As I’m sure you can tell, I’m not much for following recipes—I’d rather make up my own. Sometimes it works, sometimes it sort of works, and sometimes it’s a catastrophic, err, “learning experience”. Over the last few years I’ve learned some lessons when it comes to developing recipes, and I thought I’d share them with you.
Read up on your ingredients.
Learn about ’em. Learn what they do, what vitamins they have, what they’re good for. How do they feel—sticky, smooth, slimy? What temperature do they melt at, and what state is it at room temperature (liquid, soft, solid, brittle)? What do they do when added to a formulation—soften it, thicken it, harden it? Know your ingredients on their own so you know how they work in teams.
Categorize your ingredients by purpose.
Most ingredients will have one or two purposes. Waxes are generally hardening, but waxes like beeswax can also contribute scent. Essential oils are for scent and assorted aromatherapy/health benefits. You can break carrier oils down by absorption speed, scent, and any special benefits. Knowing what each ingredient does helps you know what it’s for—thickening, fragrance, absorption speed, etc.
Take note of the proportions in your recipes, and how those proportions effect the final product.
What do you want the final product to be like? Think back to something you made that was similar. Need your new product to be softer? Use less wax. Absorb faster? Use a fast absorbing carrier oil instead of a slow absorbing one.
Build yourself a set of basic recipes
Your starters will be body butter, body bar, a soft salve, lip balm, and lotion.
Learn which traits go hand-in-hand
These are usually pretty obvious. Concoctions that are soft at room temperature usually melt quickly; ingredients that absorb quickly are generally quite smooth to the touch, etc.
Most suppliers provide recommended usage rates. Know those.
Recommended usage rates are a great place to start. New Directions Aromatics is really good about providing them. They’re generally a guideline. Read up on the ingredient to ensure it’s not a common irritant before going above and beyond.
Know the different ingredients do in different amounts.
For instance, beeswax thickens, then hardens, then makes things really sticky and skiddy. Once you know that, you won’t be tempted to add tons of beeswax to something in an attempt to save it.
Understand the properties of each ingredient in relation to the properties you want your final product to have.
Think about what you want the final product to be, and then choose your ingredients. Do you want it to absorb quickly? Choose a carrier oil that absorbs quickly, and make that your primary ingredient. Want it to be great for hair? Oils like camellia seed and argan are great for the hair—make those the focus of your recipe. Super moisturizing? Look at ingredients like unrefined shea butter (USA / Canada), avocado oil, and capuacu butter.
Note the pH of your ingredients
You should have at least a vague idea of the pH of your ingredients, so if you combine baking soda (USA / Canada) and citric acid, you know it’s going to bubble up like mad, or if you put straight vitamin C on your face, it’s going to buuuuuuurn.
If you’re making a copycat product, remember the ingredients on the original are listed in order of proportion in the final product. Also, watch out for cheap filler ingredients.
Ingredients are always listed in order of descending quantity. For instance, the ingredients on my naked lip balm would read “sweet almond oil, coconut oil, beeswax, cocoa butter (USA / Canada), Vitamin E MT-50 (USA / Canada).” That gives you somewhere to start when you’re duping a recipe. Combining that list of ingredients with a previous similar recipe you’ve had success with will usually yield good results. Be sure to watch for cheap filler ingredients—things like maize oil, mineral oil, and microcrystalline wax. You can replace those with something nicer 🙂
Write down what works, what doesn’t. If you have to go back and add more beeswax, take note of how much beeswax made it soft, and how much more it takes to make it hard.
When you’re adding essential oils, go a drop at a time. When your adding ingredients, pour slowly. Pay attention to what happens.
Work in small amounts.
Resist the urge to make a big batch of anything the first time around. I like to work in 100g batches because then I can work in percents very easily—1g=1%. Voila.
Give it time.
I’ve said this before, but watch your concoctions over time. Give them time to set up fully. Let them cool before you decide if the scent is great or downright awful. Give them a week to see if they turn into a mouldy mess. Note anything that changes, and work it into future experiments.
You can always add more of something, but it’s hard to take it out.
