Even though I make most of the skincare products I use, I still enjoy perusing the skincare departments at Sephora and airport duty-free shops—paying extra attention to the luxury brands. I sample, sniff, and examine ingredient lists like a lotion detective. If a single lotion costs 3x my monthly grocery budget, I want to know what’s going on 🧐 What formulation magic has that fancy brand used to create a product that feels like its worth $400?! Fancy actives and proprietary botanical blends definitely pop up quite a lot, but I’ve noticed five cheap, easy-to-implement strategies in heaps of luxury formulations, and I want to share them with you so you can make lotions that feel like magic 🤩

Want to watch this project instead of read it?

Watch Now

What is lotion?

Lotion is a type of skincare product that is designed to moisturize and hydrate the skin; I’d say lotions are one of the most common skincare products out there.

You can find products labelled as lotions and lotion bars that are anhydrous (or water free), but this post is about emulsified products, containing both oil and water.

Lotions can vary in richness and viscosity quite a lot. Thicker, richer lotions are often called “creams” while thinner, more fluid emulsions can be called “milks” or “serums”. It really depends—a lot of these distinctions are more marketing than formulation. Products like hair conditioner, hair masks, some cleansers, and many commercially available body butters are also emulsions; they’re everywhere!

The formulation strategies I’m sharing in this post can be applied to all sorts of emulsions: creams, lotions, milks, emulsified body butters, hair conditioners, hair masks, and more. We are primarily discussing oil-in-water emulsions today, but many of these strategies will work also with water-in-oil emulsions.

New to lotion formulation?

If you’re new to formulating lotions, I highly recommend reviewing these posts to familiarize yourself with the basic structure of a lotion formulation so these tips make more sense 🙂 The bold ones are the most important!

Learn how to make a beautiful botanical face cream

If you’d like to learn how to make an all-natural, botanical face cream, you should sign up for Formula Botanica’s upcoming free formulation masterclass! I have two diplomas from Formula Botanica (Diploma in Organic Skincare FormulationDiploma in Organic Haircare Formulation), and I learned a lot from my courses. If you’ve been wanting to try out Formula Botanica, this is a great way to do it for $0.

The masterclass starts on April 17th, and it’s a step-by-step guide/masterclass on creating a lotion: they’ll teach you how to make the base, how to add botanicals, how to preserve it, and more. If you sign up now they’ll send you the shopping list straight away and you’ll have time to get any ingredients you might not already have 😄

Ester swap

This first formulation strategy will improve the skin feel of your lotions, lighten them up, and is surprisingly easy to incorporate into your formulations.

If you look at the ingredient lists for expensive lotions like Tata Harper’s Elixir Vitae Eye Serum, Charlotte Tillbury’s Magic Cream with Hyaluronic Acid, and Drunk Elephant’s Lala Retro, you’ll notice they all use this strategy to create their pricey products.

Add some easy luxury to your lotions by swapping some of the liquid oils in your formulation for a liquid ester. There are heaps of options out there; Caprylic/Capric Triglycerides is a lovely and accessible option for most people. This ingredient is also sold as medium chain triglycerides, and many of the “fractionated coconut oil” products for sale are actually MCT; check the INCI from your supplier to confirm. I also love C12-15 alkyl benzoate, coco caprylate, and isoamyl laurate.

Different esters have different skin feels; some will make the product feel drier (like C12-15 alkyl benzoate) while others can really boost slip in a way that can lean into feeling oily depending on usage level and the overall formulation. Make sure you’re experimenting and trying different options!

In the same vein, another trick big luxury brands use all the time that you can steal is swapping some of your liquid emollients for a volatile silicone, like cyclomethicone, or a natural cyclomethicone alternative. To stop these ingredients from evaporating away, you’ll need to include them in your cool down phase—and to stop a too-big cool down phase from wrecking your emulsion, you’ll want to keep your cool down phase below 10%. So, depending on what else needs to go in the cool down phase of your formulation, this may or may not be a good solution.

Formulations that use this strategy

Less is more

This technique is fantastic if you’re struggling with emulsions that feel waxy or are turning white on application, also known as “soaping”. That’s when you’re rubbing it into your skin, but it just keeps getting whiter and whiter and it feels like it’ll never absorb. That’s obviously not great, especially for a luxury product! This technique will also lighten up your lotions and will give you more power to choose how (or if!) you want to thicken your emulsions.

Now, you might’ve already done this in your formulation, but if you haven’t, give it a try! Simply reduce your emulsifying wax down to the lowest level required to work.

All emulsifiers have a recommended usage range. You can sometimes find this in supplier documentation, but I usually have to work it out by looking at sample formulations from suppliers and manufacturers and doing some math to determine the ratio range they’re working with. If your formulation uses anything above the lowest end of that range, try dropping it down to that lowest possible level—and possibly even below that. This will require some trial and error, so expect to make a few versions of your emulsion and potentially have one or two of them split on you if you’re venturing far outside the range found in sample formulations.

