Cleansing balms are a fabulous way to cleanse the skin (they’re especially great for removing long-wearing makeup!), and they’re really easy to make. In this post I’ll teach you how to make three different simple cleansing balm formulations. Each uses just three or four easy-to-get ingredients, and I explain the purpose (and substitution options) for all of them so you’ll understand how cleansing balm formulations work. Let’s get started!

How to Make Easy DIY Cleansing Balm

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What is a cleansing balm?

A cleansing balm (also known as a balm-to-milk cleanser) is an oil-based facial cleanser. The three must-have elements of any cleansing balm formulation are oily emollients, an oil-soluble oil-in-water rinse-off ingredient, and thickeners. A cleansing balm is basically a cleansing oil, but with an added thickener to solidify it.

Because like dissolves like, the oil/fat that makes up a cleansing balm easily and effectively dissolves the sebum on our skin and breaks down the film-formers that make products like makeup and sunscreen long-wearing. The rinse-off ingredient (a surfactant/emulsifier) allows that oil to self-emulsify with water so the product (and all that makeup and sebum its picked up) washes off the skin easily, leaving it feeling smooth and clean.

The cleansing balms we’re making today are fully anhydrous, though some cleansing balm formulations do include small amounts of water.

Learn more: Super Simple Oil-to-Milk Cleanser

How do you use a cleansing balm?

If I’m using a cleansing balm to remove makeup, I like to gently massage a dollop into dry skin, focusing on the eye area (that’s where most of my makeup is), to break the makeup down. I’ll then remove it with a damp cloth. These formulations will rinse off without a damp cloth, but I find using a cloth a lot less… wet… than simply rinsing. Whenever I rinse with just water my bathroom looks like I had a water fight in it 🤣

For a bit of a gentler cleanse, I’ll work up a dollop of cleansing balm in my palm with some warm water before massaging that into my face and then rinsing/wiping clean.

How do the three formulations differ?

Each of these formulations uses a different thickener, resulting in different consistencies for each of the finished cleansing balms. They’re all soft and scoopable, but have slightly different textures and melt down a bit differently. Formulation #1 uses cetearyl alcohol for a rich, creamy cleansing balm. Formulation #2 uses a blend of stearic acid and cetyl alcohol for a cleansing balm that is more slippy than #1. Formulation #3 uses C10-18 Triglycerides (Butter Pearls) and is the fluffiest and buttery-est of the three. If you can get all four thickening ingredients I highly recommend making all three formulations so you can see how they differ!

You’ll notice none of these thickeners are true waxes, like beeswax. That’s because fatty, non-wax thickeners wash off the skin much more readily and cleanly. I’ve made some pretty sticky cleansing balms with waxes!

Where can I get the ingredients?

The ingredients we’re using today are widely available, so you should be able to get the ingredients to make at least one of these formulations. I recommend shopping at a DIY-specific store for the best selection and quality: I’ve linked to such shops all over the world on this page.

Version 1

The ingredients

Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT/Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride)

This ingredient forms the bulk of all three cleansing balms. I chose it because its relatively inexpensive, lightweight, easy to get, and has a very long shelf life. If you don’t have it you can use a different lightweight, inexpensive liquid oil instead. Options include fractionated coconut oilsafflower oilsunflower oilgrapeseed oil, and sweet almond oil. Cleansing balms can also be a good place to use up oils that are nearing the end of their shelf life as they tend to get used up pretty quickly.

Whatever you use, I recommend sticking to inexpensive ingredients as this is a wash-off product. You won’t notice any performance benefits if you use prickly pear seed oil instead of safflower oil, but you’ll definitely notice a cost difference!

If you’d like to experiment with the cleansing balms, try swapping out 10% of the MCT for castor oil for a cleansing boost. You can also try swapping out 20–30% of the MCT for an ester, like C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate or Isopropyl Myristate. Esters are very popular in store bought cleansing balms and the offer a fabulous performance and skin feel boost!

Emulsifying Wax NF

This is our oil-soluble oil-in-water rinse-off ingredient. I chose Emulsifying Wax NF for these formulations because I polled my patrons and asked them which potential rinse-off ingredient they’d purchased first when they started making; Emulsifying Wax NF won.

Deep Dive: Emulsifying Wax NF

Emulsifying Wax NF is a blend of approximately 70% cetearyl alcohol and 30% polysorbate 60. Cetearyl alcohol thickens while polysorbate 60 emulsifies. If you don’t have Emulsifying Wax NF you could try a different self-thickening oil-in-water emulsifying wax instead: options include Olivem 1000Polawax, and Montanov 68 (I recommend sticking with something non-ionic as anionic Ritamulse SCG (Emulsimulse, ECOMulse) burns when it gets into your eyes + cationic options are much more expensive).

