In this post I’m going to teach you two ways to gently—and naturally—scent your lotion formulations without using essential oils. These scenting strategies are good options for new makers, those who have sensitive skin, and those who prefer more softly scented formulations. I’m starting with these gentler, easier strategies as they’re much more beginner friendly; my next post will look at some more potent (and slightly more challenging) scenting options. 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, many other types of formulations! As always, this post has a partner video. The partner video shows these strategies in action and teaches you how to adjust lotion formulations to use them, while this post contains lots of in-depth information and links to learn more. Make sure you’re watching the video and reading the post to learn as much as possible 🙂 Let’s dive in!

Want to watch this project instead of read it?

Watch Now

Gentle vs. Potent Scents

Today we’re getting cozy with two gentle, natural scenting options: hydrosols and fragrant carrier oils/butters.

Hydrosols and scented carrier oils and butters are gentle—but not terribly potent—ways to scent your formulations. You’ll usually need at least 10% of them in a formulation for them to impact the scent of the final product, and they tend to have much lower irritation potential than essential oils and fragrance oils.

In an upcoming post I’ll be discussing how to safely use more potent essential oils and natural fragrance oils to scent your lotions. Stay tuned!

Fall 2022: Want to learn more about natural lotion formulation? Formula Botanica is currently offering a free formulation masterclass that will teach you about using natural actives and more! You can sign up here 🙂

Things to think about before you add scent

What does the formulation already smell like?

If the formulation already has a noticeable scent, you need to take that into account. Adding a new scent won’t eliminate an already noticeable scent; it will blend with it.

For example, if you’ve made a body butter that contains a high enough concentration of unrefined shea butter or raw cocoa butter that the end product smells like shea or cocoa butter, you’ll need to think about how those scents will work with any essential oils or natural fragrance oils you’d like to add. Those buttery scents won’t vanish when you include a hydrosol in the formulation; they’ll mingle… and that’s not always great.

When working with unrefined cocoa butter, I’ll choose to pair it with scents that go well with chocolate: vanilla, orange, mint, etc. If the scent I want to use doesn’t mesh nicely with chocolate, I’ll use refined cocoa butter instead of unrefined cocoa butter for that formulation so I don’t have to work with that cocoa-y scent. Don’t try to drown out the inherent scent of a formulation with other fragrant ingredients; that can lead to a product that has a very strong, unpleasant smell.

Read more: 5 ingredients that will make your formulations smell awful

Some formulations can smell a bit bleh when left unscented as not all ingredients smell awesome. If it’s just a hint of that’s not amazing, including a small amount of something that does smell amazing can be enough to mask that minor stink. This is often (but not always!) the case if the scent comes from a preservative or emulsifier.

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

Since we’re sticking to gentler, softer scenting strategies for this post, there are fewer considerations because it’s hard to use too much of these ingredients. You’ll definitely want to think about how strongly scented you want something to be, but unlike more potent options like essential oils, you’d have a hard time using too much of any of the ingredients we’re talking about today.

How to Make Sweetgrass Micellar Water

Hydrosols

What are they?

Hydrosols are a product of distillation. When plant matter is distilled it creates two end products; the essential oil of that plant, and a hydrosol/distillate/floral water/aromatic water. The oil floats to the top and is separated off. The remaining water part is the hydrosol; a fragrant liquid that generally looks just like water, but smells divine. Common hydrosols include rose, chamomile, geranium, lavender, peppermint, neroli, and geranium.

Hydrosols contain approximately 0.05% aromatic chemicals; “because hydrosols are 99.95% water, they are inherently safer than essential oils.” (source: The Tisserand Institute)

Learn more: What’s up with hydrosols, distillates, and floral waters?

