Luxury brand formulation secrets for expensive-feeling lotions

Even though I make most of the skincare products I use, I still enjoy perusing the skincare departments at Sephora and airport duty-free shops—paying extra attention to the luxury brands. I sample, sniff, and examine ingredient lists like a lotion detective. If a single lotion costs 3x my monthly grocery budget, I want to know what’s going on 🧐 What formulation magic has that fancy brand used to create a product that feels like its worth $400?! Fancy actives and proprietary botanical blends definitely pop up quite a lot, but I’ve noticed five cheap, easy-to-implement strategies in heaps of luxury formulations, and I want to share them with you so you can make lotions that feel like magic 🤩

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I tried 10 different ways to naturally color lotion.

I’m often asked about different ways to naturally colour lotions, so I conducted a fifteen-week experiment testing out ten different natural colourants to see what worked, and what didn’t.

Why ‘lotions’ specifically?

Formulations that contain water—like lotions—are a lot harder to colour naturally than anhydrous formulations (formulations without water). Because water is present, the emulsions are susceptible to microbial spoilage, which is something we don’t have to worry about with products like balms, salves, and anhydrous body butters. This spoilage potential can limit our colourant options as colourful ingredients can also be challenging to preserve. I’ve also found that natural colourants can fade and oxidize much faster in hydrous formulations than anhydrous ones.

Experiment questions

  • How do ten different natural ingredients perform as colourants for an emulsion at 1%?
  • How does the inclusion of a chelator (Tetrasodium Glutamate Diacetate at 0.5%) change that performance?

Experiment overview

I began by making two big batches of my Easy Natural Lotion for Beginners. Each batch was short 1% to allow room for adding different colourants. One batch was made as written, and one batch included 0.5% Tetrasodium Glutamate Diacetate—a natural chelator. The pH of each lotion was around 5.4–5.5.

I portioned out 29.7g lotion into glass prep cups and added 0.3g colourant ingredient to each: 99% lotion + 1% colourant ingredient.

Each colourant was added to a chelator’d and non-chelator’d portion of lotion, hand whisked to combine, and then decanted into a labelled plastic condiment cup. This resulted in 20 little cups of coloured lotion + 1 wee cup of control (the emulsion without a chelator).

I then left those wee cups in a box on a shelf in my studio for 15 weeks to see what happened.

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The colourants

I tested 10 different natural ingredients, choosing ones that would impart some colour, and generally trying to test ingredients that are somewhat readily available and/or I’m asked about often.

  1. Activated charcoal
  2. Alkanet root powder
  3. Australian pink clay
  4. Black goji extract
  5. Carmine (ground powder)
  6. Coloured mica (Coho Shimmer)
  7. Hibiscus powder
  8. Indigo powder
  9. Sea Buckthorn fruit oil
  10. Turmeric liquid extract

Several of these colourant ingredients definitely would’ve fared better with a different usage rate or if turned into some sort of an infusion first, but I wanted to 1) keep the experiment as consistent as possible and 2) try a variety of ingredients and formats. I’m also frequently asked about adding powdered botanicals to formulations as colourants, so I wanted to show what happens when you do.

Click the images to enlarge.

The results

The control

The control emulsion remained stable throughout the 15 weeks.

The control in front of the experiments.

To chelator or not to chelator? 🤔

Across the experiment, all of the non-chelator mixtures show some degree of separation at the bottom of the cup after 15 weeks while the chelator versions were stable. As chelators boost preservative performance, I believe this is likely due to the non-chelator version starting to spoil.

Activated charcoal

Activated charcoal is an insoluble fine black powder; at 1% it gave the emulsion a speckled dark grey appearance.

After 15 weeks the the colour appears to have remained stable for both versions, but the non-chelator version is separating at the bottom.

Alkanet root powder

I’ve used alkanet root powder in soap, body butter, and lip balm in the past. Its colour shifts with pH: “The colour is red at pH 6.1, purple at 8.8 and blue at pH 10.” (source)

From past experience with this ingredient, I think it would’ve created a more uniform final product if I’d infused it into the oil phase and strained it out rather than adding the straight powder to the lotion.

