In the wide world of “body butters behaving badly”, I think graininess is the challenge I get the most questions about and have personally encountered the most throughout my formulating journey. It’s such a bummer to create a beautiful body butter and find it’s gone grainy or mealy on you 💔 I love butters, but dangit, they can be divas! So this post (and partner video) are all about graininess in body butter—why it happens, how to fix it, and how to prevent it. Let’s get started!
Watch the partner video to see examples + learn more!
What is body butter?
There is no universally agreed-upon definition for “body butter”, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll define it as an anhydrous product (aka it doesn’t contain any water) comprised primarily of butters. These butters can be natural butters, like shea butter and cocoa butter, or pseudo butters made with hydrogenated oils (check the INCI for the word “hydrogenated”). Body butter formulations can also contain liquid oils, colourants, essential oils, fragrances, and hardeners like cetyl alcohol and stearic acid.
I don’t typically think of products that contain large amounts (upwards of 20%?) of hardening waxes (examples include beeswax and candelilla wax) as body butters—that tends to head more towards “balm” and “salve” territory (though balms and salves can also go grainy!). That said, I definitely include waxes in formulations I think of as body butters from time to time, and if you live somewhere much hotter than I do you may need to include hardening waxes in your body butter formulations to ensure they’re stable.
How do I know if my body butter has gone grainy?
You’ll usually feel a grainy body butter before you’ll notice something visually is off. It might feel like there are tiny grains of sand in your body butter, or it might feel mealy or gritty. Instead of being smooth and luscious, it might look a little curdled—you might be able to see visual inconsistencies if you look closely enough. You might think it looks like it has little white spots/beads of mould in it even though there’s no water in the formulation. Whatever the case, it won’t be smooth and uniform.
If you can see wispy opaque bits or opaque grains in a body of otherwise liquid oil that wasn’t supposed to be liquid, that’s a melting problem (due to excessive heat) rather than a graininess problem. A grainy body butter will usually still be solid, it just won’t be smooth.
Why is my body butter grainy?
TL; DR: Your body butter is grainy because it didn’t cool properly or because it re-melted/softened too much in too-hot storage conditions and then re-cooled in a less-than-ideal way afterwards.
The fats we work with when making our own skincare are comprised of different fatty acids, and these different fatty acids have all kinds of different characteristics, from skin feel to melting point to skincare benefits. Liquid oils are primarily comprised of fatty acids with low melting points, so they’re liquid at ambient temperature. Solid oils and butters are primarily comprised of fatty acids with higher melting points, so they’re solid at ambient temperature.
When we formulate body butters, we create blends of all kinds of different fatty acids, often melting everything all at once and then cooling it to create a uniform product from your carefully crafted blend of butters and oils. Sometimes, however, those fatty acids with higher melting points decide to get together with their other high-melting-point fatty acids and get all solid and hard before anything else in the formulation has (rude). This leaves us with hard, grainy/gritty/mealy bits in our formulation, and also means the rest of the formulation isn’t quite as thick/hard as intended as the hardening fatty acids aren’t properly and evenly distributed throughout the product.
How can I fix my grainy body butter?
For starters, you will need to gently re-melt it. You shouldn’t need much heat at all, so I wouldn’t worry too much if you’ve already added your essential oils/fragrance oils and vitamin E. Ideally you wouldn’t be re-heating these ingredients, but we’ve got a body butter to de-grainy-ify!
So, step 1: gently re-melt. Scrape the body butter out of its container and into some sort of melting vessel. If you will be whipping the butter, choose a bowl you can both heat and whip in. If you’ll be pouring the butter into a tin/jar/tube/mould to set up, I recommend a heat-resistant glass measuring cup. The thick glass sides of the measuring cup retain heat well, giving us lots of time to gently cool the butter, and the pouring spout makes it easy to pour the butter at pouring time.
Prepare a hot water bath by heating about 3cm/1″ water in a flat-bottled pan that’s large enough to hold your bowl/measuring cup. I usually select medium to medium-low heat for this; we want the water to be steaming, but not bubbling. Place the bowl or measuring cup into your water bath; the body butter will start to melt quickly. I recommend stirring it to break up any chunks and encourage it to melt as quickly as possible. You can usually remove the body butter from the heat at the 90% melted point and keep stirring; the remaining 10% of the butter will melt in the residual heat.
Once melting is done, it’s time to cool the butter properly so it doesn’t go all grainy/mealy on us. Precisely what “properly” means will depend a lot on your formulation, but the general idea is to keep it moving while it cools (for a while, at least) so the harder fatty acids can’t get all cliquey with their buddies.
