Click here for more information on the HLB system, including a ton of links!)
Something like Polawax is an emulsification system - sorry, the actual ingredients are a mystery - as is Incroquat BTMS-50 - INCI: Behentrimonium methosulfate (and) cetyl alcohol (and) butylene glycol - or Ritamulse SCG - INCI: Glyceryl Stearate (and) Cetearyl Alcohol (and) Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate - or emulsifying wax NF (INCI: Cetearyl alcohol and polysorbate 60). (The NF stands for National Formulary. The INCI for Polawax is Emulsifying wax NF, but it isn't this combination.)
Okay, these are really bad examples because we want to focus on non-ionic or neutrally charged emulsifiers, like the HLB emulsifiers or Polawax or e-wax, and Incroquat BTMS-50 is cationic or positively charged and Ritamulse SCG is negatively charged or anionic. But these are the ones you keep asking me about, so I shall write about them! (Click here for more information about the charges!)
This emulsifier was brought to my attention recently - the base emulsifier from Aromantic in the UK - and this is NOT an emulsification system. This a low HLB emulsifier, which requires a high HLB emulsifier to create an emulsification system. You'll see that the supplier recommends using cetyl alcohol at 2% with the product to create an emulsification system, and makes a point of noting that "when used with 2% Cetyl alcohol, is equivalent to Emulsifying Wax...". Be careful when your supplier notes that you MUST use this product with something else to get a successful product. This means you do not have an emulsification system - you have a low HLB or high HLB emulsifier that must be combined with something else. If you want to use the product, that's just fine, but ensure that you have the other ingredient to make it work!
An aside...It isn't as easy as saying that you need 2% of this and 2% of that to make a successful HLB emulsifier. As you will see from the posts I've written on the HLB, in one lotion I might need 1.5% glycol distearate and 2.5% ceteareth-20, and in another that is only slightly different, I might 2.5% glycol distearate and 1.5% ceteareth-20. (Click here for an example recipe using the HLB system.) I'm not really sure how these emulsifiers are supposed to work, but I'm guessing it is based on the assumption that you are using all natural oils and butters, which tend to have HLB values in the 7 range for oils and 8 range for butters. But then you get into the whole what if you use beeswax (12) or castor oil (14) or fractionated coconut oil (5) thing, not to mention adding fatty alcohols and acids (in the over 15 range). There's just too much math involved to say "just add something% of another thing and you'll be fine". (Please let me know how this emulsifier has worked for you because I'm really curious!)
As an aside, one supplier I visited stated that most emulsifiers are made from animal products, and this is simply not true. If you check, most - if not all - of our fatty alcohols, fatty acids, and emulsifiers are derived from coconut, palm, or other oils. If you're in doubt, ask your supplier. If you're still in doubt, ask them for their data bulletin sheets so you can make sure it's from vegetables, if that's important to you.
Be aware that suppliers may create their own names for products. This isn't a bad thing, but if you get too reliant on trying to find Super Lovely emulsifier and you need to go to another supplier for some reason, you won't have a clue what to buy! Always look at the INCI name of the product and see what you're getting. I hate buying something like Coconut derived surfactant from one supplier and Smooth & Silky coconut surfactant from another, only to find out they're the same thing! Read your INCI names!
Reading INCI names
What's an INCI name and why should I care?