Get to know cosmetic ingredients!

Oct 17, 2021 | The basics

If you ever looked at the cosmetic ingredient shop, you have probably felt the same way that I did – overwhelmed. There are soooo many different ingredients that you can get and you want them all.

Each ingredient looks better than the previous and it is very easy to spend lots and lots of money on the ingredients that you do not event need. So, it is very useful to do a research before so you know you are getting the ingredients that you actually need and will be using them.

So how do you actually do this research? Do you need to know certain things beforehand?

Well, yes. You do.

get to know your ingredients

1. Decide which products you will be creating

Before even looking at suppliers website you should definitely decide which type of skin care products you are thinking of creating.

Maybe it is soap, maybe it is an oily hair mask for strengthening hair. Or maybe a lightweight face lotion with anti-aging properties. These are very different things that you can formulate and you need to decide before which are you interested in creating the most right now. And that will save you a lot of time when looking at a supplier’s website.

Also, think about what properties do you want these products to have. What kind of problems they will be solving and what do you need in order to solve these problems. Can some of the ingredients have a dual purpose?

2. Purpose of the ingredient

This will save you a lot of time as well if you know what exactly the ingredient is for and what can it do. It can be very generic such as ‘emulsifier’, ‘surfactant’, ‘carrier oil’, ‘humectant’, etc.

But this is not enough when you want to know how exactly the ingredient is working. Reputable suppliers include additional documents such as ‘data sheets’, ‘certificate of analysis’ and others. All these documents show important information such as melting point, solubility, pH, processing methods and how to handle each ingredient.

There is also information what to do if the ingredient can damage in contact. There can also be information how the ingredient works, list of uses and benefits and even sample formulations to get you started. 


When choosing your ingredients, try to assess each ingredient critically. What kind of properties it has, is it hard or liquid, how fast it absorbs and so on. Which of the characteristics do you want your formulation to have?

I would also recommend to look into scientific articles in you have the time and really get to know each ingredient. What this ingredient is actually made of (specify the molecules) and how they actually work on the skin / hair.

You can use google scholar for this, check PubMed articles. If you want to dig even deeper – look at the references and read those who might be of interest to you. I know that this takes so much time and effort and maybe you will not understand everything. But after a while of doing this your knowledge of each ingredient will be much bigger.

3. INCI name

What name?! The INCI stands for ‘International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient’. This name tells what this ingredient is made of and it is a very useful information to know. If you have certain allergies (like nut allergy or other) you will definitely find this information in the INCI name. It will also show you all the ingredients that make up the raw material.

Most of the suppliers sell their products by common name or a trade / brand name. These are usually not very descriptive and without INCI name you will never guess what it is made of. Also, the same ingredient can have several trade / brand names but their INCI names will always match. So you will know exactly what you are getting.

The common names are likely to be seen for things such as carrier oils, butters, essential oils, salts and other easier to find products. For example, you can get a carrier oil such as avocado oil and the common name would be “Avocado oil”. However, the INCI name will be Persea Gratissima oil.

You can get an “Avocado butter”, but the INCI name probably will look like this: Persea Gratissima oil, hydrogenated vegetable oil, tocopherol and Butyrospermum parkii butter.


Here is the example how the INCI name can look on the packaging – sometimes it is called ‘Composition’ or something similar, but it means the INCI name. Here you can see:

Composition: Shorea robusta butter.

Composition: Astrocaryum vulgare seed butter.

Composition: Panthenol, aqua, citric acid.

INCI: Sodium Hyaluronate.

As you can see the INCI name will state every component of the raw material that you want to buy. However it does not tell you the processing methods and the origin of the ingredient.

Luckily, this information should be included in the suppliers other documents. So you will know the country of origin, if the product was refined (or processed in any other way) and if it is vegan (or was produced from sustainable sources. The supplier is more than happy to include this information as this transparency is good for the everyone.

The trade names are usually used for other ingredients such as emulsifiers, surfactants, preservatives and other more advanced ingredients. For example emulsifier Emulsan II (trade name) INCI name is methyl glucose sesquistearate, active ingredient known as Aquaxyl is actually made of three ingredients that are listed in INCI: xylitylglucoside, anhydroxylitol, xylitol.

The same ingredient can be sold under brand / trade different names – methyl glucose sesquistearate can be found under these names: Glucate SS Emulsifier, GLUCO SS, TEGO Care PS MB and Emulsan II. This usually happens due to different manufacturers that are producing this ingredient and different suppliers that are selling it. But the INCI name for that ingredient will stay the same, so it is worth to check it.

However, you should also look at the other information as well as the INCI name alone sometimes cannot be enough.

As mentioned before, different manufacturers are making the same product, for example cocamidopropyl betaine.

The INCI name for it will be the same, however I have found that the active matter can be different – the most common is 30%, but there are 40% and even 15% active matter codamidopropyl betaine.

I have even found it sold in a solid form, which was new to me. And this is a huge difference when making skincare products. Other aspects can differ as well, such as pH, melting point, so definitely check these specifications as well.

4. Appearance and smell

If you are shopping online this part is hard to do, though this information should be mentioned next to ingredients main info. If you see that the ingredient has a strong color – be it orange, green, dark brown – this color will probably be visible in your final product depending on the concentration you have used.

