Monday, March 30, 2009

Lotions: Emulsification - what's that then?

A few times I've mentioned using polysorbate 20 or 80 to mix your oils into water. But what are these ingredients? They are emulsifiers. (If it's in bold, you know it's important!)

Normally, oil and water don't like to mix. Water is polar, oil is non-polar, so the oil just floats on top of the water, not mixing and being all oppositional to each other. If we add an emulsifier - an ingredient that is both hydrophilic and lipophilic (water loving and oil loving) -- it will bring the two together in a stable mixture.

Why does this matter? Because bringing together water, oil, emulsifier, and other goodies makes a creamy concoction that will be your skin's best friend. Learning how to emulsify is the key to making your first lotion.

If you made the water soluble make-up remover or the water based fragrance spray, you've already used an emulsifier (polysorbate 20). If you made the conditioner, you've actually made a lotion using BTMS as the emulsifier to bring together the water and silicones, oils, and fragrance or essential oils!

We need three things to emulsify our lotion properly.
  • Chemical emulsification - choosing a good emulsifier will save you heartache in the end. If you want to learn more about emulsifiers, the HLB (hydrophilic-lipophilic balance chart) is a great place to start, but I generally choose emulsifying wax as it is a good all around emulsifier for basic lotions. (Polawax, emulsifying wax, and BTMS-50 are all-around emulsification systems, so they're easy to use).
  • Heat emulsification - we have to heat our ingredients up to a place where they are happy to emulsify.
  • Mechanical emulsification - we have to blend our ingredients together using a hand or stand mixer or stick blender.
I like to make oil in water lotions, meaning the droplets of oil are suspended in a water base, so there is far more water in the recipe than oils. (Water in oil recipes are thicker, like cold cream, and require different emulsifiers to work well.)

The three emulsifiers I've mentioned above come in "pellet form", so they need to be melted. Non-Polawax emulsifying wax can be in flake format as well. So they need to melt before they are useful. Other emulsifiers come in other forms - polysorbate 20 and 80 are liquid.

In the recipe below, you'll see 3 "phases" or categories of ingredients.

Oil phase: These are the ingredients you'll weigh in your Pyrex jug then heat to 70C in your double boiler. This contains all the ingredients that play well together as oils and need to be heated. In your oil phase you will put your oils, butters, emulsifiers, co-emulsifiers, thickeners, and oil soluble goodies.

Water phase: These are the ingredients you'll weigh into your Pyrex jug then heat to 70C in your double boiler. This contains all the ingredients that are water based and need to be heated. In your water phase you'll put your water, hydrosols, aloe vera, witch hazel, sodium lactate, and other water soluble goodies.

Cool down phase: These are the ingredients you will add to your emulsified mixture when it has cooled below 45 - 50C. This phase will include your hydrolyzed proteins, panthenol, fragrance or essential oils, preservative, silicones, and other heat sensitive ingredients.

  • A scale - you can get a decent one from London Drugs or a kitchen supply shop or Voyageur for $40 or so. (You will see recipes in volume format, but weighing is far more accurate, especially for smaller quantities like preservatives or fragrance oils).
  • Pyrex jugs or other heat proof jugs or stainless steel pots. At a minimum, have 2 - 2 cup jugs (but you'll want more!)
  • Spoons - Metal spoons you only use for making things. Go to a restaurant supply store and get 50 for $5.00.
  • Stick blender or mixer with beater attachments (for lotion) or whisk attachments (for mousses)
  • Candy thermometer - inexpensive, accurate, and good for testing temperatures
  • A funnel to pour the lotions into bottles
  • A bottle (new and clean). Get these from the dollar store or from your local supplier.
20 grams of oil
5 grams of emulsifier (I prefer Polawax)

75 grams of water


Use 25% of your oil amount in emulsifier. So for 20 grams of oil, we'll want 5 grams of emulsifying wax.

