Sunday, June 12, 2011

Single Ingredient Products

by Maggie Mahboubian

How many products consist of a single ingredient? Not many. Check those labels and see how many ingredients you can find stuffed into a 2 oz jar of moisturizer. Now ponder the effectiveness of these ingredients at such low concentrations. Why include so many extracts, oils and “actives” in a moisturizer, for example?

Marketing. Including trendy ingredients allows a company to jump on the bandwagon of the latest fad, like hyaluronic acid, antioxidants, vitamins or botanical extracts to name a few. Many of these ingredients have recommended usage levels, of say between 0.5-3%. Most likely any given product will have the minimum amount crammed in just to satisfy a marketing claim.

Money. It’s expensive to make products with fewer ingredients. A pure argan oil is not as profitable as a serum that includes 20 other fillers, because the main ingredient costs the most. But guess which is more effective? The simpler one, of course. Admittedly, it’s easy to get carried away when formulating a product. You start with a key ingredient and want to add things to support it and make it more effective, but often the opposite happens. It’s harder to exercise restraint when formulating simple and effective products.

Perception. Customers may not feel like they’re getting their money’s worth when they buy a simply formulated product. But skincare is not a Las Vegas style buffet! Paring down an ingredient list so that it includes only what is essential is often the best way to go.

Shelf life. Ingredient decks often include a host of materials that help maintain a longer shelf life. Most liquid fats go rancid after six months. Antioxidants must be added to slow down the process of oxidation. There’s no doubt a fresh oil would be better if used within 6 months. But that’s just not feasible in our marketplace. So the customer ends up having to swap ingredient effectiveness for extended product use.

Stability. Preservatives are a necessary evil for emulsions to ensure a product will remain stable for the duration of its shelf life. Preservatives also insure a product won’t grow dangerous pathogens even if a customer is not scrupulously clean. Unfortunately, natural alternatives are not yet foolproof and ignoring a preservative system would be irresponsible as flesh eating staph infections are an all too real likelihood . . .

Here are several single ingredients that I use on a regular basis, even though I can formulate more complex products. For both skin and hair (wow, single ingredients doing double duty), you can’t beat argan oil, virgin coconut oil or sea buckthorn oil. They all moisturize and condition beautifully.

For toning the skin any hydrosol will do, and for facial cleansing pick an organic cold pressed oil. There’s also apple cider vinegar to condition skin and hair by adjusting pH levels. Just make sure it’s diluted before using.

Rice flour mixed with water is an effective skin polisher. Follow up with a raw honey facial mask. Honey offers nourishing as well as anti-microbial benefits.

For an envigorating bath try adding 1 cup of sea salt to your water. It draws out toxins, softens skin and relaxes muscles. Scrub your body with a handful and you’ve just exfoliated.

A single ingredient toothpaste is miswak, also known as peelu. The fibers of the wood expand like mini sponges to gently clean plaque and condition gums. Gargling with plain water also helps reduce bacteria (“thanks” to the chlorine in our municipal water systems), so no need to buy mouthwash.

A single ingredient hair dye is henna.

There are several single note perfumes such as aged patchouli, ylang ylang absolute (which dries down in a complex way), jasmine sambac for its indole or a sweet vetiver. Mix those 4 oils together in various ratios and you will end up with a unique perfume.

A great laundry detergent can be made with soapnuts, especially for people with sensitivities (my husband developed a reaction to our fragrance-free commercial detergent which resulted in a severe asthma attack). They’re actually the dried fruit of the Sapindus mukorossi tree and it’s easy to extract their saponins. Simmer 14 “nuts” in 6 cups of water (use a non-reactive pan) until water is reduced to 2 cups. Allow to sit overnight before squeezing out the liquid through a cloth. Use this liquid in the same ratio as a commercial detergent. Refrigerate unused portion.

Ok, let’s see what other single ingredient products are out there. I haven’t even touched house cleaning products, but I’ll give you a hint: distilled vinegar. There must be many more!

Maggie Mahboubian is an architect who started making her own skincare and natural perfumes as a hobby back in the mid 90's. After her first daughter was born her hobby turned into a passion which she hopes to bring out into the open someday. In the meantime she maintains a blog, Architecture of Perfume, where she writes about the intersection between architecture and perfumery.


  1. Way to go Ragna!
    It's so easy to forget how wonderful many many things are just on their own!
    About time we were all reminded of this!

  2. Thank you! You speak what I always naturally felt was right...and then I heard about all the hundreds of ingredients a parfume need to consist of, top/middle/base notes...and often I found the ore I put in the worse the parfume got. So true that so many oils are divine in itself. And don't we always say, "less is more"? Lets get back to simplicity.
    Have a simple, fragrant day.


  3. What a lovely post Maggie. The first single ingredient that springs to mind, inspired by this is baking soda ...

  4. Yes, Johanna, baking soda covers a lot of ground in our home (deodorant, tooth powder, laundry booster, cleansing scrub, water softener, hair conditioner, bug bites, etc).