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SKINCARE : Natural Emulsifiers

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

Woman with jar of face cream
Natural Face Cream

Natural, organic emulsifiers are essential for any cream or lotion you want to make, containing water, but they can be one of the most trickiest ingredient to use.

We all know oil and water (O/W) or water and oil (W/O) in cosmetic products do not blend together without help - here is where your emulsifier comes in. This is called an emulsion and creates something called a homegenous blend.

What is an emulsifier

Emulsifiers contain a hydrophilic element (water loving) and a lipophilic element (oil loving) which means they are attracted to both elements in your product which allow them to work together to form a stable mixture.

When making creams and lotions it makes sense to know whether you are making an oil in water (O/W) product or a water in oil (W/O) product. An oil in water product is often prefered as it's more like the creams and lotions we know and love - this means you have fine droplets of oil through a water base. Water in oil products tend to be very thick and greasy as you have very fine droplets of water throughout a heavy oil base.

Many online, DIY recipes will tell you that beeswax can be used as an emusifier but sadly this is not true as beeswax will not work as a stand alone ingredient. Beeswax can be used if you use Borax as well. Simply put, Borax an alkaline, saponifies beeswax to soap and it's this soap which becomes the emulsifier. Although a natural mineral, Borax is considered to be a carcinogenic ingredient and it's use in the UK, EU and other parts of the world are limited. As we know, not everything natural is entirely safe to use.

Emulsifiers can be used in hot process or cold process recipes :

Hot Process

This is probably the method most of us use in our hand crafted lotions, done in three stages :

Stage 1 Oil Phase

Melt together oils/butters with the emulsifier

Stage 2 Water Phase

Heat water to 70-80c

Stage 3 Cooling phase

Add preservative and essential oils

Cold Process

Now, if you were a large manufacturer of creams and lotions etc. having to wait around and spend money heating your oils and water it makes more sense to be able to mix at room temperature. This also has the added benefit of containing properties of botanical ingredients and essential oils which heat can destroy. The water phase can even be replaced with hydrosols in which the therapeutic properties would normally be destroyed in the hot process - any heat above 75c. Emulsifiers for cold process are in powder form but they do need to be agitated more by an electric blender than the hot process to achieve a stable emulsion.

What an exciting way forward to make creams and lotions!

Obviously, if you want to use solid butters like Shea Butter, Coconut Oil or Cocoa Butter this method would not work as the butters would have to be melted first.

How to Choose an Emulsifier

Firstly the right emulsifier depends on the ingredients you are using, so choose your oils/butters first.

If you are using a high percentage of waxes and butters then the hot process is more for you. If you want to use a high percentage of heat sensitive ingredients then the cold process might be ideal.

Secondly you need to know if your product is an O/W or a W/O and choose the emulsifier accordingly. Look at the percentages of oil or water that each emulsifier will safely keep stable. Sometimes you have to use an additional emulsifier to back the first one up, especially if your product is W/O. Check with your supplier or look at the data sheets to see if your emulsifier will be stable. Every good supplier will display additional information for you on their website to use, failing that contact them and ask their advice.

On a final note, although emulsifiers are usually classified as 'natural' they are only derived from the natural plant like palm oil or coconut oil and have gone through a manufacturing process to obtain the final product.

Sometimes you think your recipe is fool proof and then your ingredients 'split' and becomes unstable. Look again at your choosen emulsifier, look to see if you have an O/W product or a W/O product and try, try again. It might be frustrating to have to throw away all your ingredients and start again but if it doesn't work there will be a reason why.

By the way an emulsifier is a surfactant.

Have fun and make wonderful handcrafted skincare products for yourself, friends and family. If you want to start your own business please have a look at my :

If you are thinking of making your own skincare products and don't know where to begin my beginners Skincare Course is an ideal place to start.

A great website for your ingredients is Aromantic, The Soap Kitchen or Naturally Thinking.

x Diane

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