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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Before we dive in, it’s important to remember that no change to a formulation happens in isolation; you cannot simply make a lotion thicker without impacting some other element of the finished product. With each of these adjustments the finished lotion will be thicker, but it’ll also take on some characteristics from the new ingredient you’ve added. That’s why it’s important to have a few different strategies in your formulating toolkit; understanding how each change will impact your finished product allows you to make the best choices for your formulations.

The base formulation

The three formulations I’m sharing in this post are based on the formulation I shared in this post: Easy Natural Lotion for Beginners. Please read that post; it contains detailed instructions and a lot of information on substitutions, shelf life, and more.

This formulation is preserved with Euxyl™ k 903. I find this preservative thins the emulsion a wee bit; if you use a different preservative you may notice your finished formulation is thicker than mine.

This post is part of an ongoing series on natural lotion formulation; check out these posts as well!

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 🙂

Important differences while you’re making the lotion

  • As your lotions get thicker, they’re much more able to suspend air bubbles, meaning you’ll want to take care to stop blending the emulsion while it’s still on the thinner side (unless you want air bubbles in your lotion).
  • When you start incorporating fatty thickeners into your heated oil phase is that it will raise the melting point—which means your oil phase will start to re-solidify much faster than when it’s just oil and emulsifying wax. Make sure you combine your phases quickly after you’re done heating so you catch things while they’re still liquid.

Know your emulsifying wax!

When formulating, I like to divide emulsifying waxes into two broad categories: ones that thicken and emulsify, and ones that just emulsify.

Most common emulsifying waxes contain fatty thickeners at levels that thicken our emulsions, adding stability and viscosity. Examples include the emulsifier we’re using in these formulations (Ritamulse SCG [also sold as Emulsimulse and ECOMulse]), Emulsifying Wax NFPolawaxOlivem 1000PolyAquol-2W, Montanov 68, Glyceryl Stearate SEBTMS-25, and BTMS-50. The thickeners in these emulsifiers guarantee/force a base level of viscosity in our emulsions and generally makes these emulsifiers pretty darn fool proof. We usually don’t need to add other thickeners to formulations made with these emulsifiers in order to stabilize the emulsion because they’ve got viscosity boosters built in, so thickening is more a matter of preference than formulation stability.

Examples of emulsifiers that don’t contribute viscosity to our formulations include Glyceryl Stearate (and) PEG-100 Stearate, Cetearyl Alcohol (and) Ceteareth-20, and Montanov 202. Emulsions that are made with these ingredients usually need some sort of thickener added to them for stability, or the emulsion will be so thin that it’ll split when left to sit.

Learn how to modify formulations to use non-thickening emulsifying waxes: Super Simple Moisturizing Lotion with Glyceryl Stearate (and) PEG-100 Stearate

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Strategy 1: Use a solid fat instead of a liquid one

This thickening strategy is probably the easiest of the three I’m sharing today, though they’re all pretty darn easy! When I say “solid fat” I’m talking about ingredients like shea butter, cocoa butter, murumuru butter, kokum butter, lard, tallow, and cupuaçu butter. Lanolin could be included, but I typically wouldn’t use coconut oil as a thickening solid fat because its melting point is so close to ambient temperatures. If it’s fatty, and solid at room temperature, it’s a solid fat 😝 That solid-ness will carry through to our final formulations, making them a bit more solid (thicker).

Of course, you might want to include a butter in your emulsion for non-thickening reasons, but it’s important to know that lots of butter will thicken your lotions. This could mean that you opt to leave out a different thickening ingredient if you modify a formulation that didn’t include any butters to include some. Experiment and have fun!

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How to adjust the formulation

Simply swap some (or all) of a liquid oil in the oil phase for a solid fat like. You’ll typically need to include at least 5–10% to notice much of a bump in viscosity.

Pros

This thickening strategy is really beginner-friendly because solid fats/butters are easy to find; you probably already have at least one!

Considerations & Potential Cons

It is important to keep in mind that introducing a decent percentage of a butter to your formulation will also impart the characteristics of that butter to the formulation. For example; if you introduce a lot of rich shea butter to your formulation, it’ll be richer. If you use lots of chocolate-y scented cocoa butter, your finished lotion will smell like chocolate. The butter is still diluted with quite a lot of water, so it won’t be as rich as pure shea butter or as potently cocoa-y as pure cocoa butter, but these ingredients won’t be invisible in your finished formulation. I recommend applying a small amount of whatever butter you want to use directly to your skin. Massage it in and see what you think, and think about if you want those characteristics in your lotion. Then try it!

Experiment and have fun! I recommend making two or three lotions, each with a different butter, and compare them. How does each butter alter the skin feel, viscosity, richness, and scent of the final product? How could those characteristics be beneficial in different types of lotions and creams?

Baking metaphor

This method is sort of like sweetening a cake using mashed bananas; you’ll need quite a lot of bananas to do the sweetening, so the finished cake will taste like bananas.

Formulation with a solid fat

Creamy Shea 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% unrefined shea butter (USA / Canada)

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

For full instructions, please read this post.

From left to right: cetearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, stearic acid.

Strategy 2: Add a fatty thickener

Including a fatty thickener is definitely my favourite way to thicken a lotion. Examples include cetearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, stearic acid and C10-18 Triglycerides (aka “Butter Pearls”).

