Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Substituting one ingredient for another

One of the things I'm regularly asked for is a list of things you can substitute with other things. (Recently from the post what do you want to know?) I'm happy to write something like that up...but every time I try, I'm bogged down by the idea that you can substitute so many things for other things that I don't get past the fourth item!

The easiest way to know how to substitute one ingredient for another is to know your ingredients. 

Picture this as my substitution suggestion: If you don't have cetyl alcohol, then use stearic acid. It's a good suggestion, but I could also suggest behenyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol, or cetyl esters. I could just as easily suggest that you add some mango, cocoa, kokum, sal, or shea butter if your goal is to thicken the product. Each suggestion is dependent upon the type of product you're making.

Let's say I make a blanket suggestion to use mango butter in place of cetyl alcohol for thickening power...if I were to make some hair conditioner, I've just reduced the conditioning power and increased the greasiness. If we were making a body butter, I've just reduced the feeling of greasiness, but I've also reduced the thickness. If we were making a whipped shea butter, I've just removed something that will stiffen the product pretty dramatically and added another butter that will do nothing for the melting point. If we were making...well, you get the idea.

If you've ever substituted stearic acid for cetyl alcohol in a body lotion recipe, you'll know that it affects the skin feel of your product. Cetyl alcohol makes my body butter feel and look like Cool Whip, all shiny and soft, easy to spread on my skin. Stearic acid makes it look and feel like whipped butter, harder to get out of the container, harder to spread, but longer lasting on my skin. It's amazing how just a 3% switch can radically change a product.

If you want to know about a substitution for cetrimonium chloride, for example, learn what cetrimonium chloride brings to the party. From the post on this ingredient, "it isn't as lubricating as BTMS or cetab (cetrimonium bromide), but it does have a unique ability to detangle, which means it reduces the combing forces and friction in your hair, which is a very very good thing." If we wanted to find something else that might work in place of cetac, we know that it isn't as lubricating as BTMS or cetrimonium bromide, so those won't be substitutions, and we know that it detangles and reduces combing forces and friction on our hair, so that's the quality we want to find in another ingredient.

What else can act as a detangler? We know BTMS and cetrimonium bromide detangle, but not as well as cetac. What about Incroquat CR? It's "a good detangler and a good anti-static product." This might work! Or we could just leave out the cetrimonium chloride and see what happens.

Incroquat CR would be my official substitution suggestion for cetrimonium chloride, but there really is no substitution for its detangling awesomeness. I've tried every variation I can think of to get more detangling without cetrimonium chloride, and it really is a unique ingredient that does what it says very well at up to 2% in your conditioner!

The only way to really know what you can substitute and what will feel good to your skin is to learn your ingredients and what each brings to your products. You know if you like a greasy or dry feeling lotion, so only you can decide if you want to switch the butter for cocoa or mango. They offer the same function in a body butter - they thicken and offer serious emollience - but they will feel very different.

Substitutions are dependent upon the function of the ingredient in the product and the function of the product, and it's hard to separate one from the other. The information on this blog is also dependent upon my personal preferences - for thickeners, I could suggest using something like xanthan gum or a polymer, but I generally don't - and what I have available to me at my local retailers. I can make suggestions like this one - stearic acid and cetyl alcohol can be interchanged when they behave as thickeners in a recipe - but it really is up to you to know your ingredients, your personal preferences, and your product.

I know this isn't an easy suggestion. It takes time to learn your ingredients, then learn how to use them, and time isn't something we all have a lot of these days. But if you want to make substitutions or be able to make your own recipes, you have to learn what each ingredient brings to the product and know what they feel like on your skin.

Let's take a few days to look at a few substitutions and how they might affect our products!

Related posts: All the posts with substitutions in the label!
Figuring out what's important in a conditioner


Tara said...

Although they are not direct substitutions, using things like cationic guar, silicones, Honeyquat, or polyquats would help with detangling and might be easier to find if you cannot get cetrimonium chloride. :-)

Anonymous said...

True! It's just hard to think one can formulate and mix chemicals without understanding how each one reacts!

I would recommend that newbies (like myself) start by creating simply water + one oil + emollient. Then start changing the percentages, and see the results. Do the same but now change the emollient type! Then do the same and change from oil to butter! Then remove the water and add gel!
And so on.. see for your eyes how each changes the feel of the final product, and surely before you even order your oils/butters/emollients... understand their properties (e.g. anti-fungal, anti-oxidant and so on)


Aljonor said...

I use cetrimonium chloride in my hair conditioners and I think it works great. I know that you also said that cetrimonim chloride washes away silicones when use in shampoos. It seems to multi-functional.

curlytea said...

I read Stearalkonium Chloride is a great detangler, conditioner and antifrizz ingredient

seventh77 said...


I'm looking for something to substitute my cetyl alcohol with. I use cetyl alcohol in my homemade hair conditioner, and for my hair it helps a LOT with wet combability, much more than BTMS-50 does; but it breaks my skin out, so I get pimples here and there on my scalp, especially along my hairline around my forehead and temples.

What other ingredient can I use that will impart some of the same functions cetyl alcohol does? I use it in my conditioner to thicken the emulsion, to create a velvety slimy feel that helps with spreading it in my hair, and for how well it improves wet combability. I've tried removing it and just using BTMS-50 for that purpose, and even though it does not break my skin out, it's almost worthless on its own for me as a hair conditioner. I also use cetrimonium chloride and cyclomethicone for wet combability, but I don't find their wet combability is as drastically noticeable as cetyl alcohol is for my hair.

Any suggestions for an ingredient that will impart a very slick and velvety feel that will also improve wet combability? It doesn't necessarily have to have thickening or emulsifying qualities, as I can use BTMS-50 for that.

Thank you.

Zink said...

I'm looking for a Cetyl alcohol alternative for use in a spot treatment/for cystic acne. So anything relatively inert would be good, suggestions?

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Zink! May I ask why? There seems to be this idea that cetyl alcohol is bad for acne, but I've never seen a study or anything scientific showing this. It's a staple in oil free moisturizers as a great moisturizing ingredient.

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Zink! I've answered your question in more depth in Sunday, March 2nd's Weekend Wonderings as I wanted to explore the idea that cetyl alcohol and acne prone skin don't mix!

Chris Carney said...

Hello! What can I substitute for Incroquat CR? I've been using a pre-made bleand of Cetearyl Alcohol and Stearalkonium Chloride, but the company is no longer selling it. UGH.
Incroquat CR is so expensive, if I can purchase the separate ingredients and make my own, I'd be super happy!
Thank you in advance,

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Chris. As I mention above, it's important to know the product in which the ingredients will be substituted. What are you making? What is the goal of the product? What is the end skin or hair feel you want? What does CR offer and why are you using it? What does the other ingredient bring to the mix? If we can figure those things out, we can figure out good substitutions!

alia said...

what would be a good substitute for btms in a hair conditioner?
can a hair conditioner be made without it?

alia said...

are there any conditioning agents derived from olive?
and whats the difference between ricequat and rice protein???

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Alia. Yes, there are substitutes for BTMS. I encourage you to read the hair care section of the blog to learn more. Having said that, BTMS is the easiest to find. Why don't you want to use it?

Why are you so interested in using only olive derived products? You are really limiting yourself by wanting only olive based ingredients.

I encourage you to read the posts on cationic polymers, which is what ricequat is, and on hydrolyzed proteins to learn more. They're both fascinating topics.