Deep Dive: Olivem 1000

The oil-in-water nature of the emulsifier is important; we want water to be the outer phase for the best rinse off. In a water-in-oil emulsion, oil is the outer phase, and oil repels water, creating a cleansing balm that’s rather water-resistant—not exactly the characteristic we’re looking for!

Learn more: Oil-in-Water vs. Water-in-Oil emulsions

Cetearyl Alcohol

This is our thickener, creating a creamy, rich balm. Cetearyl alcohol is made by blending cetyl and stearyl fatty alcohols; I’m using 70/30 cetearyl alcohol. From what I’ve seen, this is the most common cetearyl alcohol, though I have found the odd 50/50 blend. Learn more about this awesome ingredient with the deep dive linked below.

Deep Dive: Cetearyl alcohol

The Formulation

Super Simple Cleansing Balm #1

30.8g | 77% medium chain triglycerides (USA / Canada / UK / Aus / NZ)
4g | 10% Emulsifying Wax NF (USA / Canada / AU)
5.2g | 13% cetearyl alcohol (USA / Canada)

Prepare a water bath by bringing about 3cm/1″ of water to a bare simmer over low to medium-low heat in a small saucepan.

Weigh the ingredients into a small heat-resistant glass measuring cup. Place the measuring cup in your prepared water bath to melt everything through.

While everything melts, prepare an ice bath. Take a bowl that is large enough to accommodate the container the heated phase is melting in, and fill it about halfway with ice cubes and cold water.

After about 20–30 minutes the emulsifying wax and thickener should be completely melted through. Remove the water bath from the heat, remove the measuring cup from the water bath, and dry it off with a dishtowel. Set the measuring cup on a towel or hot pad to insulate it from the counter and stir the mixture with a flexible silicone spatula to combine everything.

Place the measuring cup containing into the ice bath and cool, stirring constantly, until you start to notice some wispy white bits. Remove the container from the water bath continue stirring to incorporate the wispy bits.

Continue stirring the mixture, in and out of the ice bath as needed, until you reach medium “trace”—the mixture should appear opaque and be about as thick as unwhipped heavy cream. Refer to the video to see it in action! This part can be a bit tricky as too much viscosity will mean the batter won’t pour into the container nicely, so be careful and make sure your packing is standing by.

Once you reach trace, pour the cleansing into a jar and leave it on the counter to set up for about an hour. Label the cleansing balm that’s it!

Version 2

This version blends stearic acid and cetyl alcohol to thicken for an ultra-slippy, expensive-feeling final product.

The new ingredients

Stearic acid

Stearic acid thickens and adds rich creamy lovliness to our formulations. Using just stearic acid to thicken a formulation can reduce slip, so I’ve blended it with expensive-feeling, slippy cetyl alcohol.

Deep Dive: Stearic acid

Cetyl alcohol

Cetyl alcohol thickens without adding much richness; paired with stearic acid we get the richness of stearic acid and the expensive slippy-ness of cetyl alcohol. They’re a great pair!

Deep Dive: Cetyl alcohol

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The Formulation

Super Simple Cleansing Balm #2

27.6g | 69% medium chain triglycerides (USA / Canada / UK / Aus / NZ)
4g | 10% Emulsifying Wax NF (USA / Canada / AU)
5.6g | 14% stearic acid (USA / Canada / UK)
2.8g | 7% cetyl alcohol (USA / Canada)

Prepare a water bath by bringing about 3cm/1″ of water to a bare simmer over low to medium-low heat in a small saucepan.

Weigh the ingredients into a small heat-resistant glass measuring cup. Place the measuring cup in your prepared water bath to melt everything through.

While everything melts, prepare an ice bath. Take a bowl that is large enough to accommodate the container the heated phase is melting in, and fill it about halfway with ice cubes and cold water.

After about 20–30 minutes the emulsifying wax and thickener should be completely melted through. Remove the water bath from the heat, remove the measuring cup from the water bath, and dry it off with a dishtowel. Set the measuring cup on a towel or hot pad to insulate it from the counter and stir the mixture with a flexible silicone spatula to combine everything.

Place the measuring cup containing into the ice bath and cool, stirring constantly, until you start to notice some wispy white bits. Remove the container from the water bath continue stirring to incorporate the wispy bits.

Continue stirring the mixture, in and out of the ice bath as needed, until you reach medium “trace”—the mixture should appear opaque and be about as thick as unwhipped heavy cream. Refer to the video to see it in action! This part can be a bit tricky as too much viscosity will mean the batter won’t pour into the container nicely, so be careful and make sure your packing is standing by.

