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Right Product, Wrong Package?

Michelle Calvarese, PhD January 2014 issue of Skin Inc. magazine
Right Product, Wrong Package?

You’ve heard the saying “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” but can you judge a product by its package? You certainly can. Packaging can make or break the success of product. Knowing which type of package to look for can increase the success rate of that product at your skin care facility. (See Important Packaging Questions.) A large percentage of product returns are due to issues with product packaging. Some clients will even base their buying decision on packaging characteristics alone, such as appearance or whether the package is recyclable.

Product packaging is made up of both an inner and outer container. The inner container is the bottle or jar in which the actual formula is contained. The outer container is a secondary package or box. Some products have both an inner and outer container, while others only have an inner container. This article will focus on the inner container, which is made up of two components: the actual container, such as a jar, tube or bottle, and the dispensing method, such as a pump, dropper, flip-cap or spray.

Packaging considerations by product category

The type of product dictates what kind of packaging is necessary. In choosing a package, the following three variables must be carefully considered:

  1. Functionality;
  2. Ingredient protection; and
  3. Client experience.

Manufacturers can opt to put products through a packaging test to check the above three factors; however, oftentimes this very important step is unfortunately overlooked.


Cleansers can come in several formulations, such as gel, cream, milk, oil or foam. Most cleansers have low concentrations of active ingredients or none at all, since the majority of the product washes down the drain. Therefore, packaging for cleansers should often focus more on functionality than anything else. Does the cleanser come out easily? Does the dispensing device clog? Does too much or too little dispense at one time?

What to look for:

  • Creams and milks work best in a plastic bottle or tube with a flip-cap or pump.
  • Oils work best in a plastic bottle with a pump that dispenses a measured dose, so too much oil does not come out at once.
  • Foam cleansers need to be packaged in what is called a “foamer”—a bottle with a specialized pump that turns liquid into foam.

What to avoid:

  • Glass packaging—cleansers often end up in the shower, and the combination of glass, soap and water tends to be an accident waiting to happen; and
  • Gels with a pump dispenser, because thicker formulations may clog the pump. Thicker cleansers in a pump can also lead to product being out of reach of the pump pick-up tube. Clients will have to turn the bottle upside down or fish out the remaining product, which is inconvenient and messy.


Packaging is extremely important when it comes to serums, because they usually have high concentrations of active ingredients. Therefore, the focus on serum packaging should be ingredient protection. Air and light are the two biggest enemies to a serum’s integrity. Ingredients that oxidize, such as vitamin C and retinol, need the most protection to slow down the oxidation process. In fact, some say that using an oxidized product does more harm than good. If a product turns brown or changes in consistency, it has most likely oxidized. Although all products degrade over time, a good packaging choice will slow down this process. An appropriate analogy is an apple that has been bitten in to. Its skin is the packaging that protects it and, once the skin is ruptured, the apple begins to oxidize and turn brown.

Product consistency must also be considered when it comes to serum packaging. Serums can range from a liquid (almost waterlike) to a gel. Poor packaging for a thinner serum can cause product waste and poor packaging for a thicker serum can make it difficult to dispense.

What to look for:

  • Any vitamin C or retinol product should be in a dark or opaque bottle to slow down oxidation and other damage accelerated by light.
  • Airless pumps also slow down oxidation, because there is virtually no way air can enter the bottle. Standard pumps dispense product by pumping air into the bottle to displace the product. Airless pumps use a mechanism to dispense the product so no air enters. They can look very similar, however, so you may need to check with your vendor if you are not sure which type of pump it is.
  • Thinner serums dispense most easily with a dropper, particularly those with a measured dose.
  • Thicker serums dispense most easily with a pump.

What to avoid:

  • A vitamin C or retinol product in a clear container;
  • Thinner serums in a pump—it may be difficult to control dosage or may dispense too
    quickly; and
  • Thicker serums with a dropper dispenser—they may coat the dropper and make dispensing messy. If the serum is oil-based, it may also coat the threads of the container, which compromises a tight closure.


Creams also can contain active ingredients that need to be protected, but they generally do not contain as many as a serum. Creams vary in consistency. The consistency of the product should determine whether it is packaged in a pump, tube or jar. If a cream contains several active ingredients, light and air should be kept to a minimum as in the case of a serum. Airless pumps can be used if the cream has a thinner consistency, and tubes can be used for thicker creams.

Airless jars are now becoming more popular for thicker creams to minimize air exposure, as well as bacteria transferred from fingers. Airless jars use the same technology as an airless pump and dispense a measured amount of cream by pressing on an inner piece of plastic that covers the cream. The container for creams also tends to help define the brand more so than other product categories. In other words, it can give the perception of a luxury spa brand or a more clinical brand. Because creams can take so many forms, functionality and protection should be considered, but a good client experience should be the packaging focus.

What to look for:

  • Opaque or dark bottles or tubes for creams with ingredients prone to oxidation; and
  • Airless jars for creams with higher concentrations of ingredients prone to oxidation.

What to avoid:

  • Jars with a small opening—this can make it difficult for clients to reach the product, particularly if they have long fingernails.

Packaging trends

Various skin care ingredients and treatments experience waves of popularity, and packaging practices aren’t any different.

Materials. Sustainability is the latest trend in packaging. “Sustainable” is a broad term and can apply to several processes, such as how raw materials are sourced or how they are manufactured. When in reference to packaging, sustainability typically implies that the package is made from recycled material, is biodegradable or can be recycled. The old standbys of paper and wood are becoming increasingly popular as components of a product’s inner container, not just the outer package or box. Newer materials made from renewable resources are also being introduced. Even a new recyclable airless pump has recently debuted. Airless pumps have been the most difficult to make green due to their mechanical components. There are also more subtle ways that some manufacturers have employed to make their products more sustainable, such as making bottles refillable or simply packaging products in lighter, slimmer containers.

It should be noted, however, that although a product can be “green,” it still has to work and meet all the criteria for a particular product category to be effective. Certain ingredients can also react differently to materials, so some formulas may need to be in a container that is not yet able to be recycled. Therefore, manufacturers need to be sure they are not sacrificing performance for the sake of sustainability.

Recycling incentives. In addition to eco-friendly packaging, some companies have initiated recycling programs that allow clients to bring back their empty bottles, or any component of the package, to the store. Some programs take this one step farther and actually take bottles from any manufacturer and offer small gifts, such as product samples, as an incentive to return container components.

Poor packaging not only degrades the product, but also can contribute to a bad consumer experience that will prevent clients from repurchasing the product—no matter how good the formula. And while defining the brand, packaging must also keep up with consumer demand and trends to ensure success.

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Important Packaging Questions

Important Packaging Questions

Packaging is just as important as the formula itself. What packaging-related questions should you ask your product vendor?

  1. Have your products gone through packaging testing?
  2. Are oxidation-prone ingredients protected, and, if so, are they protected from light and air?
  3. Do the pumps clog easily?
  4. Does the product dispense easily?
  5. Is the packaging recyclable or manufactured in a sustainable manner?

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