What is an Emulsifier and Why Do I Need It? - Plant Therapy Blog

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Essential Oils Blog

What is an Emulsifier and Why Do I Need It?

We know you love making amazing DIYs for yourself, your family, and your friends. And we know that you come to us for trustworthy information and safe recipes. But sometimes, you might come across an ingredient you aren’t familiar with, and therefore want to learn more about.

Oftentimes, those ingredients are either a preservative or an emulsifier, both of which are necessary to keep some of your homemade goodies safe! We’ve discussed the role of preservatives here, but this blog is going to address emulsifiers. Hopefully, at the end of reading this article, you are going to feel more confident with the products you use and the wonderful recipes you make.

What’s an emulsifier and how does it work?

Oil and water in a tubeAs school children, we all learned the demonstrable fact that oil and water don’t mix. That applies to essential oils, which are aptly labeled as hydrophobic liquids. Blending an essential oil with water simply won’t work, no matter how vigorously you stir. Small, concentrated oil droplets will still float to the top, completely separated from the water.

This is a cause for concern when you have a DIY recipe that calls for essential oils and water (or water-based product, like a hydrosol). Using essential oils in this way can cause serious health concerns since the EO is basically sitting on the water “neat.” The EO needs to be diluted, which the water cannot do.

So next, you decide to mix your EOs with a carrier oil and then add it to the water. But again, the water and oil will separate. I mean, at least the carrier oil dilutes the essential oils, but overall your end result will be with oils sitting right on top of the water. And that’s not what you’re looking for in a good recipe.

Enter: emulsifiers. A key ingredient to seamless EO blending!

An emulsifier is something that binds oil and water-based components together. The fluids remain evenly distributed together because the molecules in the emulsifier will stick between the oil molecules and the water molecules to keep them bound together. How does it do this? Well, in short, the molecules in an emulsifier will have two portions; one portion is attracted to oils and the other is attracted to water. Those portions bind to what they are attracted to, ultimately creating an evenly distributed substance of both oil and water.

Why some DIY recipes call for an emulsifier and others don’t.

creams in jar

Not every DIY is going to need an emulsifier. For instance, if your recipe calls for just some essential oils to mix into a carrier oil, no emulsifier is necessary. The carrier will dilute the oil and there is no water-based product to cause separation. Same goes if you are blending essential oils into a lotion or butter.

However, there are tons of recipes you might be itching to try that include water. Sprays, whether for the skin, hair, linens, or air, often include a water-based product. Therefore, they need an emulsifier. This is especially true for any DIY that is going directly to the skin or scalp as you never want to run the risk of having topical contact with an undiluted essential oil. You can learn more about that here (dilution blog).

Commonly used emulsifiers for DIY junkies.

Bath bombs

There is a wide range of both natural and commercial emulsifiers on the market to choose from. By no means is this list an end-all-be-all, but here are some choices for you to consider for your next project:

  • Castile Soap
  • Emulsifying Wax NF
  • Sulfated Castor Oil (AKA Turkey Red Oil)
  • Alcohol:
    • If using alcohol, it doesn’t necessarily have to be 100% alcohol but should be the highest proof you can get. We typically recommend grain alcohol, such as Everclear, which is 95% alcohol if you get 190 proof. Alcohol’s evaporative qualities are unmatched, making it great for room and linen sprays, but it can be drying when used topically. To learn more, please follow this link: tisserandinstitute.org/effective-use-alcohol…/
  • Polysorbate 20
      • An excellent choice for water-based recipes, like sprays, body mists, air fresheners, and bug sprays. It is non-comedogenic. The “20” indicates the type of fatty acid used as the base, which in this case is called monolaurate.
  • Polysorbate 80:
        • Ideal when you need to emulsify heavier substances, such as carrier oils. It is also great for products like bath bombs that include Mica coloring, as it will help prevent staining in the tub and leave a less slippery surface. It is non-comedogenic. The “80” indicates that its fatty acid is monooleate.

Are carrier oils emulsifiers?

