How To Formulate a Product

Many dream of taking an initial concept of a product and turning it into a reality.  It may be anything from an organic hair care product, deep shine car wax, or a paint product that dries with a pleasant odor. The problem for many is not having the knowledge, time, or resources to turn their entrepreneurial idea into an on the shelf product.

common how to formulate productBefore starting development on a new product one should research similar products and determine the strengths and weaknesses of them as well as what alterations or tweaks they would make to the competing products.  Also, it is important to research patents that may exist on similar products to ensure that they are not violating any legal restrictions if the product is too similar to an existing one on the market.

Depending on the time and resources available on hand, a new product formulation is typically designed in either an internal laboratory, typically through a company’s R&D division or through the use of an independent contract laboratory.  Unless the new product is within the regular scope of a company’s new product development team, it is often outsourced as a way to save valuable time and money.

While it will vary by which commercial or industrial product is being developed, there are several main places to look for research and some ingredients that are common among multiple types of formulations including:


 These can be a good resource as some are willing to perform testing at a discounted rate and will share parts of their formulations.  The downside is that typically they also own all rights to the final product created and will lock you into a contract taking a large portion of profits made by charging you higher production costs.  Another downside is that if they ever go out of business or find someone willing to pay more for the formula you may then lose your source for your product, and since most of the time the product formulation is not shared, you will be unable to transfer production to another manufacturer.

Internet: While generally free and containing an abundance of information, resources found on the internet are generally of lower quality.  Since anyone with or without formulation experience can post their information, and the general lack of any peer reviews, information found online can provide good background information but typically is ultimately not of high enough quality to rely upon.

Basics of Common Chemicals in Some Formulations

In modern home, health, and cosmetic products there are several main types of ingredient classes.

Surfactant: Also known as a surface active agent this term is used for chemicals that reduce the surface tension between water and oil based ingredients.  Since many ingredients are water-based this allows it to have a large scope of applications in a range of products.  Depending on the type used these typically make products more or less gentle to interact with.

Common Uses for Surfactants Include:

  • Cosmetics
  • Inks
  • Coatings
  • Sealants

What are Common Surfactants Used in Products?

  • Sodium Dodecyl Benzene Sulfonate
  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate
  • Glycerol Diester
  • Sprnotam Monoester
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
  • Dodecyl Betaine
  • Lauramide DEA
  • C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate
  • Abietic Acid
  • Cocoamide DEA
  • Cocamidopropyl Betaine

>Humectants: This term is used to describe additives that help absorb and retain moisture in a formulation.  Almost like a sponge they soak up water and moisture from the environment around it and trap it into the product.  Without humectants, the product may cause a drying reaction in cosmetics, or allow food products to dry faster than intended.

Common Uses for Humectants Include:

  • Food Products
  • Cosmetics

What are Common Humectants Used in Products?

  • Glycerine
  • Glycerol
  • Hyaluronic Acid
  • Propylene Glycol
  • Sodium
  • Gelatin

Emollients: Like humectants, these are also used to maintain moisture in commercial products.  But in addition, they also help to give cosmetics the unique texture or feel that is desired.  They can also be used to create a protective barrier within the surface of cosmetic products.  Their primary use is for beauty products.

What are Common Emollients Used in Products?

  • Mineral Oil
  • Propylene Glycol
  • Lanolin
  • Beeswax
  • Shea Butter
  • Olive Oil
  • Squalene

Thickeners: These often are used to amplify the way a product feels and give it a base structure as well as its shape.  Without the use of thickeners a product may be too thin and runny, resulting in a product that is hard to store and use.  When formulators talk about how a product feels when applied and how it is transferred, it is often the result of the thickening agents that they are talking about.

Common Uses for Thickeners Include:

  • Cosmetics
  • Coatings
  • Inks

What are Common Thickeners Used in Products?

  • Acrylate Copolymer
  • Cellulose Gum
  • Cetyl Alcohol
  • Resins (PVP)
  • Bentonite Clay
  • Xanthan Gum
  • Glycol Stearate

Neutralizers: Often times a product ends up with an unwanted pH level before the product is finalized.  Unless this is countered this can have damaging effects if applied to the skin or other surfaces.  Neutralizers help to balance a product and add a buffering zone increasing the safety of a product.  Often neutralizers are also able to make a product more stable which increases its shelf life.  The term neutralizer is also used in cosmetics as a color, odor, or other performance eliminating effect.

