Product Development vs Product Formulation as a Cosmetic Chemist

I think one of the most common questions I get from students and budding cosmetic chemists is, "What is the difference between product development and product formulation?"

The main difference between the two lies in the work environment.

 product development vs product formulation

In product formulation, your life is at the bench. If you work for a subcontract manufacturer, you can expect to spend the majority of your time in the laboratory making your products. Some companies have different labs for different types of products, like a powder lab, skincare lab, lipstick lab, etc. Depending on the workload of  your company, you'll probably have an opportunity to interact with raw material suppliers to learn about new ingredients on the market.

Product development involves more one-on-one time with your marketing team or other creative counterparts. I like to describe it as acting as a consultant for your marketing team since you advise them on whether or not their ideas are feasible. It is your job to translate their concepts into reality by collaborating with chemists at subcontract manufacturers your company works with. While you'll probably spend almost no time on the bench, you do get ot have more say in the creative process of developing products. You'll also spend a lot more time testing products, which is a dream come true for some people as a job. (The downside of this is that your skin will really, really hate you.)

Let's dig in deeper on the differences:

Day-to-Day Tasks:

When you are a formulator, the majority of your day-to-day will be putting together paper formulas and then making batch trials for them. You'll also be involved in pilot scale-up for approved formulas, working closely with the processing engineers to advise them on the special nuisances of the formula you developed on a smaller scale.

Another important and valuable job of being a formulator is networking with raw material suppliers. Technical sales people of raw material companies will visit your lab to give a presentation on the types of ingredients they have to offer to either improve your formulations or help stabilize it.

The job of a technical product developer for a brand is to vet through all of the prototypes you receive from subcontract manufacturers. Typically the workflow starts when your marketing team pitches to you an idea and then you send the project over to a subcontract manufacturer. Each manufacturer has their own core competency, meaning that each lab specializes in certain types of products. Really, the majority of your day-to-day is spent trying on these prototypes with your marketing team and then figuring out how to either improve or reject the submission.

Each brand has its own criteria on how they evaluate a prototype. How long it takes to evaluate a sample really depends on the type of timeline your company puts into place for product launches. Some launches will have long lead times, while other launches will be fairly rapid. It is your job as a product developer to guide the marketing team on what's feasible from a scientific perspective in order to achieve the aesthetics and claims they want.

You may also get chances to travel depending on the size of your company. Typically chemists in the lab don't have many opportunities to travel since they must be the ones to make the batch trials.

Brain Work

I think one of the glaring differences between formulation and product development is the type of work you do. While as a formulator you may have a chance to express yourself creatively (depending on your projects), often times the bulk of your work is largely left-brain.

In my personal experience, product development has given me more of a balance between left-brain and right-brain work since  you spend almost no time on the bench and more time with marketing. Since it's your job as a product developer to guide your teams using your scientific smarts, you definitely have a chance to flex both sides of your brain. Using your formulation skills, do you understand how to achieve what marketing wants? Is it a feasible type of product? Can you explain to marketing why some claims are possible and some aren't?

Speaking of which...

Experience

You can become a product developer without prior formulation experience. However, that wouldn't make you an asset from a technical standpoint. Most likely if you're reading this post, you are interested in the scientific aspect of cosmetics.

Transitioning from formulation to product development can be a great and fulfilling career move if you're looking for many of the aspects I've previously listed in this post (such as travelling the world and balance of left-brain, right-brain work.)

If you are looking to work for a brand as a developer with technical experience, it goes without saying the invaluable and highly recommended path of becoming a formulation chemist first. This will give you the knowledge you need to be able to do your job as a technical product developer well.

Larger Companies With Internal Labs Can Offer You Both Worlds

I always try to encourage students to find companies with their own lab, such as L'Oreal. Your life will be more balanced between the lab and development as you have opportunities to interact directly with your client as a formulator--your company's marketing team. If you're fortunate enough to have this kind of opportunity, you'll be able to get a glimpse of both the formulation and development world.

Conclusion

Bottom line, I would recommend the path of a formulator to anyone who enjoys the challenge of problem solving, especially when you come across unstable formulas. Also if you're someone on the quiet side and prefer to mostly work solo, this would also be a good choice for you. Some chemists on the bench will listen to the radio and just go at it on the bench.

I recommend the career path of a product developer to anyone who loves a lot of interaction. In addition, you get to see first-hand the other aspects that come with developing a formula, like sales and marketing. If you're in the lab, sometimes this process goes over your head.

If you like...

  • Working with people
  • Testing products all day
  • Travelling for work

...then product development is probably better suited for you.

If you like...

  • Working independently
  • Problem solving

...then product formulations is probably better for you.

Which side seems more enticing for you?

Does your company have different functions for formulation or development? Tell me about it and leave a comment below!