Pros of scenting lotions with hydrosols

Cons of scenting lotions with hydrosols

  • You usually need quite a lot (20–40% or more) in order to get a noticeable scent; even then, it’ll probably be on the softer side.
  • Hydrosols don’t always smell like their essential oil counterparts; smell yours to be sure you like it! Chamomile hydrosol in particular smells quite different from chamomile essential oil.
  • Availability/selection isn’t always amazing, especially when compared to the variety of essential oils you can purchase. Some suppliers stock far more hydrosols than others, so shop around.
  • Like essential oils, faux-hydrosols are not uncommon. Learn more: How to Spot a Fake Hydrosol from Formula Botanica.

How to incorporate hydrosols into your lotion formulations

Replace some of the distilled water in your lotion formulation with a hydrosol; I typically start with 30–40% of the overall formulation. You’ll need to include the hydrosol in your heated water phase; if you add 40% of your formulation in the cool down phase you will almost certainly encounter stability issues.

For example: if a formulation called for 70% distilled water, I’d try 40% hydrosol + 30% distilled water (40+30=70).

Want to watch this project instead of read it?

Watch Now

Formulation with a hydrosol

Soft Lavender Lotion

Heated water phase
34g | 34% distilled water
40g | 40% lavender hydrosol (USA / Canada)
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)

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 20–30 minutes the oil part should be completely melted and the water part should be thoroughly dissolved.

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 1 minute
  • Hand stir constantly until you notice some thick bits coming up on the spatula (another minute or two)
  • Blend for another 20–30 seconds; the lotion should be noticeably thicker after this second blending.
  • Hand stir occasionally until the outside of the glass measuring cup is just warm to the touch (40°C or cooler, if you have a thermometer).

Now it’s time to incorporate our cool down phase. Because we only need 1g of our preservative, and it’s very potent (so we don’t want to accidentally use more), 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 likely won’t be able to put the entire batch of lotion on that scale without blowing it out. If that’s the case, grab a smaller dish or beaker. Weigh the cool down phase (the preservative) into that, add a scoop or two of lotion, and then stir to thoroughly incorporate. Once that lotion/preservative mixture is smooth and uniform, stir it into the master batch of lotion. Doing it this way minimizes the amount of cool down ingredients lost to the secondary container.

The last step before packaging the lotion is testing the pH to ensure it’s in a good range for our skin, our preservative, and our emulsifier. A range of 4.5–5.5 is good. To test and adjust the pH: create a 10% dilution by weighing 2g product and 18g distilled water into a small bowl or beaker and whisk to combine (wondering why we create a dilution to check the pH?). Check the pH with your pH meter. Depending on the shape of your bowl/beaker you may need to tilt it in order to fully submerge the sensor on your pH meter. The pH should fall in the 5.25–5.5 range. If it is lower than 4.5 you’ll want to raise it; if it’s higher than 6, you’ll want to lower it. Please read this article from Skin Chakra to learn more about pH adjusting.

Once the cool down phase has been incorporated, all that’s left to do is package up your easy natural lotion!

This emulsion is thin enough to be packaged in a pump-top bottle or soft squeeze tube. It’s a bit thin for a jar, though that will work in a pinch (just be careful not to spill!). This batch is approximately 100mL (3.3fl oz), so you’ll want to use a package that is that size or a bit bigger. I used 120mL HDPE bottle with a pump-top for mine.

Scented carrier oils & butters

What are they?

They are carrier oils and butters—lovely emollients that add richness to our lotions—that also happen to have a pleasant smell we’d like to invite into our formulations.

Here are some awesome options:

Fragrant waxes like unrefined beeswax and bayberry wax can be a good option in some formulations, but usually, if you use enough of a true wax in a lotion for the scent to come through, the finished lotion will be quite grabby/tacky.

Get some inspiration: 5 ingredients that will make your formulations smell amazing

The other side of the coin; some ingredients smell kinda… not awesome… and that can come through in the final formulation, too 🤣

You might want to avoid these: 5 ingredients that will make your formulations smell awful

Pros of scenting lotions with carrier oils & butters

  • Gentle, very low irritation potential way to scent formulations
  • Double-duty ingredients: emollient and scent!

