Saturday, June 20, 2009

Gels: Ooey gooey fun!

I love making gels - they aren't hard to create and they have so many uses. There are a few ways to make gels - with a polymer like Ultrez 20 or with cellulose - but I'm going to concentrate on the polymer method as I haven't had a chance to play with cellulose yet (hey, there's only so much I can get done in a day!).

I'm going to be referring to Carbopol Ultrez 20 Polymer (Ultrez 20, INCI: Acrylates/C10-30 Alkyl Acrylate Crosspolymer) because this is what I'm using as the polymer for making gels. You can also find ETD 2020 - they're virtually the same, although the ETD 2020 requires longer to get wet.

So what is this exciting polymer that makes ooey gooey fun? From Lubrizol: "A self-wetting rheology modifier designed to impart moderate-to-high viscosity as well as stabilizing and suspending properties to personal care applications." In other words, it's a white powdery thingie that you add to water to create a gel that will thicken your creations. It's great for making hair gels or thickening up your toner to make a gel or to make an aloe vera gel or to use instead of something like Crothix.

Sounds awesome, but there's always a down side, eh? Gels don't tend to like electrolytes, cationics, or salts - three things we want to include in a gel in the form of aloe vera, surfactants, conditioners, and the like. So how do we do this? We add them in small amounts to something like Ultrez 20, which is specially formulated to work with these difficult ingredients, and we add them in the right order.

Ultrez 20 notes that it can handle up to 10 to 12% surfactants, which isn't a lot, so this isn't the thing to thicken up a body wash or bubble bath (although I have tried it and it will work well for a few months, so if you're going to use it quickly or want to make something like bubble goo for the kids, have fun!)

What do I mean by "it won't work well" - if the gel doesn't like your ingredients, it'll stop being a gel. It's not the worst thing in the world as the product will still work, but it won't be a gel any more.

Here's the basic way to make a gel as recommended by the manfacturer (with my notes).

1. Add your Ultrez 20 to water and let sit for 3 to 5 minutes, depending upon how much powder you have used. (0.5% takes 3 minutes, up to 3% takes 5 minutes). This allows the gel powder to wet and get ready for the other ingredients. If you're using ETD 2020, wait up to 20 minutes.

2. Add your anionic surfactants (check the information on your surfactant - for instance, coco betaine is an amphoteric.)

3. Add the neutralizer. (You can use TEA or you can use an 18% lye solution. I have tried both and prefer the 18% lye solution. Weigh 82% water into a container, then add 18% lye to it. Mix well. Make sure it is a glass container as the lye will heat up for a while. When it has cooled, put into a clean bottle with the words "THIS IS LYE. DO NOT DRINK. IF YOU DO, AND YOU DIE, IT'S NOT MY FAULT. I DID WARN YOU" on it and store in a safe place.)

4. Add amphoteric surfactants, silicones, cationics, salts, etc. in that order.

5. Add pearlizing ingredients like mica, glycol distearate and so on.

6. Add fragrance, dye, and preservative (you don't need to add preservative if you've done it in the gel).

So basically what you are doing is adding these gel flakes to water, getting them wet, then neutralizing the process with 18% lye solution or TEA to create a gel.

And here's what I have found works to make a medium thickness gel. (I believe I found these instructions originally on a supplier site. I'm afraid I can't remember which one!)

242 grams of water
3 grams of Ultrez 20
4 grams of 18% lye solution
1.25 grams preservative (at 0.5%) or 2.5 grams preservative (at 1.0%)

Measure out the water. Add 3 grams of Ultrez 20 flakes. Stir to make sure the powder gets wet. Wait about 3 minutes - you could wait as long as 10 if you wish - then add 4 grams 18% lye solution. Stir well. It's gel! Awesome! (Note: I like to use a big fork to stir it. There's no need for blenders or mixers here.) Store in a sealed container for a bit and use it as you want.

As a note, you can use 4 grams Ultrez 20 to make a thick gel or 2 grams Ultrez 20 to make a thin gel.

