Hand lotion is a skincare staple; heck, even my dad uses it! But, if your handmade lotions are anything like the ones I made when I was a new maker, you’ve probably noticed that your DIY versions are really different from products sold by big brands like Cerave, Cetaphil, and La Roche Posay. They’re probably greasier than the hand lotions you buy from the store, and might also be getting stuck in the bottom of your pump top bottles, forcing you to go full ‘dipstick‘ to use them up.
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In this post I’m going to share a formulation for a simple (7 ingredient!), non-greasy, pump-able hand (or wherever) lotion, and I’m also going to explain the why behind the formulation so you can understand why some lotions are richer than others, and what big companies are doing that you aren’t.
What is lotion?
“Lotion is a type of skincare product that is designed to moisturize and hydrate the skin; I’d say they’re one of the most common skincare products out there. They are emulsified products, containing both oil and water. Lotions can vary in richness and viscosity (thicker, richer lotions are often called “creams”). They can contain a variety of actives and other ingredients to perform jobs above and beyond moisturizing—jobs like soothing, brightening, and even adding a bit of sparkle.”
From Easy Natural Lotion for Beginners (September 2022)
If you’re a new lotion maker, please read this blog post first. It’s got a great overview of the different elements of a lotion formulation; the rest of this post will make a lot more sense if you’re familiar with everything in that post.
The first fix
To create a lotion that is fast-absorbing, we need to start from the ground up. It’s not enough to simply use a lightweight oil; the entire formulation must be built around this goal.
For surefire lightweight goodness, we’ll need a small oil phase. This is why lotions from brands like Lubriderm and Cetaphil are non-greasy and fast absorbing.
What’s the oil phase? It’s all the rich, fatty things in the formulation (carrier oils, esters, fatty thickeners, waxes, etc.), added up. I also include the emulsifying wax in this calculation as they contain fatty things (Emulsifying Wax NF, for example, is 70–80% cetearyl alcohol, so the amount you use will definitely impact the richness of your emulsion).
After many formulation versions; I settled on a 16% oil phase for this formulation. When I first started making lotions over a decade ago I usually worked with a 25% oil phase, and then chose lighter oils if I wanted to make a faster absorbing lotion. This… didn’t work very well 🙈 I made many richer-than-intended lotions that were too thick to easily pump out of a bottle.
If you’re interested in formulating your own emulsions I highly recommend making a variety of emulsions with different oil phase sizes. I can tell you there’s a noticeable difference in richness between 13% and 15%, but there’s nothing like hands-on learning 😄
The second fix
Once we’ve settled on a small oil phase, we’ve got to deal with a common problem small oil phase emulsions have: they tend to be really thin.
A low-viscosity emulsion can be lovely, but when something is fully fluid I tend to think of it more as a body milk than a lotion.
In my early making days I liked to use ingredients like cocoa butter to thicken lotions. Cocoa butter is lovely, but it’s not a very potent thickener. This meant I needed quite a lot of it to get a viscosity boost, forcing the formulation to have a larger oil phase, making the overall emulsion richer.
So, to give this emulsion a lotion-y consistency without bloating the oil phase, we’ll be thickening it with some cetearyl alcohol. Cetearyl alcohol is really effective thickener, and makes a noticeable difference below 5%. It also boosts richness so the lotion feels a bit more substantial and long-lasting.
This effective thickening + non-greasy richness boosting is why you’ll find cetearyl alcohol on the ingredient list of almost any hand cream you can buy at the drug store. It’s really great at what it does and should definitely be part of your formulation pantry.
Ok, so, you’ve made the lotion and it’s time to package it up… but it’s still fully liquid. Don’t panic!
It’ll thicken up over the next 2–4 days and end up a beautiful actual-lotion-like consistency. I have found that smaller batches seem to thicken faster than larger ones; my 100g (3.5oz) test batches thickened in about two days, while the 360g batch I made for the video took at least twice that. Oh, the mysteries of scaling formulations up 😅
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A note on emulsifier concentrations
The amount of emulsifier you need in a formulation is determined by the amount of oil; more oil needs more emulsifier to emulsify it.
A common rule of thumb for how much emulsifier to use is one part emulsifying wax to four or five parts oil (1:4 or 1:5). This is not a universal rule, but I’ve found it’s a good place to start, especially if you can’t find really clear guidance from the manufacturer.
