The term rheology describes the flow characteristics of liquids and the deformation of solids. Viscosity is an expression of the resistance of a fluid to flow. Rheological properties are crucial for liquid and semiliquid cosmetic formulations because they determine the product’s properties meaningful in mixing and flow when produced, filled into containers and removed before use, as well as sensory properties when applied, such as consistency, spreadability, and smoothness.

Furthermore, the rheology of a product may also affect the physical stability and the biological availability of the product. Regarding rheological characteristics, there are two main types of systems: Newtonian and non-Newtonian.

The former show constant viscosity when stressed, i.e., the rate of shear (flow velocity) is directly proportional to the shearing stress, e.g., water, mineral oil, etc. In non-Newtonian systems (most cosmetic products), however, viscosity changes with varying stress, i.e., viscosity depends on the degree of shearing stress, resulting either in plastic, pseudoplastic, or dilatant flow or in thixothropy, characteristics that are not discussed in depth here although they are of practical significance. An ideal topical product, e.g., shows optimal thixotropic properties; it does not flow out of a tube’s orifice unless slightly pressed, and when on the skin it does not immediately flow and drop off unless easily spread over the application area, where under a certain stress it becomes more fluid because of the thixotropy. The rheological properties of semisolid products are determined first for general characterization in the development phase and second for quality-control reasons after manufacturing. There are various instrumental methods used to measure rheology or viscosity. Today, apparatus based on rotation or oscillation are commonly used for non-Newtonian systems.

In order to adjust the rheology of products, various means and excipients are available. If the viscosity has to be increased, addition of viscosity increasing agents is needed. Addition or increase in concentration of electrolytes may influence viscosity. Many systems, e.g., polyacrylates, are sensitive to the presence of ions and the viscosity is reduced. In particular, emulsions are susceptible to rheological issues. Various factors determine the rheological properties of emulsions, such as viscosity of internal and external phases, phase volume ratio, particle size distribution, type and concentration of emulsifying system, and viscosity-modifying agents.

It is important to realize that small changes in concentrations or ratio of certain ingredients may result in drastic changes of the rheological characteristics. Emulsified products may undergo a wide variety of shear stresses during either preparation or use. Thus, an emulsion formulation should be robust enough to resist external factors that could modify its rheological properties or the product should be designed so that change in rheology results in a desired effect.

Source: Handbook of Cosmetic Science and Technology - André O. Barel, Marc Paye, Howard I. Maibach