Guar Gum

What is it? Guar Gum is a thickening gum extracted from the guar bean.
INCI Cyamopsis Tetragonoloba Gum
Appearance Fine beige powder.
Usage rate <2%
Texture When hydrated it creates slippery, rather snotty gels.
Scent Nothing noticeable
pH 5.5–7 (1% solution)
Charge Non-ionic
Solubility Water
Why do we use it in formulations? Guar gum is used to thicken water-based products. It can be used as the sole gelling/thickening agent in products like gels or body washes, or can be incorporated at lower amounts (typically 0.5% or less) to thicken and stabilize emulsions.
Do you need it? No
Strengths Inexpensive, natural, vegan thickening agent.
Weaknesses Gels made solely with guar gum tend to have a snotty consistency, and I really don’t like how they feel on the skin when they dry down.
Alternatives & Substitutions I prefer hydroxyethylcellulose, but xanthan gum can also work.
How to Work with It Whisk the guar gum into something from your formula other than water to create a slurry; glycerine is a good choice, or a liquid oil. This allows us to distribute the gum without it starting to hydrate, which will cause it to clump and create “fish eyes” in our product. Once the gum has been thoroughly dispersed in the non-water medium you can start to slowly incorporate the water. Gentle heating will speed the thickening process, but it is not necessary.
Storage & Shelf Life Stored somewhere cool, dark, and dry, guar gum should last at least two years.
Tips, Tricks, and Quirks One can also purchase cationic guar (Guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride). This is not the same ingredient and they are not interchangeable.
Recommended starter amount 30g (1oz)
Where to Buy it  Buy it from an online DIY ingredient supplier or Amazon. Guar gum is also often available at health food stores.

Some Recipes that Use Guar Gum

Xanthan Gum

What is it? A natural gum made from the fermentation of sugar.
INCI Xanthan Gum
Appearance Fine off-white granular powder.
Usage rate 0.1–2%
Texture Once hydrated it creates slick, slimy gels.
Scent Nothing strong
pH 6–8
Charge Anionic
Solubility Water
Why do we use it in formulations? In gels xanthan gum creates the body of the gel. In emulsions it can be used to stabilize and thicken.
Do you need it? No
Strengths Effective natural gelling agent and thickener.
Weaknesses Unappealing consistency, poor leave-on skin feel to some people.
Alternatives & Substitutions Consider guar gum or hydroxyethylcellulose.
How to Work with It Pre-disperse it in glycerin or oil before combining it with water to fully hydrate.
Storage & Shelf Life Stored somewhere cool, dark, and dry,
Tips, Tricks, and Quirks The inclusion of xanthan gum in emulsions can amplify the soaping effect.
Recommended starter amount 30g (1oz)
Where to Buy it  Buy it from an online DIY ingredient supplier or Amazon.

Some Recipes that Use Xanthan Gum

Stearic Acid

What is it? Stearic acid is an isolated fatty acid we use as a thickener and hardener in lotions, salves, body butters, and more. It occurs naturally in butters like cocoa and shea.
INCI Stearic Acid
Appearance Small white beads or pellets; it’s easy to confuse with other white pellets like emulsifying wax.
Usage rate 1–25% (lower amounts are typically for emulsions, higher amounts are typically for anhydrous products)
Texture As part of our products it stiffens/hardens and adds a butter-like creaminess/weight. When melted into liquid oils I find it gives them a more buttery consistency.
Scent Nothing much; perhaps a bit fat-like.
Absorbency Speed Medium to slow
Approximate Melting Point 69.3°C (156.7°F)
Solubility Oil
Why do we use it in formulations? Stearic acid stiffens/hardens our products. Small amounts (1–4%) in lotions will significantly thicken them. When used in products like cleansing balms or emulsified sugar scrubs stearic acid thickens without the weight and waxiness of waxes.

I also like including it in salves, balms, body butters, and body butter bars with or without wax. With stearic acid you can use less wax, which improves skin feel. You can also use stearic acid to make a blend of liquid oils feel buttery, and in larger amounts, to stiffen without any added wax.

Do you need it? I sure love it and would highly recommend it—it’s inexpensive, versatile, and has a long shelf life. If you can get 100–200g that’ll last you quite a while.
Strengths It’s a strong thickener without the weight and tack of waxes; I find it gives a rich buttery feel to products.
Weaknesses It is a bit of a niche ingredient.
Alternatives & Substitutions Stearic acid is pretty hard to swap out. It is a stronger thickener/hardener than both cetyl alcohol and cetearyl alcohol, so if either of those are used as an alternative the end product will be softer. Stearic acid also produces creamier/richer products, so the end product will feel thinner/less substantial on the skin.