Common Uses for Neutralizers Include:

  • Soaps
  • Detergents
  • Beauty Products


What are Common Neutralizers Used in Products?

  • Triethanolamine
  • Aminomethyl Propanol (AMP)
  • Diisopropylamine
  • Phenoxyethanol
  • Tetrahydroxypropyl Ethylenediamine

Preservatives: As the name suggests these help to increase the shelf life of a product.  This step can be forgotten by those without enough experience in the field and often times when a great product is made without these, it will most likely suffer from a short longevity and will not last long on the shelf.

Common Uses for Preservatives Include:

  • Food & Beverage Products
  • Cleaning Products
  • Cosmetics

What are Common Preservatives Used in Products?

  • Parabens
  • Hexanediol
  • Butylparaben
  • Sodium Benzoate
  • Chlorophene
  • Methylchloroisothiazolinone
  • Ethylhexylglycerin

Processing Aids: Not all of the ingredients discussed above will always react properly when mixed together.  Using processing aids can help to prevent additives mixed together from reacting with each other.

Common Uses for Processing Aids Include:

  • Coatings
  • Food & Beverages
  • Cosmetics
  • Cleaning Products

What are Common Processing Aids Used in Products?

  • Citric Acid
  • Sodium Hydroxide
  • Sodium Chloride

Additives: These usually give a product its special smell, color, appearance, or performance boost.  These can add effects such as anti-foaming, anti-microbial, deep or light colors, flowery smell, etc. These can even be vitamins or minerals added as a health benefit to a food product or as an orange scent that is added to a cleaning company’s product line. Additives are used in a majority of commercial products and can vary significantly in type.

What are Common Additives Used In Products?

  • FD&C Yellow #6
  • Orange B
  • Antioxidants
  • Sugar
  • Vitamin A, B, C

Active Ingredients: While products contain a range of ingredients from those that control their thickness and feel to the color and odor. The active ingredients are the performance ingredients commonly used in cleaning, cosmetics, and a range of other products that get the job done.  In a cleaning product, it would be the ingredient that removes the stuck on stain or in a coating primer the ingredients that cover up old markings and keep them hidden.  They are typically considered the most important part of a product because even if a product is all natural, looks great, and seems perfect, if it does not perform as intended then it will not likely be a very successful product.

Common Uses for Active Ingredients Include:

  • Polymer and Metal Based Products
  • Sunscreens
  • Cosmetics
  • Cleaners

What are Common Active Ingredients Used in Products?

  • Aminobenzoic Acid
  • Triclosan
  • Salicylic Acid
  • Octyl Methoxycinnamate
  • Adapalene
  • Ethyl Alcohol

In Conclusion

Often times when formulating a new product several small batches are produced in order to compare their appearance and performance, then determine which version of the formulation is best. Typically these batch sizes are just a couple grams in size.  Once the best version is selected, a larger batch is created for additional testing and troubleshooting steps before finalizing and entering production.  When making a formulation in larger batches it tends to have minor differences due to changes in its manufacturing processes and the formulation may need to be modified slightly to produce on a larger scale.  Once these modifications are finalized it will be ready to produce in-house or send to a manufacturer for production.

Often products also need to be also tested once completed for their longevity or shelf life.  This helps to develop expiration dates and ensures that the product stays both safe and effective long enough for customers to purchase and use.  This will also show how different temperature and humidity conditions will affect the stability of your product.  This can be done in a variety of ways including real-time stability testing and accelerated shelf life testing.  Depending on the regulations imposed on your product, an accelerated stability program may not be recommended.

One way to save time and money in the formulation process is to first use deformulation services (product reverse engineering) on similar products that you like.  A professional deformulation analysis on competing products can identify the major, minor, and active ingredients inside of a competitor’s formulation.  Using this information and reformulation services, a skilled product re-engineering chemist can make a product similar to the competitor’s product.  Since the competitor will have already worked out the potential problems in formulating the product this allows for a great base to work off of. And through modifying it towards your particular needs it will leave you with a high performing and unique product.

Depending on the type of commercial or industrial product, formulation, deformulation, and reformulation services can be a complex process that requires specialized skills and instrumentation.

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