1. Weigh your oil and emulsifier in a heat proof container. Put into the double boiler.

2. Weigh your water in a heat proof container. Put into the double boiler.

3. Heat the oil and water until they reach a temperature of 70C and hold for 20 minutes. This ensures any badness (bacteria, etc.) will be heated out of your mixture. (This is called the heat and hold method.)

4. After 20 minutes, you will want to pour the oil phase and water phase into a heatproof container and mix with an electric mixer for 3 to 5 minutes. The mixture will be hot. (You can pour your water phase into your oil phase if you don't have many Pyrex jugs lying around!)

(This is the point of emulsification - watch! The water and oil come together in a creamy white mixture the moment you pour the oil and water phases together. You've got lotion. We still need to work on the mechanical emulsion - using the mixer - but right now you're seeing the moment the water and oil stop hating each other and learn to live together!)

5. I leave the lotion in a safe place to cool for about 10 minutes, then I check the temperature. I mix it again.

6. I like to leave it for a few minutes, then mix again. (I think I'm obsessed with mixing, to be honest.)

7. When the temperature is below 45 to 50C, add the heat sensitive ingredients like fragrance or essential oils, preservatives, silicones, and hydrolyzed proteins.

This is not actually a recipe I want you to follow. This is a sample recipe so you can see the basics of lotion making. This doesn't have a preservative (ESSENTIAL FOR LOTION MAKING) or any goodies for your skin.

You said it was an emulsifier, and I have tons of it lying around from other projects!

This is what is called a high HLB emulsifier - it has a value of 16.7. If you want to use it, you would have to pair it with another emulsifier, a low HLB emulsifier like glycol distearate (1) and do all kinds of math and create the perfect balance between the low HLB emulsifier and the high HLB emulsifier. Once you've mastered using Emulsifying Wax NF, Polawax, or BTMS, and you want a challenge, you'll probably want to learn more about how to make your own emulsifiers.

If you find this all very interesting, then check out the great post at on the HLB System (created by the most amazing cosmetic chemist, Maurice, whose work has inspired me to learn more!)

Remember, the recipe above is only an example. It doesn't contain all kinds of wonderful skin loving ingredients or preservatives we want to include in a lovely visit us tomorrow!


Anne-Marie said...


This is SUCH a good tutorial. You did a great job on it. Big kudos to you for this.

SwiftCraftyMonkey said...

Wow! Thanks for the kind comment, Anne-Marie! You made my day!

chook88 said...

Thanks for an excellent tutorial

I've been searching for good quality info on HLB and this info is just the ticket

Hielscher Ultrasonics said...

Very good article, Susan. Found it, when browsing the internet. Thank you.

Alexandra said...

Susan, thank you, great article!
Very valuable info on HLB system….
By any chance, do you know where to find the HLB values for the oils such as raspberry seed, strawberry seed and blackberry seed oils? Seems like nobody has it on the web :-(

Anonymous said...

Have you worked with Glyceryl Stearate & PEG 100 Stearate?

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi anonymous. No, I haven't worked with those two emulsifiers together. Does it have a brand name or did you make up from the HLB system. I have worked with glycol distearate and ceteath-20 as my emulsifier, and I really liked it. (There's a post about that somewhere around here...)

Abby Farid said...

Very informative, resourceful and you're very wonderful person. I love your articles very much for every effort you have done to benefits people like me....knowledge.

Thank you very much.

chemist said...

I have been formulation lotion bases and want to incorporate about 4% Schercodine C Amine into the lotion base, Im having problems keeping the emulsification together. The Cationic Schercodine is not compatible in a nonionic base, and in the cationic base the viscosity decreases dramatically to the point where i dont have a lotion. I have used a mixture of Incroquat TMS 50 and also Shea butter in my lotion bases but nothing seem to help with creating a uniform lotion let alone a stable one.... pls help!!!

kontakt said...

Hello Susan.