Bottle surrounded by seeds for oil

Carrier oils are fantastic for diluting essential oils but are not technically emulsifiers. To emulsify something means to have it blend smoothly with water molecules, which carrier oils cannot do. For instance, if you add EOs to Grapeseed Oil and water, there will still be droplets unable to blend completely in the water since the molecules in Grapeseed Oil do not bond to water molecules.

A similar concept applies to our Aloe Vera Jelly. While our AV Jelly already contains an emulsifier, it is not itself considered an emulsifier. As for Aloe Vera Gel, it is likely you will still need to add an emulsifier, but please check the ingredients or contact the gel’s manufacturer for more information. 

Lotion would be another example of a product with an emulsifier included, but it is not itself an emulsifier. So if you have a recipe that includes both a lotion and water-based product, we encourage you to use an emulsifier as well.

What should NOT be used as an emulsifier?

  • Water
  • Witch Hazel
  • Honey
  • Bentonite Clay
  • Baking Soda
  • Vegetable Glycerin
  • Rubbing Alcohol
  • Vitamin E Oil

Last but not least, a few knowledge nuggets…

To decide what emulsifier is right for you, it may require some personal research. There are many emulsifiers available on the market and their ingredients will vary. You will have to make the determination if a certain product is the right choice for you and your family. Additionally, there is not an indisputable ratio for how much of a certain emulsifier to use. As Certified Aromatherapists, we are not formally taught formulation chemistry. You may have to reach out to a professional formulator for specific inquiries. However, commercial emulsifiers often include instructions on what “phase” to add to and at what ratio.

Finally, I would like to note that information is rapidly changing in the world of aromatherapy as more tests and clinical studies are done. If additional or contradicting instructions become available, we will be sure to update this blog to reflect the most current reports.

Our team of Certified Aromatherapists is ready to answer all your questions! Reach out to them at [email protected] or check out our Safe Essential Oil Recipes group on Facebook.

By Katrina Scampini, Certified Aromatherapist

83 thoughts on “What is an Emulsifier and Why Do I Need It?”

  1. Thanks for this wonderful article! I’ve been trying some recipes that require emulsifiers or dispersants. This helped clarify some of the questions I had. Love the way that Plant Therapy has so many beneficial articles and recipes to help inspire their customers!

  2. Great info on Emulsifiers! I have been told that Witch Hazel and Glycerin were emulsifiers, buy this cleared that up for me.

  3. Great info on emulsifiers. I had no idea these existed! Is there a blog on when to use witch hazel? I see that in a lot of DYS.

    1. Jessi, we have no blog on when exactly to use witch hazel, but really you can add it to any water-based DIY you are making. Many people enjoy using witch hazel; we just encourage everyone to remember to include an emulsifier when it’s used 🙂

  4. Yes! Thank you so much for this information! I always wondered what the 20 and 80 stood for, and it’s so reassuring to finally know.

  5. I’ve recently started to make DIYs that needs emulsifier n preservative. This blog is indeed great reference. Thanks!

  6. Excellent info! This confirms my choice to add eo’s to my castile soap before adding castile soap to my laundry.

    Are there alternatives to the polysorbates?

  7. I don’t think I have any emulsifiers except for of course castle soap. I have been looking at polysorbate 20 and 80 but wasn’t sure which one to purchase. I’ll have to re-think what I’m going to make and what I might need. Thank you I’ll try to remember to look back at this when I’m ready to purchase.

  8. Adding EO’s to castile soap has worked well for me and I also recently used Everclear in a deodorant spray. I haven’t gotten into any others as I question how safe they are.

  9. Thank you so much. Emulsifiers have always confused me, and there is so much misleading information out there. I would also suggest an alternative to Everclear for those of us who cannot or do not purchase alcohol for various reasons 🙂 I love the idea of a linen spray, but not the idea of drinking alcohol.

    1. If you would not like to emulsify with alcohol for a linen spray, Polysorbate 20 would be an excellent alternative 🙂

  10. Thank you for the information! Not understating emulsifiers and preservatives are what make me cautious of creating items beyond roller bottles and inhalers!

  11. Super super helpful. Thanks Plant Therapy! I have this blog post bookmarked to return to as a resource for my DIY projects. It is offering information like this for us that really sets y’all apart from other companies. I am learning so many new things here all of the time!