Cons of scenting lotions with carrier oils & butters

  • Limited options: there just aren’t very many carrier oils that both smell amazing and have a strong enough scent that you’ll notice it in your formulation when used at a reasonable level.
  • You tend to need enough of them that they have to make up most of your oil phase; I like to work with this rather than against it. If it’s going to smell like coconuts (for example), embrace it!
  • Using lots of an oil or butter means you’ll notice characteristics beyond its scent in your formulation.
    • If you replace the liquid oil in your lotion with solid cocoa butter for a chocolatey scent, the finished lotion will be thicker.
    • If you replace the liquid oil in your lotion with unrefined hemp seed oil for a grassy scent, the finished lotion will be green.

Fall 2022: Want to learn more about natural lotion formulation? Formula Botanica is currently offering a free formulation masterclass that will teach you about using natural actives and more! You can sign up here 🙂

How to incorporate carrier oils & butters into your lotion formulations

Use them as the emollients in your heated oil phase; how much you’ll need for the scent to carry through to the finished formulation depends on how strongly scented the oil or butter is.

Formulation with a fragrant carrier oil

Sweet Plum Lotion

Heated water phase
74g | 74% distilled water
5g | 5% sodium lactate (USA / Canada)

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

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

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 20–30 minutes the oil part should be completely melted and the water part should be thoroughly dissolved.

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 1 minute
  • Hand stir constantly until you notice some thick bits coming up on the spatula (another minute or two)
  • Blend for another 20–30 seconds; the lotion should be noticeably thicker after this second blending.
  • Hand stir occasionally until the outside of the glass measuring cup is just warm to the touch (40°C or cooler, if you have a thermometer).

Now it’s time to incorporate our cool down phase. Because we only need 1g of our preservative, and it’s very potent (so we don’t want to accidentally use more), 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 likely won’t be able to put the entire batch of lotion on that scale without blowing it out. If that’s the case, grab a smaller dish or beaker. Weigh the cool down phase (the preservative) into that, add a scoop or two of lotion, and then stir to thoroughly incorporate. Once that lotion/preservative mixture is smooth and uniform, stir it into the master batch of lotion. Doing it this way minimizes the amount of cool down ingredients lost to the secondary container.

The last step before packaging the lotion is testing the pH to ensure it’s in a good range for our skin, our preservative, and our emulsifier. A range of 4.5–5.5 is good. To test and adjust the pH: create a 10% dilution by weighing 2g product and 18g distilled water into a small bowl or beaker and whisk to combine (wondering why we create a dilution to check the pH?). Check the pH with your pH meter. Depending on the shape of your bowl/beaker you may need to tilt it in order to fully submerge the sensor on your pH meter. The pH should fall in the 5.25–5.5 range. If it is lower than 4.5 you’ll want to raise it; if it’s higher than 6, you’ll want to lower it. Please read this article from Skin Chakra to learn more about pH adjusting.

Once the cool down phase has been incorporated, all that’s left to do is package up your easy natural lotion!

This emulsion is thin enough to be packaged in a pump-top bottle or soft squeeze tube. It’s a bit thin for a jar, though that will work in a pinch (just be careful not to spill!). This batch is approximately 100mL (3.3fl oz), so you’ll want to use a package that is that size or a bit bigger. I used 120mL HDPE bottle with a pump-top for mine.

Want to watch this project instead of read it?

Watch Now

Other questions

Can I use both methods in the same formulation?

Of course! Just make sure the different scents you’re working with will smell nice together.

How long will this lotion last?

Shelf life and more are covered in this post. Please read it!

Fall 2022: Want to learn more about natural lotion formulation? Formula Botanica is currently offering a free formulation masterclass that will teach you about using natural actives and more! You can sign up here 🙂

Gifting Disclosure

The lavender hydrosol and black plastic tub were gifted by YellowBee.
The plum kernel oil was gifted by Essential Wholesale.
The Euxyl™ k 903 was gifted by Formulator Sample Shop.
The sodium lactate was gifted by Bramble Berry.
Links to Amazon are affiliate links.