FAQs: Substitutions

Have a question about substitutions? The first place you should check is the substitutions list at the end of the specific recipe you’re looking at—any recipe from 2018 onwards should have a list of formula-specific suggested substitutions after the recipe. After that, check the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia! Every entry contains substitution suggestions.

These articles contain more general information on substitutions, and should answer the rest of your questions!

Substitutions

Can I use a different essential oil (or essential oil blend) than what is called for in a recipe?

Generally speaking, yes, but there are a few things to keep in mind.

Are the essential oils part of the function?

In something like tiger balm or a tingly mint cooling concoction the essential oils are part of the core function of the product—don’t change them.

If it’s a lip product

Are the essential oils you’d like to use lip safe? Essential oils like wintergreen and tea tree are orally toxic, so I wouldn’t recommend them for lip use. Additionally, lip skin is quite thin, so essential oils that can be extra irritating (cinnamon bark, cassia, etc.) are probably best avoided or used in very low concentrations. Also—do they taste nice? A few aromatic compounds (like labdanum) smell divine but taste wretched!

What are the maximum usage levels for the new essential oils you want to use?

Find out and make sure you stay within those maximum levels. Your suppliers are typically not a good place to determine maximum usage levels for essential oils. The IFRA has a database that contains a lot of information, but isn’t massively user friendly as it mostly focusses on the individual fragrant compounds rather than whole essential oils. If you are interested in working with essential oils I highly recommend investing in a copy of Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals by Robert Tisserand & Rodney Young. I’ve also found this page listing 400 essential oils and their maximum usage levels and the rest of the associated website to be quite useful. The levels listed there don’t always jive with EU regulations, but if you aren’t selling in the EU it is a good place to start your research.

If it’s solubilized

If the the essential oil in the original recipe was solubilized into a mostly watery concoction using a solubilizer, using a new essential oil may necessitate a different amount of solubilizer to ensure everything stays properly solubilized (yes, even if the weight stays the same). This is something you will need to determine yourself through experimentation.

Want to leave out the essential oils entirely?

As long as they’re not part of the integral function of the recipe (see above), go for it—just be sure to replace the lost amount with a liquid oil or water, depending on the recipe. Oil is the preferred replacement medium, but if it’s a recipe that is almost entirely water (say, a toner with a small amount of essential oils solubilized into an otherwise water-based product) you can eliminate both the essential oils and the solubilizer and replace them with more water.

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What can I use instead of water?

In anything that calls for water you can play with the recipe by swapping that water for things that are mostly water. Examples of such ingredients include witch hazel, floral waters, hydrosols, and aloe vera juice (NOT GEL!). All of these things can be utterly lovely in a lotion, toner, or mist!

Do keep in mind, though, that these not-water water-like-ingredients contain delicious bug food (bits of botanical matter) that make our creations harder to preserve. For that reason, I do not recommend a 100% swap. If a lotion calls for 70g of water, try swapping 30g of that for a hydrosol or other not-water-water-swap.

And remember—when water is involved, a broad spectrum preservative is a MUST.

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Are aloe vera juice and aloe vera gel the same thing?

No. Think of aloe vera juice as cocoa powder, and aloe vera gel as a chocolate cake that happens to contain cocoa powder, but also contains a lot of other stuff.

Aloe vera juice is a thin liquid that’s visibly indistinguishable from water. That’s what you’ll want to use for any recipes that call for aloe vera juice. You can also make your own aloe vera juice by re-hydrating powdered aloe vera juice.

Aloe vera gel is the sort of thing you buy in a pump bottle at the drug store. It’s often bright green and in addition to aloe contains added colourants, fragrances, preservatives, and pH adjusters. This kind of aloe vera gel isn’t an ingredient that you should be using because it’s got so much other stuff in it you can’t be sure how it’ll perform or how it might impact the final product. It’s also got a completely different texture from aloe vera juice (semi solid vs. thin liquid), so that would be a bit like using yogourt instead of milk to make hot cocoa.