I don’t recommend using a true wax as an alternative for stearic aid. Faux waxes (“waxes” that are actually hydrogenated vegetable oils—check the INCI!) may be a decent alternative in some situations, but you will have to do some experimentation to determine usage rates and if the end feel still works for you.

How to Work with It Include it in your heated oil phase; it needs to be melted into products.
Storage & Shelf Life Stored somewhere cool, dark, and dry, stearic acid should last at least two years.
Tips, Tricks, and Quirks Stearic acid has a higher melting point than beeswax!
Recommended starter amount 100g (3.3oz)
Where to Buy it  Buy it from an online DIY ingredient supplier or Amazon.

Some Recipes that Use Stearic Acid

Cetearyl Alcohol

What is it? A fatty alcohol we use as a thickener in lotions, salves, body butters, and more. It is a blend of cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol.
INCI Cetearyl Alcohol
Appearance Small white beads or pellets; it’s easy to confuse with other white pellets like emulsifying wax.
Usage rate 1–25% (lower amounts are typically for emulsions, higher amounts are typically for anhydrous products)
Texture Once melted into our products it adds a lovely, velvety rich skin feel.
Scent Nothing much; perhaps a bit fat-like.
Absorbency Speed Fast to medium
Approximate Melting Point 50°C (122°F)
Solubility Oil
Why do we use it in formulations? Cetearyl alcohol adds body and thickening with a mid-weight velvety richness. It can be used to thicken products like cleansing balms and emulsified sugar scrubs where we don’t want the weight of wax, or it can be used with wax to improve the skin feel of the final product.

While cetearyl alcohol will stabilize emulsions it is not an emulsifier on its own, and will not work in formulas designed to work with a complete emulsifying wax. I have found it sold as “emulsifying wax O”, which is really quite misleading.

Do you need it? I sure love it and would highly recommend it—it’s inexpensive, versatile, and has a long shelf life. If you can get 100–200g that’ll last you quite a while. That said, if you already have cetyl alcohol and stearic acid you can probably do without it.
Strengths It’s a strong thickener without the weight and tack of waxes. At 1–4% it offers beautiful body and silkiness to lotions and conditioners, and I love it as a thickener in cosmetics where we can have thickening without the drag or tack of wax. It has more richness than cetyl alcohol, but isn’t as stiff as stearic acid.
Weaknesses It is a bit of a niche ingredient.
Alternatives & Substitutions Cetearyl alcohol is sort of the mid-way point between cetyl alcohol and stearic acid, so I would try a blend of those two ingredients to replace cetearyl alcohol.

If you only use cetyl alcohol the end product will have a slightly lower melting point and will have less substance to it in the way that a liquid oil has less substance than a butter.

If you only use stearic acid the end product will have a higher melting point and will be heavier/creamier. In an emulsion you may also get a stronger soaping effect.

How to Work with It Include it in your heated oil phase; it needs to be melted into products.
Storage & Shelf Life Stored somewhere cool, dark, and dry, cetearyl alcohol should last at least two years.
Tips, Tricks, and Quirks Watch the ratios of the two components in your cetearyl alcohol! It is possible to purchase 50/50 and 30/70, and those two versions will function differently. My recipes use 30/70 cetearyl alcohol.

Despite having “alcohol” in the name, cetearyl alcohol is not drying or irritating to the skin as it is not “that kind” of alcohol. The alcohols people typically worry about in skin care products are volatile liquid alcohols like ethanol or isopropyl alcohol. Cetearyl alcohol is very different!

Recommended starter amount  100g (3.3oz)
Where to Buy it  Buy it from an online DIY ingredient supplier or Amazon.

Some Recipes that Use Cetearyl Alcohol

Cetyl Alcohol

What is it? A fatty alcohol we use as a thickener in lotions, salves, body butters, and more.
INCI Cetyl Alcohol
Appearance Small white beads or pellets; it’s easy to confuse with other white pellets like emulsifying wax.
Usage rate 1–30% (lower amounts are typically for emulsions, higher amounts are typically for anhydrous products)
Texture Once melted into concoctions it gives a beautiful, silky finish. Learn more here.
Scent Nothing much; perhaps a bit fat-like
Absorbency Speed Fast
Approximate Melting Point 49°C (120°F)
Solubility Oil
Why do we use it in formulations? Cetyl alcohol thickens and adds body to out concoctions as well as improving slip. It’s an emollient and it thickens/hardens without the weight or tackiness of wax.

