There are literally thousands of cosmetic ingredients for sale, so it’s no wonder that shopping for ingredients can be an overwhelming experience for new formulators! Between the sheer number of ingredients and the often fantastical claims made about them, it can be tempting to buy one of everything. That’s a temptation I succumbed to when I first started formulating over a decade ago, and I want to spare you the expense and frustration of spending heaps of money on ingredients and then discovering you don’t have the right sorts of ingredients to make the things you want to make. I spent a positively embarrassing sum on oils, butters, waxes, and essential oils… and then once I started doing more research and formulating I realized I only had ingredients to make butters, balms, and salves and in order to make lotions, creams, and cleansers I’d need more ingredients. D’oh!

Ten DIY Ingredients for Beginner Formulators: Part 1 | What you need to start formulating

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I initially planned to make this a one-piece bit of content, but it was getting pretty unwieldy (part one alone is over 2400 words!). So, today we’re covering the five ingredients you’ll need to make all kinds of different anhydrous products (except soap—that’s a slightly different beast), and in part two I’ll introduce five more ingredients you’ll need to expand into lotions, creams, cleansers, and more!

 

Reminder: The Humblebee & Me DIY Encyclopedia is a great resource for learning more about your ingredients. If you have a question about an ingredient, start by looking it up in the encyclopedia!

 

Basic starter ingredient principles

The biggest basic principle to keep in mind when you’re buying ingredients as a new formulator is to keep it inexpensive. How inexpensive? My rule is that you want your ingredients to be inexpensive enough that you won’t be too upset about throwing away failed formulations. I’m definitely not trying to encourage wastefulness, but dangit, I forced myself to use up so many utterly garbage concoctions in my early making days because they contained expensive ingredients that really had no business being in a first-time formulation. You can always buy the alluring, expensive ingredients later!

Part of ingredient cost is also (usually) shipping. If possible, stick to ingredients you can order domestically as international shipping fees, duties, and currency conversion can add up very quickly. It definitely can make sense to order from abroad, especially if your currency is quite strong, but do the math before you place the order and get smacked with a giant brokerage/duties bill when your package is delivered.

I also can’t encourage ingredient research enough. It is so, so important. I’ve written a two-part blog on how to research your ingredients and I highly recommend reading through both parts!

The Ingredients: Anhydrous Products

A mid to lightweight liquid oil

What it’s for

All kinds of things! You’ll use liquid oils in body butters, lip balms, lotions, creams, body oils, and more. This ingredient type is so useful that if you really want to buy more ingredients, this is a good place to start. You don’t need ten different mid-to-lightweight oils, but if you’ve got room in your budget I’d recommend getting one lightweight (fast-absorbing) oil and one midweight (average absorption speed) oil. Learn more and get some ideas with this post!

How much you’ll need

Somewhere around 300–500mL (10–16 fl oz) is a good place to start for one or two liquid carrier oils.

The per mL cost is always better for bigger bottles, so it can be really tempting to get the bigger bottle because it’s a better deal. Please learn from my mistakes (and waste) and don’t buy 1L (33.8fl oz) bottles of heaps of different oils until you know what sorts of formulations you like to make and which oils you like to use. You’ll generally get 1–2 years shelf life from the oils recommended below. That should be more than enough time to use up 300–500mL (unless you have twenty such bottles!), but if you live somewhere very hot you may want to store them in the fridge to extend their shelf life.

What I recommend

The idea here is to select something inexpensive and quite neutral—nothing with a strong scent or colour. I also recommend choosing something that is reliably liquid at room temperature where you live so you don’t have to worry about the oil changing state in your formulations. Here are some ideas:

You will almost certainly be tempted by more expensive oils like argan oil, jojoba oil, marula oil, and oh-so-many more, and I definitely can’t fault you for wanting to try them all! If there’s room in your budget it is really lovely to have a luxury oil or two to play with—just keep the amounts to 100mL (3.3fl oz) or less to start with and don’t buy them all 😂

A note on coconut oil: I don’t recommend it as your sole liquid oil unless it’s reliably liquid where you live, but if you’ve got room in your budget for a reliably liquid oil + coconut oil, it’s worth having. I love the smell of virgin coconut oil (combine it with unrefined cocoa butter for an ultra-delicious scent!).