You can also get aloe gel/goo straight from the aloe plant, and while this stuff is lovely, I don’t recommend using it in anything that’s not going to be used immediately as it’s highly prone to spoilage and will take your lotion/spray/etc. down to moulds-ville with it.

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I don’t like the sounds of emulsifying wax—can I use beeswax (or a plant based wax) instead?

Sadly, swapping out emulsifying wax for anything other than a different complete emulsifying wax (which beeswax isn’t) is like using a paint chip instead of an egg because they’re both yellow. You can pair beeswax with borax to make an emulsion, but then you can only do a 1:1 ratio of oils to water, which makes for a very heavy, waxy, greasy lotion. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s typically not what most people want when they are looking for a lotion.

I have seen plain beeswax mixtures succeed, but these are not true emulsions and do not pass the tests used to determine if something is a true emulsion. Formula Botanica has done an excellent blog post on this here.

Emulsifying wax isn’t a single ingredient: there are a lot of different types, made from different ingredients. All of these ingredients are usually derived from plants—mostly coconut & palm as they’re inexpensive and versatile. Not everything sold as “emulsifying wax” is a complete emulsifier (some are just thickeners, or only partial emulsifiers), so be sure to read up on the precise emulsifying wax you’re considering before buying it.

I’ve worked with (and had good results with) these emulsifying waxes:

  • Polawax
  • Emulsifying Wax NF (INCI: Cetearyl Alcohol (and) Polysorbate 60)
  • Ritamulse SCG/Emulsimulse (INCI: Glyceryl Stearate (and) Cetearyl Alcohol (and) Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate)
  • Olivem 1000 (INCI: Cetearyl Olivate (and) Sorbitan Olivate)
  • BTMS-50 (INCI: Behentrimonium Methosulfate (and) Cetyl Alcohol (and) Butylene Glycol)

This is by no means an exhaustive list of emulsifying waxes, but I find these ones are easily accessible in most parts of the world. Some suppliers like to rename the emulsifying waxes they sell, so make sure you’re checking the INCI (basically, the ingredients list for the ingredient) so you know what you’re getting.

Polawax and Emulsifying Wax NF are typically the easiest emulsifying waxes: they’re nearly foolproof, widely available, and inexpensive. They make beautiful, smooth emulsions and work well with a wide variety of phase sizes and are quite forgiving when it comes to manufacturing methods.

Ritamulse SCG & Olivem 1000 are considered to be more “natural” emulsifying wax options. They tend to be more expensive and can be harder to find depending where in the world you live. They can be more challenging to use than the other emulsifying waxes I’ve worked with, but I still find them to be very reliable emulsifying waxes.

BTMS-50 is a cationic (positively charged) or conditioning emulsifying wax, and it’s fantastic. If you’re interested in making emulsified hair conditioners I highly recommend it—that cationic charge gives the end product some serious conditioning magic that’s downright wonderful. I love BTMS-50 for all kinds of lotions, balms, serums, and conditioning type projects, but it is more expensive than most other emulsifying waxes, so I typically save it for places where I want both conditioning and emulsifying—if I only need emulsifying, a different emulsifying wax will do the trick for less money.

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Can I use emulsifying wax instead of solubilizer, or solubilizer instead of emulsifying wax?

No. Emulsifying wax thickens products and requires a precise ratio of oils to water to form an emulsion, making it ideal for lotion type applications.

Solubilizers emulsify small amounts of oil into mostly water based concoctions without thickening them, making them ideal for room sprays, mists, and other almost entirely water formulas that require a small amount of oil or essential oils. You can learn more here.

Also—look up the emulsifier/solubilizer the recipe calls for in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia and see what alternatives are listed as recommended substitutions!

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Can I use ____________ instead of _____________ in a recipe?

The first place to start is looking up the ingredient the recipe calls for in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia and seeing what alternatives are listed as recommended substitutions! Please also check the “Substitutions” list at the end of all my newer recipes (generally anything from 2018 onwards), and refer to all the other articles in the “Substitutions” section of the FAQ.

