Body butters are a fabulous place to start your formulating journey. I started with lip balms and body butters and made a lot of mistakes along the way; I’m hoping this post can help save you from a few of them!
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The first mistake I made was whipping up positively ginormous batches. I remember the first time I made whipped body butter; I found a DIY on the internet written that called for something like 2 cups of shea butter, 1 cup cocoa butter, and 1 cup of jojoba oil. I diligently followed the instructions and ended up with well over a litre of whipped body butter 😳 This could’ve been fine… but this was not only my first time making this particular recipe, it was also my first time making whipped body butter at all. The particular recipe ended up being far too heavy and greasy for my tastes, and I’d used a strongly scented unrefined shea butter and cocoa butter, and then attempted to drown that smell with lavender essential oil 😬 In short, I didn’t particularly like what I’d made, and I had made a lifetime supply of it, using up half of my limited ingredients to boot. Major bummer.
When I’m working on a new body butter formulation these days, I start small; usually in the 20–50g range, depending on the formulation. That’s more than enough to get a feel for the melt point, skin feel, scent, and application. It’s also a small enough batch that if you end up trying to use it up on your feet it won’t be your foot butter until 2045. And, if it’s truly wretched and is best suited for the compost bin, it’s a pretty small amount of product and ingredient waste.
Butters can be quite particular about how they cool, and improper cooling can leave you with a formulation that is grainy, mealy, far softer than it should be, or some delightful combination of all three (exciting!).
Most buttery formulations benefit from being brought to trace, though some prefer a light trace while others need a heavy trace. After that, some formulations do best with a counter set, while others need some chill time in the fridge or freeezer.
Determining what works best for your particular formulation is part of the formulation process. To learn more, I highly recommend reading the blog post (and checking out the partner video) that I shared in 2021 that is all about graininess in body butters and how to prevent it.
This isn’t really a mistake; it’s more of an encouragement to branch out and try new butters! Body butters are mostly made up of butters, so it makes sense that those butters are a massive part of how the finished formulation feels on the skin. If you only work with one or two butters, you’ll be limited in the results you can get.
Shea and cocoa butters tend to be the go-to butters for new formulators, and they are a lovely place to start. That’s where I started! After months of making all kinds of buttery things with shea butter, I was so excited to discover cupuaçu butter and mango butter. Cupuaçu butter has a really unique, satiny, rich, silicone-y feel on the skin—it somehow manages to feel very nourishing without feeling heavy or especially greasy. I wouldn’t call it super lightweight or fast absorbing, but it’s a unique and utterly lovely butter experience and it’s been a cupuaçu-Marie love story ever since 😄
I was also really excited to try mango butter and find that it has much of the creaminess of shea butter, but it is so much lighter. As someone who isn’t a massive fan of greasy things, this thrilled me. I started blending mango butter with shea butter so I could get the best of both worlds, and you’ll find it starring in many anhydrous formulations that I wanted to feel light and fast-absorbing on the skin.
When shopping for new, fancy butters to try, one of my biggest tips is learn about what they smell like. Some butters, like unrefined ucuuba butter and kombo butter, have quite strong scents and colours, which tends to limit their usage levels and usefulness. For butters like that I recommend ordering the smallest amount possible the first time you try them. Once upon a time I ordered 500g of ucuuba butter and found it smelled quite BBQ/molasses-y, which was a challenging scent to work with. I made one formulation with it back in 2013, pairing ucuuba with patchouli, cedarwood, and vetiver, and that worked with the natural scent really well… and then I ended up composting the mostly untouched butter a few years later. In the comments on this video you’ll see that some people absolutely adore ucuuba butter, so depending on what you like it could be worth trying—I just wouldn’t recommend starting with 500g.
No fatty thickeners
This is another “not so much a mistake as a thing I wish I’d tried earlier”. When I finally started working with fatty thickeners like cetyl alcohol and stearic acid it opened up so many formulating possibilities for me and I was positively kicking myself for not trying them sooner. Fatty thickeners give us the ability to add body and raise the melting points of our butter formulations with tiny additions; 2–3% stearic acid can seriously boost the melting point of a body butter, and a similar amount of cetyl alcohol can massively improve the slip and skin feel of a formulation. Fatty thickeners open up possibilities like making body butter bars that don’t need to contain a high percentage of a brittle butter, and then can help balance out the waxy skin feel of ingredients like beeswax.