Adding 1% of the powder to the lotion created a slightly pink, speckled appearance.

After 15 weeks the colour has darkened, with the chelator version being darker than the non-chelator version. I suspect the darkening is due to the powder having more time to infuse the lotion as the colour appears more saturated. The non-chelator version has noticeable splitting at the bottom.

Australian pink clay

This is a soft clay with an earth-toned pink colour. Mine was purchased from New Directions Aromatics Canada, but they’ve since discontinued it. The pink colour comes from naturally occurring red iron oxide.

At 1% this clay gave the lotion a soft dusty pink colour. After 15 weeks the colour in both lotions had deepened a bit and taken on a whisper of a brown tint. The version without the chelator showed noticeable separation at the bottom.

Black goji extract

This dark brown extract is from Voyageur Soap and Candle Co. with an INCI of “Lycium Ruthenicum Fruit Extract (and) Propanediol“.

Despite the deep colour of the extract in the bottle, this at 1% extract just took the lotion from white to a slightly warm white.

After 15 weeks the colour appears to have remained stable, and there isn’t a noticeable difference colour between the chelator and non-chelator version. The version without the chelator showed noticeable separation at the bottom.

Carmine (ground powder)

Carmine is a natural vibrant red-pink colourant that has been used for centuries. It’s made from the cochineal insect, making this the only non-vegan ingredient in this experiment.

I used the powdered version knowing it would be way too much for a lotion at 1%, and I was right—it ended up being more of a sorta-cream-blush than a lotion 😂

The lotions coloured with carmine were bright pink and speckled; I suspect the speckles could be avoided by using about 1/10th of the amount and pre-dispersing the carmine in a smaller amount of liquid earlier in the making process.

After 15 weeks both the chelator and non-chelator version were still vibrant, but I think the one with the chelator was a bit richer/deeper. The version without the chelator showed slight signs of separation at the bottom.

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Coloured mica (Coho Shimmer)

The mica I used for this experiment was a lovely pink colour, made from a blend of mica, red iron oxide, and titanium dioxide—all insoluble ingredients. Coloured micas can be coloured with all kinds of ingredients, including synthetic dyes and carmine, so be sure you’re checking the ingredient lists for your micas so you know what you’re using.

At 1% this mica gave the lotion a bright, even colour that was true to the dry mica. It remained stable throughout the 15 weeks, and I couldn’t see a difference between the version with and without the chelator. There was no splitting.

Hibiscus powder

I used a relatively fine hibiscus powder that gave the lotion a grey-ish pinky/purple colour with lots of speckles. This ingredient almost certainly would’ve worked better as a colourant if infused into something and then strained out, but I included it as a powder as I have been asked about using hibiscus powder as a colourant before.

After 15 weeks the colour had faded. The version without the chelator was a greyish brown and showed noticeable separation at the bottom. The version with the chelator was more of a warm brown and was not separating.

Indigo powder

I purchased indigo powder for use in soap making, but it’s such a beautiful colour I figured I’d give it a try here! As you might’ve guessed from its name, it is a rich, dark blue.

It coloured the lotion a lovely grey-ish blue with some speckles; this is another ingredient that almost certainly would’ve performed better as an infusion.

After 15 weeks the colour appears to have remained stable, and there isn’t a noticeable difference between the chelator and non-chelator version, with no splitting.

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Sea Buckthorn fruit oil

Sea buckthorn fruit oil is a deep orange-y red; I chose the deep red fruit oil instead of the paler orange seed oil as it packs a much strong colour punch.

It gave the lotion a soft orange colour. After 15 weeks the colour appears to have remained stable, and there isn’t a noticeable difference between the chelator and non-chelator version, with very slight signs of splitting in the non-chelator one.