Now you've got your ooey gooey mess, let's make something! How about a hand sanitizer? (I'm not making any guarantees here, but at 60% alcohol, it should work okay for this purpose.)

Make your gel as above to get a medium weight gel.
39% gel by weight
0.50% honeyquat, condition-eze 7, or other cationic polymer
60% ethanol or other alcohol (like denatured perfuming alcohol)
0.5% fragrance
Colour is optional

Mix the ingredients into your gel and stir well. Bottle. You're done.
The fragrance and colour are optional, but this will smell of alcohol. 0.5% fragrance isn't really going to make the smell, but it's worth a shot, eh?

You can add 1% d-Limonene with 1% polysorbate 20 to this mixture to make a waterless hand cleaner that will remove grease. Take 2% out of the gel amount or 2% out of the alcohol amount.

Join me tomorrow for more fun with gels and how to incorporate aloe vera!


Jelena said...

Thanks a lot for the information! Have you had a chance to compare Ultrez 20 to other polymers? Can you add some oil to the gel? Is it sticky or tacky?

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

I've only used Ultrez 20 and ETD 2020 as they are all I can find locally. The gel itself is not sticky when made with the Ultrez 20, water, preservative, and neutralizer. We're so accustomed to anything gel-like being sticky, but it's due to the ingredients we add to it, like glycerin. The gel itself feels like gelled water - if you spread some on your arm, it's very cool even with just the basic ingredients in it!

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Sorry, I didn't answer the question about oils...

The short answer: I haven't successfully added any significant quantity of oils to gels.

The long answer: I can get it to work at up to about 3% with polysorbate 80. I've tried a number of things to get it to emulsify, and although the manufacturer manages to get non-ionic emulsifiers to work (like e-wax, but not e-wax in their case), I cannot. As it does not play well with hair conditioners, BTMS as an emulsifying option is right out.

I've taken a moment to look up formulations and the manufacturer does note it is appropriate for lotions, but all their recipes contain esters. Considering they sell esters, this could mean something or it could mean they just want you to use their products instead of easy to find sunflower oil (for instance). Esters or water soluble oils are easier to incorporate into a gel as they are solubilizers, so we don't need to include emulsifiers with them.

I know it can work - look at how many companies include carbomer in their lotions (most of them!) - but I don't know how to make it work in the way I want it to work. (And, to be honest, I'm interested in so many things, I've never really pursued adding oils to carbomers to a huge extent. It's always on my to-research and experiment list, but I never seem to get it it!)

You can add a little essential oil (1% with 1% poly 20) or you can add the water soluble oils as they are pre-emulsified (as it were).

Here's the link to Lubrizol - I did a search for Carbopol formulations and this is the link I may need to go into it and re-search. A lot of the lotions are on page 3...
Lubrizol formulations with Ultrez 20. Check it out. You might find something fascinating - and if you play with it, I'd love to hear more!

Jelena said...

Wow! Thanks a lot for the answer! and for the link! :)

jolambert said...

hi i've been working with Acrylates/C10-30 Alkyl Acrylate Crosspolymer and was tweaking the garden gel well 2nd batch didn't get past the water, crosspolymer & lye solution (lol) i miss measured added more water, crosspolymer and wow i quit (after 4 additions) anyway i ended up with 680 grams water, 4 grams Crosspolymer, 4 grams lye. is this going to be aright to use as a gel base (yep adding preservative) or it a total loss? thanks for the help and inspiration jo

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Your gel works out to less than 1%, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. A lot of formulations use Ultrez 20 at 0.5% or lower, but those tend to be lotion or shower gels, not recipes where the gel is the main attraction. In the case of the gardener's scrub, the gel isn't the main attraction but a supporting character, so I think it can work.

