Cosmetic Product Development: From Concept to Launch

Updated: Sep 7, 2019

The whole point of a cosmetics company is to develop and sell products. As a consumer, you have likely noticed that the retail landscape is constantly changing and new products are being launched all the time. How do brands make this happen?

Today, I'd like to walk through the general product development process. It will vary a bit depending on the company and type of product, but overall the steps are the same.

There are two main groups involved in the development process: cosmetic chemists (or research and development) and marketing.

The role of marketing is to identify what consumers want or need and how to position it in the marketplace. They might have a competitor product they want to reverse engineer, an emerging trend they want to capitalize on, or something as simple as a new shade of an existing product offering.

Sometimes, the idea might come from research and development (referred to as R&D). A cosmetic chemist might experiment with their own ideas in the laboratory and come up with something new and exciting. A raw material supplier might visit and share a new material they developed that would make for a great new product.

No matter where the idea comes from, both groups work together to make the process to commercialization successful. The journey from idea to product on a shelf can take anywhere from a couple months to a couple years!

Here are the general steps:


1. Idea is identified and described by Marketing in a product brief

The brief summarizes product characteristics like product form, appearance, fragrance, benefits, claims, competitive products, packaging characteristics, price range, geographical market, etc.

2. Marketing and R&D meet to review and refine the brief

R&D helps define the specifications and determine what is technically feasible from a production and cost perspective.

3. R&D researches the product

Using the information in the product brief, ingredients are researched from a technical, regulatory, and price perspective to create a "dry lab" formula, or a list of ingredients and percentages.

4. R&D submits paper formula to Marketing

Before laboratory work begins, Marketing reviews the paper formula to make sure both parties are on the same page regarding cost, ingredients, and claims. This is the time to confirm requirements for ingredients like an extract that must be included at a certain percentage or a preservative that cannot be used.

5. R&D makes prototypes

R&D begins laboratory work to produce prototypes and test for functionality, safety, aesthetics, stability, and packaging compatibility.

6. Marketing reviews the prototypes and provides feedback

Marketing gives feedback to the technical team about changes they would like to see in the formula. This step iterates until the formula is finalized. The more specific the feedback, the easier it is for R&D to change.

For example: "The lotion is too thick" is not as helpful as "The lotion is too thick to easily dispense from the tube. It should be less viscous but not so thin that it leaks from the package orifice"


7. Consumer testing

This step can be expensive if you are testing a new product with a large group of consumers. The idea is to get consumer insights on product attributes. The level of testing could range from informal feedback from company employees to a focus group of consumers to in-home testing of prototypes. In some cases, consumer testing will be skipped completely.

8. Stability testing

The most important R&D testing is stability. Will the product change over time or interact with the packaging in a way that is undesirable? (Examples include separation, color change, change in pH or viscosity, degradation of preservatives or active ingredients) The results of stability testing determine the product shelf life.

9. Clinical studies

Clinical testing is typically done to verify a specific claim, such as non-comedogenic. Other testing may be necessary depending on the formula type. For example, sunscreen products need to be tested to confirm the SPF level.


10. Scale-Up

This is where the process engineer takes over from the cosmetic chemist. While the chemist made prototypes in a beaker at approximately one-kilogram scale, the engineer will scale the product up to its full manufacturing size which could be in the range of 500 to 20,000 kg. The process typically involves a mid-size pilot batch, a full-size trial batch, and if all goes well, the first commercial manufacturing batch to be sold to consumers. The best analogy is taking a cooking recipe designed for a small family and upgrading it for a large event.

11. Release testing

Before the first commercial batch can be sold, it will be tested against the specification created by R&D. The specification includes tests for appearance, color, odor, pH, viscosity, and levels of preservatives and active ingredients.

12. Ship to trade

If all testing passes, the product is released to market and shipped to customers. Success!


  • Marketing and R&D could be two departments in the same large organization, but other variants exist. For a small brand, Marketing might be the founder and R&D could be the contract manufacturer making the products. Even for large companies, some steps may be outsourced such as clinical testing and stability testing.

  • This process is complicated by additional stakeholders. Upper management may have a stage-gate process where cost and progress are reviewed after key milestones. Projects can be cancelled at any time if they are over budget, taking too long, or if the retailer decides not to take the new formula.

  • In addition to Marketing and R&D, many other departments provide input including: Quality, Manufacturing, Supply Chain, Sales, Procurement, Packaging Engineering, Microbiology, Analytical, Project Management, Demand Forecasting, etc.

Overall, I hope you can see that it takes a lot of time and effort to take a product from a concept to a finalized formula available for purchase. Did any of these steps surprise you? Are there certain steps you would like to know more about? Please leave a comment!

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