Today’s formulation sets out to dupe the rich, luxurious lather and decadent, lingering scent of the very popular Bath & Body Works foaming hand soaps, but using ingredients we can get relatively easy. I had a ton of fun with this formulation, and documented the entire process in the partner video—I highly recommend watching it to learn more about the development process. Let’s get lathery!

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Formulation inspiration

The inspiration for this formulation is the very popular Bath & Body Works foaming hand washes. I asked about your favourite store-bought foaming hand wash over on the Community tab of my YouTube channel and Bath & Body Works was the overwhelming favourite for its luscious lather and indulgent scents.

Bath & Body Works has two foaming hand wash formulations: one that uses sulfates, and one that doesn’t. Each formulation has upwards of 15 ingredients, many of which we can’t get (or it simply wouldn’t make sense for most small makers to invest in), so I wanted to see if I could achieve similarly dense, luxurious lather with lovely, lingering scent using ingredients we can get.

What is a foaming hand wash?

Foaming hand washes are basically hand wash, but packaged in a bottle with a special foamer pump. The foamer pump aerates and agitates the hand wash as it is dispensed, transforming it into rich lather before it reaches your palm. It’s a fun, rather indulgent experience 😄

Formulation-wise, foaming hand washes are mostly water. The foaming/cleansing action comes from surfactants. This is typically a blend of a higher foaming anionic surfactant (like Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate [SLSa]) or non-ionic surfactants (like Coco Glucoside) and an amphoteric surfactant like Cocamidopropyl Betaine; blending surfactants helps create well-rounded and milder blends.

Learn more: How to formulate a detergent – THEORY pt. 1 from It’s all in my hands

The Bath & Body Works sulfate formulation uses a blend of ammonium lauryl sulfate (anionic), disodium laureth sulfosuccinate (anionic), and cocamidopropyl betaine (amphoteric). Their sulfate-free formulation uses disodium laureth sulfosuccinate (anionic), cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine (amphoteric), sodium cocoyl glycinate (anionic), and sodium (C14-16) olefin sulfonate.

That base of surfactants and water is then typically rounded out with ingredients like:

  • Re-fatting ingredients to make the formulation milder
  • Fragrance or essential oils for scent
  • Solubilizers (to get the oil-soluble fragrance oil and./or essential oils to incorporate into the watery base)
  • Water-soluble dyes for added colour
  • Preservatives to keep the formulation from spoiling
  • Extracts for skincare benefits and label appeal (given the product will be on the skin for less than a minute they won’t have time to do much)
  • pH adjusters to ensure a skin-friendly pH
  • Chelators to boost preservative performance
  • Antioxidants for added stability

How do foaming hand washes differ from regular ones?

There is one major, must-have difference between a foaming hand wash and a ‘regular’ (thickened) one: the viscosity. Foaming hand washes must be very thin so they dispense properly through the foamer head and transform into a palmful or rich bubbles. Mixtures that are even the tiniest bit viscous won’t dispense well—the foamer head will spit and sputter and the whole thing doesn’t really work. The need to keep the formulation super thin means we aren’t adding any thickeners—like Crothix™ Liquid or hydroxyethylcellulose—but it also means we need to avoid higher concentrations ingredient combinations that are self-thickening. Many anionic surfactants + salt and glutamates + glucosides are two examples.

This is what happens if you send a too-thick liquid through a foamer top.

A second difference that is more incidental is the active surfactant matter of the formulation—it tends to be lower. It’s amazing how little foaming surfactant a formulation needs in order to kick out lots of rich, perky lather when it is dispensed through a foamer head. That foamer head is sort of like super-charging the surfactants in the formulation—you get way more bang for your lathery buck when you foam it up. This formulation has an active surfactant matter (ASM) of about 4%, while the ASM for my Hand Wash for Lots of Handwashing (a more standard, thickened hand wash formulation) is more than twice that, and I’d say this foamy formulation feels more lathery/bubbly than the thickened formulation. Cool!

It’s also worth remembering that the super-thin nature of a foaming formulation means foaming hand wash formulations have zero ability to suspend ingredients. This means everything we use in a foaming hand wash formulation needs to be water soluble so it’ll dissolve. Micas, bursting beads, and physical exfoliants that could work in a thickened formulation will sink straight to the bottom of a foaming hand wash and potentially clog the foaming head.

How did I decide which surfactants to use?

I started working on this formulation by creating six different simple surfactant blends and then sending them through foamer pumps so I could see which surfactants created the most Bath & Body Works-ish bubbles. I knew I’d use Cocamidopropyl Betaine as part of my surfactant blend, so I included that in all the experiments.

Experiments in progress!

Each blend had an active surfactant matter (ASM) of about 8%, with 3% coming from Cocamidopropyl Betaine and 5% coming from the other surfactant.

I tested:

Out of these, decyl glucoside and sodium (C14-16) alpha olefin sulfonate created the densest, creamiest, most Bath & Body Works-ish lather. They’re also both reasonably easy to get, so I proceeded with those two as the star surfactants. Sodium (C14-16) alpha olefin sulfonate is the primary surfactant in this formulation and decyl glucoside is the primary surfactant in the natural version of the formulation that is an exclusive for my $10 and up Patrons.

See the results of these experiments!

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What if I don’t have sodium (C14-16) alpha olefin sulfonate?

I’d recommend doing an experiment like the one I started with, using the surfactants you do have. Which lather is the most Bath & Body Works-ish to you? Or, if that’s not what you’re going for, which lather do you like the most? Use that surfactant instead.