Cooling poured body butters to avoid graininess
TL;DR: Bring the body butter to trace and then allow to fully set up in whatever way works for the formulation.
While the butter is re-melting, prepare an ice bath. Take a bowl that is large enough to accommodate the container the butter is re-melting in, and fill it about halfway with ice cubes and cold water. Once the body butter has re-melted, remove it from the hot water bath and stir it on the counter for a few minutes to avoid going from very hot to very hard, which is taxing on your glassware (even if it is heat shock resistant).
After a few minutes, transfer the measuring cup containing the heated phase into the ice bath and cool, stirring constantly. As the butter cools it will gain viscosity; make sure you are scraping around the edges and across the bottom of the measuring cup to ensure no part of the butter is hardening up too fast. If you feel like the butter is cooling too quickly you can move it in and out of the ice bath to slow things down. Eventually, when you pull your spatula out of the liquid and drizzle some of the melted butter over the surface of the rest of the body butter you’ll notice it leaves a “trace” behind. Once you’ve reached your desired level of trace you can pour your body butter.
How thick of a trace you’ll need will depend on your formulation. I usually choose thicker traces if I’m working with a formulation that contains insoluble elements, like mica—a thicker trace helps prevent settling. If I’m pouring the body butter into a mould or tube I’ll usually aim for a thinner trace. It will take practice and patience to hone your eye and get a feel for different levels of trace, so don’t worry if you don’t nail it straight away!
To see trace in action, please watch these video tutorials:
- How to Make DIY Cinnamon Cocoa Massage Bars
- How to Make DIY Sugar Plum Body Butter Bars
- How to Make DIY Sugar Plum Conditioning Body Butter
- How to Make DIY White Chocolate Peppermint Body Butter Bars
Once the body butter has been cooled, all that’s left is leaving it to set up—either in the fridge or on the counter at room temperature. Which is best (fridge or counter) will vary with the formulation. Try one, and if the butter is still mealy, re-melt and try the other.
Cooling whipped body butters to avoid graininess
Whipped body butters are usually less grainy-prone simply because their whipped nature means they are already stirred a lot as they cool. However, if you do find yourself needing to fix a grainy whipped body butter, start with gently re-melting the butter in a bowl that you’ll be able to whip in.
Once the butter has melted we need to cool it and whip it, keeping it cool enough throughout whipping (remember—whipping introduces heat!) so that it whips up rather than melts down. You can do this in one of two ways.
- Chill the butter mixture until solid in the fridge, and then whip it with the bowl sitting in an ice bath.
- Freeze the butter mixture for about 5 minutes. Whip for a few minutes, until it’s nice and fluffy, and then freeze for another 5 minutes. Whip again, and repeat as necessary—smaller batches will require fewer freeze/whip cycles while larger batches will require more.
Watch the partner video to see examples + learn more!
How can I stop my body butter formulations from going grainy in the future?
Determine the optimal way to cool and set the body butter as part of the formulating process
As you make more and more body butters you’ll get a feel for what works for certain types of body butters; take lots of notes and try different levels of trace and different cooling temperatures as you experiment. When I start work on a new body butter formulation I begin with just the base ingredients (no fragrances, actives, etc.) and work on nailing how to prepare that perfectly (since I haven’t added any expensive ingredients I can re-melt it as many times as I need to). Once I’ve perfected the melting and cooling I move on to incorporating more expensive ingredients.
Baby your body butters when it comes to storage
If your body butter re-melts, it is free to re-solidify however it wants… which is usually not how you wanted it to. Don’t leave body butters in hot cars or on sunny windowsills.
Re-formulate for cold process
If there’s nothing in your formulation that needs to be melted (like a hard wax or fatty thickener), consider cold-processing the entire formulation. If the butter has melted, it can’t re-solidify in a wonky way! This technique works best for whipped formulations as you won’t get any sort of pour if your product never becomes liquid! You’ll need to make sure your butters are already silky smooth (sometimes they can go grainy/mealy from temperature fluctuations during shipping), but that’s about it. Check out this formulation for an example.
Re-formulate for lower graininess potential
I’ve found formulations that contain soft butters like shea butter are more prone to going grainy, so if you are having a really hard time finding a trace/cooling combo that works for your formulation, consider re-formulating to remove the soft butter(s) and see if that helps.
You can also try incorporating a small amount of a hardening wax; I’ve found that formulations that contain some hardening wax are less prone to graininess, though they can definitely still go grainy!
Phew! I can’t believe I thought this would be a quick wee post when I dreamt it up 😅 What are your top tips for preventing graininess?