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Introducing The Actives Cheat Sheet and How to Get The Most Out of It

posted on Oct 19, 2017

When it comes to formulating a good, honest cosmetic product there are three formulating components to consider:

  1. Is the base optimised for my purposes (stable, feels good, helps do the job)?
  2. Have I achieved a usable shelf life and a safe product?
  3. Have I added ingredients that will help back up what I'm claiming for my product?

Of the above, point one is achieved through what I'd call 'polishing' the formula. Shaving bits off here and there, experimenting in increments to get exactly the right texture, colour, flow and after-feel and making sure the formula manufacturing method is giving you the best end product. Step two is all about testing, testing, testing (Preservative Efficacy, Micro Count, Stability etc.), this is often thought of as the most boring really as nothing new is created but it is here that you meet your responsibilities of being a safe and usable brand. But what most people focus on, often to the exclusion of the other two steps is step three, the selection and placement of the ingredients that will actually make the product deliver a key benefit! While steps one and two are essential for a successful and long-lived brand, it is step three that we will talk about here today as we introduce the actives cheat sheet.

In a cosmetic setting the 'actives' could be many things but often they are the ingredients that are added on top of the base to make it special, to give it the ability to do something specific. If we use the example of a sponge cake recipe you can pretty much take that recipe and, with minor changes make a plain or chocolate or lemon or walnut and orange or Victoria sponge cake. The base 'product' is the sponge while the 'actives' are the chocolate, lemon, walnut, jam and butter icing - the things that make the sponge 'special'. Now all of this might sound obvious to the long-term brand owner but I'm not always convinced that it actually is. Just adding actives into a base doesn't guarantee results!

Efficacy = results.

It is perfectly possible to pop all of your actives into a product and get zero benefit. It is also perfectly possible to pop in your actives and end up with a disastrous mess as some actives can destabilise a base. Sometimes that is due to the formulations manufacturing method but sometimes it is due to other factors, some of which we will explore here.

If we take the sponge cake example again it is logical that you would add some cocoa into the cake batter to turn a plain sponge into a chocolate sponge. Adding the cocoa at the end of the process would not a chocolate sponge make! So, the same actives added at the same concentration but that achieved a totally different result (cake). The same could be said for the jam, add the jam into the cake batter and get an almighty mess probably, spread it onto the cooled sponge after baking and voila, great success! So, with that in mind, just knowing that a plant extract, vitamin, mineral or peptide is known for a particular outcome doesn't in its self guarantee a result. In fact, with plant extracts you can quite often get a whole lot of nothing you expected unless you are in the know so we should definitely explore that more!

In our cake example I talked about cocoa being the active in the chocolate sponge but what do you know about cocoa? What part of the cocoa plant is it? Why does it work? How come we have to put it into the sponge batter? How much do we need to add to get a result? Will it always work or is it sensitive to other conditions? This can take a big of digging around to answer!

Not all plant parts are created equal.

In order to assess whether your particular plant extract, powder or liquid is going to do what you THINK it will/ should/ could do you need to know its chemistry AND you need to know what it is about that particular plant that gives the action that you are hoping for. Once you know that it is just a game of SNAP!

For example many people think that carrot oil is a good source of vitamin A because they have heard that carrots are full of vitamin A and may also know the cosmetic ingredient Retinol or Retinyl Palmitate which are oil soluble so assume that carrot oil contains all the vitamin A. But that is wrong. Carrot oil is from the seeds and the seeds are not rich in anything vitamin A related, in fact they produce highly smelly oil, which is anti-microbial - still very good for the skin but not vitamin A. In the case of carrot the vitamin A is in nature's form as carotenoids and in the carrot they are mostly the water-soluble type. Carotenoids are a family of pigmented retinol-type chemicals that can be oil or water-soluble, in Buriti oil the carotenoids are what make the oil super orange so it is no wonder that people get confused. This may not sound like a big deal in the grand scheme of things but for me it does matter, especially if you want your customers to get a good chance of getting the result you are aiming for! The story of 'where's my target chemical' plays out across all types of plant active, not least because you get very different chemistry from different extraction methods - glycerine extracts will not give the same analytical profile (chemistry) as an alcoholic extract and both will differ from a hydrosol or essential oil. This sometimes leads people to assuming that the whole plant leaf, twig or bark is better, that adding the powdered whole plant is the bees knees but this is also false most but not all of the time.