Looking at my recipe - which isn't in percentages (bad, Swift!) - the gel amount is less than 2%, so I say try it! If you try it and it doesn't work - please let me know, by the way - you can add some Crothix to thicken it up (which, I realize, defeats the purpose of using the gel...) or you can add more of your gel mixture to it. You can try making another creation out of it if it's too thin for the scrub. (The scrub is supposed to hold the pumice in suspension - too little gel, weak suspension. But I've made it where I just shake it up for the pumice-y goodness and it didn't bother me too much!)

I tend to make big batches of gel and keep it around for formulating fun - well preserved, of course - so you can keep it for a while without worrying too much!

Erica said...

Hi Susan
I am a cosmetic scientist student 2nd year and have to formulate a clear eye gel, for wrinkles, dark circles and puffiness, any suggestions on formula that I can start playing around with? I would like to use an active in one for all three

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Erica! I envy your education!

There are a few products I've seen - but not been able to try - that might work for you. (Unfortunately, since you have to make it clear, most of the things I would normally suggest - extracts, hydrolyzed proteins, and so on - are right out). These are just suggestions - I'm not sure if they play well with gels!

Eye treatment from the Personal Formulator is supposed to reduce puffiness and dark circles.

Haloxyl from the Personal Formulator may reduce under eye circles by up to 60%.

You could try Regu-age for dark circles and puffiness or Eyeseryl for dark circles and puffiness from Lotioncrafter.

It's harder to work with wrinkles - the puffiness is probably making the wrinkles less obvious!

You could try Leuphasyl, wrinkle defense complex, Metabiotic resveratrol, Pepha-Tight, or Renovage all from Lotioncrafter.

Let us know what you choose and how it works out!

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Sorry, Erica, I forgot to put in the link for The Herbarie's active section!

Where are you studying? Just curious!

Erica said...

Hi Susan
Thanks for all the info, I used Haloxyl and Matrixyl 3000 (gel came out clear) Then I made another batch with Bioskinup (has a slight brown color) they said it will be fine as depending on the active I use. I must say for the first time formulating ii came out lovely, on stability at the moment. (Sorry have been so busy with this project no time for sleep or eat). I just need to find out what will be the correct viscosity for the eye gel? I used Spindle #5 @ speed 2 and got reading on 75%, and then used speed 5 got reading on 91%. I dont know which one is the correct one. Used a Brookfield DV-E. One a week I measure pH and viscosity and look at the change in color and so on.
Am with Coschem- SA

Erica said...

Ooops forgot to say, used mixer, to much air bubbels made by hand very little air bubbles, a 650ml batch.

kontakt said...

Gels don't like electrolytes? Is that why so many people experience problems with their liquid soaps, with xanthan as thickener. Is that true for carageenan as well, I wonder. And what about pektin. Well, I'm going to try anyhow! Aiming at hair gel, I don't necessarily need lots of electrolytes in it (although I'd love some magnesium sulfate...)

Nedeia said...

How about a post on carbomer? I have seen carbomer 940, 2020.... what is the difference?

Nedeia said...

Just a thought .... could we use sodium bicarbonate to neutralize carbomer? or do we need a lye solution or Triethanolamine?

Pier said...

Thanks for all those blogs. I read a lot but as I a newbie, there are some I don't understand.
Can you explain the 18% lye solution. Do I have to make this solution or else ?

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Pier. The way to make the 18% lye solution is in the post..."Weigh 82% water into a container, then add 18% lye to it. Mix well." Read the post for more information!

Susie said...

Hi Susan,
Today was my first time making a gel from Ultrez 20. I followed your instructions for a gel toner but added 0.75% blueberry oil and 0.2% Vitamin E to the mix. The gel worked fine but on adding the rest of the ingredients the gel turned back to liquid. I measured the ingredients as per the recipe but some I measured with others and added as a combination rather than adding each individual ingredient - could this have caused the problem? I didn't take enough notice when I added the Aloe Vera juice perhaps it was that. I reconstituted the Aloe Vera juice from some Aloe Vera x200 powder. At the moment the toner looks as though it has a soft foam/mousse on the top half and a milky liquid underneath (thicker than water- more like pouring cream) when I shake it gently it quickly blends to an even texture. What do you think might have gone wrong?