A soft butter

What it’s for

You can use soft butters in many of the same formulations you’d use liquid oils in—lip balms, lotions, and creams—but they are also essential for making soft body butters. They’re the soft part of a soft body butter!

Sample formulation: Super Simple Whipped Shea Butter

How much you’ll need

I’d start with around 500g (1.1lbs)—less if you aren’t a big fan of anhydrous body butters.

What I recommend

Shea butter or mango butter will likely be the easiest-to-get options. Choose shea butter if you like richer products; choose mango butter if you prefer lighter, faster-absorbing products.

If you choose shea butter, you’ll need to decide if you want refined or unrefined shea butter. Unrefined shea butter has a nutty, smokey scent that will come through in your finished products if you use much more than 10% shea butter—some people love the smell, other people… not so much. Choose refined shea if you aren’t sure about the scent.

Learn more: What can I make with shea butter?

If you don’t have access to shea butter or mango butter, cupuacu butter or murumuru butter are also lovely soft butter options.

Watch out for pseudo butters made from hydrogenated fats. Look at the INCI—if you see the word “hydrogenated”, that’s a pseudo butter (here’s an example). There is definitely a place for them in formulating, but I don’t recommend them as one of the first ingredients to purchase. You’ll also want to avoid blended butters (usually an extract + fragrance + a soft butter like refined shea) as your first soft butter purchase; again, check that INCI. If there are multiple ingredients in the INCI, that’s a blended butter (here’s an example).

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A brittle butter

What it’s for

I love brittle butters in balms, lotions, creams, and body butters. Because they’re quite hard (think chocolate bar hard), they’ll bring some hardness/brittle-ness to our formulations (depending on how much you use, of course). For this reason, I especially love brittle butters as the primary ingredient in solid body butter bars.

Sample formulation: Cinnamon Cocoa Massage Bars

How much you’ll need

I’d start with around 500g (1.1lbs)—less if you aren’t a big fan of anhydrous body butters. Compared to liquid oils, butters tend to have longer shelf lives as they contain high concentrations of slow-to-oxidize saturated fatty acids like stearic acid—that’s why they’re solid!

What I recommend

Cocoa butter is the easiest choice; choose unrefined if you adore the smell of chocolate (I do!) and refined if you’d prefer not to bring a chocolatey scent to everything you make with cocoa butter.

More options: Brittle Butters in the Humblebee & Me DIY Encyclopedia

A wax

What it’s for

We use waxes to thicken our formulations and add some staying power; waxes add some weight and, well, waxiness. To get an idea of what waxes bring to our formulations, compare a lip balm to just straight oil on your lips. The lip balm will have a lot more staying power and substance than just the oil.

How much you’ll need

You don’t need a lot of wax to make a big difference in a formulation, so you won’t need a ton of it; 100g (3.5oz) will make a lot of balms.

I typically use beeswax around 20–40% in lip balm formulations, so if we average that out at 30%, 100g (3.5oz) of beeswax would make about 70 standard tubes of lip balm!

What I recommend

Beeswax is my top choice—it’s got a lovely rich, creamy consistency that I especially love in lip balms. It’s also readily available in most places.

For vegan options, candelilla wax and carnauba wax are the two most common options. These waxes are quite different than beeswax—they’re much harder and create products that feel much thinner and oily (vs. rich and creamy for beeswax) on the skin. Berry wax and sunflower wax are also popular plant-derived options.

There are lots of other wax options, too! Review these experiments to learn more:

Watch out for pseudo waxes like olive wax and almond wax; these are waxes made from hydrogenated fats. Look at the INCI—if you see the word “hydrogenated”, that’s a pseudo wax. There is definitely a place for them in formulating, but I don’t recommend them as one of the first ingredients to purchase. Stick to a “true” wax (or two) for now.