  12. Thanks for this post. I’ve been curious about emulsifiers and this helps narrow down what I need to research.

  13. Thank you so much for this blog. I intend to make some sprays, and footbaths and a reed diffuser. I now dear to use a good imulsifer.

  14. Thank you for the great information! I thought aloe Vera gel was fine to mix eos into without anything else. Which ingredient is the emulsifier in the PT AV jelly?

    1. Megan, our AV jelly does contain alcohol as one of the ingredients, but you may want to reach out to our Customer Service Team at [email protected] to learn more about the other ingredients (such as Triethanolamine and Tetrasodium) to learn how those may also interact with EOs 🙂

      1. What an informative post! I’ve been using P.T.’s Aloe Vera Jelly on my face after spraying Rose Hydrosols on it. Since the AV Jelly already has alcohol in it, wouldn’t it be drying for my face?

        1. Not at all! Our AV Jelly is very moisturizing; the bit of alcohol content in it for formulation purposes does not give it a drying effect on the skin at all 🙂

  15. Great information! I’m starting to do my own DIYs. It can be a little overwhelming trying to learn all at the same time and ensure to do it right. But thank you so much for this, it’s very helpful.

    1. Debbie, don’t worry–the Vodka evaporates very quickly and you likely won’t be able to smell it at all 🙂

  16. This is a very helpful, informative blog. Now I know why my homemade poo-pourri recipe didn’t work out so great… Vegetable glycerine is NOT an emulsifier. Thank you so much for always keeping educated and sharing your knowledge with us!

  17. Good info. I find it very interesting that Castile soap can be used as an emulsifier. Thanks for the article. 🙂

    1. Kathleen, you’ll have to use your own personal discretion here, but the alcohol is used many times because it evaporates quickly and leaves little to no aroma (while also emulsifying!). Of course, if using alcohol concerns you in any way, you may feel more comfortable using one of the other options, such as a polysorbate 🙂

  18. Very helpful blog post, thank you! I have some recipes I want to make that use emulsifiers but I was hung-up on what to use and what would work best.

  19. Great information ! Rubbing alcohol is listed as not an emulsifier but would the higher concentrations like 91% isopropyl alcohol work especially for stuff like DIY cleaners?

    1. Rebecca, we typically do not recommend isopropyl, but it is a matter of opinion really. Some isopropyl’s are not strong enough and they always bring with them a very strong aroma. You’re more than welcome to try a DIY cleaner using it, and let us know how it turns out! However, we recommend what is listed here on the blog 🙂

  20. Still a little confused on one point. If you add an emulsifier to your DIY, that will evenly disperse the essential oils within the water based products (so they don’t separate), but it doesn’t necessarily make the finished DIY safe for topical use, correct? The EO’s would still be considered neat unless you also mixed the EO’s with a carrier before using the emulsifier?? Or am I getting that wrong?

    Which way is skin safe?
    A. Essential oil + emulsifier + water based product = finished DIY
    B. (Essential oils mixed in a carrier) + emulsifier + water based product = finished DIY

    1. Kacie, actually both A and B are skin safe, though B is a better choice if you’re able to go that route. As long as you follow the directions to add the correct amount of emulsifier, your EOs will be properly diluted. Please remember though that without a preservative, for both A and B, your finished product should be used within a week. I hope this helps! If you’d like more information, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our team of aromatherapists at [email protected].

  21. Thank you for putting all of this in one place. I have always just followed recipes and added the suggested emulsifiers not really knowing why one was suggested over the other. This is very helpful!

  22. I love PT’s education. I remember learning about the importance of emulisfiers on SEOR shortly after joining. This post is very helpful! I have stayed away from DIY projects that required an emulisfier, but I think I might be ready to start using them.

    1. Sara, we do not recommend using an emulsifier when diffusing with oil and water. In this case, you want the oil and water to be separate 🙂

  23. Thank you!! I was just looking at PTs DIY bug spray yesterday and trying to figure out the emulsifier listed. This blog post is exactly what I needed to read!