After all that, this answer is always a great big “it depends”, so I’ve written a few articles on substitutions. Please read them thoroughly before asking me more specifically 🙂

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Can I use _______ wax instead of the wax called for in the recipe?

The first place to start is looking up the wax the recipe calls for in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia and seeing what alternatives are listed as recommended substitutions!

In the case of candelilla and carnauba waxes, go for it—they are very similar.

Otherwise, the answer is generally a sort of “yes, but in different amounts and the final product will have a different texture/scent.”

I recommend reading over some of my oil and wax experiments to get an idea of how different waxes behave in formulations:

If it’s a floral wax, that’s a slightly different case. Floral waxes don’t serve to thicken a formula—they are generally used in very small amounts for fragrance. They have the texture of a soft butter, like shea butter or mango butter, so if you don’t have the particular floral wax I’d recommend swapping it out for an equal amount of a soft butter, and adding a drop or two of the essential oil (or a similar one) to get a similar effect 🙂

If it’s orange wax, that’s another entirely different case. Orange wax is actually liquid—it’s not waxy in the slightest. A good alternative would be jojoba oil or another medium weight carrier oil with a few drops of orange essential oil. You could also blend the jojoba with a bit of buriti or sea buckthorn seed oil to get the orange tint that orange wax brings to products.

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Can I use vanilla extract instead of benzoin/vanilla essential oil?

No—please, please do not do this. It is a waste of a lot of ingredients.

For starters, vanilla extract is formulated for taste, not scent—and especially not long-lasting scent. It doesn’t tend to smell very nice, and not for long, either.

Secondly, vanilla extract is in an alcohol base, so if added to anything 100% oil based it will bead up, giving you little pockets of brown vanilla extract in your final product.

And for the love of all things sudsy, do not put vanilla extract (or any other cooking extract) in soap instead of essential oils. Readers that have tried this have reported back with disastrous results.

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The kind of silk I have is different than the one called for. Can I use it?

Assuming you don’t have a bolt of silk fabric, yes. Hydrolyzed silk peptides, hydrolyzed silk amino acids, and hydrolyzed silk powder are all generally interchangeable. The difference is in the mesh of the powder. Powder is the coarsest, peptides are the middle of the road, and amino acids are the finest. The finer, the more easily absorbed, but unless otherwise stated they can be swapped for one another without noticing much (or any) difference in the final product.

Tussah silk is silk that’s still in fiber form—you’ll get it in a sort of lump of wispy fibers that you can pull apart. It isn’t hydrolyzed, which means it won’t dissolve in water. We need silk to dissolve in water to work with it in our concoctions, so tussah silk really isn’t very useful.

If you’ve got liquid silk, you can still use it, but only in recipes that contain water and are already liquid; things like lotion, soap, and conditioner are a go, but powdered cosmetics or 100% oil based things won’t work out.

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What can I use instead of silk?

The silk we use in our cosmetics is hydrolyzed silk protein, meaning it has been modified so it will dissolve in water. You can purchase a variety of particle sizes (amino acids, peptides, and powder), but anything you get really needs to be hydrolyzed if you are intending on using it in products where you need it to dissolve.

Silk is a very unique ingredient. It naturally manages moisture, attracting it to the skin when it’s dry out, and releasing it when it’s humid. Its make-up is very similar to that of our skin and hair, which helps it regenerate. Silk helps add bounce and shine to hair, along with a nice silky sheen.

You can try using another hydrolyzed protein as an alternative; hydrolyzed oat protein is a nice alternative.

In general, though, a recipe will never fail for its lack of silk (or any other hydrolyzed protein), so go ahead and make it 🙂

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How can I substitute one surfactant for another?