Re-fatting, solubilizing, and scent

PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil does two jobs in this formulation: it helps make it milder by adding a bit of fat to the formulation, and it solubilizes the oil-soluble fragrance oil. Without it the formulation would be cloudy and the fragrance oil would eventually split out of the formulation.

If this formulation had a higher active surfactant matter (ASM) and less fragrance oil it might not need a separate solubilizer as the solubilizing powers of the foaming surfactants could be sufficient. This is something you determine on a formulation-by-formulation basis, and the best way to know is to try it!

How can I make this a ‘regular’ hand wash?

For starters, you’ll need to thicken it. Crothix™ Liquid is an easy way to do that. Sodium (C14-16) alpha olefin sulfonate will thicken with salt, but there’s so little of it in this formulation that I’m not sure you’ll be able to get a fully pump-able consistency with just salt; salt-thickened sample formulations I’ve seen usually have 25–30% sodium (C14-16) alpha olefin sulfonate, while this formulation uses it at 6.2%. You’ll just have to try it and see!

You can try gums, but a lot of funny business can happen when you combine surfactants and gums.

You may find you want to increase the active surfactant matter (ASM) of the formulation as well since you’re losing the lathery amplification of the foamer head.

How could I make a natural version of this formulation?

I created a natural version of this formulation as an exclusive for my $10 and up Patrons! You can access that formulation by signing up here.

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Relevant links & further reading

Rich Foaming Hand Wash

7.5g | 3% PEG-40 hydrogenated castor oil (USA / Canada)
1.5g | 0.6% Christmas Spice fragrance oil

203.975g | 81.59% distilled water
0.025g | 0.01% red 40 water soluble dye
7.5g | 3% Propanediol 1,3 (USA / Canada)
0.25g | 0.1% 90% lactic acid solution (USA / Canada)
1.25g | 0.5% Liquid Germall Plus™ (USA / Canada)

15.5g | 6.2% Sodium C14-16 Alpha Olefin Sulfonate (Bio-Terge® AS-40) (USA / Canada)
12.5g | 5% Cocamidopropyl Betaine (USA / Canada)

Weigh the PEG-40 hydrogenated castor oil and fragrance oil into a beaker or measuring cup large enough to hold the entire batch of hand wash; mine was 400mL. Stir until uniform.

In a second beaker, combine the water, dye, propanediol 1,3lactic acid, and Liquid Germall™ Plus. Stir to combine.

Add the Sodium (C14-16) alpha olefin sulfonate (Bio-Terge AS40) and Cocamidopropyl Betaine to the beaker containing the fragrance & solubilizer mixture. Stir.

Gently add the water mixture and stir to combine. Cover the mixture and leave it—it’ll look pretty iffy right now, but it’ll smooth out and become uniform when left to sit overnight. You could speed this along by using warm water, but if you do this make sure it’s below 40°C.

Once the hand wash is uniform it’s time to test the pH. 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 4.7–5.2 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.

Package the hand wash in a bottle with a foamer top; the one I used is from YellowBee (gifted). Use as you’d use any hand wash. Enjoy!

Shelf Life & Storage

Because this formulation contains water, you must include a broad-spectrum preservative to ward off microbial growth. This is non-optional. With good manufacturing practice and proper preservation, this formulation should last at least a year. Even with a preservative, this project may eventually spoil as our kitchens are not sterile laboratories, so in the event you notice any change in colour, scent, or texture, chuck it out and make a fresh batch.

Substitutions

As always, be aware that making substitutions will change the final product. While these swaps won’t break the formulation, you will get a different final product than I did.

  • As I’ve provided this formulation in percentages as well as grams you can easily calculate it to any size using a simple spreadsheet as I’ve explained in this post. As written in grams, this formulation will make 250g, which fills approximately 250mL (~8 fl oz).
  • To learn more about the ingredients used in this formulation, including why they’re included and what you can substitute them with, please visit the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia. It doesn’t have everything in it yet, but there’s lots of good information there! If I have not given a specific substitution suggestion in this list please look up the ingredient in the encyclopedia before asking.
  • You could try a different solubilizer, like Polysorbate 20 or Polysorbate 80. If you do this you may want to introduce a separate re-fatting ingredient like Lamesoft® PO 65 or Cromollient SCE (Di-PPG-2 Myreth-10 Adipate).
  • You can use a different fragrance oil or essential oil as long as it’s ok for use in rinse-off products at 0.6%. You can also use less—simply replace the removed amount with more distilled water. I don’t recommend using more; I tried it and that was A LOT.
  • The dye is optional.
  • You could use Vegetable Glycerin instead of Propanediol 1,3.
  • You can use a different acid to adjust the pH (Citric Acid is probably the easiest), but the amount will likely change. You’ll need to test and adjust the pH at the end of the formulation process if you do this.
  • If you’re like to use a different preservative, please review this FAQ and this chart.
  • If you’d like to learn more about the surfactants used and compare them to ones you might already have so you can make substitutions, check out this page and read this FAQ.
    • Please remember that I crafted this specific surfactant blend very intentionally to get the result I wanted. Changing the surfactants will change the lather the finished product creates and the pH. It will still be a foaming hand wash, but it will be different.
  • If you want to transform this formulation into a thick hand wash that will work in a normal pump-top bottle you can try using Crothix™ Liquid to thicken it.

Gifting Disclosure

The Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Liquid Germall™ Plus, dye, and foaming bottle were gifted by YellowBee.
The Christmas Spice fragrance oil was gifted by Voyageur Soap & Candle.
Links to Amazon are affiliate links.