I’ve been experimenting with lower emulsifier amounts for the last year, and have had success with some emulsifiers at 1:15, and many more at 1:10! I was not expecting that first 1:15 experiment to work. This is a good reminder that supplier formulations and recommendations don’t usually test for the lowest effective limit—they’re a way that works, not the only way that works.
This formulation uses a 1:7 emulsifier to oils ratio. From my experiences, you could probably reduce the emulsifier if you wanted to, but this will result in a noticeable viscosity drop.
A soapy warning
Two of the most common questions I get about lotions are about 1) reducing soaping (that white lathering effect on the skin on rub-ing) and 2) reducing air bubbles in the emulsion.
I’ve got a technique that helps with both for this sort of emulsion.
When you’re making the emulsion, blend it for about 60–90 seconds, and then switch to hand stirring. In the past I’ve ofter alternated between blending and stirring, but I’m now pretty firmly on the blend-then-just-stir train unless there’s a really good reason to blend more (e.g. reducing clumps; though keep that blend as brief as possible!).
I tried a second blend with one of my experimental batches to see if it might speed up thickening so we didn’t have to wait a couple days. It did, but it also 1) made the lotion super frothy, 2) increased the volume of the lotion so much that it wouldn’t all fit in the bottle… and then it collapsed a couple days later, and 3) soaped so much worse than versions that weren’t frothed up.
Here’s what happened: you blend an emulsion a lot once it has started to thicken, it is very easy to whip air into it because the product starts to be thick enough to trap air bubbles. I’ve found this is more of a challenge for mid-thickness emulsions like this one. If the emulsion never gets thick enough to support bubbles, well, no worries! And if the emulsion is really thick you can definitely incorporate air, but that viscosity helps insulate it from getting super frothy.
This definitely isn’t the total fix for soapy emulsions, but it helps. Soaping in emulsions is a surprisingly complex challenge that can be caused/exacerbated by so many things (specific emulsifiers, a combination of two or more ingredients, some non-emulsifier ingredients, oil phase size, emulsifier level… whee!).
How can I make this lotion more interesting?
As lovely as this lotion is, I’ll be the first to admit that it is pretty boring. Thankfully, it’s super easy to spice it up. I recently shared a post of twenty different ways to cheaply & easily customize a lotion formulation; check it out here.
I’d recommend perusing that post before placing any ingredient orders in case you want to add a couple things to your cart 😉
How long will this lotion last?
When made as written, I’d expect this lotion to last at least two years. Liquid Germall™ Plus is a great preservative and I’ve almost never seen a product preserved with it spoil.
If you want to change up the preservative you’ll almost certainly need to test and potentially adjust the pH of the finished lotion. If you aren’t comfortable doing that yet, I’d recommend sticking with Liquid Germall™ Plus as has a really wide effective pH range, which is quite unique in the realm of preservatives. Refer to this free chart for more information on the required pH ranges for a variety of preservatives.
Where can I get the ingredients?
I’m super excited to announce there’s a kit for this formulation! YellowBee has bundled everything you’ll need to make 1.2kg (42.33 oz!) of the basic lotion for just $35.18CAD (~$26USD at time of publishing). You’ll need to pick up a jug of distilled water at the grocery store if you don’t already have it (don’t want to pay to ship that!). We also decided to leave the fragrance and packaging out of the kit so you can choose exactly what you want. For fragrances, I’m a huge fan of Baja Cactus Blossom and Bum Bum. I used their pretty green 100mL (3.3fl oz) pump top bottles in the photos for this formulation.
If the kit is not accessible to you, the ingredients I’ve used are really common so you shouldn’t have any issues sourcing them from an online shop that specializes in DIY ingredients. Check out my huge page of places to shop around the world for lots of links!
