InBeauty, Interview

An Expert Reveals How a Skincare Product is Really Formulated

I’ve long been a skincare junkie, but never have I been exposed to the behind the scenes of creating a product – other than the odd podcast listening to brand founders. I find this all extremely interesting, so when I was introduced to the founder of Biologi, Ross Macdougald, I knew this was my chance to learn, and in turn share with you.

Ross Macdougald is an Australian entrepreneur who is the founder of Biologi, phytoverse and Plant Extracts. As an experienced industry chemist, Ross is a on a mission is to prove through science that ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ can not only work, but are better than synthetic manmade chemicals.

Born and educated in Sydney, Ross moved to Byron Bay to work with Thursday Plantation, and Southern Cross University. Throughout his career, Ross has developed over 300 products and formulated active ingredients for large cosmetic companies. Ross can be credited with many revolutionary formulations and active ingredients which are currently sold in many brands globally.

Ross shares: “Depending on the brand, skincare products can be formulated in a range of different ways, using an array of different processes and ingredients. One of the key areas to get an understanding of skincare formulations is learning to decipher what is written on the label. Skincare labels are typically confusing and unfortunately can slightly misleading if you’re not sure what you’re looking for. What’s written on the label can help you to understand the key ingredients, along with the percentage levels in the formulation. That can be a good place to start if you want to get a better understanding of the formulation.”

The key thing to note when it comes to understanding the structure of an ingredient list is the order that the ingredients come in. Typically, the first ingredient listed on the back of the pack is the ingredient that contains the highest concentration. All of the ingredients in concentrations of 1 per cent or more should be listed in descending order, typically starting from greatest amount to least amount present in the product. Ingredients in a concentration of less than 1% can be listed in any order. Ingredient labels can be confusing because brands don’t need to stipulate the percentages of each ingredient. This means that you can often find that the active ingredient comes in a really low concentrate (which won’t do much for the skin). Or worse, that the first ingredient on the label is water and other filler ingredients – meaning that your product is likely made up of ingredients that don’t actually do anything for the skin.”

Marketing tactics are always a hot topic on Instagram – I always wonder if it’s real hype or just a bunch of influencers pooled together, to which Ross notes, “The other thing to be really aware of is knowing the difference between catchy taglines and marketing gimmicks that will often gloss over the questionable contents of cosmetics containers. A great example is taglines using ‘natural’ or ‘naturally-derived’ – this doesn’t necessarily conform to our traditional understanding of the word. Whilst the TGA regulates labelling of ingredients and therapeutic claims, marketing of skincare packaging is largely unregulated. This means manufacturers can use the word ‘natural’ or ‘pure’ and if it’s not the case, there is no consequence. Remember, that every single ingredient on the planet is derived from a natural source in some form. Even petrol once started as a natural ingredient – but you absolutely would not put that on your skin. It’s therefore up to you, and you alone, to cut through taglines and decipher the truth about the ingredients. 

Some products can contain a whole host of ingredients so it can be hard to decipher what the percentages are of each ingredient. But as a general rule, if you’re buying a product for an active ingredient and it appears further down the ingredient list, chances are there really isn’t going to be much efficacy in that product. Sure, it might feel nice on the skin, but that’s often more of a placebo effect from the water and filler ingredients putting a film over the skin. I believe this is a big issue in the skincare industry because consumers aren’t being given all the facts. That’s one of the reasons why I created Biologi  – because I wanted consumers to be able to buy a brand that contained 100% active ingredients (compared to brands that usually only put around 2% active ingredients). The active ingredient in a product is the thing that works on the skin, so you need it to be in a high concentrate for it to do anything. Because we don’t add activating agents, stabilisers, emulsifiers or even water or fragrance to our product, we don’t dilute the potent plant-power of the plant serums, and all our products remain 100% active.”

Things of note:

  • Some red flags are obviously water as the first ingredient (especially if the product is expensive!). You don’t want to be paying hundreds of dollars for a product that contains mostly water. Consumers often view water or aqua as hydrating and good for the skin, but the real reason that it’s in the product is so manufacturers can charge less making it more consumer friendly. Water also dilutes the activity of natural plant extracts leaving the work to be done solely by synthetics.
  • Another red flag is fragrance appearing towards the top of the list. Even natural fragrance such as essential oils can irritate delicate cells causing pain and discomfort. Fragrances are often made up of a myriad of irritant synthetics, but because ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ is considered the main ingredient, there’s no law requiring the fragrance ingredients are listed on your bottle. Another issue is that we don’t really know what that fragrance is and because some newer preservatives can be listed as a fragrance it can make the product look like it is preservative free when it’s not.
  • Another thing to be aware of is substitute ingredients that are replacing bad ingredients with other ingredients that are just as bad for the skin. Since parabens became a dirty word in Australia, paraben-free skincare is on the rise. Unfortunately, what the manufacturers don’t tell us is what they’re replacing parabens with. Benzyl alcohol and polyaminopropyl biguanide are common ingredients used to replace parabens as a preservative and they are not good for the skin. Other ingredients to avoid are synthetic irritants like Silcones, Glycols, ethanol, phenoxyethanol and acrylates which can cause damage to your skin and overall health.

“The good ingredients to look out for are obviously 100% active pure plant extracts, because they’re the ingredients that work to repair, rejuvenate, hydrate, protect and nourish cells. Plant based ingredients are always a winner so long as they haven’t been manipulated with synthetics. There’s actually some amazing actives found in natural plant extracts which can sound bad but are actually good. Things like Tryptophan, Ferulic acid, Gallic acid, Tartaric acid, Quercetin – all these ingredients work wonders on the skin even though they can sound a little dubious. We just launched our 100% natural cleanser – Bc Refresh Cleanser – which is made of the single ingredient soap berry extract. Within that extract you can find things like Amino acids, Phenolic acids, Triterpene glycosides and amines – Again they can sound a little scary but these naturally occurring ingredients work in synergy to remove all traces of dirt without disturbing the skin’s natural oils and moisture essential for hydration.” – Ross

Like me, if you’re not sure about a product formulation or a brand’s process, be sure to do your research on each ingredient, ask the brand directly, or feel free to reach out to the team at Biologi. Ross explained their brand promise at Biologi is to help consumers learn about the ingredients in everything they put on, and therefore in, their skin so they can make informed choices about their products!

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