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?
As 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.
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.
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)
- 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?
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?
- Witch Hazel
- 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.
By Katrina Scampini, Certified Aromatherapist