How do hair care formulas differ to skincare formulas? 

We often get asked, how different are formulas for the hair, compared to those for the skin?

hair care formulas


There are in fact a vast number of differences, depending on the type of product you are trying to formulate. Read on to learn about the key differences between hair care formulas and skincare formulas, and why certain ingredient choices are very necessary when creating hair care formulas.

Hair care formula difference #1: Shampoo formulas need stronger cleansing agents than face, hand or body wash

Just in case you’ve ever wondered, there actually is a difference between formulas for face, hand and body wash. The biggest difference is in the amount of cleansing agents used.

The correct term for these cleansing agents is surfactants – but chemically, the class of surfactants is vast and numerous, so let’s be more specific.

Shampoos need powerful cleansing agents known as anionic surfactants. Anionic surfactants clean so well because they carry a negative charge. This negative charge is able to capture and repel dirt and oils from the hair; and while this uses the same to cleanse the body, please take a moment to consider how much more hair you have – and surface area around every strand of hair - compared to the surface area of your skin. You need more powerful cleansing agents because you need to break down the surface tension, ensure good spread through the many thousands of individual hair strands, and remove the minute layers of dirt and oil from the scalp and every individual strand of hair.

A shampoo also needs to create a copious amount of foam. The foam is not needed to ensure a good clean, but the foam gives the perception to your consumer that the product is good quality and will clean well. Without excess foam, even though the product would still work, your consumer would perceive the product to be of inferior quality.

So, because a shampoo needs to clean and spread through a much larger surface area (around every individual hair strand, compared to relatively flat skin) and because it needs to create an excess of foam, we need more cleansing and foaming agents in shampoo formulas.  

Hair care formula difference #2: Shampoos need to balance potential irritancy

Because shampoo formulas need a higher input of anionic surfactants for their performance, we need to then use a larger input of other types of foaming agents, to enhance the foam, impart mildness and improve the feeling of the product once it has been washed off.

If we were to only use the powerful anionic surfactants just discussed, the hair would feel quite rough when the product is rinsed away. So, we need to balance the input of the more powerful surfactants with more mild cleansing agents, to improve the feeling of the product during use, and when washed away. For this reason, we add what are known as amphoteric surfactants (an ingredient like cocamidopropyl betaine) and non-ionic surfactants (various glucosides or other ingredients) to ‘soften’ the feeling of the product. Again, these ingredients tend to be used in higher amounts compared to a face, hand or body wash, because we still need stronger cleaning and foaming performance from a shampoo formula.  

Hair care formula difference #3: Shampoos contain more cationic polymers than face, hand or body wash

Cationic polymers are materials such as guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride and polyquaternium agents. Cationic polymers differ to cationic emulsifiers (or surfactants). Cationic polymers are compatible with anionic surfactants, while cationic emulsifiers (or surfactants) are not compatible with anionic surfactants.

Shampoo formulas need at least one cationic polymers to provide some sort of conditioning feeling to the hair. You can tell a really budget product, which has neither, as the hair can feel quite coarse on wash off. These cationic polymers are not sufficient on their own to provide a powerful conditioning and detangling benefit like a cationic emulsifier can – but they do boost a softer, silkier feeling to a shampoo formula.

Face and hand wash do not always contain cationic polymers – and neither do they need to. You don’t need the same sort of ‘slip’ and conditioning feeling from a face and hand wash formula as you do from a shampoo formula; and there is also less cleansing/foaming ingredients used in face and hand wash products, reducing the need for conditioning agents. Many body wash formulas contain low levels of one cationic polymer to improve the skin feel over the large surface area of the body, and because body wash formulas tend to contain more of the powerful cleansing agents discussed in point 1. This is simply because they have a bigger surface area to clean than a face or hand wash does.

Hair care formula difference #4: Cationic emulsifiers are needed in conditioner formulas

Cationic surfactants and emulsifiers are chemically the same thing – however we tend to refer to these materials, when used in conditioners, as cationic emulsifiers, because they help create the white emulsion we recognise as a hair conditioning product.

Cationic emulsifiers are different to the cationic polymers described above. They are far more powerful in their action, and charge, and provide a surface active function – compared to a polymer, which does not have a surface active function, but instead, is a long chain material with cationic charge.

While lotions and cream products for the face and body may look similar to conditioners for the hair, their formulas are quite different. Lotions and creams for the body will normally use at least non-ionic emulsifiers and may contain anionic emulsifiers, as well as non-ionic or anionic gums or polymers. Conditioner formulas for the hair, by comparison, need cationic emulsifiers, and usually at least one cationic polymer, to provide a beautiful spread through the hair, silky slip, and powerful detangling performance.

Hair care formula difference #5: Formulas for hair care need actives that suit the hair

Hair care formulas are commonly wash off formulas. When they are a wash off product, the formulas must contain active ingredients that have proven benefit when rinsed off shortly after application. Using actives that have proven performance when left on often have no benefit when washed off shortly after application. This needs to be checked carefully with the supplier or from technical data.

The hair is different to the skin – and even the scalp! The scalp is of course very similar to the skin on the rest of your body, but the hair is very different. This means actives, even when left on, need to have proven performance for the hair to provide benefit to the hair. An active that has proven benefit to the skin will not necessarily (or usually) have the same benefits for the hair.

There are many other differences between skincare formulas and hair care formulas – these are just the most common ones. The Create Cosmetic Formulas program makes it easy for you to formulate hair care products, because we have loaded the correct proportions of ingredients, and only those ingredients, that will provide benefits to the hair. In other words, we’ve taken the guess work and confusion out of ingredient selection and formulation development because we’ve loaded the hair care formulation builds with ingredients, and inputs, that suit hair care formulas specifically.  

The choice is up to you! So, now you are left to decide: what do you want to create today?

Happy formulating!


Formulate hair care products confidently with the Create Cosmetic Formulas program – and always get a formula that works!

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