I have a vague idea that you somewhere mentioned an emulsifier that wouldn't need heating - not that you had used it, just mentioning. Do you remember something about anything like that?

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi kontakt. It finally came to me - Sucragel AOF! I'm writing a series about emulsifiers this week and next, and I'll include it in the series!

Gdaiva said...

Omg! I just stumbled on your site today, have a LOT of reading to do! Cant even imagine how much time did you put into it! Thank you so much!!
I just wanted to tell you, if you know about Thermomix? It supposed to be excellent machine for cosmetics too, but i can't find much info in English, so i'll try to figure out on my own... with your help it seems :)

Lisa Sigrist said...

Hi Susan,
You have taught me so much. Thanks for that! I have a recipe that I really really like but it is lacking in the emulsification area and I'm trying to fix it. I think I've got it figured out but before I make it again and waste more money, I was hoping to run it by you and see if you would give me some feedback?
Recipe was this:
Calendula Infused Olive Oil 3 oz
Almond Oil 2 oz
Grapeseed Oil 1oz
Coconut Oil 1/2 oz
Beeswax 1/2 oz
Rose Geranium Hydrosol 4 oz
4 oz Dist Water & 8 Drops Rose Concentrate
Aloe Vera Gel 4 oz
Vit E Oil 1/4 tsp
Lavender E.O. 5 drops
Rose E.O. 5 drops

Ok, First it had no Preservative and I figured out to use 25 drops of Germall+ or 2 grams. And I made my first batch based on the above. Their was no emulsifier though and I did indeed have trouble getting the water and oil to blend. I kept working on it and did get it pretty close but not perfect. I wanted to change the recipe to use Polawax and haven't modified a recipe before to do that. Per all the info I'm reading on your blog, I think I need to add 48 grams Polawax based on the total Oil Phase adding up to 193 grams x 25% = 48 grams. My waters add up to 339 grams. What do you think? Is it going to be successful? And do I leave the Beeswax just as it is in the recipe? I appreciate your feedback and thank you so much for all you do. You've been a tremendous teacher for me.

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Lisa. Can I be completely honest? There's nothing unique about this recipe that you couldn't do with another recipe. For instance, figure out how much water you have here, then choose one of my basic recipes and put the ingredients you like in there. It'll save you having to do all kinds of work to make this work.

If you want to keep this recipe the way it is, then figure out the percentages then add Polawax at 25% the oil phase (as you've already done). You'll want to use 0.5% liquid Germall Plus, which is about 2.85 grams (round to 3) if you're using these amounts. (Are these liquid or weighed ounces? This is why I prefer grams!)

Two points of interest: Don't make a huge batch of this. You're looking at making almost 600 grams of this product, which is waaaaaay too much for a tester batch. I'd try making 4 to 8 ounces at the most, so getting your product into percentages is a better idea for making smaller batches. Why waste ingredients when you are trying something out for the first time?

I'm sure you know this, but beeswax is not an emulsifier, so you can choose to keep it in or not. Figure out how much you have in there by percentage. It looks like something like 5%, which is quite a lot in my opinion. What does it bring to the product that you like? A few things that beeswax can do is thicken the product, offer a feeling of waxiness, offer a feeling of occlusion, a bit of moisturizing, and so on. If you want those things, leave it in...

Anonymous said...

I loved the way you directed every technique, I am practicing these mixtures since 6 years, as a result of excitement, and collection of effects of herbs and stuff and i have made a moisturizer which has a very less oil in it and is a pre-used recpie by me, I want to be advised by someone(I obviously mean you)to give this mixture a lotion like look
This is my favourite concortion as it soothes, softens and glosses the skin,
Coconut oil -1gm
Almond Oil-1gm
Olive Oil- 1g
Basil Distilate-2.5-g
Rose Distilate-2.5g
Aloe Vera-10g
Papaya Pulp ext.-10g
Petroleum jelly(side application)
Mint ext.-3g
Vitamin E-3g
Lemon ext -4g
Please help me I am dying to see it as a lotion...the petroleum jelly is used along with the mixture i want to use it too in with the mixture..