  24. Thank you for this very informative blog. As a new to d i y person with E O recipes, I’m a bit confused. Are poly 80 and the alcohol (ex. everclear) preservatives? Thanks!

    1. Tonia, Polysorbate 80 is only an emulsifier and it will not preserve. Everclear can fully emulsify EOs due to the high alcohol content and it can be used as a preservative at a certain percentage of the total carrier. I will link our blog on preservatives: https://blog.planttherapy.com/blog/2018/10/18/preservatives-and-essential-oil-diys-an-overview/ And here is a blog by EO Safety Expert Robert Tisserand about the effective use of alcohol for aromatic blending that may also help you: https://tisserandinstitute.org/effective-use-alcohol-aromatic-blending/?fbclid=IwAR1xwHoPuIfeUOJPQrkvTOqC63sSOl8KfGxglRxtqQmB7oIwufBp-dpneEY

  25. I make a cleaning spray of distilled water, sal suds, washing soda,borax and kid safe germ destroyer. Would the sal suds be considered an emulsifier?

    1. Daria, in the case of a cleaning spray, sal suds will work as an emulsifier. We just don’t recommend it when emulsifying for topical use 🙂

  26. Very helpful by clarifying the alcohol needed as an emulsifier. Thank you PT for helping us figure things out to have our oils be effective. Love PT blog posts.

  27. Thank you so much for this info. I have been getting into DIY’s and this helps me so much in what I need to make sure my end results are safe.

  28. I had been adding my EOs directly to my bath. Now I mix with sorbitol first. I also have purchased the polysorbates 20 and 80 but didn’t really know the difference or how to use them. Thanks for the info!

  29. Thank you so much for this blog post. Very informative! I haven’t done any DIY’s yet because, I have felt too overwhelmed with all of the “extras” that need to be added into many products. This is a great reference to refer back to when I finally decide to take the plunge.

  30. Thank you for this article! I love the information you have here and love how PT is so dedicated to education and proper usage of EOs! I would very much be interested in additional articles highlighting each recommended emulsifier..what it is, what it does, etc (I’ve never heard of a few of those). Also, I’m curious why “not” to use the list of emulsifiers you mention not to use…danger? lack of emulsifying? etc. I’m a recent newbie to all of this, so I’m curious about more in depth information…I’m sure others are as well :).

    1. Nancy, making sure essential oils are properly emulsified is a pretty critical part of ensuring you are using your oils safely 🙂 If making a water-based product with EOs you really need to make sure your emulsifier really *really* does its job so you don’t end up with undiluted oils on your skin. The list of products we don’t recommend to emulsify has demonstrated that they just don’t match up to our standards of what we consider to be safe and total emulsification. I hope this helps!

  31. Thank you so much for this article!!! As an EO newby, I really didn’t understand emulsifiers at all but this has cleared up a lot of questions I had!! Thank you!!!!

  32. And here I thought emulsifiers were just for fancy coffee drinks!
    After reading this & the blog post on itch relief, I’m curious about how to mix straight-up aloe juice, right from the leaves, with lavender or peppermint (or any EO). I guess the aloe would be water-based? We definitely don’t have any of the mentioned emulsifiers lying around the house, so I’m wondering what might be a good first-try buy.

  33. This blog post has really helped me as I’m just starting to use more emulsifiers. I appreciate the information very much!

  34. Thank you for this post! I have diffused EOs for many years now, but just recently became interested in DIYs. I’ve seen emulsifiers mentioned in some recipes, but I had no idea what to use and when it was necessary! I would lovemaking it if PT sold the polysorbates, that way I could support my favorite company AND know I was getting a high quality product! Thanks, PT!

  35. Happy to learn about this! I have wanted to make my own bath bombs but was worried about emulsifiers! This will give me the confidence to DIY

  36. YASSS PT, at it again with an article at perfect timing!
    This is exactly the type of information I’ve been looking for regarding emulsifiers, that I haven’t been able to find yet.
    Very well written, and completely understandable for the EO newbie (like myself lol) too!
    Thank you!

  37. Thank you so much for this post. I now have a better understanding of what is needed when making my DIYs. I am so grateful that PT takes the time to educate their customers!

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