Once you reach trace, pour the cleansing into a jar and leave it on the counter to set up for about an hour. Label the cleansing balm that’s it!

Version 3

The ingredients

C10-18 Triglycerides (Butter Pearls)

C10-18 Triglycerides thicken this cleansing balm into a fluffy, buttery concoction that is really lovely! I haven’t experienced this consistency in any store-bought cleansing balms I’ve tried. It quickly melts down into a rich feeling oil when massaged into the skin.

See it in action: Can this turn any oil into a butter?

The Formulation

Super Simple Cleansing Balm #3

31.2g | 78% medium chain triglycerides (USA / Canada / UK / Aus / NZ)
4g | 10% Emulsifying Wax NF (USA / Canada / AU)
4.8g | 12% C10-18 Triglycerides [Butter Pearls] (USA)

Prepare a water bath by bringing about 3cm/1″ of water to a bare simmer over low to medium-low heat in a small saucepan.

Weigh the ingredients into a small heat-resistant glass measuring cup. Place the measuring cup in your prepared water bath to melt everything through.

While everything melts, prepare an ice bath. Take a bowl that is large enough to accommodate the container the heated phase is melting in, and fill it about halfway with ice cubes and cold water.

After about 20–30 minutes the emulsifying wax and thickener should be completely melted through. Remove the water bath from the heat, remove the measuring cup from the water bath, and dry it off with a dishtowel. Set the measuring cup on a towel or hot pad to insulate it from the counter and stir the mixture with a flexible silicone spatula to combine everything.

Place the measuring cup containing into the ice bath and cool, stirring constantly, until you start to notice some wispy white bits. Remove the container from the water bath continue stirring to incorporate the wispy bits.

Continue stirring the mixture, in and out of the ice bath as needed, until you reach medium “trace”—the mixture should appear opaque and be about as thick as unwhipped heavy cream. Refer to the video to see it in action! This part can be a bit tricky as too much viscosity will mean the batter won’t pour into the container nicely, so be careful and make sure your packing is standing by.

Once you reach trace, pour the cleansing into a jar and leave it on the counter to set up for about an hour. Label the cleansing balm that’s it!

Other Questions

Can I use a liquid rinse-off ingredient (like polysorbate 80) instead of emulsifying wax NF?

Yes, but you’ll need to adjust the formulations as emulsifying wax NF contains both an emulsifier and a thickener, while polysorbate 80 is just an emulsifier. I developed and shared polysorbate 80 versions of these three formulations in a Patron-exclusive video; please consider becoming a $10/month patron if you’d like to check them out!

Do these cleansing balms need preservatives?

Because these cleansing balms do not contain any water, they do not require a broad-spectrum preservative; broad spectrum preservatives ward off microbial growth, and microbes require water to live—no water, no microbes! Kept dry and reasonably cool, they should easily last at least two or three years (MCT is very shelf stable!). If you notice it starts to smell like old nuts or crayons, that’s a sign that the oils have begun to oxidize; chuck it out and make a fresh batch if that happens.

If you plan on taking this product into the shower with you, or are otherwise concerned it will come into contact with water, I’d recommend incorporating a preservative. I think 1% phenoxyethanol would likely do the trick to keep these balms stable in the face of accidental water contamination (reduce the MCT to make room).

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Can I package these cleansing balms in a push-up tube?

No, these formulations are too soft for a push-up tube. You’d need to make the formulations harder in order to use a push-up tube.

How can I make the balms harder or softer?

If you’d like to make the balms harder, use more hardener and less MCT (Medium Chain Triglycerides aka Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride). If you’d like to make them softer (not recommended—they’re pretty soft already), simply do the opposite.

How should I modify these formulations if I live somewhere hot?

I developed these formulations in the summer, so the ambient temperature was around 25–28°C inside. If you live somewhere warmer, you’ll likely need to increase the percentage of thickener/hardener in the formulations to raise the melting point of the cleansing balms. I’d start with a bump of 4–5%, decreasing the MCT (Medium Chain Triglycerides aka Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride) to make room.

If you live somewhere colder and find these formulations are harder than you’d like, simply to the opposite.

How can I make these cleansing balms more (or less) cleansing?

For more cleansing/rinse-off, increase the concentration of the rinse-off ingredient (Emulsifying Wax NF). For less cleansing, rinse-off, decrease the concentration of the rinse-off ingredient.

Gifting Disclosure

The emulsifying wax NF, cetyl alcohol, stearic acid, and translucent screw-top plastic jars were gifted by YellowBee.
The butter pearls were gifted by Simply Ingredients.
Links to Amazon are affiliate links.