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Anonymous. Please edit your comment to include your name, or I will have to delete it.

What emulsifier are you using?

Mama G said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mama G said...

Do you have to use an emulsifier if there is no water in the formula? Sorry if this info is already posted elsewhere on the blog, so much info, all very helpful! Thank you!

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Mama G. Check out the newbie section of the blog to learn about the different products we can make and how to know what each requires.

Ascrius said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gabriel said...

Hello Susan,
True newbie here, just came across your site recently by accident and instantly fell in love with it! I am a pharmacy student starting my second year soon, and I have a great interest in compounding creams, lotions and similar products - both with and without medication in them.
I was thrilled to find your "Newbies start here" section, thank you so much for guiding us all as we get started!

Now, on to my question...
I see here that you say to use metal spoons and I'm assuming that the mixers, bowls, etc will all be metal as well (other than the pyrex).
My question for you, is don't some essential oils and preservatives react negatively with metals? I know that some medications certainly do, and we use plastic utensils for them. I thought that some ingredients had the same problem though.
Something to do with metals causing the formation of free radicals (especially in essential oils) I think.

I understand that the antioxidants you add in the cool phase will reduce that, but is it something I should worry about?

Thanks again, You'll be hearing from me more ;)


Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Gabe. Welcome to the blog? I've never seen anything in a textbook, ingredient data bulletin, or other materials recommending we use only non-reactive containers or utensils for any ingredient we use. If you've seen something, can you send it along by posting a link or e-mailing me?

Manish Kumar Singh said...

Hi Susan,

can you guide me about the process parameters and Critical Quality parameters which one should meausre to achieve process reliability ?


Marina said...

Thank you for this wonderful post, Susan. Thank you for all of the amazing posts on emulsifiers as well.

I use a progesterone cream that has NO emulsifier listed. Here are the ingredients of this Kokoro progesterone balance cream: Deionized water, wild yam extract, glycerin, caprylic/capric triglyceride, squalane, cetyl alcohol, progesterone USP, cetearyl alcohol, dexpanthenol, allantoin, xanthan gum, retinyl palmitate, hydroxyethylcellulose, phenoxyethanol.

No emulsifier! For a cream that comes in a jar! What's up with that? Does anyone have any thoughts on how this can be?


Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Marina! They aren't telling the truth somewhere because if you are bringing oil and water together, you need an emulsifier. They also aren't using a complete preservative, which leads me to believe they aren't exactly forthright with their ingredient list!

Aisha said...

Hi susan!

A recent addition to your list of readers here :)

I had a question, this might be really vague but i would love to get your insight: There are so many recipes for body butters and lotions out there and most of them follow a common theme or format.

In this scenario, what can really differentiate one's formulation or make it truly unique? Is it using quality ingredients/ new ingredients that probably other formulators aren't using or something else. I was thinking about what could actually set someones product apart from the others.

eric87 said...


This is a truely newbie question. I am using double boiler method to heat my oil and water phase.

The oil phase seems to heat up very fast while the water phase heats up very slowly. By the time the oil/emulsifier phase exceeds 80 C, the water phase is still somewhere around 50 C.

How do I properly heat them so I have uniform temperature on both water and oil/emulsifier phase?

Thank you so much.


Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Aisha! Good question! I'll go into some depth about that this weekend.

Hi Eric! I've addressed this question quite a few times on the blog. Check out the newbie section and FAQ. I'm sure I've linked the posts there.

Gabriel said...

Thanks Susan,
Sorry for the confusion. I have looked far and wide and have come to the same conclusion as you. It seems that metal is the best option for essential oils, as they do not absorb the oils. I could not find anything related to essential oils reacting with metal either. On the flip side, plastic looks like a terrible thing to use for utensils, as essential oils will not only absorb into the plastic, but can even degrade many types of plastic.