If you’re not sure if you need 5g of beeswax or 10g, start with 5g.
Ok, those are my tips—what are yours?
Wonder information!! Thank you for breaking it down. This is just what I needed to read today. Thanks!!
Thanks, Kyra 🙂 I hope you’re able to DIY up some awesome concoctions with these tips!
Thank you so much…this helps a lot. I sent you a message about my wanting to know more about the chemistry behind making various products. I purchased four books on aromatherapy and while they were very interesting to read they lack some of the “practical” advice in this post.
I have been taking careful notes in developing different hand creams and now have a table full of ingredients thanks to your many recipes.
One question please: is there a maximum of essential oils that should be the limit in a hand cream? …and is there a limit to the number of essential oils that can be used in the maximum allowance?
Wonderful site full of creative ideas…even for an old male gardener like me.
Yes, there is definitely a maximum for every essential oil. Maximum usage rates vary from one eo to another. However, generally you never want to go over 3%. Some Eos can be used higher and some much lower. You should research the usage rates for each essential oil you use and always be aware of counter indications. Eos are not perfume or fragrance oils, they are powerful healers that can be overdone with bad results. Do your research and you will be fine. 🙂
Sorry to be such a laggard…but is that 3% total of all EO used in a recipe?
Is there an easy way to find the 3% or do I just need to do the math?
Given your response I assume there is no limit to the number of EO’s used in a mix?
I worry with one recipe for a 6 oz tin of hand cream in which I use 30 drops of Lavender, 2 benzoid, 7 sweet orange and 18 Litsea. I added the orange to your L’Occitane lavender EO mix into a regular hand cream. My wife thinks It smells wonderful. I use 4-5 carrier olis , but I fear I am over blending stuff to improve absorption and healing.
Thanks again for all your insights and inspiration to a new follower.
I’d generally calculate it as 3% of the total weight—for a 100g (3.3oz) lotion recipe that would be approximately 60 drops of essential oils, so your lotion sounds like it should be more than ok 🙂 You will probably find that your nose will tell you “that’s enough” well before you pass 3%.
Thank you very much. I did the math and I am ok. I did note on one website that for people over 65 the number should be 2%…so I am trying for the middle for safety.
Made the peppermint cocoa lip balm and added a couple drops of cocoa absolute which made it smell like a chocolate mint candy…big hit.
Thank you so much. May try the hair products next!!
No worries 🙂 Your best source of info is often your personal observations, so stay sharp 😉 Your peppermint cocoa lip balm sounds divine! It’s still one of my personal favourite recipes, mmmm.
I recently found your blog and I’m slowly reading through your articles and recipes. I’m learning a lot from you and feeling very inspired to try some things.
The 60 drops (above) left me a bit lost.
So the 60 drops are 3g, and 10 drops would be 0,5g, am I thinking correctly?
I’ve seen the mention of % regarding EOs, but had no idea how to calculate.
Hi Filomena! Your math is correct, but when it comes to measuring essential oils out by the drop, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. I always find the final product has more than enough scent well before I reach 3%!
The only exceptions I’ve come across for the 3% rule are perfumes (generally at least 30%, and up to 50%), where the essential oils are dissolved in perfumery alcohol, and tiger balm, which is fully 50% essential oils.
You’re very welcome, Jess! I’m glad this has been helpful 🙂 I, too, find the aromatherapy books to be relatively limited in their scope, since I’m not all that interested in just sniffing my EOs—I want to use them for things!
There are guidelines for essential oil usage, and that’s likely where you’ll find your books on aromatherapy and supplier websites to come in handy. General guidelines say 2–3%, but that varies from person to person and from oil to oil. I’ve never found that I surpass this with lotions, as I hit the maximum scent level I can tolerate well before I hit 2-3%.
I’ve never heard of a limit in the number of different EOs you can use, so you should be safe there 🙂
I absolutely love your blog. I am a third generation beauty junkie and have tried every imaginable product out there from high end to low end. Turns out my skin is happiest with home made, simple products. I have been making my own masks for years and I look forward to your blog every day for new ideas and advice on making things better. Thank you so much!!!!!