Turmeric extract

The turmeric extract I used for this experiment is from Voyageur Soap and Candle Co. with an INCI of “Curcuma Longa Root Extract (and) Propanediol“. It’s a deep orangey yellow, and imparted a bright yellow colour to the lotion that reminded me of Easter.

After 15 weeks the colour appears to have remained stable, and there isn’t a noticeable colour difference between the chelator and non-chelator version, but there is some slight separation at the bottom of the non-chelator one.

Conclusions & takeaways

  • It’s a good idea to include a chelator with this formulation/preservative (Euxyl™ k 903) if you’re including any extracts or botanicals as many of these additions seemed to overwhelm the natural preservative when a chelator was not included.
  • It would be interesting to replicate this experiment with a version of the lotion preserved with Liquid Germall™ Plus as I’m much more familiar with that preservative, and I suspect it’s stronger than the Euxyl™ k 903 I used in this formulation. Would we still need a chelator? Hmmm.
  • Try infusing botanicals into a medium like oil, water, or glycerin rather than adding straight powdered plants. This will likely give a result closer to what we saw with the Black Goji extract, meaning you’d probably need to use more than 1% to get a noticeable colour in the finished emulsion.
  • Coloured micas are a really easy way to reliably colour formulations.
  • Indigo and alkanet look like promising botanical/herbal options, but would likely be better utilized as an infusion.

Gifting Disclosure

The Coho Shimmer mica, black goji extract, and turmeric extract were gifted by Voyageur Soap & Candle.
Links to Amazon are affiliate links.

 

How to make your lotion lighter

If you dream of fluid body milks, ultra-light emulsions, and fast-absorbing lotions, this post is for you. Today I’ll be teaching you how to make thinner, lighter emulsions—I’m sharing three different strategies that you can mix and match to create the fast-absorbing emulsion of your dreams 😍

How to make your lotion lighter

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How to make your lotion richer

I struggled with what to title this post. I will be teaching you how to make your lotions richer and thicker, but the formulation skill behind that richness & thickness boosting is so much more than that! I will go as far as to say if you don’t know how to do this, you don’t know how to formulate emulsions. This skill is that important—really. This formulation decision is what will form the chassis of your lotion formulations: everything else will grow from there. What is that super important skill, you ask? Determining (or changing) the size of the oil phase. I know it doesn’t sound exciting, but I promise it is! Once you know how to do this you will have so much more control over your lotion formulations. You’ll start to know how rich or light a formulation will be from just looking at it, and you’ll know how to structure your own formulations based on how fast-absorbing or heavy you want the finished product to be. This skill is so essential to lotion formulation that you’ll wonder how you ever emulsified without it. Let’s dive in!

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How to make your lotions thicker

If you want to make thicker lotions and creams, you’ve come to the right place! In this post I’ll be teaching you three different (easy!) strategies for thickening and adding body to your natural lotions. You can use these strategies alone or combine them–it’s up to you. They each have their pros and cons, so it’s worth experimenting with each method so you know what you like.

How to make your lotions thicker

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How to naturally scent lotions with essential oils and natural fragrance oils

Today I’ll be teaching you how to safely and naturally scent your lotion formulations using essential oils and natural fragrance oils. The formulations I’m sharing today are extensions of the formulation shared in this post, but you can easily apply these fragrant strategies to any lotion formulation, and with a bit of extra thought, any type of formulation! This written post goes quite deep into safety concerns and usage limits, while the partner blog post is more about how to adjust your formulations to include fragrant ingredients + demonstrations of how to find and review essential documentation. Make sure you read and watch to learn as much as possible!

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Potent vs. Gentle Scents

In this post I’ll be discussing two potent ways to naturally add scent to your lotion formulations: essential oils and natural fragrance oils. I’m referring to these options as “potent” because you can get a noticeable scent pay-off with 1% or less of these ingredients. Their potency also means they also have a higher potential to be irritating to the skin.

I’ve already shared a post and video on how to gently scent your formulations using hydrosols and fragrant carrier oils, which are less potent than essential oils and natural fragrance oils. If you have sensitive skin and/or scent sensitivities, I’d start with those options.

