Formulating Products For Babies: How Do They Do That?

You know Kevin doesn't fool around with what goes on little Charlie's skin.
Publish date:
June 12, 2014
babies, kevin, baby, baby lotion, baby wash, chemistry, children

I will never forget that night. It was 58 minutes into the fifth of May when my son, Charlie, came into this world. Seven pounds and 15 ounces of gorgeous baby boy, he was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and I swore to myself right there in the hospital room that I would do anything to keep him from harm.

There is something crazy about having a newborn that makes you feel completely lost. For nine months you prepare; getting the right diapers and swaddle blankets, researching car seats and baby monitors. But there was one thing I knew immediately--what I would use to wash and lotion that beautiful baby’s skin.

I have made a career of learning the science that goes into cosmetic products. I know the strongest actives to zap zits and reduce wrinkles. I can make powerful concoctions to wither age spots and firm sagging eyelids. Formulating for a baby? That’s a whole different ball field.

How Is Formulating Products For Babies Different Than Formulating Products For Adults?

To find out what's best for baby, you have to practice restraint in the lab. It’s about doing things over and over again until you are 150% certain you have a great, mild formula that uses only the bare minimum of ingredients to get the gentlest result.

I started my cosmetic career formulating for baby products. I worked at one of the largest companies associated with baby products. Disclaimer: I am not trying to get anyone to purchase any brand's products. I do, however, respect how larger companies conduct their consumer product laboratories, and I am a better scientist from spending time at one.

The first thing about making a good baby product is to know your customer. In my early days of formulating I would pore over medical journals. The Journal of Pediatrics, Pediatric Dermatology, and European Journal of Pediatric Dermatology were my go-to reading material whenever I had spare time. We worked closely with pediatricians and nurses who were experts in their fields. Generally, we focused on hair and skin. Babies don’t need much performance; they just need to protect what’s there. You only have to touch a baby's soft skin to know it is more delicate and fragile than your own. And knowing just how different a baby's skin is from an adult's is a huge factor.

Skin acts as a protective barrier; it’s the first line of defense against outside organisms, toxins, irritants, and allergens. A baby's skin, which is thinner than yours and which continues to develop through the first year of life, is more vulnerable to everything. These differences make it essential to help protect your baby's skin from irritants and a harsh environment. Determining what makes your baby's delicate skin unique and how best to protect it has been the focus of years of cosmetic research.

Keeping babies clean, through good skin hygiene, is essential to overall good health and wellness. Proper cleansing helps keep the skin free of unwanted substances, including dirt, transient germs, and irritants such as those from saliva, nasal secretions, urine, and feces. Maintaining a clean diaper area also helps prevent skin breakdown, rash, and infection. And keeping hands clean, particularly in the case of babies and their hand-mouth behaviors, can help reduce or prevent oral transmission of microbial contaminants. Special attention should also be paid to the facial area, where vulnerable skin can be easily irritated by food and saliva. So it's essential to use appropriate mild and gentle baby products that don't dry a baby's skin. Using sulfate-free products helps maintain natural moisture balance and protects against skin breakdown.

How Safe Is Safe Enough For Baby?

After you have researched your product and your target audience, next comes sourcing your ingredients. For baby products, it can take almost a year to qualify a new ingredient at a good reputable company. This is because we research an ingredient's safety, origin, and possible contaminants to ensure it’s the safest to use. After all that, then we begin to formulate. It can take over 130 formula variations before one baby product hits the shelves in your local Target or CVS! To appreciate what that means, one formula variation consists of about 14 man hours of research, bench-work, and testing. This means that over 1,820 hours of work went into that single bottle of 14 ingredients. This doesn’t even include scale up, manufacturing, marketing and distribution.

Why so much work? To be honest, it’s because each formula variation undergoes so much testing. Toxicology testing, clinical evaluation, in-use testing, consumer review, and panel testing all have to pass with flying colors before a formula sees the spotlight. Toxicology testing is an outside second party evaluation of oral and dermal safety (most companies use in-vitro testing). This tells us that the product is safe on the skin and eyes and safe if accidentally ingested. After this has passed it moves to clinical evaluation. This is where a small panel of people try the product under supervision and confirm that the product is non-irritating, and performs well for moisturization and cleansing (many chemists test their own products at this stage).

The Product Testing Buck Stops With... Moms!

After good results are seen, a product moves to in-use testing. Bottles are given to volunteers and taken home to use for a few days (on adults only). The number of people taking party ranges from 70 to 150. They email their opinions on the product--with regards to look, feel, performance, smell, etc.--to help give formulators gauge what people want in a product.

If a formula variant passes this test it is saved and then combined with several other formula variants that have similar results to then be pitted against each other in two final rounds; expert panel tests and consumer review. The expert testers (people who train in determining feel characteristics) would review formulas and score them according to what the requisite feel target was. Finally, Consumer review would happen.

Consumer review is again where volunteers (average people not associated with cosmetics) are asked to rate the formulas from 1 to 10 in order of preference. This can actually be one of the most fun and frustrating parts of the development process. We would invite moms to our testing facility, which was built out of a nice country home in the middle of New Jersey.

When you went inside it felt like any other home on the block. There was a nice spread of food, as well as two nannies to look after kids for the two hours the moms would spend there. The only thing out of the ordinary was that there were some small cameras built into the ceiling and microphones in the tables. We (the chemists) would then sit in a back room and listen in.

We had a nice moderator (usually a woman in her mid to late fifties) explain that they were there to test several products and give feedback. The first time I experienced this was when I realized you had to formulate for both baby AND mom. Foam, look, and smell were huge factors to the mothers we tested.

I could have a great formula that was very mild and moisturizing, but if it didn’t look creamy or foam, it was out. It was a humbling experience, but it taught me to really put things under a microscope and ask tough questions. After this final test, we would declare a winner and that was that.

As a chemist living on the bleeding edge of technology, this is where it's at. Being able to innovate and create new formulas with big impacts is one of the best parts of my job.

Baby product lines don’t cycle through many launches every year, because there's such a focus on safety and perfecting the most minimal formula possible. If prestige cosmeceuticals was the Cobra Kai Gym, baby products would most definitely be Mr. Miyagi.

But after a night of an exceptionally messy spaghetti dinner, I really appreciate all the time and effort put into that little bottle. Charlie loves bath time, and as a dad, I love knowing that all those suds and bubbles are safe.