Also, usually ingredients with colors have a special and unique scent as well. Which can be not to everyone’s liking (for example bacuri butter has a very unique scent).

I made a hand lotion with cupuacu butter that has a caramel/chocolate scent. When I apply it to my hands, I can smell the scent, which is just lovely.


5. Shelf life

Pretty obvious, but worth checking out as some of the ingredients have a very small window when you can actually use them. For example flax seed oil which should be used in two weeks after opening even when storing in the fridge.

However, most of the ingredients can last much longer – from 6 months to 5 years after opening.

6. Usage rate

As there are so many ingredients they definitely cannot be used the same way. Some can be used up to 100% such as carrier oils. However others can be used only in small amounts, for example essential oils, salicylic acid, other active ingredients. Suppliers will definitely state this information on their site. And depending on this information you can easily tell how much of it you really need.

If the ingredient is used up to 1%, 5 g or up to 10 ml is more than enough to buy. If the usage rate is much higher, then you get bigger amounts of it if the price is good for you (exotic carrier oils are very pricey even when buying small amounts).

I would recommend checking several suppliers and their given info about the ingredient so you would be sure about the usage rate. Also, you can find this information at Cosmetics Info and Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR). Both of them list the maximum allowed usage rate, though the latter ones gives you a very long PDF file to go through.

Another thing is that the maximum allowed rate does not mean that you have to use it at that rate. You can definitely try lower doses of the ingredient as they still will be effective. Just be sure that you are not using more than allowed rate.

Sometimes, the same ingredient has more of a guidelines of the usage rate. For example emulsifier Emulsan – with this emulsifier you can get very different final products depending on the used concentration. If using in smaller amounts, you will get a milk consistency while used in higher concentrations the final product will be more of a heavy thick rich cream.

If you are interested in using essential oils one rule is worth to know – the less is more.

Essential oils are very complex substances that can have many different effects. Even they are natural and glorified at this point it does not mean they should be used everywhere in high amounts.

They should be handled with care and if you want to know more about this topic (as I am no expert in this), check Essential oil safety: A guide for health care professionals by Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young.


This topic is a bit mystified, but I want to say that pH is very important factor when formulating. Even different parts of our bodies have different pH values so you should be careful with this.  

Another thing is that pH value can exist only in things with water. If the ingredient does not contain water, it will not have a pH value – this is very true for oils, butters, waxes. They do not have pH value and if someone says to you that they have – please do not believe them. They have probably read somewhere misleading information.

So, now that we know pH is only applicable to the ingredients that have water, what does that mean? Well, it means that certain ingredients need a specific range of pH to actually work and do their job in the formulation. For example preservative sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate can only work in 4.5-5.5 pH range.

Other types of ingredients that usually require certain pH are active ingredients, gelling agents and surfactants. When looking at surfactants they have their own pH value which can vary a lot and needs to be addressed.

If the surfactant has a high pH (let’s say pH = 12) and you want to make a shampoo with a pH = 6, you will need to lower the pH value using some acidic ingredients. And for this you will also need pH strips or a pH meter to know how much acidic ingredient you need to add. However, it is much easier to formulate a shampoo if your surfactants have a pH of 6-7.

8. Melting point

There should be no problem with cosmetic butters, but hard waxes, emulsifiers, co-emulsifiers and solid surfactants can be a bit tricky to use as they have high melting point (above 75°C).

If you are using a double boiler to melt your ingredients, it is nearly impossible to reach more than 85°C. There are some ways how you can increase temperature of the boiling water, but not very much. Therefore, keep in mind this when buying hard to melt ingredients.

9. Solubility

The main principle that you have to know is that each ingredient attracts and dissolves in the other that is similar to him. So, basically water ingredients will be soluble water, oil will be soluble in oil. And some ingredients will prefer alcohol and glycols. Ingredients such as emulsifiers love oil and water, but are melted with oils.

You probably know that oil and water does not dissolve in each other, but this is the same situation with the oil and alcohol / glycol. So, if you ever wanted to make oily perfumes, but want to add absolute oil to oil, your plan just not gonna work because of the simple chemistry. Oil does not mix the alcohol (absolutes are made using alcohol extraction).  

Here is the example of Emulsan solubility in www.aroma-zone.com website.

10. Charge

This criteria is usually seen when working with surfactants and emulsifiers. They can be cationic (positively charged), anionic (negatively charged), amphoteric (has both positive and negative charges, but changes with the pH) and non-ionic (has no charge).

Non-ionic and amphoteric ingredients are usually compatible with other ingredients. However combining anionic and cationic ingredients together can cause instability in the final product.

11. Active matter

Active matter is a special measurement of how effective the surfactant is and is important when formulating cleansing products such as shampoos, hand and face cleansers. Surfactants usually come in solid or liquid forms.

For the surfactants in the liquid form – they are usually diluted in water and typically you will see at least a note that ingredient is made of 40% of surfactant and 60% of water. In this case your active matter is 40%.

For the solid surfactants you cannot say that all of it has active matter of 100% as you have to look at their purity (which is definitely not 100%) and the active matter can vary a lot. For Sodium cocoyl isethionate (SCI) the active matter is usually 84%, though it should be noted by the supplier.

Also, if there is a possibility to choose the same ingredient in pellets, noodles or any other form – their active matter should also differ. 

Links to look at when researching ingredients:


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