Jesss Jesss
2 years ago

Fomrulation matters for cosmetics, but not for prescription creams?

I am not sure if this is the right place to post. I wanted to ask for your opinion. I hear a lot online recently that "formula is king" and ingredient lists don't matter, but the whole formulation does, and you can't judge a product from an ingredient list (seeing a lot of posts on instagram mostly). I get it, but am also wondering: I've never heard that a specific formulation for a tretinoin cream matters. It's only percentages. The same for other topical prescriptions: it's just the percentage of the active. So what's the deal?

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Good question!!!

Percentage of active ingredients matters a lot, I'd say it determines if the product can work or not. I think there is no debating this one: if a product doesn't have an ingredient/ingredients that work, no formulation magic can fix it.

Still, formulation matters, but it is more nuanced. It is possible to spoil the effectiveness of a product with bad formulation - for example, by using an irritating preservative or plant extract. Preservatives can be an issue with prescription meds as well (a doc would check the whole composition of a prescription cream if the patient has known allergies to a preservative), but prescription creams usually come without other bells and whistles like fragrances, colorants, and underresearched plant extracts.

Another factor is stability of the active. Actives used in prescription products are usually stable. Many cosmetic ingredients (e.g. retinol, anti-oxidants like ascorbic acid, green tea extract) are unstable. This is when formulation matters a lot: a good stabilizing formulation can greatly improve the effectiveness of a product, and products with the same percentages of an active can have different outcomes. My strategy here is to rather go for products from reputable brands and larger companies where the chances that a proper formulation technique was used are higher (for example, I wouldn't trust a no-name serum from amazon for ascorbic acid or retinol).

I think though that the current social media outcry that "formula is king" has an element of defending the industry status-quo, where consumers don't question formulations, trust the marketing and are OK to pay a premium for a "silky texture". It is also interesting that it mostly comes from cosmetic formulators themselves. And I think their work matters a lot. But most reputable skincare companies employ formulators or buy formulations from professionals, and it is reasonable for us as consumers to expect that the brand didn't completely f..d up a formulation (of course, it can still happen, but usually it doesn't).

The other point is when formulators say "formula is everything", they judge its impact by outcomes of traditional consumer focus groups and panels. These are studies where consumers are offered different formulations blindly, and asked to assess how they like the product. In these studies, the consumers judge products based on smell, texture, feel, appearance, - not on how it actually works. And yes, formula matters a lot for how a product feels. It's still the actives that define whether the product can work or not though.