How-to: Lotion

When I was learning to make soap, it was not a smooth road; not every experiment worked perfectly. Still, I have only once ever ended up with a COMPLETE disaster of a result when making soap, which was not due to a failed experiment, just evidently One Of Those Things (seriously, I never have figured out what went wrong with that batch).

On the other hand, when I was learning to make lotion, I had failure after failure after failure. I ended up with oily, slimy messes, with curdled piles of glop, with things gone awfully wrong in about as many ways as things can go. I had books and blogs aplenty telling me ways to make lotion, and I couldn’t make a single one of them work, and it was frustrating.

To help out people who may be having similar troubles, I provide here one of the first successful lotion recipes I ever came up with, which in fact is the direct ancestor of the recipe I still use today.

You will need:

  • Kitchen scale capable of measuring to 0.1 oz
  • Two microwave-safe containers, each large enough to hold the entire batch
  • Spoon, whisk, and/or stick blender
  • Sanitizing solution
  • Thermometer (infrared is best; if using candy thermometers you’ll want two)
  • Containers, NEW AND UNUSED, six 4 oz bottles or equivalent
  • 18 oz Filtered water
  • 3.8 oz Sunflower oil (or other oil(s) of choice)
  • 1.2 oz Emulsifying wax
  • 1 oz Stearic acid
  • Preservative (0.2 oz of Germaben II or 0.1 oz of Liquid Germall Plus)
  • 0.3 oz Fragrance, if desired

Before we get into details, let’s talk a little about the ingredients and why we use them.

Water makes up most of this recipe, because this is a lotion and that’s the way they work. If the proportion of water were lower, it would be a cream – but really, if you lowered the water proportion enough for it to be less than the other ingredients, it would be such a thick cream it would be difficult to use. The water is not only here to help achieve the desired consistency, though – it plays a role in the moisturizing effect of the finished product, too. Using filtered water helps keep out unwanted mineral contamination from hard water, and also bacterial contamination – more on that in a minute.

The oil phase is where you have the most opportunity to play here. I specified sunflower oil because that’s what I started with, but feel free to mix and match all you like – find oils that have properties you like and use amounts of those adding up to the stated amount of oil here, and it should work just fine.

As I’ve mentioned before, oil and water need something to hold them together if they’re not going to separate shortly after you stop stirring. Emulsifying wax is not the only choice for this, but it’s easy to use, fairly inexpensive from just about any soap/lotion/cosmetics supplier I’ve found, and works well. I use another emulsifier for conditioners and facial moisturizers, but more on that later.

Stearic acid (a fatty acid, not an acid-acid) is added here to make the lotion thicker. It’s not absolutely necessary, but does add a nice touch.

Preservative is absolutely vital unless you are planning to a) keep your lotion in the fridge, b) use it up within a couple of weeks, and c) never EVER use it on broken skin, like after you shave or if you have a hangnail. Oil + water = absolutely perfect territory for bacterial and fungal growth, and there’s nothing quite like opening your jar of lotion to discover it covered in a forest of mold. Ugh. The procedure below outlines how to minimize the amount of bacteria in your lotion at the outset, but pretty much nothing is ever entirely sterile, and even if you got it 100% sterile at the beginning, as soon as it’s opened and exposed to air there’ll be icky nasties landing on the surface. So use preservative and stop the growth of yuck in its tracks! I have used two different preservatives over time and like them both quite a lot – I started out using Germaben II, which is very effective, can be added to your lotion after it cools below 140F, and I only stopped using it because I was searching for a paraben-free preservative. These days I use Liquid Germall Plus, which also works well but needs the lotion to cool off a bit more (120F) before you add it.

Fragrance isn’t necessary, but can be fun! Make sure what you use is skin-safe (i.e. not intended for candles or oil diffusers or other things and not tested for skin sensitivities); you can find thousands of options out there from various suppliers.

Right! On to the actual making.

…wait. Not quite yet. First you need to sanitize all your equipment. Everything – bowls, spoons, mixer attachments, a funnel if you’re going to use one, whatever it is, if it’s going to touch the lotion or lotion ingredients, into the sanitizer it goes. It’s not so complicated as it sounds, though – just put the things in the sink, fill it with warm water (but not so hot you won’t be able to put your hand in it to get things back out again), and add a quarter cup or so of bleach – more if you have a really huge sink. After half an hour or so, you can remove the items and rinse them with blisteringly hot tap water, which we can consider pre-sanitized for these purposes.  OK, now it’s time to make lotion.

Heat the water in the microwave until it reaches about 180F. Carefully move to an area out of the way and monitor its temperature from time to time while working with the oil phase. If it falls below 160F, put it back in the microwave for a bit. Holding it at this temperature helps assure the proper emulsion, and also helps cut down on any bacteria there might be in the water.

Put the sunflower (or other) oil(s), emulsifying wax, and stearic acid in the other container and heat it in the microwave on short (30 second) bursts until everything is melted. Check the temperature – if it’s above 160F, set it aside to cool; if it’s below, put it back in the microwave for another temperature burst.

When both the oil and water phases are within a couple of degrees of 160F, gently pour the water into the oil (not the other way around – not only does oil not pour as well so you’d be leaving some of your goodies behind in the bowl, you get a much better emulsion pouring water into oil than the other way around) and stir with a spoon until the lotion is well emulsified. Most people recommend using a stick blender at this point to stir it very thoroughly to ensure the lotion is well blended and smooth, but I don’t find it to be necessary. It certainly doesn’t hurt, though, so go right ahead and do so if you like – just be careful not to go too crazy with it, because if you whip too much air into the lotion it’s likely to set up with foam in the top and feel a bit odd.

Keep an eye on the temperature. When it cools to 140F (for Germaben II) or 120F (for Liquid Germall Plus), add preservative and fragrance and stir thoroughly, then bottle, let cool the rest of the way, and enjoy! And once you’ve got the knack of it, go wild – not only vary the oils as mentioned above, but try adding other things – silk, vitamin E, aloe, silicone, squalane, glycerin, goat’s milk, botanical extracts, whatever you like! Also remember, you can change the consistency by changing the amount of water. Tinker away, and make awesome lotion.

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About Amy Young

Founder of Foam on the Range soaps. View all posts by Amy Young

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