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Things to think about before you add scent

Make sure you read this section in the post on “gentle” ways to scent formulations; there are two super important points in that post that need to layer in with the IFRA category info 😄

What IFRA category is the product?

IFRA, the International Fragrance Association, has defined 12 major categories of products to assist in determining safe use of fragrance ingredients (essential oils, natural fragrance oils, and synthetic fragrance oils). I’ve bolded the categories that we’re most likely to encounter as DIYers. The base lotion formulation we’re working from today would either be a 5A (body lotion) or 5C (hand cream). You could also use it as a face cream (5B), but it would be a pretty boring face cream 🙂

  1. Products applied to the lips
  2. Products applied to the axillae (armpits)
  3. Products applied to the face/body using fingertips
  4. Products related to fine fragrance
  5. Products applied to the face and body using the hands (palms), primarily leave-on:
    1. Body lotion
    2. Face moisturizer
    3. Hand cream
    4. Baby creams, baby oils, and baby talc
  6. Products with oral and lip exposure
  7. Products applied to the hair with some hand contact
    1. Rinse-off products
    2. Leave-on products
  8. Products with significant anogenital exposure
  9. Products with body and hand exposure, primarily rinse-off
  10. Household care products with mostly hand contact
    1. Household care excluding aerosol/spray products
    2. Household aerosol/spray products
  11. Products with intended skin contact but minimal transfer of fragrance to skin from inert substrate
    1. Products with intended skin contact but minimal transfer of fragrance to skin from inert substrate without UV exposure
    2. Products with intended skin contact but minimal transfer of fragrance to skin from inert substrate with potential UV exposure
  12. Products not intended for direct skin contact; minimal or insignificant transfer to skin

Source: the chart on page 8 of this document: Notification of the 49th Amendment to the IFRA Code of Practice.

Once you know the IFRA category of your formulation you can cross-reference that with the usage rates provided by your suppliers, which should be divided by IFRA categories. This information is usually much more available for fragrance oils (natural or synthetic) than it is for essential oils.

Some suppliers will list IFRA limits right on the product detail page, but a downloadable PDF seems to be the more common approach.

Examples

Brambleberry’s Natural Geranium and Sandalwood Fragrance Oil

Click here for the product page for Brambleberry’s Natural Geranium and Sandalwood Fragrance Oil. Navigate to the “Documents” tab and open the “EU Allergen – IFRA 49 – Prop 65 Reports” document. On page 2 you’ll find the IFRA statement.

You can see that we could use this natural fragrance oil at up to a whopping 82.87% (😳) for a 5A product (body lotion), 57.41% for 5B (face moisturizer), and 82.87% for 5C (hand cream). That’s far more than we’d ever need or want to use, but you know you’ve got a pretty wide safe range to work with when using this product.

New Directions Aromatics Lemongrass Essential Oil

Click here for the product page for New Directions Aromatic’s lemongrass essential oil. Navigate to the “GCMS & Documents” tab and open the “Quality & Regulatory Info” document. On page 12 you’ll find the “IFRA Standards Conformity Certificate”.

You can see that we could use this essential oil at up to 0.2% for 5A (body lotion), 5B (face moisturizer), and 5C (hand cream) products. The usage rates you’ll find for essential oils are typically much lower for than they are for fragrance oils (natural or synthetic).

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How will the formulation be used + how strong of a scent is desired?

Once you know how much of an essential oil or natural fragrance oil a product can use, you need to think about how much you want to use (this amount needs to be within the allowable maximum usage rate, of course!).

How a formulation will be used (basically, where on your body it will go and who it is for) is a very important consideration when adding scent to a formulation. A foot cream will have very different scent needs than an eye cream!

If a product is designed for application around the eyes, I usually choose gentler options if I want the product to have a scent. I explain how to do that in this post.

Facial products can contain fragrance oils and essential oils, but I usually keep the usage levels low—often below 1%.