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

A fatty thickener

What it’s for

Fatty thickeners thicken our formulations without waxiness, and this can come in very useful! I love fatty thickeners in lotions, body butters, and cleansers—places where the waxiness of waxes can be sticky and/or impede rinse-off. Fatty thickeners are an ingredient many new formulators don’t use and I think it’s a neglected category. They’re versatile, inexpensive, and have a long shelf life.

How much you’ll need

100–200g (3.5–7oz) will be plenty.

What I recommend

The three fatty thickeners that are typically the easiest for homecrafters to get are cetyl alcohol, stearic acid, and cetearyl alcohol. The word “alcohol” in some of these ingredient names can worry those concerned about volatile alcohols in their skincare, but don’t worry—these aren’t volatile alcohols (like isopropyl alcohol) and won’t dry the skin. They’re emollients, and will help moisturize the skin as they thicken your formulations.

Cetearyl alcohol is my top choice for a starter fatty thickener as it’s a bit of an in-between of cetyl alcohol and stearic acid in terms of hardening strength and skin feel. My cetearyl alcohol is a 30/70 blend of cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol. It is possible to purchase 50/50 cetearyl alcohol, but I recommend 30/70 if you want to follow my formulations.

I highly recommend reading through these experiments to learn more about what each of these ingredients contributes to our formulations:

I also recommend comparing the observations made in these fatty thickener experiments to the observations made in the similarly structured wax experiments linked above.

Honourable mentions

Essential oils & fragrance oils

The essential oil category is a lot more nuanced than is often represented by Pinterest-y DIYs, which is why I haven’t put them in the “must-buy” part of this post. You don’t need essential oils to learn to formulate; they’re fun and interesting, but they aren’t a must-have to get started.

Essential oils are naturally occurring compounds that are extracted from plant matter. Because they’re complex chemical blends made by plants for jobs like attracting pollinators and discouraging predators, they aren’t always super compatible with our skin. A chemical compound that a predator finds off-putting may smell lovely to humans but also give you a rash—bummer. Different essential oils have different maximum allowable usage rates, which is then further complicated by maximum allowable concentrations of individual chemical constituents that can be exceeded in an essential oil blend without exceeding the individual usage rate of any one essential oil. I learned about all of this in my Formula Botanica Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation, and I think it’s one of the most valuable things I learned in that diploma.

September 2021: Formula Botanica is currently offering a free (all-new) formulation masterclass! You can sign up here 🙂 I highly recommend it, especially if you're wanting to see how Formula Botanica works.

If you want to include essential oils in your skincare, I recommend sticking to 1% or less (of the total formulation—not each!) of these essential oils to get started. These essential oils are fairly simple to work with without exceeding any dermal limits:

  • Lavender essential oil
  • Peppermint essential oil
  • Spearmint essential oil
  • Grapefruit essential oil
  • Lemon essential oil
  • Sweet orange essential oil
  • Cedarwood essential oil
  • Rosemary essential oil
  • Patchouli essential oil
  • Eucalyptus essential oil

Two more great resources for learning about essential oil safety are the Tisserand Institute and the book Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals by Robert Tisserand & Rodney Young.

Fragrance oils can be an easier place to start because they are designed to be applied to human skin, and their usage rates are much more readily available from suppliers. On this product page, you can see the various usage rates listed under the “IFRA Maximum Skin Exposure Levels” header. The maximum concentration allowed for a body lotion is an utterly bonkers 37.7%, which I can’t imagine you’d ever exceed (for reference, 0.5% would almost certainly be more than enough to adequately scent a formulation).

How to Make Forest Facial Lotion

Clays

If you like clay face masks, a powdered clay or two is a lovely thing to have on hand. If you’re only going to get one clay, I’d recommend white kaolin clay. It’s gentle, smooth, creamy, super versatile, and easy to work with. French Green Clay is also great, though its green colour can be limiting (you wouldn’t want to use it in most makeup, for instance). Bentonite clay is also really popular, though I’m not crazy about it.

Watch this: How are Bentonite Clay and Kaolin Clay Different?


Alright, that’s been part 1! Would you add anything? What would you recommend?

Stay tuned for part 2, where I’ll introduce five more ingredients that will allow you to make all kinds of lotions, cleansers, creams, and more!

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