can learn from the late Johann Wiechers, Ph.D. He was an advisor, colleague, leader and "disruptive force" (in a good way) in the industry until his unexpected passing. Presenting Wiechers's insights is IFSCC Education Chair, Anthony J. O'Lenick, Jr. 

Chapter 27 in Wiechers's book, Memories of a Cosmetically Disturbed Mind, addresses the tendency of the formulator to equate the number of ingredients in a formulation to the quality of the product. This approach is not unique to our industry.

Many years ago, as a young chemist, I worked for a company making rubber gloves. The formulations were constantly reviewed with an eye to improvement. My first boss there said never to remove an ingredient since it would not be there if it were not necessary. In fact, he encouraged, “Always add something new.”

However, the addition of extra ingredients in a formulation costs money, complicates manufacturing, impacts quality control and, in today’s environment, increases regulatory requirements.

Labels Runneth Over

In relation to this, Wiechers says:

"Just think about cosmetic formulations and turn the package around to find the INCI list. How long can it physically be? We cosmetic formulators always add the latest magical ingredient to our existing formulation in an attempt to make the latest 'new and improved' version. We do not take ingredients out; we [tend to] add more and more, one by one."

The addition of a new ingredient to a formulation, coupled with the ever-increasing length of the INCI names has resulted in ingredient listings that cannot be put on a bottle. Perhaps some day, the INCI label will be available in video format. (For new thinking on product labeling, check out the Cosmetics & Toiletries January 2019 issue).

Function Not Fashion

Ingredients should be added because they provide a function that is not provided by another ingredient.

Wiechers relates his experience:

"Let me try to convince you that this ['more is better'] approach is scientific nonsense. My colleagues and I have measured many marketed cosmetic formulations for their skin feel. We also have made simple base formulations—as starter formulations for further development by you, the cosmetic formulator—consisting of only water, an emollient, an emulsifier and if necessary, a little bit of thickener; we also measured their sensory profiles.

Don't use a lot where a little will do. -Proverb

"In one example, we were able to reconstruct the exact skin feel of a marketed formulation containing fifty-one cosmetic ingredients with only four ingredients, one [being] water. Keep it stupid and simple ... Think about the manufacturing advantages of such a simple formulation. Fewer ingredients can definitely mean more money."

Improving Performance

What about improving the performance of the actives? Wiechers addressed this as well:

"If you are adding many active ingredients to your formulation to lengthen the INCI list, in attempt to impress your customer—with 10 active ingredients, it simply must be efficacious—or to justify the price of your product, just think: you could have the same activity from only one active ingredient for which the polarity of the formulation, and therefore the skin delivery, were optimized.

"Additional active ingredients have increased production and registration costs (think about the product information package) without adding any efficacy benefit because they are not delivered to the site of action in the skin. And if the only reason for their addition was purely a marketing one, then you'd better identify which active is actually delivered so that the concentrations of the others can be reduced to mere marketing proportions.

"In that case, fewer active ingredients will result in a higher profit for the company." 

The Lesson

"As I [have] said: Less is more, but you need to know how to formulate for efficacy."

In relation, a concept referred to as minimally disruptive formulation has been developed as an effective approach to product development. It depends upon the ability of personal care formulators to produce products that have consumer-perceivable differences to meet a market need.

Since product aesthetics are a key attribute of personal care products, the ability to alter product aesthetics and provide a different consumer perceptionwith minimal changes to the formulationis a very cost-effective way to develop new products.

This topic remains as important today as it was when the article was written by Wiechers in 2005.

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