Gentle Low-Lather Face Cleanser
If you’re looking for an ultra-gentle, super inexpensive facial cleanser for any skin type—this is it! You can make a kilo of this cleanser for about $10USD, and all of the ingredients are super versatile, inexpensive, and easy to get 😄
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This formulation was inspired by Cetaphil’s Gentle Skin Cleanser; I was really intrigued by the short ingredient list, especially since it seemed to be missing a key ingredient.
Aqua, Glycerin, Cetearyl alcohol, Sodium benzoate, Sodium cocoyl isethionate, Xanthan gum, Panthenol, Citric acid, Niacinamide, Pantolactone.
This mostly hydrous formulation contains fat-soluble cetearyl alcohol, but no traditional emulsifier. Would the Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate—a surfactant, but not typically used as an emulsifier—be enough to get the job done? This ingredient combination reminded me of an emulsifying wax I’ve seen for sale (but never used) with the INCI of Cetearyl Alcohol (and) Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (products matching this INCI include Lanette® W, Crodex™ A, Unibase N, and Vegarol EW 200).
Anywho—Cetaphil did it, so it must be possible… and I obviously had to try it myself 😄 I purchased a bottle of the Cetaphil cleanser and set to work!
The original cleanser is a hazy, semi-transluscent creamy consistency. It has a glossy appearance, and is relatively fluid—easily pumpable, but not readily pourable. It works up into a low, creamy lather that’s more like the balm-to-milk effect you get from a cleansing balm than the lather you’d generally expect from a cleanser. It can be used with or without water (with = work up with water + rinse, without = massage into dry skin and wipe off with a dry cloth—like a cold cream). It is very gentle, unscented, and generally quite a nice product to use.
This cleanser is a simple emulsion with a very small oil phase of just cetearyl alcohol. Most of the ingredients are used at very low amounts; we know this because sodium benzoate (a preservative) is the fourth ingredient. Sodium benzoate is used at up to 1% in cosmetics, so we can be pretty confident we’ve hit the 1% line by the fourth ingredient. This means everything after the sodium benzoate is used at less than 1%.
All of the headers in this section are links to the free Humblebee & Me DIY Encyclopedia entry on the ingredient; please click to learn more!
This forms the bulk of the formulation, diluting all the other ingredients to safe and useful levels. We used distilled water because it’s boring—it doesn’t contain impurities like salts and minerals (which can mess with our formulations) that are usually present in tap water.
Learn more: Different waters used in cosmetic formulating
Glycerin is an inexpensive humectant that helps moisturize the skin and contributes to the silky, cushiony skin feel of the cleanser.
I was chatting about this formulation with Valerie from Simply Ingredients at the 2023 HSCG conference in Kansas City and it turns out she’s also duped the Cetaphil cleanser! Her formulation is slightly different from my take, using 5% glycerin vs. the 30% in mine. She tried my version and hypothesized the reason mine feels more cushiony than the Cetaphil one is because of the high glycerin content. I really liked the pillowy feel, so I kept that high level. You could certainly reduce the glycerin and use more water instead if you want to.
Cetearyl alcohol—a solid fatty alcohol—adds some fat/richness and boosts gentleness and viscosity. This is the ingredient that gives the formulation its hazy, translucent appearance.
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Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate (SCI)
Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate emulsifies and provides low lather & rinse-off. It’s a very gentle anionic surfactant, and paired with a very low usage level we get a very gentle final product.
Xanthan gum teams up with the cetearyl alcohol to further thicken and stabilize the emulsion. I’ve chosen soft xanthan gum as it has a far nicer, more refined feel and look than regular xanthan gum. Soft xathan gum creates clearer gels with silkier skin feels, while regular xanthan gum is much more snotty and creates hazy, cloudy solutions. You can use soft or clear xanthan gum (I haven’t noticed much of a difference between the two). I don’t recommend using regular xanthan gum, but if it’s all you can get, you can certainly give that a try. I’d use less (0.3%) as it is a bit more potent than soft & clear (use more water to keep the formulation in balance).
Vitamins B3 + B5
Two B vitamins bring some skin-soothing, barrier-boosting properties to the cleanser… though I am not terribly convinced they’re doing much between the low usage rate and the wash-off nature of the product. I included them because Cetaphil does, but I doubt you’d notice a difference if you replaced either or both of them with more distilled water.
A tiny bit of lactic acid lowers the pH to ~5.2–5.5, which is a good range for skin cleansers. Mine is a 90% solution, but if yours is an 88% solution you can use that instead—that 0.2% difference won’t meaningfully impact the final product at the rate we’re using it. You could also use a different alpha hydroxy acid to lower the pH (citric acid, glycolic acid, etc.), but the amount required might be different, so be sure to test the pH and adjust as required.
Liquid Germall™ Plus
Our preservative! I chose this one because it’s water soluble and very easy to use. You could use a different water-soluble preservative if you want to (this formulation is pretty easy to preserve), but be sure to follow the guidelines for whatever preservative you’re using as its usage rate and pH needs could be different.
Learn more: Can I use a different preservative than the one you’ve used?