Thanks so much, Marcela! I’ve found the same thing—argan oil trumps a $50 cucumber-scented cream any day 🙂 Thanks for reading & DIYing with me!
Those sound like good tips, nothing to add right now! 🙂
Thanks for all the wonderful recipes you’ve shared, and for these very practical and helpful tips for creating our own recipes. I’ve really enjoyed your posts, and I loved the story about your grandmother and her marimba band!
Thanks so much for reading, Beth 🙂 I’ll be sure to let my Grandma know that you enjoyed her story as well!
Great tips, Marie!
For non adventurous people like me, they are also very valuable to evaluate a recipe found over the internet, some of them just don’t make sense.
I use the same principles when cooking and baking: know the ingredients and the techniques, so I can (learn to) separate the wheat from the chaff. Only metaphorically, of course, since gluten is like a poison for my body ;-))
Thanks Mrs G! I use these tips & other bits of experience and reasoning to evaluate recipes I find, and like you, sometimes they just don’t make sense. It’s a great skill to be able to evaluate a recipe before making it, potentially saving your ingredients from being wasted on something that will fail.
Great tips. I love to tweak recipes. I started out with basic recipes I found online, once I was comfortable with it I would then exchange some of the ingredients to get different results. So when I make lotion I add whatever I have on hand and it comes out a little different every time. One time I made a fabulous deodorant and didn’t write down the proportions and still haven’t been able to recreate it exactly.
Thanks, Inna! I think we’ve all tweaked a recipe, had a great success, and promptly forgotten what on earth we did—it’s one of the great heartbreakers of DIYing 😛
I hope this is not a preable to you leaving your blog and we poor people have to think for ourselves!!
I think compare different recipes and do comparisons. Read books, check blogs go on U tube. I think your advice goes a long way in the DIY. Compare prices (a Scottish thing), especially for EO,s. Maybe start with soap ingredients until you understand the contents eg Sodium tallowate is tallow (OK ingredient) Sodium Laureate (do a google search and find out how good/bad it is for the skin). Calendula is a good ingredient (Calendula Officionalis is OK) Tagetes (Marigold) is not.
Of course not, George 🙂 I’ve just been getting quite a lot of comments in this vein, so I thought I’d write up a full blog on it.
Your advice is great! You can never do enough research and reading. I recently picked up a few books that I can’t wait to read through… I think I need another 2-3 days in my week, lol!
I love your blog and have been reading it for about 3 months now. 😀 I’ve been mixing my own body butters and lip balms for a while now. I read your blog entry about keeping a log book on the mixes and writing down what we do step-by-step. It’s really, really helpful!
I think the number one important feature you said was “You will not remember your recipe!” I found that to be true. I made this AWESOME body butter, that looks like butter, feels like butter (but isn’t dairy butter!). I was just whipping it up and did not write down my steps or my measurements for the ingredients. I used raw honey, but can’t remember how much I used. Same with the other ingredients. It’s heart breaking, because I’m not sure I can replicate the recipe. It’s a lovely butter that soaks in quickly and allows me to wash dishes without gloves.
A few days after that, I read your blog entry about writing everything down because “you will not remember it!” So now I have a specific notebook with my recipes that include the measurements of each ingredient, and the processes I used to create the recipes. I also include notes where I found deals on various ingredients, noting whether they are organic or true sourced and even prices. In addition, I’ve jotted down what pairs with what, whether there are interactions to be aware of, and what each ingredient is good for and what health conditions need to avoid using them.
Thank you for excellent advice! Your recipes are easy to replicate and a joy to use!
Hi CM! Thanks so much for reading & DIYing with me 🙂 I think we all have a body butter we’re worried about replicating, I know I do. It’s a beautiful one from about 2011 that was a complete fluke, and now I’m kicking myself for not writing down what I did! Since then, this blog has turned into my DIY notebook—I write up my recipes & instructions shortly after completing a project (or it makes its way into an upcoming abject failures entry!), and that helps immensely. There’s a reason DaVinci and other brilliant individuals filled up countless notebooks 🙂 Now we can just aspire to be like them 😉
The only thing that I would add it so take good notes. Nothing is more frustrating than coming up with a great recipe and not having the notes you need to recreate it again.