Generally speaking, you’d hope to replace any surfactant with one that is the same format (liquid or powder) and has the same charge (anionic, non-ionic, amphoteric, or cationic). A similar pH and active surfactant matter (ASM—the concentration of the surfactant, basically) would be nice, but those differences can be accommodated in the formulation. It is also nice if the surfactant has a similar feel and produces similar lather. You can look up this information in my surfactants table and in my Encyclopedia. Your suppliers should also be providing this sort of information.

As with all substitutions, the impact of the substitution on the final product is heavily influenced by how much of the ingredient is used (if it comprises 50% of a recipe using something else will have a much bigger effect than if it comprises 0.5%!), and how similar the substituting ingredient is.

You’ll also need to consider the jobs a surfactant is doing; foaming/cleansing is often job #1, but if it is also functioning as a solubilizer (Caprylyl/Capryl Glucoside often does) you’ll need to be aware of that and replace that functionality as well with something like polysorbate 20.

Another job a surfactant can be playing in a product is to make the blend milder; this is achieved by combining surfactants with different changes. Cocamidopropyl Betaine is very commonly used for this reason; it is amphoteric, and while it isn’t a great lathering/cleansing surfactant on its own it compliments anionic and non-ionic surfactants, making them milder and supporting lather. Cocamidopropyl Betaine is usually the most readily available amphoteric surfactant, which is why I use it so often. If you need to substitute Cocamidopropyl Betaine (or another amphoteric) surfactant you will want to use a different amphoteric surfactant, and those can be hard to find. You can try coco betaine, babassuamidopropyl betaine, disodium lauroampho diacetate, and sodium cocoamphoacetate.

If you have a solid surfactant that may work, but the recipe calls for liquid, you can try making your own solution of the solid surfactant in water to give it the right format and ASM. Not all solid surfactants dissolve happily in water—I find SCS is reasonably cooperative, while I’ve watched SCI sit in a jar of water for over a year without dissolving.

If the recipe calls for a solid surfactant and produces a solid or semi-solid end product, you will need solid surfactants—liquid surfactants simply will not do. If a recipe calls for a solid surfactant and produces a liquid end product you can likely use a liquid surfactant instead; just keep in mind that liquid surfactants typically have significantly lower ASM values, so you will need to adjust the formula to keep the final ASM the same. I go over how to do this with spreadsheets here.

You will also want to take into consideration the type of lather the surfactant produces, how mild it is, and how good of a cleanser it is. I know this can be hard to do if you haven’t worked with both of the surfactants, so you’ll want to read about both and see if the recipe gives any clues as to why a certain surfactant was chosen. If the recipe makes a really big deal about not substituting a certain surfactant, take that into account.

All that said—you probably aren’t going to create an absolute catastrophe substituting surfactants, so I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Whatever you make will still lather and clean, and if you don’t like it very much you can probably use it up in no time if you start using it as a body wash.

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Can I use something other than coconut oil in soap?

Coconut oil is really unique in providing amazing, fluffy lather in soaps—that’s why you’ll find it the vast majority of soap recipes. The only other oil I’ve found that gives similar numbers for lather when run through a soap calculator is babassu oil, which is quite similar to coconut oil in terms of texture and feel. It is, however more expensive. You can get 4L of coconut oil for soaping for about $25CAD, whereas 4L of babassu oil will cost you about $42CAD. These prices will obviously vary by supplier, I got these from New Directions Aromatics.

You could replace the coconut oil with any other oil, really, but it’s hard to say how your final bar will turn out. Pay attention to the “Soap Bar Quality” area on SoapCalc after you calculate your recipe. Try calculating it with coconut oil and with whatever you decide to replace it with, and watch how the numbers change. Try to keep them within the recommended ranges (listed on SoapCalc in the “Soap Bar Quality” area).

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Can I use peppermint essential oil instead of menthol?

Sort of/it depends. You’ll need to do a bit of research/math as well.

Different peppermint essential oils have different menthol percentages. Making this swap will work best with a high menthol peppermint essential oil—you should be able to get this information from your supplier, especially if they are reputable.