How to adjust the formulation

To incorporate a fatty thickener into your formulation, reduce the amount of carrier oil to make room for it, keeping the overall oil phase size the same. 3–10% will make a noticeable difference.

You can also try waxes and pseudo waxes. True waxes can get tacky and/or make the lotion “drag” on application, so it’s best to start with ~1%. Pseudo waxes—waxes made from hydrogenated oils—function more like fatty thickeners, so starting in the 3–5% range should work well. Experiment and have fun!

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 🙂

Pros

These thickeners are effective at low usage rates, offering both thickening and changes in skin feel at less than 5%, so they don’t “take over” your oil phase the way thickening with a butter will. They’re inexpensive, have long shelf lives, and give you a powerful way to adjust viscosity while keeping the bulk of your formulation the same.

Each fatty thickener adds different qualities to your emulsions, so try them all to learn what you like best! You can also blend them to create the exact effect you’re looking for 😄

Considerations & Potential Cons

I can’t think of many; fatty thickeners are fabulous ingredients and I highly recommend having some on hand. You’ll use them in all kinds of formulations!

Baking metaphor

This method is more like sweetening a cake with sugar; you won’t need as much, and you’ll have more control of the flavour of the cake because you don’t need to include a ton of mashed bananas. Using brown sugar vs. white sugar will make a difference, but the finished cake will still taste like chocolate or carrots regardless of which one you choose.

Formulation with a fatty thickener

Natural Lotion with Cetyl Alcohol

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

Heated oil phase
5g | 5% Ritamulse SCG (USA / Canada / UK / AU)
12g | 12% fractionated coconut oil
3g | 3% cetyl alcohol (USA / Canada)

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

For full instructions, please read this post.

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Strategy 3: Include a gum (or other gelling ingredient)

Adding a gum to your emulsions will boost viscosity in a gel-y/gummy way that is lighter and more elastic than using butters or fatty thickeners. As with the other methods, just how “gel-y/gummy” the finished lotion feels will depend on which gum you choose and how much you use. Examples include xanthan gum (I recommend “soft” or “clear” xanthan over regular xanthan gum; it’s less snotty), guar gum, hydroxyethylcellulose, and blended gums like Siligel™ (INCI: Xanthan Gum, Lecithin, Sclerotium Gum, Pullulan) and Solagum™ AX (INCI: Acacia Senegal Gum, Xanthan Gum). There are also lots of lovely synthetic options, like carbomer, Polyacrylate crosspolymer-6 (Sepimax ZEN), and Aristoflex AVC, but I won’t be diving into those options today as this post is focussed on natural options 🙂

How to adjust the formulation

I typically start with 0.5% or less, reducing the water to make room.

I like to include gums in the heated oil phase of an emulsion as they can’t clump in oil; they’ll hydrate up nicely when the phases are combined and you get in there with your blender. Remember that a gum won’t melt with the emulsifier and other fatty ingredients in the heated oil phase—it’ll remain a solid powder at the bottom of your beaker.

If you’re noticing your gum isn’t “kicking in” as quickly as you want it to, feel free to move it to the heated water phase for future batches. It’s a good idea to thoroughly blend the gum into whatever humectant(s) are in your heated water phase before adding the water to prevent clumping.

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 🙂

Pros

A small amount of gum can lend body, slip, and a high-end skin feel to your formulation. They’re also great ways to boost viscosity and improve emulsion stability without changing the formulation very much.

Considerations & Potential Cons

Too much of a gum in an emulsion can make it slimy, boogery, sticky, and generally unpleasant, so start low and work your way up! How much you’ll need—and be able to use without the finished lotion getting slimy—will depend a lot on the gelling ingredient you’re using. Experiment, research, and have fun.

Baking metaphor

I think the baking metaphor starts to fall apart a bit here, but I’d say gums are sort of like sweetening a cake with stevia or other artificial sweeteners. A little goes a long way, they can work really well, but too much tastes funny 😝

Formulation with a gum

Natural Lotion with Xanthan Gum

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% sunflower seed oil (USA / Canada / UK / NZ)
0.5g | 0.5% xanthan gum (soft) (USA)

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

For full instructions, please read this post.

Other questions

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 🙂

Can I thicken a lotion that’s already finished?

I really, really don’t recommend it.

  • If you try to melt a fatty thickener and add it to a finished lotion the thickener will solidify on contact with the cooled lotion. This is also likely to happen with a melted butter, with the added complication that you’d need to add so much to get results that you’d likely compromise the stability of the emulsion.
  • If you try to add a gum to a finished lotion you’ll have a very hard time getting it to incorporate evenly and will likely end up with globs of gum dotted throughout the emulsion.

Can I combine these strategies in one formulation?

Of course!

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Gifting Disclosure

The black tubs and cetyl alcohol were gifted by YellowBee.
The shea butter was gifted by Baraka Shea Butter. Links to Baraka Shea Butter are affiliate links.
The X was gifted by Essential Wholesale.
The soft xanthan gum and Euxyl™ k 903 were gifted by Formulator Sample Shop.
The sodium lactate and sunflower seed oil were gifted by Bramble Berry.
Links to Amazon are affiliate links.