So true! That’s why I said it 🙂
I totally agree with you Jennifer. I have scrawled notes on stickies in little note books but as per usual I can never find the one I need and then have to go online to find the recipe and process. I am going to put all my notes in future……well will try!
I’ve found this blog has become my notes—I write things up directly after doing them, and then refer back as needed 🙂
Great tid bits!! I especially love the advice about working in small amounts. I tried a recipe which didn’t turn out well ant it filled 3 8oz jars. Talk about waste.
Thanks, Jamie! I know I’m still working on a body butter I made back in the spring of 2011… I made so much… I don’t even like it that much 🙁
I got rid of a big tub of body butter by using it as the ‘hard oil/soft butter’ part in emulsified sugar scrub 🙂
(I can’t believe how easy that stuff is to make!!?)
Brilliant! That’s an awesome way to use up an unloved concoction 🙂 I may have a tub of something I should do that with haha.
Great tips Marie!!
I also calculate my recipe to % so if I want to make a bigger or smaller batch the recipe qty can easily be manipulated.
Can you also give me some light regarding pH levels please?
Hi Tammy! I usually start with my recipes as percents too, but I publish most of them in finite measurements as percentage recipes tend to confuse people.
Your best resource for pH will be MSDS sheets. New Directions Aromatics is great about providing them. pH is generally not an issue with oils, EOs, or butters (I’ve never found one, at least). Some obvious ingredients with basic or acid pHs’s to note are citric acid, vinegar, baking soda, and vitamin C. If you’re ever curious, you can usually just google “pH of ingredient” and find out 🙂 Is that what you meant?
Ooo.. thanks soo much Marie.
One more question..Am i able to find out the pH level of the overall product by averaging out the pH of the ingredient I use?.. sounds too simple to be right. Hehe
Hmmm. I’d think generally not, as things will cancel out in different amounts depending on all sorts of various chemistry-type things that I learned when I was 17 and have since forgotten. If you’re really curious, though, pH testing strips are quite cheap. Personally, I don’t test the pH level of my final products. When it’s mostly oil, or oil and water, it’s pretty hard to go too far wrong. Soap is a potential exception, but there you can just do a “zap” test—that is, touch your tongue to the soap, and if it feels like you licked a battery, you measured wrong somewhere and the pH is too high for comfortable use (you’ve made cleaning soap).
Hi, I have a couple of questions, I wasn’t sure where else to ask them, I hope you don’t mind.
Firstly I’ve just made my first moisturiser but it’s too oily; can I add something to make it less so? I used slightly more Shea Butter to Coconut Oil, 1 tsp Almond Oil and the oil from 1 vitamin E capsule. I could easily just use it at night but want to give some to my daughter for her hands to use daily.
The second thing is I bought some unrefined Palm Oil before I read your blog and hadn’t realised it was environmentally controversial. I won’t buy it again but want to use what I’ve got. The thing is it’s orange! Foolishly I thought it may not be so after mixing with other ingredients and certainly not orange on the skin :-/ Apart from using it as fake tan haha, is there anything else I can use it for?
Hi Anne! I need to know what recipe you used for your moisturizer before I can give you any advice on it 🙂 If all it was was shea butter, coconut oil, almond oil and vitamin E, it’s no surprise it’s oily—it’s made from 100% oils 😉 Shea butter is an especially greasy oil—awesome for dry skin, but definitely a before bedtime butter. Cocoa butter is a lighter butter (I often just use it straight on my skin). You can also look at making lotions, which contain ~75% water and are emulsions. They are far less oily, and absorb beautifully. They’re my choice for a during the day moisturizer 🙂
I’d use your palm oil for some soap 🙂 Add some lemon and orange essential oils, and you’ll have a lovely yellow/orange citrus scented bar!