Say a recipe calls for 3g of menthol, and your peppermint essential oil is 50% menthol. That means that 3g of peppermint essential oil will contain 1.5g of menthol, so you’d need to use 6g of peppermint essential oil in the recipe to have an equivalent amount of menthol in the final product. You are, of course, also bringing an extra 3g of other pepperminty things to the recipe that were not originally accounted for when the formula was developed. In small amounts this usually isn’t a problem, but it’s still a consideration.

Perhaps your peppermint essential oil is only 20% menthol. Now you’ll need 15g (3 × 20 / 100) of peppermint essential oil to get 3g of menthol, and 15g is a lot more than 3g; I’d start to be worried about this swap throwing off the balance of the recipe. Peppermint essential oil is often liquid (especially if it’s relatively low in menthol) and menthol is solid, so now you’re using a lot of liquid in place of a small amount of solid. If you replaced a little bit of butter with 5x as much olive oil in a recipe, that would obviously have some serious implications—the same thing happens with DIY body/bath/etc. recipes.

I’ll use menthol in a recipe where I want concentrated cooling, and little else. Peppermint essential oil contains menthol, but it also contains other things that make it smell like peppermint, and because you’ll always need more peppermint essential oil than menthol, your final product will smell a lot like peppermint.

So… use your judgement, basically 🙂 It can be done, but there are some considerations to be made.

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If a recipe calls for a a solid plant component (oats, ground almonds, cornstarch), can I use the oil of that plant instead?

Often times, if I include something like colloidal oats or rosehip powder in a recipe, I’ll be asked if something like oat oil or rosehip oil would be a good alternative.

The short answer is no. Those things are very different, despite coming from the same plant (sort of like the difference between steak and leather, despite both coming from a cow). If you were cooking and a recipe called for cornstarch, you wouldn’t use corn oil instead. If a cookie recipe called for chopped walnuts, you wouldn’t use walnut oil instead. In a bread recipe, you wouldn’t use wheatgerm oil instead of what flour.

However, that doesn’t mean it’ll break the recipe. It just won’t be the same. If the recipe is already mostly liquid oil, and you want to use a liquid oil instead of a solid ingredient, you could swap out some of the liquid oil in the recipe for some of your new liquid oil, and that will likely work to some degree.

Think about why we’re including the ingredient before deciding to make such a swap. If a recipe calls for ground almonds as an exfoliant, almond oil is not a good alternative because liquids are not exfoliating. If rosehip powder is called for as a colourant, its oil won’t work as a swap because it isn’t bright pink. Also remember to account for solubility and state.

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Can I use food/spices to colour my cosmetics instead of iron oxides?

Please, please, please do not. The thought is tempting, but it’s not a great idea, and possibly even a bad one. Remember, just because something is edible doesn’t mean you should be spreading it on your face! Here’s a few reasons:

  • Kitchen spices are not approved colourants for cosmetics, and they are not approved for a reason (the exceptions being annatto and caramel)! They can irritate (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, paprika, cayenne, etc.) and stain (paprika, turmeric, cayenne, etc.) the skin and mucous membranes.
  • The particle size may be large enough to irritate the skin and feel scrubby—not something you want in a cosmetic!
  • Colours of spices and foods vary from batch to batch and between suppliers; sometimes greatly. This doesn’t matter in food, but it does mean you may never be able to re-create that shade of foundation.
  • Spices aren’t typically very potent colourants, meaning you’ll need to use quite a lot more than you’d use of oxides, which is likely to throw off the entire balance of the formula.
  • The final product will smell, and probably not like something you want your face smelling like (cinnamon + turmeric + paprika = curry, I guess?)
  • Fresh foods will spoil in a day or two and drag your product along with it.

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Can I use a fragrance or flavour oil in place of the essential oil(s) called for in a recipe?

Generally speaking, yes, but there are a few things to keep in mind.

Are the essential oils part of the function?

In something like tiger balm or a tingly mint cooling concoction the essential oils are part of the core function of the product—don’t change them.