Susie said...

Hi, me again. I left the toner in the frig for the past 10 hours and now I have just added more gel until I reached the consistency I was wanting. I think the problem was the Aloe Vera powder as my powder was more of a paste than a powder so it was difficult to measure accurately. I needed to add another 20% so that took the gel to 55%. I'll wait until the morning to see if separates at all. Otherwise thanks again for a great recipe.

Oz said...

Hi Susan, great post, i have a project and i'm trying to make a non toxic clear gel (can be taken orally) with high viscocity, any chance you can help?

Natalie said...

Hi Susan, your blog is fascinating! I am reading it all and trying to take in all the wonderful chemistry lessons. I would love to put a request in for help making a hair mousse recipe for hair styling if you ever get the time. (Gel just weighs my hair down.) Thank you for all the amazing info you share in a readable form!

seventh77 said...

Hi Susan,

Have you ever used something called sclerotium gum? I've seen it sold as "UltraPureGel" ( and as "Naturajel" (

I just bought some, but I haven't used it yet. I've been trying to find exact documentation on how to formulate with it, as it's expensive and I don't really want to experiment with it. So I thought I'd ask if you've heard of it or used it, and if so if you could give me any pointers.

I'm not sure if I should add it to my water phase and let it gel and *then* add the rest of my water-soluble ingredients (a method some sites have suggested) because I can't image how the powdery water-soluble ingredients would dissolve easily in a gel without it creating a gritty final product.

Another suggested way to use it is to split the water phase in half and hydrate the gum in one half and dissolve the other water-soluble ingredients in the other and then combine; my issue with this method is I don't think half as much water would be enough to fully dissolve all of my water-soluble ingredients.

The third method is to add the gum after all the other water-soluble ingredients have been added and dissolved, but I've read that doing so will create a thinner gel than if the gum was added to the water first (wish I knew why this was).

And lastly, I'm not sure how much to use. It can be used from 0.5% to 2%, but I can't find any documentation on how thick the gel would be at 2%, so I don't know how much I should use (and, again, I'm very hesitant to experiment because it's so expensive).

If you've never heard of this ingredient, then just ignore my ramblings. But I thought I might as well ask just in case :)

Doug said...

I'm interested in creating two gels: with 96% ethanol and with 99% ispropanol. For now I have only Ultrez 21 and NaOH. I made several attempts to make it, but I can't reach the viscosity I expect. All I get is a liquid manure.

The first thing I question myself is do I need to add more, much more of carbopol? The second question is are there any natural limitations to make gels of spirits of such a high alhocol content?

Have you ever tried to create things like thatand what was your experience?

Michele Clarke said...

Hi Susan! It's been a long time since I posted ;-)

I have been using TPF Gel recipe. It seems the longer it sits the more hold it has on my hair. So week one is a light hold and by the end it's a strong hold.

As it gets stronger, my hair feels more like straw. Do you know how I can tweak this recipe? or should I make a 2nd product to use in conjunction?

Mystic said...

Hi Susan. I came across your sight it is wonderful and very informative. can you also post a receipe for Massage Gels as they are oil based. I would appreciate if you could post the receipe.

Thank You very much and Wish you a very Happy New Year

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Mystic. I have never heard of a massage gel, so I'm afraid I can't help.

Hiya There said...

Hi @Susan Barclay-Nichols,

I just wanted to let you know that I was successful in combining Carbomer 940 with a non-ionic emulsifier. I made a gel-cream emulsion for my hair which actually turned out great, but the PVP (I added 4%) made my hair WAY too crunchy. I'm still experimenting with the formulation and trying to get that soft moist curl look and feel. I've been able to do it with two separate products, but I want to do it with just one. Hopefully I figure I'll figure it out. Hope you're feeling better these days!


Jason Payne said...

I noticed that purell contains something like ultrez 20, but no lye or TEA is listed as an ingredient. What's going on there?

