Making Lotion: What is an emulsifier and how does it work in cosmetics?

Written by: | | 9 responses

Kathy Steinbock R.A. Cert. Aroma.

Kathy Steinbock R.A. Cert. Aroma.

Emulsifiers in action– when oil and water do mix!

Typically creating a lotion or cream takes three phases: a water phase, an oil phase and a finishing phase that occurs after your emulsion has cooled. But oil and water don’t mix. Or do they?

Since water and oil do not mix but stay separated, an additional agent (emulsifier) is necessary to form a homogenous mixture keeping water and oil together. Without an emulsifier, you can ‘aggitate’ the water and oil together but as soon as you stop, they fall out and separate back to oil floating on water.  In cosmetic chemistry– and in kitchen chemistry, we use ’emulsions’ to blend two immiscible (unblendable) liquids together.

An emulsifier (also known as an “emulgent”) is a substance that stabilizes an emulsion by increasing its kinetic stability. One class of emulsifiers is known as “surface active agents”, or surfactants. Emulsifiers work because their molecules have two parts: one part loves water and one part loves oil.

There are two types of emulsions: Water in Oil W/O and Oil in Water O/W.

Water in Oil W/O – in this emulsion the oil surrounds the water and the oil touches the skin first. The level of greasiness depends on the formula – all of which will be absorbed into the skin. The emulsion is often made with your choice of oil, beeswax, borax and water. If done correctly you will have little to no greasiness.

Oil in Water O/W – this emulsion has the oil being surrounded by water. This method creates cream and lotions that feel moist, less greasy. When absorbed into the skin there is very little to no oily residue. You will likely use an emulsifying wax for this emulsion.

Emulsifiers come in a variety of forms. For cooking we often use eggs as emulsifiers. In cosmetics, you can use from emulsifying waxlecitin, or stearic acid, a stabilizing agent found in vegetable fats. Beeswax and borax work, too. As do cetyl alcohol and polysorbate 20. (Beeswax isn’t vegan, so stay away from that if you’re looking to create products for the vegan market.)  We have a number of emulsifiers on our website.

Making lotion? Experiment!

Now that you have a basic understanding of how and why an emulsifier works, you can start figuring out what you want to create. As you experiment, keep in mind the basic ratios for making lotion:

  • Emulsifiers 5-8% – beeswax, candelilla wax, lecithin, stearic acid, etc.
  • Oils 12-20% – avocado, almond, olive oil
  • Water, Additives, and Botanicals to 100 %. – organic tea, rose water, plain water, infusions

Experiment with different carrier oils and emulsifiers to find the perfect balance for your ideal product. You can add botanicals to the oils by infusing them before adding with water, or you can drop in a few essential oils and mix into your basic lotion once it’s cooled.

Hand crafted lotions are popular holiday and anytime gifts, Once you get comfortable making lotion, you can branch out in many different directions.


Do you have a favorite lotion or creme recipe you’d like to share?

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Oghenejoboh Ufuoma
3 years ago

Thanks for the article it was very insightful. Trying to make my own body lotion.

3 years ago

Thanks for the great information. Making a serum and a cream.

3 years ago

Hi there,

Thank you so much for the post, great reading though!

I was wondering if I could please ask you for some advice regarding a recipe I would like to follow which is the usage of PEO in the Treatment of Thinning Hair and PEO + Magnesium Oil Scalp Spray.

For the PEO in the Treatment of Thinning Hair, I would need the following ingredients: Apple Cider Vinegar (1 cup)Water (1 cup), Rosemary (1 bunch), Jojoba Oil (1/4 cup), PEO (10 drops).

For the PEO + Magnesium Oil Scalp Spray, I would need the following ingredients: Magnesium oil (100 mL) and PEO (10 mL).

The thing is, I am a complete newbie regarding making DIY products and came to realise, once I had all the different products combined that, the oil was on the top. I did some research I found out I needed an emulsifier but, the problem is, I don’t know which one and how much of it?

I would really appreciate if you could please provide me with some advice/tips about the kind of emulsifier to use.

Thank you so much in advance!

2 years ago
Reply to  Gonzalo

Did you get a reply. I see you wrote in 2018. I am a newbie with facial serums etc. I have same question as you.
Michele Carter

Brandon Paul(@brandon-paul)
2 years ago
Reply to  Michele

Hi Michele! Just wanted to make sure you saw the response.

Brandon Paul(@brandon-paul)
2 years ago
Reply to  Gonzalo

Honestly, we don’t use Polyethylene Oxide, but I would think that using Propanediol 1,3 would be the place I would first experiment for the solubilization effect as it works well with almost all chemical charges. Doesn’t work so well with oxidizing ingredients or really strong acids, but you look like that isn’t a worry with what you’re using.

Emmanuel Joseph
1 year ago

Thank you

6 months ago

Do you have a video for making a simple body lotion? I would love to see another one of your great videos

Brandon Paul(@brandon-paul)
6 months ago
Reply to  Maggie Wells

Yes we do!

Here is our guide for How to Make Lotion From Scratch >>

I think you will appreciate it 🙂