I’ll include it in lotions with smaller oil phases to give them body without added weight, and in anhydrous products to make them silkier. Cetyl alcohol also helps stabilize emulsions, but it is not an emulsifier on its own.

In something like a body butter bar I’ll often reduce the wax in a recipe and replace the lost thickening power with cetyl alcohol to give the end product better slip and skin feel.

Do you need it? I sure love it and would highly recommend it—it’s inexpensive, versatile, and has a long shelf life. If you can get 100–200g that’ll last you quite a while.
Strengths It’s a strong thickener without the weight and tack of waxes. At 1–4% it offers beautiful body and silkiness to lotions and conditioners, and I love it as a thickener in cosmetics where we can have thickening without the drag or tack of wax.
Weaknesses It can crystallize and/or settle out in runnier anhydrous products.
Alternatives & Substitutions Cetyl alcohol is hard to swap out. If you’re making a lotion or conditioner and it’s used at 4% or less, cetearyl alcohol is probably your best alternative. Cetearyl alcohol makes for a heavier, fluffier end product, so keep that in mind. Learn more about cetearyl alcohol here.

If cetyl alcohol is functioning as the main thickener in an anhydrous product keep in mind that it will also be contributing to the silky finish of the product as well as the firmness. Cetearyl alcohol is probably still your best option, but the end product will be different.

Never use a true wax as an alternative for cetyl alcohol. Faux waxes (“waxes” that are actually hydrogenated vegetable oils—check the INCI!) may be a decent alternative in some situations, but you will have to do some experimentation to determine usage rates and if the end feel still works for you.

Stearic acid isn’t a great alternative for cetyl alcohol—you can learn more about it here. It is a much creamier, heavier thickener. I find oils thickened with cetyl alcohol feel like viscous oils, while oils thickened with stearic acid feel like butters.

How to Work with It Include it in your heated oil phase; it needs to be melted into products.
Storage & Shelf Life Stored somewhere cool, dark, and dry, cetyl alcohol should last at least two years.
Tips, Tricks, and Quirks Despite having “alcohol” in the name, cetyl alcohol is not drying or irritating to the skin as it is not “that kind” of alcohol. The alcohols people typically worry about in skin care products are volatile liquid alcohols like ethanol or isopropyl alcohol. Cetyl alcohol is very different!
Recommended starter amount  100g (3.3oz)
Where to Buy it  Buy it from an online DIY ingredient supplier or Amazon.

Some Recipes that Use Cetyl Alcohol

Hydroxyethylcellulose

What is it? A water soluble thickening agent that creates beautiful crystal clear gels without the tacky skin feel of other gums.
INCI Hydroxyethylcellulose
Appearance Fine off-white powder
Usage rate 0.1–3% (you could use more, but it would be very thick!)
Texture A soft powder
Scent Nothing noticeable
pH 6.7 (1% solution)
Charge Non-ionic
Solubility Water
Why do we use it in formulations? It provides fantastic gel-like thickening without the snottiness of gums like xanthan and guar. It also boosts surfactant performance noticeably.
Do you need it? It’s easily my favourite plant-derived thickening gum; I’d recommend it over xanthan and guar.
Strengths Creates beautiful, clear, carbomer-like gels and noticeably boosts surfactant performance. Has a much better leave-on skin feel than gums like xanthan and guar.
Weaknesses Harder to find than gums like xanthan and guar.
Alternatives & Substitutions I haven’t come across anything that works quite like HEC does. Xanthan gum will offer similar thickening, but gives a far less pleasant end consistency and does not boost lather the way HEC does.
How to Work with It Whisk the hydroxyethylcellulose into some glycerin to break up any lumps before adding the rest of the water phase. It will thicken over the course of several hours without heating; the thickening process can be sped up by gently heating the mixture in a water bath.
Storage & Shelf Life Stored somewhere cool, dark, and dry, hydroxyethylcellulose should last at least three years.
Tips, Tricks, and Quirks Make sure it has time to fully hydrate before continuing with your formulation to ensure a uniform end product.
Recommended starter amount 30g (1oz)
Where to Buy it  Buy it from an online DIY ingredient supplier or Amazon. Mine is from Essential Wholesale.

Some Recipes that Use Hydroxyethylcellulose

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