If it’s a lip product

Make sure you are using a lip-safe flavour oil, not a fragrance oil.

What is the maximum usage level for the fragrance oil you want to use?

Find out and make sure you stay within those maximum levels—you should be able to find this information from your supplier or the manufacturer of the fragrance oil. If your supplier doesn’t list it, simply google the name of the fragrance oil and “maximum usage rate”. They typically vary depending on purpose (skin/face/soap/etc.) Wholesale Supplies Plus does an excellent job of displaying this information for the products they sell.

If it’s solubilized

If the the fragrance/essential oil in the original recipe was solubilized into a mostly watery concoction using a solubilizer, using a new fragrance or essential oil may necessitate a different amount of solubilizer to ensure everything stays properly solubilized (yes, even if the weight stays the same). This is something you will need to determine yourself through experimentation.

Want to leave out the essential oils entirely?

As long as they’re not part of the integral function of the recipe (see above), go for it—just be sure to replace the lost amount with a liquid oil or water, depending on the recipe. Oil is the preferred replacement medium, but if it’s a recipe that is almost entirely water (say, a toner with a small amount of essential oils solubilized into an otherwise water-based product) you can eliminate both the essential oils and the solubilizer and replace them with more water.

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How can I substitute one emulsifier for another?

The first place to start is looking up the emulsifier the recipe calls for in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia and seeing what alternatives are listed as recommended substitutions!

If what you’re looking for isn’t there, here are some guidelines:

  • What kind of emulsifier is it? Oil in water or water in oil? Is it a complete emulsifying wax or solubilizer? It is essential that any substitutions you make are for the same kind of emulsifier. Using a solubilizer instead of a complete emulsifying wax or vice versa will fail.
  • What is the solubility situation? Make sure whatever substitution you are making has the same solubility as the original ingredient.
  • What format is it in? Generally speaking, you’ll want to swap solid for solid, and liquid for liquid.
  • What is the recommended usage rate? Make sure you will not be over-using anything.
  • Charge: what is it, and does it matter? Different emulsifiers have different charges—typically anionic (negatively charged), cationic (positively charged), and non-ionic (no charge). Non-ionic is the most common and will be compatible with other charges. Cationic (or conditioning) emulsifiers should not be swapped for non-cationic emulsifiers as their cationic nature is typically part of the performance of the product. Anionic and cationic ingredients are generally incompatible, so make sure you keep an eye on everything else in the formula before choosing an emulsifier with a different charge than the original one.

Remember—just because something has “emulsifying properties” does not mean it can be used as an alternative for anything else with emulsifying properties. You can learn a lot more about the full spectrum of ingredients often sold as emulsifiers/solubilizers/surfactants here.

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How can I use an extract instead of a DIY infusion?

Sometimes a recipe will call for a DIY infusion (perhaps an herb infused oil or a water-based infusion), but you already have a commercially produced extract and would prefer to use that instead.

No problem! Step 1—check the solubility. Extracts can be oil or water soluble, and the solubility of the extract needs to be compatible with the product you are making. If the end product is an emulsion, with both an oil and a water phase, either an oil or a water soluble extract will work. If the product you are creating is strictly hydrous or anhydrous, the solubility of the extract will need to make (for example, if you wish to replace an herb-infused oil with the extract of that herb in a 100% oil/wax base, the extract must be oil soluble to work).

Step 2—check the recommended concentration rate for the specific extract you have. It’s probably 5% or less. Your supplier should supply this information.

Step 3—Make the swap! Let’s say the recipe originally called for 30% calendula infused olive oil, but you have an oil-soluble calendula extract you’d like to use, and you can use it at up to 3%. You’ll want to use 3% calendula extract and 27% olive oil in the recipe (3+26 = 30). Be sure to pay attention to if the extract can be heated; it likely can’t, so include the extract in the cool down phase. If this was a watery thing, that called for 40% herb infused water, and you have an herbal extract that can be used at 5%, you’d use 5% extract and 35% water (35+5 = 40).

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