How to use herbal extracts in cosmetic formulas
Belinda Carli, 27/08/2021
We often get asked: how do I use herbal extracts in a formula, and how much do I use? We also get a lot of related questions about how to mix powders or different types of extracts into formulas.
This blog will take a look at the types of extracts you can use in cosmetics, how to make your own herbal extracts, how much to use and how to add them. There is a lot to cover but we also have some great video links to help explain this big topic too!
How do you add herbal extracts to cosmetic formulas?
The simplest way to add a herbal extract to a cosmetic formula is when it is in a liquid form. Since many cosmetic products have a water continuous phase, adding a herbal extract that comes in a glycerin, ethanol, glycol or water base will go easily into a cosmetic formula with a water continuous phase (like most of your creams, lotions, shampoos and conditioners).
You could also add a small amount (≤1%w/w) of an oil soluble extract (that is, an extract that comes in oil) to an emulsion product. You could add a very small amount (≤0.5%w/w) of an oil soluble extract, when appropriately solubilised (e.g. in 5%w/w polysorbate 20) into a mist or toner type formula.
The best thing to do is check it’s solubility first, if you don’t recognise the carriers listed above. Here is a video which explains how to do this: How to add herbal extracts to cosmetic formulas.
Where it becomes more difficult is if you are trying to add a herbal extract that is in a water soluble medium (like glycerin, ethanol, glycol or water) to an oil based product, like a w/o ointment, balm or oil. In this case, you would need to ‘reverse solubilise’ the material in a very low HLB solubilising material and only add a very small amount of herbal extract into the formula. Please watch this video which explains this process: How to solubilise herbal extracts in oil.
You can add a small input (≤1%w/w) of water or oil based herbal extracts to powdered products, just ensure you have a really good method of mixing, like a ribbon blender, to ensure the liquid gets homogenously dispersed throughout the powder. It is also best to spray it on the powder as it is being mixed, to avoid wet clumps that don’t mix evenly.
Finally, there is the issue of adding a powdered or dry extract to a liquid formula. Where you are working with a powdered extract, and want to add it to either an oil or water based cosmetic formula, you will first need to mix the powdered extract into whichever medium it is soluble in. For example, if the herbal extract is a water-soluble powder, then you will need to mix it in water, and add it that way. If it is a herbal extract that comes as an oil-soluble powder, you will need to mix it in a little oil, and add it that way. Remember to add the water soluble materials in water continuous phase formulas, or oil soluble materials in oil continuous phase formulas only – or make sure they are suitable emulsified or solubilised. Please see the above explanations and videos on how to add once you have made the powder into a liquid. You can also watch this video which explains this process: How to add powdered fruits, vegetables or herbal extracts to your cosmetic formulas.
How much herbal extract do I use in my cosmetic formula?
The answer to this one depends on a lot of things.
First, if it is a simple herbal extract that has no efficacy data, and comes just in glycerin, water, ethanol or a glycol base, and you are adding it to a water continuous phase formula, then usually you would add 1 – 5%w/w total combined extracts to most water based formulas. There would be some exceptions to this generalisation, but in many cases, this will serve you well.
Next, if it is a herbal extract that has efficacy data, you should be using the inputs provided by that efficacy data to get your desired effect. Sometimes you may only need 0.5%, sometimes you may need 2%, sometimes you might need 5%. Where there is efficacy data, use that to determine your input and make sure it is being added, along with other actives, in a way that will not destabilise, or is otherwise compatible with, the formulation you are adding it to.
If you are new to formulating and not sure, then we recommend you use our Create Cosmetic Formulas program to help you choose the right input for your formulas. This program limits the input of actives and extracts to make sure you don’t waste ingredients, because every formula works. If you are not sure how to add extracts to your formulas then this is a fantastic way to make sure you get it right, every single time. Visit the General Skin & Hair care program here or the Organic Skin & Hair care program here.
Can I make my own herbal extracts for cosmetic formulas?
Yes, you can! Here is a video that explains the process of making your own herbal extracts from fresh or dried herbs.
Do herbal extracts actually do anything in a formula?
Absolutely, yes! They wouldn’t be so popular if they didn’t. Make sure you look for efficacy data for herbal extracts making performance claims, or if you are making your own herbal extracts, conduct efficacy testing. Here is a video that shows how to conduct cosmetic performance testing:
Where you don’t have evidence to support a claim or performance attribute, you can’t make the claim. Just because a herbal extract from one supplier with efficacy data has a proven effect does not mean that all herbal extracts with the same (or similar) INCI name will have the same benefit, so make sure the efficacy data and information you hold relates specifically to the exact ingredient you want to use in your formula, not just a matching herbal or INCI name.
How do I choose which herbal extract is best for my cosmetic formula?
This depends on what you want it to do in your formula! If you are using a small input of a herbal extract for label claims only (to say it is in there), then choose the herbal extracts that will appeal to your target market. If you want it to add to your performance, choose the extract based on the efficacy data. Here is a video that shows you how to choose the best active:
Herbal extracts have been used for centuries – can I make claims about their therapeutic/medicinal uses?
No. Even if you have strong empirical or scientific evidence about the medicinal or therapeutic use of a herbal extract, you can’t suggest a cosmetic product will have that effect. Cosmetic products are there to maintain the skin and hair in good condition, not treat medical conditions. Even if you hold the evidence, the claim is not appropriate for a cosmetic product, so you can’t make it.
Herbal extracts can be a great addition to the marketing and performance of a cosmetic product, and like every cosmetic ingredient, need to be added in the right amount for the best results. Make sure you stabilise them effectively, check any compatibility requirements and conduct performance and stability testing to ensure you have a great cosmetic formula.
Disclaimer: this information provided here is of a general nature and may not suit your specific application. This information relates to the use of herbal extracts for topically applied cosmetic products only. This information does not relate to the therapeutic or ingestible uses of herbal extracts. Please make sure you seek specific advice to suit your situation and ensure the safety and suitability of your formula before putting any cosmetic product onto the market.
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