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Jason. I'm afraid I don't know. Can you post the ingredient list or a link to it and we'll take a look at it. (There are many other alkaline things that could neutralize a carbomer. But we won't know until we see that ingredient list!)

Jason Payne said...

Hi Susan, yes, it has aminomethyl propanol. I'd like to use a neutralizer that is non-toxic & that I can find online, eg. lotioncrafter. What would you suggest? Thanks!

Evelyn said...

Hi Susan!

I was wondering if an herbal tincture made with Everclear would be okay to add to the hand sanitizer formula?

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Evelyn! I don't know what herbs you're using, so you'll have to try it and see if it works for you! I think it will, but don't want to make any guarantees unless I've tried it myself.

KMY said...

Hi Susan - like a few others I am trying to make an alcohol gel. Do you have any recipes, info, or tips? My end goal is to suspend dissolved medicines for a topical application (fibromyalgia). Thanks in advance.
Kim Young

Unknown said...

I thought I would share my experiences with adding ultrez 20 into a lotion recipe as I had a hard time finding much information on how to do it. I first tried making a plain gel, just to get the hang of it, and then I tried the below. My ultimate goal once I have experimented a touch more is to make a "cushiony" lotion, like those fancy face creams from the store. I made this recipe tonight, just to see what would happen. I chose almond oil because I have a bunch of it lying around nearing the end of its time and it's rather inexpensive.


A) 75% water
0.2% Ultrez 20
0.3% Triethanolamine

B) 10% sweet almond oil
2% silicone
3.5% cetyl alcohol
7% E-wax NF

C) 1.5% glycerin
0.5% liquid germall plus

I first wetted the ultrez in the water. Once saturated, I gave it a good stir and I mixed in the trieth (gosh how on earth do you spell that word?!) and the gel formed. I heated & held this mixture at 70C. I heated and held the oil phase too. I then mixed the water and oil phases together vigorously, and voila, I made a gel-cream.

What are my overall thoughts?
I want to see how this mixture holds up over the next month or two, as that will really be the ultimate test. I found it extremely thick as it cooled, probably due to the amount of e-wax, but I really wanted to make sure everything emulsified. In fact, I am not so sure I am feeling a "gelled" lotion so much as a very thick e-wax lotion. I'd play around with reducing the ewax next time. I would also reduce the silicone amount, I found it too slippery for what I am going for.


Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Kaylee! This is awesome! Thank you for writing about this! I've been doing quite a few experiments with carbomers in lotions, and this is awesome. What do you think of it a few weeks later?

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Kaylee! I would love to send you a copy of my gels e-zine for this wonderful comment. Please e-mal me at and I'll send it along. Could I share your recipes and experiences on the blog? If so, please give me permission to do so. If not, I understand! (The e-zine is a thank you regardless of your answer to this question...)

Unknown said...

Hi Susan,

Oh I would love that - will be emailing you shortly re: the e-zine! And, of course, please share away my recipe and experiences with it. I think others could benefit for sure. I look forward to further experimenting with gels.

What do I think of the lotion now? I enjoyed it so much that I made take #2 with a few tweaks. The original lotion turned out to be very bouncy after I let it cool, so it definitely did gel. Fingers crossed it continues to hold up. I made everyone (who was willing) at my office use it, and they really liked how lightweight it was. It set into the skin really fast. Some liked the silicone-y feeling, while that was something I reduced in take #2. Myself, I wanted to adjust it to make it feel heavier, as I use it mostly on my hands and I thought the oily feeling disappeared too fast.

The tweaks I made for take #2 were (a) replacing half of the sweet almond oil with some shea butter, (b) reducing the dimethicone to 1%, and (c) reducing the ewax to 6%. The lotion turned out, but due to the shea, it was very, very thick when it got to the cool down stage. It took some major stirring to incorporate fragrance and preservative. I like both versions, and both "turned out" from an objective standpoint, but I think I like version #2 better for my winter skin.