When adding powdered botanicals, even super concentrated ones unless it completely dissolves into the water or oil phase, such as Aloe or coconut milk powder does, it is likely that very little of that powder ever becomes bio-available during normal product use. Many plants hold onto their chemical 'actives constituents' with all their might and these actives need coaxing out with either a solvent, heat, mashing or infusion. So you can easily end up with a product that contains the potential to act but none of the joy!

The other thing that people often think with botanical actives is that more is better, hence why people like ingredients that they can add to the top of their INCI list - where the higher content ingredients are. This is also often, although not always untrue. Many plants that are highly active can also be quite likely to initiate a reaction to the skin. That's actually quite an obvious statement because actives have to have an action by definition BUT if that action is to irritate, inflame or otherwise disrupt unhelpfully that is not good. The saying 'the dose makes the poison' is worth remembering but that's not all. Knowing your target chemistry and what dose of that is required for a chance at a result helps to insure you have a fair chance of an efficacious formula that doesn't have any negative side effects, not least the side effect of having an overly expensive (but not very effective) product!

And some other little things.

The last bit I want to talk about on here quickly is the stability of the actives themselves and how knowing a little about their character can again help to boost product efficacy.

Antioxidants are big news in natural (and regular) cosmetics as they help to keep our skin in tip-top condition by helping to mop up the free-radicals that are formed as a result of oxidation reactions on the skin, these can cause our skin to age prematurely. I like to think of antioxidants as our skins army of protectors but like any army, they can't just keep on working forever, they get worn out and used up if treated harshly or put under too much pressure. Knowing a little about what 'pressure' means for your little skin soldiers will help to ensure they are battle ready for the whole of your products shelf life and not just the first couple of days! The same can go for botanical extracts whose pigments can photosynthesise, whose aromatics can evaporate or oxidise and whose essential fatty acids can again oxidise (go rancid). Basically it is best to adopt a mindset where you really have to get to know your actives before you start with your formulation - that way you can formulate FOR them (being as though they are your products big-hitting-benefit-bringers) rather than you just trying to shove everything in at the end while hoping for the best!

Avoiding the Overwhelm - the Cheat Sheet Starting Point

We have created a simple 'cheat sheet' to help brand owners identify which of our actives can achieve a particular benefit when used in the right formulating environment. The idea of this sheet is to help short cut the active selection process thus leaving more time for you to think about optimising the ingredient in your base. The best to view such a cheat sheet is as a 'door opener' or 'introduction agency' that helps you take the first steps into an exciting new world! The cheat sheet says very little and yet quite a lot at the same time, helping you to hone in on the individuals (actives) that might be able to help in your search for efficacy (results). It is impossible for us to factor in all questions and answers into such a template but there is no need, as that is what our help desk and technical service is there to do - please do make use of us: or call on a Thursday for a chat with me.

I appreciate that an article like this might open up more questions than it provides answers but that is also part of the point, as I'm hoping that this article helps to provide you with the right questions - another important step in making a better product. Overall it pays to remember that there is nothing on this cheat sheet that, if added would cause a major explosion in your lab or workshop - well nothing except for the bicarbonate of soda plus the AHA fruit acids and that would just fizz and bubble everywhere rather than explode! At worse, other than that, you might just end up with a curdled or runny cream. The best way to minimise the cost and impact of that is to test out your ideas on a small batch first, be sure to test your pH before applying it and if you are trying out your invention try it on 'safe' skin first - skin that is more robust and less sensitive, just in case you have made something that is a bit strong or irritating. Finally don't forget that we are here to give your idea the once-over if you would really prefer that before you get stuck in but also remember that sometimes you gain more in trying and failing than in never trying at all. We also have our Chemistry Part 3 workshop (to be completed after chemistry 1 and 2), which focuses on answering the technical points and questions raised in this article thus helping to ensure that your products stand a chance of working.

Best of luck with your formulating and the team and I look forward to helping you with your creations!

Amanda Foxon-Hill
Australian Made

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