BTW Thank you for all your hard work and for sharing you knowledge, information and recipes with us 🙂
Thanks so much, Anne 🙂
I wanted you to know that I replicated my recipe for that awesome body butter! If it’s not exactly like the first one I did, it’s very, very close! I’m so happy! And yes! This time I did write down the entire recipe, even the extra bits I tossed in for good measure! I have it in jars and tins. I’m so glad I was able to look at my ingredients sitting in my pantry and figure out what I did!
Now I get to do remember how I made my cocoa-chocolate lip balm!
Love your blog!
Oh, fantastic! What a wonderful victory 😀 Woohoo!
It’s the end of a school year, and I want to make some body butter to gift teachers… but I”m hyper paranoid about nut safe ingredients. Do you know of a good list to consult? I want to make it luxe with Argan, Cupuacu, and more… but I see mixed info… help!
Hi Amanda! Your first step, of course, is to use products that aren’t made from nuts (obviously, lol), but after that you should really be in touch with your supplier to find out about any possibility of cross-contamination. Almond oil and walnut oil are the two tree nut based ingredients you’re most likely to encounter in recipes, and either can be easily substituted for something like apricot kernel oil. If you’re very concerned I’d also consult the giftee/the person who’s allergies you are concerned about.
I just started reading your blog today and have become a bit obsessed! There is so many recipes I want to try! I’m only 13 (although have been using and making natural products for 2 years(ish) so I have limited funds–What are some basic staple products from NDA that you absolutely must have? Do you have master list hidden somewhere on your blog : ) ? Are there any REALLY good deals on NDA that I can’t pass up? Thank you so much!
Hi Sophia! I have a few starter shopping lists in my Potions Cabinet article 🙂 I do find the prices there are generally really good, but it never hurts to comparison shop, and do sign up for their emails for price alterts and deals.
Congrats on getting started with natural beauty/DIY straight away, that’s fantastic! You’ll be an expert before anyone knows what hit them 😉
Hi Marie, this is my first time leaving a comment here. Found your blog on pinterest (yay!) and i loved it so much that my diy supplies have been ordered and on its way! I check your blog twice a day, everyday! I am obsessed.
Keep up the great work!
Hi Saumya! Thanks so much for reading and for your kind words 😀 I really appreciate your support!
Just found your blog and just subscribed. I love it! I made my first cold cream last night, and blended beeswax and hempseed oil with water, aloe vera, borax and MSM. The MSM was meant to be the magic ingredient. What happened when I blended the oil ingredients into the water ingredients was that they initially blended, but then separated – looking like I had just poured some water over my oils. Why would that happen? Do you think it was something to do with the MSM, and if so, how would you incorporate MSM crystals into a cream? I hope you can help!
Hey Michelle! What are MSM crystals? Have you had success with the beeswax/borax emulsions before? They’re fairly fussy and require a lot more care and effort than ewax emulsions.
After taking your Newbie series, I decided to branch out and try some other lotion and liquid cleanser recipes. What I’ve learned is how much I really don’t know. I want to keep my creations as natural and healthy as possible, (thanks for Skin Deep). I’ve found a blog, (not sure about your guidelines for posting blog links) and have been just researching some of the ingredients used. However I can’t find this one, (link to the product page) http://www.voyageursoapandcandle.com/BSB_Surfactant_p/62494.htm. Can’t find it in skin deep…..is it safe, is it healthy, can you help?
Hey Belinda! Since that ingredient is made up from several ingredients, you are going to need to look up the individual ingredients on Skin Deep, not just the overall product name. Check the INCI list at the bottom of the page for the specifics 🙂
Thanks for sending me in the right direction
I am just starting out and I have made some lip balm and would like to move over to lotions, but my checking and I are a bit overwhelmed by what I really need as far as moisturizers. I have done research and still am wondering what would be better to get. For instance, Panthenol vs. silk proteins vs. stearic acid and so on.
Hey! So—the list you’ve provided, in food terms, would sort of be like saying celery vs. flour vs. salt—they’re all pretty different ingredients and it’s not really a “vs” situation. If you want to get started with plain-Jane lotions I’d advise adding Polawax and Liquid Germall Plus to your collection, assuming you already have some oils and essential oils; that’ll get you making very basic lotions. This video and the recipe in it is a pretty good place to start 🙂