Sorry for the delay in responding, I have been very busy and haven't much free time to pursue interests outside of school :)

Thanks for your patience,

eric87 said...


I finally found the articles you mentioned. I have yet found success with my emulsification.

I'm going to try turning up the temperature on my boiler to make the water phase hot. Hopefully I won't get hurt by the splashing boiling water lol.

Thanks for the help!

Ellsie said...

Hey Swift! Big thanks for all of your amazing posts. 10 cheers for you :-)

I've never had problems with my emulsions before but I've lately started using a mix of Neodefend aka Geogard Ultra at .5% with Leucidal SF at 2.5% and I have to work Very hard to get it to bind with my emersion blender, giving me more of a bubbly 'whip' as opposed to a smooth cream. I've also started adding cetyl alcohol (2%) as I like a thick product. Can't remember if my emulsion issues started before or after using cetyl alcohol (may/ may not be relevant)

I use the saffire blue eco-cert emulsifier 'emulsimulse' (Glyceryl Stearate (and) Cetearyl Alcohol (and) Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate).

Here's a rough breakdown of what a recent experiment might look like:

6% emulsimulse
2% Cetyl Alcohol
60% water/ hydrosol
20-22% Oil
5-6% Butter/ wax
2.5% Leucidal (in cool down below 30 degrees)
.5 neodefend (in water phase - up to 80degrees)
1.5% EO

When I mix my water into oil there is always an 'oh sh----t' moment where it looks like it's turning into globby creme caramel, and then I go to work at it madly with my mixer... It's very stressful and chaotic! Any thoughts?

Thanks so much in advance!

RC said...

Susan, your posts are always amazing. Quick question. How do you account for evaporation when heating/boiling your waters?


Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

HI Ellsie. The emulsifier you are using is Ritamulse SCG. You can't use more than 25% oils with this emulsifier, which might explain your problems. As well, this product doesn't emulsify the moment the oil and water are brought together the way other emulsifiers do. Finally, I find 8% works better than 6%, but that's just my experience.

Hi RC. Check out this post in the FAQ - How do I compensate for evaporation during heat and hold?

Ellen ChloƩ Bateman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hafiz Parman said...

Hi Susan!

Thats really helpful. I've been following your blog for two days and I found that you are good in chemical experiment. Well done!

I have a question, i am making a water based hair pomade, it is unorthodox. I have problem on using emulsifier. I wanna go to emulsifier that wil give thick texture like the other pomade, not as lotion. Here is the ingredients that i am using:

beeswax, cocoa butter, hydrogenated castor oil, coconut oil, essential oil and some preservetives. Would you suggest what is the best emulsifier that will works well for these ingredients.


*sorry for the bad english.

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Hafiz. Any emulsifier would work with these ingredient you're using, so I think the only answer is to try a few different ones and see what you like. If you are making something for hair, Incroquat BTMS-50 is a good choice as it will be substantive. Sorry I can't be more helpful, but I don't know what kind of end result you want or what emulsifiers are available in your part of the world, so it's hard to make suggestions.

bonton noodles said...

Susan. have you ever had a curdling effect when you add the EO during the cool down phase? I had this absolutely beautiful concoction of lotion during cool down and then I added my perservative and EO and immediately curdled. What's happening here?


Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Which preservative are you using? My guess is Optiphen! Could you please write up your complete recipe in percentages so we can help further?

bonton noodles said...

Hey Susan! I'm using liquid Gemall plus. I must have just miscalculated the weight when I threw it in. However, I started from scratch again and I noticed that before I even put the cool down phase ingredients, things started to separate when I go back to blend it a second time after it has cooled a bit. I swear it had a beautiful consistence as it was mixed the first time. What gives??? If you have a suspicion as to what's happening here, I'd love to know.


bonton noodles said...

I found this on your blog. I think I've got the answer somewhere in there. :)