If you don’t want to do the testing to determine what the lowest possible level is, simply reducing it to the lower end of the recommended range can still make a big difference.

Since many emulsifying waxes thicken as well as emulsify, reducing the emulsifier will definitely reduce the viscosity of your emulsion. This thinning can cause stability challenges with formulations, so you’ll want to keep that in mind. This thinning gives you the power to choose how—and if—you want to thicken up your formulation!

Formulations that use this strategy

Spring 2024: Want to learn more about formulating with natural preservatives? Formula Botanica is currently offering a free formulation masterclass that will teach you how to make a botanical face cream using an all-natural preservative; you can sign up here 🙂

Refined viscosity boost

This technique will boost viscosity in a very refined way, improve emollience, and add elegance to your formulations. It’s also really inexpensive! You’ll find this formulating trick everywhere, including lovely luxury lotions like Dr. Barbara Sturm’s Face Cream Rich ($310) and SK-II’s $255 SKINPOWER Cream.

Amp up the luxury factor of your emulsions by including a fatty thickener or two.

Cetyl alcohol is my favourite for thickening emulsions and boosting the silky elegance factor. Stearic acid is a powerful thickener that adds richness and can give emulsions a bit of a “protective” feel. Cetearyl alcohol boosts richness along with improving slip and skin feel. And C10-18 Triglycerides—you might know them as Butter Peals from Simply Ingredients—thicken emulsions in a soft, creamy, downright buttery way. Divine!

Simply swap a 1–5% of your oil phase for a fatty thickener. You can use more or less if you want, but that’s a good starting range. If you’ve dramatically reduced your emulsifier you’ll probably find you need more thickener than you expect.

Formulations that use this strategy

Want to watch this project instead of read it?

Watch Now

Make it positive

I turn to this formulating trick whenever I’m working on a formulation that I want to feel downright opulent. Not only will this formulation trick give your emulsions a stunning, powdery skin feel that is unbeatable, but it’ll also make your lotions more effective! Incorporating this tip will boost rinse-off resistance, meaning your emulsions will stay on the skin—moisturizing it—for longer.

I see this strategy used in a lot of dermatologist-loved lotions and creams like Cerave and Gold Bond, and I think it needs to be used more! This little bit of magic is incorporating something cationic—or positively charged—into your emulsion.

If you haven’t worked with cationic ingredients yet, I can’t recommend it enough. Our skin is negatively charged, and since opposites attract, these positively charged ingredients adsorb (or creates a very fine coating on skin and hair) giving an amazing finish that is unique to cationic ingredients. The skin feel is truly divine and unlike any anionic or non-ionic emulsifier.

The BTMS’s are usually the easiest to get cationic ingredients. BTMS 50 contains 50% behentrimonium methosulfate, while BTMS 25 contains 25% behentrimonium methosulfate. Both are gorgeous for skincare and haircare. The polyquaterniums are also lovely, and cationic guar gum is really useful when formulating light, fluid emulsions.

You can use BTMS-50 or BTMS-25 as your sole emulsifier, or incorporate a tiny amount of a water-soluble cationic polymer like polyquaternium 7 or polyquaternium 10.

I’m afraid I haven’t found a natural cationic ingredient I like (yet, at least). The ones I’ve tried have been “meh” at best—they simply lack that fundamental cationic magic, and if they don’t have the magic, I’m out.

A fun potential benefit of incorporating cationic ingredients in your emulsions is the potential to market them as dual purpose, suited for both skincare and haircare, depending on what else is going on in the formulation.

Formulations that use this strategy

It turns out it’s been ages since I shared a leave-on for-the-skin formulation with a cationic emulsifier 😱 This must be rectified soon!

Fundamental shift

If you’re trying to make an emulsion lighter and faster-absorbing, using lightweight oils and emollients will only get you so far. Likewise, if you’re trying to make something really rich and nourishing, using lots of butters and heavier oils will only add so much richness. This formulation technique fundamentally alters the structure of your lotion, resulting in dramatically lighter, fast-absorbing emulsions (or richer ones, if that’s what you want!).

This last technique is all about understanding and intentionally choosing the size of the oil phase. To create weightless emulsions, reduce the size of your oil phase. I recommend 15% or lower for really light, delicate lotions. Conversely, to create richer, more nourishing lotions, increase the size of your oil phase. I find anything above 25% is pretty rich, but this can really depend on personal preference and the rest of the formulation.

Learn how: How to make your lotion richer (or lighter) by changing the oil phase size

If you’re new to adjusting the size of your oil phase, I highly recommend making an assortment of different emulsions with different oil phase sizes. There’s nothing quite like experiencing the difference to understand how much it can change your formulation!

Formulations that use this strategy

Want to watch this project instead of read it?

Watch Now