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Relevant links & further reading
- Distilled water in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia
- Vegetable Glycerin in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia
- Emulsifying Wax NF in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia
- Medium chain triglycerides in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia
- Cetearyl Alcohol in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia
- Liquid Germall™ Plus in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia
- Tocopherol (Vitamin E) in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia
- Where can I learn more about lotion formulation? in the Humblebee & Me FAQ
- How long will ______ last? What is its shelf life? in the Humblebee & Me FAQ
- Can I use a different preservative than the one you’ve used? in the Humblebee & Me FAQ
- Other beginner-friendly emulsion formulations:
- pH meter in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia
- pH measurement in cosmetic lab: why we dilute samples? from Skin Chakra
- How to adjust the pH of your cosmetic products from Skin Chakra
- Why do you create a 10% dilution of a formulation before measuring the pH? in the Humblebee & Me FAQ
Easy Non-Greasy Hand Lotion
Prepare a water bath by bringing about 3cm/1″ of water to a bare simmer over low to medium-low heat in a wide, flat-bottomed sauté pan.
Weigh the heated water phase into a small heat-resistant glass measuring cup or glass beaker. Weigh the entire lot (measuring cup + ingredients) and note that weight for use later. Weigh the heated oil phase into a second heat-resistant glass measuring cup. Place both measuring cups in your prepared water bath to melt everything through.
After about 30–40 minutes the oil part should be completely melted and the water part should be roughly the same temperature. Remove the water bath from the heat and weigh the water phase. Add enough hot distilled water to the heated water phase to bring the weight back up to what it was before heating, and then pour the water part into the oil part. Stir with a flexible silicone spatula to incorporate.
Grab your immersion blender and begin blending the lotion, starting with short bursts so the still-very-liquid lotion doesn’t whirl up and spray everywhere. Blend for about a minute before switching to hand stirring. You’ll need to be fairly diligent with the stirring at first, but once the mixture has thickened up a bit and is uniform you can switch to stirring occasionally. Once the outside of the glass measuring cup is just warm to the touch (40°C or cooler, if you have a thermometer) we’re ready to proceed.
Now it’s time to incorporate our cool down ingredients. Because cool down ingredients are typically present at very low amounts you’ll need to use an accurate scale—preferably one accurate to 0.01g. As these more accurate scales tend to have fairly low (100–200g) maximum weights you won’t be able to put the entire batch of lotion on that scale without blowing it out. So—grab a smaller dish. Add a scoop or two of lotion, and then weigh the cool down ingredients into that, using the more accurate scale. Stir to thoroughly incorporate, and then stir all of that back into the master batch of lotion. Doing it this way minimizes the amount of cool down ingredients lost to the secondary container.
Once the cool down phase has been incorporated, all that’s left to do is package it up! I designed this lotion to be pump-bottle friendly, but you could also use a squeeze bottle fitted with a disc or flip-top cap. It’s much too thin for a jar or tub.
Use as you’d use any hand lotion! This can also be used as a body lotion or face lotion. Enjoy ❤️
As always, be aware that making substitutions will change the final product. While these swaps won’t break the formulation, you will get a different final product than I did.
- As I’ve provided this formulation in percentages as well as grams you can easily calculate it to any size using a simple spreadsheet as I’ve explained in this post. As written in grams, this formulation will make 360g.
- To learn more about the ingredients used in this formulation, including why they’re included and what you can substitute them with, please visit the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia. It doesn’t have everything in it yet, but there’s lots of good information there! If I have not given a specific substitution suggestion in this list please look up the ingredient in the encyclopedia before asking.
- You can swap the Emulsifying Wax NF with many other emulsifying waxes, including Ritamulse SCG (Emulsimulse, ECOMulse), Olivem 1000, Polawax, Glyceryl Stearate (and) PEG-100 Stearate, PolyAquol™-2W, BTMS-25, BTMS-50, Emulsifying Wax Soft & Silky (Cetearyl Alcohol [and] Ceteareth-20), and Montanov 68.
- You could try a different fatty thickener instead of cetearyl alcohol, but this will change the consistency of the finished product. Options include Stearic Acid, Cetyl Alcohol, and C10-18 Triglycerides (Butter Pearls).
- You can substitute another lightweight oil like sweet almond, grapeseed, or sunflower seed for the Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT/Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride). If you do this I recommend including 0.1% vitamin E in the cool down phase, reducing the distilled water to make room (I said less in the video; please consider this written version to be the advisable amount).
- If you’re like to use a different preservative, please review this FAQ and this chart.
- If you’d like to incorporate an essential oil, please read this.
The glycerin, Medium Chain Triglycerides, Emulsifying Wax NF, cetearyl alcohol, and Liquid Germall™ Plus were gifted by YellowBee.
The fragrance oil was gifted by Bramble Berry.
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