If you’ve had even a passing glance at my blog, you’ll probably have noticed I like nail polish. I really, really like it. Okay, it’s kind of an obsession. A beautiful, glittery obsession that means I’m dousing my fingers in acetone every couple of days. If I don’t go nuts with the creams and the oils and the lotions, my fingers would probably curl up and just fall right off.
As a result, I’m pretty darn particular about my hand cream. I’ve tried just about everything, but none of the ones I bought were ever just right -- put me in the skincare aisle and I’m like Goldilocks. Too greasy, too watery, too chemical smelling, too sticky -- there’s always a failure.
So being the DIY nut I am, I decided to try and make my own. I figured, how hard could it be?
After a couple of pleasant smelling kitchen disasters, and extensive consultation with my Great Guru of Cosmetic Science, Michelle from Lab Muffin, I’m here today to share what I’ve learned with you all. Lab Muffin has been kind enough to provide the scientific knowhow, while I bring my usual witty repartee.
With a little patience, this tutorial, and some light reading, you’ll soon be able to create your own awesome, totally personalised hand cream!
There are approximately eleventy billion recipes for DIY cream and/or lotion on the Internet -- like an opinion on things that don’t concern them, everyone seems to have one up their sleeve.
I started with a basic recipe from the incredibly knowledgeable Susan over at Point of Interest, and went research crazy (i.e. hammered poor Michelle with a million questions like, “Why are my hands sticky?” and “I accidentally made gross goo, why is it goo and not awesome?”).
Like with culinary recipes, I’ve quickly realized there is a fair bit of wiggle room with some cosmetics recipes, particularly creams. There are seven general “food groups” of ingredients in your basic emulsified hand cream.
Water is the definition of moisture -- one could say, the essence of wetness. I trust I don’t really need to elaborate on this point.
For my recipe I used, well, water. If you want, you can go get some filtered water -- and I guess you probably should, but I used tap water and my hands didn’t fall off.
Humectants are chemicals that absorb moisture from the air. When they’re on your skin, they attract water to the upper layers from the air and from the deeper layers of your skin, resulting in more hydration. Humectants are generally water soluble, and ones you might find in hand cream include glycerin, aloe vera gel, and butylene glycol.
I chose to use glycerin as a humectant because it’s listed in the original recipe -- and I had it on hand anyway for making homemade nail polish remover. Glycerin is a small molecule with three alcohol groups on it, which means it holds onto water really well and is an excellent moisturiser. It attracts water so well that it ends up feeling sticky if you have too much on your skin.
Fun fact: Glycerin is also a laxative because it attracts water into your guts if you drink it! Science is awesome.
Emollients are ingredients that sink into the skin and repair it structurally, improving its ability to function as a barrier. Emollients are oils and don’t dissolve in water.
Some emollients you might find in hand cream include capric/caprylic triglyceride (fractionated coconut oil), coconut oil, butyl stearate, and shea butter.
Occlusives are the most hardcore of the moisturisers -- they’re thick fats and oils that form a film over the skin that repels water. This means that they keep water sealed in, but if you haven’t got water to seal in, then it keeps water out. They’re always insoluble in water and tend to be greasy. Occlusives you might find in hand cream include petroleum jelly (petrolatum), mineral oil, dimethicone, lanolin, as well as a lot of plant butters like cocoa and shea butter.
The emollients and occlusives I chose to use for my recipe are shea butter, mango butter, rosehip oil, fractionated coconut oil, macadamia oil, and stearic acid.
Plant butters like shea and mango butter have a mix of emollient and occlusive properties which make them great for both softening the skin and trapping water to stop it from drying out. These particular butters both have melting points at around skin temperature, which means they give the lotion some substance but will still sink in nicely.
Fractionated coconut oil is one of the parts of coconut oil, separated out. It’s light feeling and absorbs quickly into skin -- you might see it in mass-produced products under the name caprylic/capric triglyceride.
I popped the macadamia oil in because it has a high percentage of palmitoleic acid, which is a large component of human sebum (natural skin oil). Rosehip oil contains a bunch of vitamin A-related compounds, which can help fade scars, as well as a high percentage of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are often missing from dry skin. The unrefined plant butters and oils have small amounts of antioxidants, antimicrobials, anti-inflammatories and other skin-friendly goodies.
This recipe calls for some stearic acid to be added to all these luscious butters and oils, to help the cream spread smoothly. Stearic acid is a fatty acid that comes from breaking down some fats and oils, and it’s used in lots of cosmetic recipes as a thickener and emollient.
I’m sure you’ve all seen how oil and water don’t like to mix -- like a vinaigrette salad dressing, oil and water will separate if you just try to mix them together. Emulsifiers keep the two together -- one end of an emulsifier molecule dissolves in oil, one end dissolves in water.
It’s like the child in a hostile divorce.
Emulsifying wax (often called “e-wax”) is a mix of two substances -- cetearyl alcohol and polysorbate 60. Different emulsifiers have different ratios of oil and water that they can stabilise, so they’re suited to different uses. E-wax is recommended for creams, lotions -- basically any cosmetics that you want to have some creaminess and weight. Don’t try and substitute a straight up wax like beeswax -- it will not work, because it’s only half of the things needed for emulsification.
If you’re feeling really adventurous you can tinker with combining different things to get the exact texture you want, but for your first trip out I would highly recommend just getting some ready made e-wax. (The fact I DIDN’T do this is one of the reasons I ended up with gross goo my first try.)
If you have any water in a product and you want it to last longer than a week, you’ll need a preservative -- because bacteria love water! They are just on it like a bonnet, and before you know it you’re explaining a weird rash to a judgemental dermatologist.
I used Optiphen ND in this recipe, and it’s a mix of three preservative ingredients: phenoxyethanol, benzoic acid, and dehydroacetic acid. While it is artificial, it’s also very benign and good at keeping nasties at bay.
There are so many things you can use to make your cream smell good -- essential oils are a popular choice, and there are hundreds to choose from. I chose to use an old BPAL oil imp I had laying around -- you only need 1 mL of fragrance for every 100 mL of product, so any little scraps of good smelling oil you have lying around will do.
The neat thing about this process is that once you have the basic ideas down, you can tinker with the proportions to find the right balance for you. Do some reading on cosmetics supply sites like Bramble Berry to get an idea of the vast array of possibilities.
These broad ingredient groups are kind of like sliders on a mixing desk -- you can move them all up and down, and what comes out will be drastically different depending on the settings. For example, if you put in a higher proportion of occlusives and emollients, your cream will be thicker and “heavier.” If you put in more water and humectants, your cream will be runnier and “lighter.”
I would warn against messing with the proportions of preservative and emulsifier too much though -- these settings are pretty fixed if you want to make something that will actually emulsify properly, and that won’t blossom into a bacteria garden.
Which mix will work better for your skin depends on what’s wrong with your skin.
If the skin on your hands is rough, calloused, and/or scaly, you’ll need a thicker cream with lots of butters and oils to seal in the water and humectants nice and deep down where you want them.
A thinner cream applied to skin with a thick, rough layer will just sit on the top and make the dead skin slightly softer.
If the skin on your hands is thinner and less calloused, but still dry and dehydrated you can opt for a thinner cream. This will sink in very quickly with very little residue, so it has the bonus of leaving your keyboard clean(ish).
In the next post, I’ll go through the actual process of putting it all together for you -- in the meantime, have you made your own hand creams before? I'd love to hear about your experiences in the comments.