To learn more about what fatty thickeners can bring to our formulations please check out these posts and videos:
- A Quick Guide to Cetyl Alcohol & Liquid Oil Ratios
- A Quick Guide to Stearic Acid & Liquid Oil Ratios
- A Quick Guide to Cetearyl Alcohol & Liquid Oil Ratios
- Cetyl Alcohol in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia
- Stearic Acid in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia
- Cetearyl Alcohol in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia
- The silky MIRACLE ingredient you NEED | Cetyl Alcohol Ingredient Deep Dive
- STEARIC ACID for skin care | 5 free formulas | Ingredient deep dive
- CETEARYL alcohol vs CETYL alcohol in Skincare | The cheap + versatile ingredient you NEED
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Let’s bounce back to the story I opened this post with; the story of the jumbo batch of shea-cocoa-jojoba whipped body butter I made over a decade ago (and would probably still be trying to finish if I hadn’t admitted defeat and binned it at some point). I remember being really surprised by how oily and greasy the finished formulation was. I probably shouldn’t have been; it was 100% oils and butters, and I’d used enough straight shea butter by then to know that shea butter is a heavy, sticky, rich butter. Perhaps the pictures and promise of whippy, fluffy goodness seduced me and made me think some sort of alchemy would happen when those ingredients were whipped together? I’m not sure what I was thinking back then, but I know I think a heck of a lot more about oiliness/greasiness/absorption speed when I formulate body butters these days. Greasy body butters aren’t a bad thing if that’s what you like—it’s just about doing that on purpose. It’s about knowing what makes for a greasy body butter, what makes for a light body butter, and how to make formulation decisions that’ll get you the end product you want.
Thinking body butters are the be-all and end-all of moisturizing
This last point is more of a skin care mistake than a body butter mistake. I often see messaging in the crunchy DIY world that positions oil as a sort of… superior water. I’ve seen marketing from small brands that discusses how their anhydrous formulations are “concentrated” and don’t contain any water to “dilute” them, positioning water as something that is only in formulations to dilute more expensive butters and oils and cut costs. While it is definitely true that water is cheaper than butters and oils, it is also a very important part of skin health and skin care! Our bodies—and skin—need water. Oil is not superior to water when it comes to moisturizing (or quenching thirst—yick!); it’s just different. Both are important, and my skin improved so much when I realized this. My big “a-ha” moment was a trip to London in January about 6 years ago. London is not known for its fabulous air quality, but my skin improved a ton in just a few days because London is much more humid than Calgary, and I was mostly just using oil serums to moisturize with at this time. I returned home and started incorporating heaps of hydrating goodies into my skincare routine and never looked back.
It is unlikely that your skin will get all of its hydration needs from water that you consume as the vascular system stops at the dermis, meaning your body is limited in its ability to deliver hydration to the epidermis. This is where moisturizers come in! Anhydrous skincare products can help soften the skin and reduce transepidermal water loss (TEWL), but they will not hydrate the skin because hydration requires water. If you live somewhere very humid additional topical hydration might not be a big need for you, but chances are good that any part of you that is washed regularly (hands and face) would really benefit from some topical hydration in addition to any anhydrous moisturizers you’re using.
Adding hydration to your skincare routine can take many forms. You could apply your body butter directly after getting out of the shower, or you could apply a hydrating body mist or toner before applying body butter. You might prefer an emulsified lotion for your hands and face, saving body butter for the less-frequently-sudsed-up parts of you. Whatever you do, I don’t recommend counting on anhydrous body butters to meet all of your skin moisturizing needs 🙂
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OK, those are the six body butter mistakes I made as a new maker! Hopefully I can help save you from making a lifetime supply of something you don’t like 😄 Did you make any mistakes I didn’t discuss here? Let me know in the comments below!