Body and foot products can contain higher concentrations of essential oils and fragrance oils, though I usually still stick to around 1%.

Rinse-off products can contain higher concentrations of potent scenting ingredients, though as always, keep in mind what you’re scenting! I wouldn’t add any sort of potent scenting ingredient to a cleansing oil designed to remove waterproof eye makeup, but I’ll happily scent a shampoo or hand wash with essential oils and fragrance oils. It’s also a good idea to think about how precious the scenting ingredient is; should you use expensive rose essential oil to scent a wash-off formulation? I wouldn’t.

Do not try to drown out the inherent scent of a formulation with tons of essential oils or fragrance oils; that can lead to using far more essential oil or fragrance oil than is safe (or pleasant).

Essential oils

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What are they?

Essential oils are potent, fragrant oil-soluble substances extracted from plants through methods like steam distillation and expressing (squishing, basically). They’re complex chemicals that plants make to draw in pollinators, deter predators, and do other “help the plant live its best life” jobs. Some of them smell great, so we use those in our formulations so they smell great, too.

Essential oils are a very popular, effective, easy way to scent all kinds of formulations, but I do want to emphasize that the term “essential oil” encompasses hundreds of very different ingredients with different chemical compositions.  Different essential oils have different maximum allowable usage rates, which is then further complicated by maximum allowable concentrations of individual chemical constituents that can be exceeded in an essential oil blend without exceeding the individual usage rate of any one essential oil.

It’s a bit like the idea of “spices”; there’s a lot of them, and some are stronger than others. You wouldn’t use sweet paprika and cayenne pepper in the same way because one is mild and one is spiiiiiicy 🥵 Similarly, it’s not a great idea to assume that 1–3% of all essential oils is fine, and just run with that—it’s perfectly fine for some essential oils, but far too much for others.

I’ve discussed essential oils more in this post: Ten DIY Ingredients for Beginner Formulators: Part 1. Please give that a read!

I learned the specifics of how to work with essential oils safely in my Formula Botanica Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation coursework, and that section of the course is one of the biggest reasons I recommend that course. I realized I’d been using essential oils in ways that increased chances of irritation and sensitization—yikes!

Spring 2024: Formula Botanica is offering a free formulation masterclass where you can learn even more about formulation! You can sign up here 🙂 I highly recommend it, especially if you're wanting to see how Formula Botanica works.

Pros of scenting lotions with essential oils

  • Essential oils are potent; a little goes a long way.
  • Because they are potent, you don’t need to leave much room for them in your formulations.
  • There’s a fairly wide array of scents to choose from.

Cons of scenting lotions with essential oils

  • Compared to the less potent scenting options, essential oils have a higher irritation potential.
  • Every essential oil is different, with different safe usage levels. You’ll need to research each individual essential oil you want to work with to ensure you’re working within safe guidelines.
  • Not every scent is available from essential oils.
  • Some essential oils are really expensive.
  • Essential oils expire, and expired/old essential oils can lead to life-long sensitization.
  • Due to the popularity of essential oils, adulterated and fake essential oils are quite common, especially on Amazon. I recommend sticking with reputable suppliers like New Directions Aromatics that post GCMS (Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry Analysis) documents for many of their essential oils.
  • Some of my favourite essential oils have really low maximum usage levels 🥲
  • There’s a lot of bad information out there about essential oils. As a general rule, do not trust any source that: recommends the undiluted application (or ingestion) of essential oils; promises anything that sounds like a miracle; claims that essential oils are completely safe because they’re natural; or is affiliated with an MLM.

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How to incorporate essential oils into your lotion formulations

Research the specific essential oil you want to use to determine the maximum allowable usage rate of the essential oil you want to use in the type of product you’re making. I recommend the Tisserand Institute and the book Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals by Robert Tisserand & Rodney Young (this is my essential oil bible!).

Include essential oil(s) in the cool down phase of your formulations, reducing the total amount of distilled water to make room. I’d start with 1% (total, not per essential oil) or less.