Relevant links & further reading
- Distilled water in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia
- Vegetable Glycerin in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia
- Cetearyl Alcohol in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia
- Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate (SCI) in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia
- Xanthan Gum in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia
- Panthenol (Vitamin B5) in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia
- Niacinamide (Vitamin B3) in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia
- Lactic acid in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia
- Liquid Germall Plus in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia
- Why do you no longer recommend baking soda or other high pH cleansers? in the Humblebee & Me FAQ
- How long will ______ last? What is its shelf life? in the Humblebee & Me FAQ
- Can I use a different preservative than the one you’ve used? in the Humblebee & Me FAQ
- Other facial cleanser formulations:
- pH meter in the Humblebee & Me Encyclopedia
- pH measurement in cosmetic lab: why we dilute samples? from Skin Chakra
- How to adjust the pH of your cosmetic products from Skin Chakra
- Why do you create a 10% dilution of a formulation before measuring the pH? in the Humblebee & Me FAQ
Gentle Low-Lather Face Cleanser
0.4g | 0.4% Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate (SCI) (USA / Canada)
4g | 4% cetearyl alcohol (USA / Canada)
20g | 20% vegetable glycerine (USA / Canada)
0.5g | 0.5% xanthan gum (soft) (USA)
10g | 10% vegetable glycerine (USA / Canada)
40g | 40% distilled water
0.2g | 0.2% panthenol powder (vitamin B5) (USA / Canada)
0.1g | 0.1% niacinamide (vitamin B3) (USA / Canada)
0.03g | 0.03% 90% lactic acid solution (USA / Canada)
24.27g | 24.27% distilled water
0.5g | 0.5% Liquid Germall Plus™ (USA / Canada)
Combine Phase A in a beaker or glass measuring cup that’s large enough to hold the entire batch (I used a 150mL beaker for this 100g batch).
In a second beaker, mix the xanthan gum and 10g of glycerin together until uniform. Add the vitamins, stir, and then mix in the distilled water and lactic acid. This is Phase B. Weigh that entire beaker, note that weight, and now we can move onto heating.
Place both mixtures on your hot plate or in a water bath. Fill a third small beaker or measuring cup with at least 30mL (1fl oz) of distilled water, and pop that on the heat as well—we’ll need it later (this is Phase C).
Heat on low until the cetearyl alcohol mixture is liquid and clear, and all three beakers are roughly the same temperature. For a small batch like this one, this should take roughly 20 minutes.
Once everything is all toasty, remove Phase A from the heat, and weigh in 25.27g of the hot distilled water (that’s the water from that third beaker—Phase C).
Stir stir stir, scraping down the sides constantly. The mixture will thicken into a really funky glossy, semi-translucent gel in a couple minutes.
When that happens, weigh Phase B, replace any water that evaporated while it was heating, and then add that to Phase A + C and stir to combine. Because there’s so little surfactant in this cleanser we don’t have to worry about kicking up a bunch of bubbles, but you still want to be relatively gentle so you don’t work too much air into the cleanser.
Once the cleanser is uniform, leave it to cool to room temperature.
When the cleanser has cooled off, all that’s left is adding the preservative and ensuring the pH is in a good place for our skin so the cleanser is as gentle as possible.
To preserve, weigh in 0.5g Liquid Germall™ Plus (Phase D).
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 5–5.5 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 you know the pH is in a good place, it’s time to package it up!
A pump top or squeeze bottle is a good choice for this formulation; I used an amber 100mL (3.3fl oz) pump-top bottle from YellowBee in the video, and a squeezey HDPE bottle with a flip-top dispensing cap from Voyageur Soap and Candle Co. for most of my test formulations. Both options work well.
Use as you’d use any foaming facial cleanser. I usually begin by using micellar water or an oil cleanser to remove any waterproof eye makeup. Next, I’ll work a small amount of this cleanser up with a splash of water between my palms, massage it into my skin, and then wipe my face clean with a damp microfibre cloth. Cetaphil says their cleanser can be used without water, so you can do that, too, for more of a “cold cream” style cleanse; simply massage a pump of the cleanser into dry skin and wipe off with a dry cloth.
Shelf Life & Storage
Because this cleanser 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.
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 100g.
- 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.
- 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.
- My first choice for an alternative to Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate (SCI) would be Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate (SLSa).
- You could try a different fatty thickener instead of cetearyl alcohol, like C10-18 Triglycerides (Butter Pearls) or a blend of Cetyl Alcohol and Stearic Acid.
- You can use less glycerin; prioritize keeping some glycerin in phase B to disperse the xanthan gum. Increase the distilled water to keep the formulation balanced.
- You can use soft or clear xanthan gum. If you use regular xanthan, use less (0.3%) as it is a bit more potent than soft & clear (use more water to keep the formulation in balance).
- You can replace either or both of the vitamins with more distilled water.
- Read the blog post for information on substituting the lactic acid.
- If you’re like to use a different preservative, please review this FAQ and this chart.
- I don’t recommend incorporating an essential oil or fragrance oil as this cleanser is supposed to be simple and gentle.
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The glycerin, cetearyl alcohol,Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate (SCI), niacinamide (Vitamin B3), panthenol (Vitamin B5), Liquid Germall™ Plus, and brown pump-top bottle were gifted by YellowBee.
The soft xanthan gum was gifted by Formulator Sample Shop.
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