Developing Cosmetics: Aiming to Fail and Testing Limits

Although the goal of making any cosmetic is to create perfection, sometimes the best way to learn how to achieve just that is to aim for the exact opposite.

Today, we're going to talk about doing things wrong – on purpose. Some might call this testing limits, and that's ok too.

I believe it should be mandatory for anyone who wants to develop and make cosmetics to spend time methodically trying to mess up.

You: Seriously, Lise? Why on earth would I want to waste my time and expensive ingredients on something like that?!

Me: You don't have to. You can do pretty much anything you like to be honest. If you prefer, you can take the word of others as gospel and never experiment at all. Some people might even pat you on the back for it.

On the other hand, I wouldn't be writing about this if I believed you would be wasting your time.


So if you're even just a little curious, read on.

A Method to The Madness 

When I say 'try to do things wrong', I'm not talking about throwing caution to the wind and just randomly slap-dashing things together without a care in the world. Although you might find that enjoyable in the moment, you won't learn much from it.

The idea is to approach an ingredient, set of ingredients, method, or combination of these things in an organized, scientific manner.

If you want to be able to develop your own formulas with confidence, you are going to want to get a little busy testing the limits of the ingredients you want to work with as well as the methods you want to employ.

When you have a fair idea of the limits of your chosen ingredients and the way they behave as a result of being handled one way or the other, you will be armed with the experience to create new formulas and to substitute ingredients in your existing formulas with confidence.

Obviously, this doesn't happen overnight, but then again, you're not on a deadline.

Consider it an explorative journey and take it a step at a time. There's no rush.

Start With a Question

The best way to get started is to ask a specific question, then go about answering it.
  • "Will this emulsion will remain stable if the pH is lowered? How low can it go?" 
  • "How will this gelling agent react if combined with rose instead of my regular orange blossom hydrosol?"
  • "Can I leave this ingredient out of the mix and still get a good result?"
  • "How big a difference can there be between the temperature of my water and oil phases and still result in a stable emulsion?"
  • "How will this turn out if it is hand-stirred as opposed to using my regular stick blender?"
  • "What happens if I add this ingredient at cool-down instead of in the heated phase?"
  • "How will this formula work with a different emulsifier?"
  • "Will this formula work if I substitute the entire oil phase with different ingredients?"

And Then Keep Track

While you're asking questions and discovering what kinds of answers you get, keep notes. Keep notes on everything – even more information than you think you might need.

And have fun with that part too. 

Sometimes seasonal temperature and humidity, using a different tool, trying an ingredient from a different supplier, or combining ingredients at room temperature instead of heated will make a massive difference in how your product turns out.

Sometimes, it only takes 3 drops of an ingredient to completely destabilize a product.

Write. Everything. Down. 

Your notes will become your own encyclopedia of knowledge, and I'm betting you'll even start to get a little excited about asking even more questions.

I find going over my old notebooks both inspiring and fun. (Yes, you can be inspired by your own notes)

This approach to honing your formulating skills is not only fun and educational, but incredibly rewarding.

Tip: Your notebook is your new BFF (best friend forever) and will accompany you everywhere, so buy notebooks on sale. You're going to be needing a lot of them. 

Extra tip: Writing things down can be a great memory aid. Some people find it easy to  'picture' what was written down as soon as they have actually done it.

Extra Extra Tip: It's more than OK to doodle in your notebook and create your own icons and symbols. Get creative!

Examples of Asking and Answering Questions and More Inspiration

Cosmetic scientist Elham Eghbali wrote this post for Formula Botanica blog about testing emulsions

Skinchakra tests butter and balm stability in this post

Marie of Humblebee and me has an excellent example of getting acquainted with the limits and possibilities of one ingredient in her post about cetearyl alcohol.

Amanda at RealizeBeauty examined why lip balms get a dent in the middle and set out to find the answer.

Sometimes the ingredients you decide to test will surprise you. Here's an example of an ingredient mix-up mistake I made that turned out surprisingly well.

And sometimes, the ingredients/method will defy everything you expected and blow your mind. (this product is still going strong and stable, and it's at around 14 months)

And here's another example of 'aiming for wrong that turned out all right'

Here's Botanicals Formulations Quick and Dirty Guide to doing your own Stability Testing

Botanical Formulations also has a detailed post on the Scientific Method when formulating cosmetics products.

Do Tell

Do you experiment with different methods and test the limits of the ingredients you use? Please share in a comment below!


ByOly Cosmetics said…
LOVE this post. It is so true that experimenting with your ingredients is the only way to great formulations. I find very interesting how some preservatives destabilize a formula for no obvious reason and with just a few drops. I also find really interesting the sensitivity of BTMS to low ph..I say that now but when I formulate and destabilization happens...well I clearly am not happy!
LisaLise said…
Thank you Olympia. Yes indeed you are right about some preservatives being able to wreak havoc on a formula, and sometimes it's the component you least expect to mess everything up. :)