These essential oils are generally safe to work with around 1%:

  • Lavender essential oil
  • Peppermint essential oil
  • Spearmint essential oil
  • Grapefruit essential oil
  • Lemon essential oil
  • Sweet orange essential oil
  • Cedarwood essential oil
  • Rosemary essential oil
  • Patchouli essential oil
  • Eucalyptus essential oil

This is not a complete list, but it’s a good place to start!

Be careful with these essential oils (again, not a complete list!):

  • Cinnamon bark essential oil
  • Rose absolute
  • Lemongrass essential oil
  • Non “FCF” Bergamot essential oil
  • Petitgrain essential oil
  • Clove bud essential oil
  • Litsea cubeba essential oil
  • Elemi essential oil

Formulation with an essential oil

Lovely Lavender Lotion

Heated water phase
73g | 73% distilled water
5g | 5% sodium lactate (USA / Canada)

Heated oil phase
5g | 5% Ritamulse SCG (USA / Canada / UK / AU)
15g | 15% sunflower seed oil (USA / Canada / UK / NZ)

Cool down phase
1g | 1% Euxyl™ k 903 (USA / EU)
1g | 1% lavender essential oil (USA / Canada)

For full instructions, please read this post.

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Natural fragrance oils

What are they?

Natural fragrance oils are made from the same aromatic chemical compounds that make up essential oils: chemicals like Benzyl Salicylate, Linalool, Cinnamal, Eugenol, Geraniol, and Citral. Essential oils are broken down into their constituent chemical parts, and then those essential oil-derived chemicals are professionally blended to create scents that don’t exist as essential oils.

The key difference between a natural fragrance oil and a regular/synthetic fragrance oil is the source of the aromatic chemical compounds. Natural fragrance oils are made from naturally derived aromatic chemical compounds, while regular fragrance oils are made from synthesized aromatic chemical compounds. I find the synthetic fragrance oils are typically stronger and longer-lasting.

Learn more: Natural fragrance oils from Bramble Berry

Pros of scenting lotions with natural fragrance oils

  • They’re potent: a little goes a long way
  • They are designed to be applied to the skin, so they’re easier to work with than essential oils and typically have higher maximum usage rates (sometimes utterly bonkers high!) so it’s much harder to use an unsafe amount.
  • Natural fragrance oils are available in a variety of scents you often can’t get from essential oils, opening up a variety of lovely scents. Examples include mango, blueberry, and multi-note/blended scents (Apple Orchard, Cedar and Oakmoss, Mineral Springs, etc.)
  • Natural fragrance oils will be more consistent than essential oils as they’re not subject to variations from different crops, growing seasons, etc.

Cons of scenting lotions with natural fragrance oils

  • Natural fragrance oils are the hardest to purchase option out of the four options discussed here
  • The scent options are still relatively limited,
  • Not for use in lip products, and Bramble Berry reports they don’t perform well in soap.

How to incorporate natural fragrance oils into your lotion formulations

Check the IFRA documentation from your supplier to identify the maximum allowable usage rate of the natural fragrance oil you want to use in the type of product you’re making.

Include fragrance oil in the cool down phase of your formulations, reducing the total amount of distilled water to make room. I’d start with 1% or less.

Formulation with a natural fragrance oil

Rosewood & Citrus Lotion

Heated water phase
73.5g | 73.5% distilled water
5g | 5% sodium lactate (USA / Canada)

Heated oil phase
5g | 5% Ritamulse SCG (USA / Canada / UK / AU)
15g | 15% sweet almond oil (USA / Canada)

Cool down phase
1g | 1% Euxyl™ k 903 (USA / EU)
0.5g | 0.5% natural rosewood & citrus fragrance oil

For full instructions, please read this post.

 

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Gifting Disclosure

The sweet almond oil was gifted by YellowBee.
The Euxyl™ k 903 was gifted by Formulator Sample Shop.
The natural fragrance oil, sunflower oil, and sodium lactate were gifted by Bramble Berry.
Links to Amazon are affiliate links.