Oleaginous constituents

These are effectively oils, (vegetable or mineral), or other substances that will freely mix with oils, such as waxes, fats, greases, and volatile oils. When they are mixed with aqueous constituents to form an emulsion, they are known collectively as the oleaginous phase (or oily phase). However, when we are discussing creams and the like we often talk about ‘oil’ as a sort of shorthand to include all the oleaginous constituents present.

Aqueous constituents

This refers to water or anything that is dissolved in water or can mix with it – there’s quite a list, including infusions & decoctions, alcohol and ethanolic extracts such as tinctures, vinegars, glycerine, and honey. When making an emulsion such as a cream, these are known collectively as the aqueous phase. Once again, we may be lazy and just refer to the whole lot as ‘water’.

Emulsifiers

Emulsifiers (aka emulgents or emulsifying agents) must be present in creams and other emulsions in order for a stable mixture of oleaginous and aqueous constituents to be formed. Strictly speaking oil and water never actually mix together – the effect of emulsification is to cause, for instance, the oily ‘phase’ to break down into very tiny droplets that are held in suspension in the aqueous phase, (or it could be the other way round). Very ‘runny’ emulsions are usually temporary in nature (as observed when dairy cream separates from milk) but they will recombine when shaken together. In the case of a cream, some of the constituents (usually the oily ones) will set hard at room temperature, forming a stable, semi-solid product. Emulsifiers occur naturally, albeit often in very small quantities, in useful substances such as beeswax and unsaturated vegetable oils. However, much greater versatility is possible if you use a commercial emulsifying agent such as Emulsifying Wax BP, or it’s more natural predecessor, Lanette Wax.

Formulation of creams is primarily about bringing therapeutic substances in contact with the skin, but one also has to weigh up other factors: -

  • Very oily creams will tend to be occlusive, tenacious and moisturising. Conversely very watery creams will tend to be drying, well absorbed, and are soon gone.
  • It’s often advantageous to include constituents that help to make a cream more ‘sticky’, so it will spread over and adhere to the skin better. Alas, the oh-so-useful lanoline is a thing of the past, but we still have things like glycerine and soft paraffin to perform this role.
  • Because creams contain water, they are vulnerable to infection. It helps if the product and its container start their working lives sterile – but in use, exposure to the air and microbes transferred from fingers will soon cause a cream to go off… unless a preservative is used. Including essential oils for this purpose is often disappointing – they’re mostly tucked away in the oily phase, so they have very little preservative effect on the water-based constituents. Further, in order to achieve an adequate preservative (antimicrobial) effect the essential oil content of your cream would need to be at least 4%. At this level it will probably affect the emulsifying properties of the cream, and will almost certainly irritate the skin. So usually it’s necessary to use a commercial preservative if you want your creams to last more than a week or two.

 

WATER IN OIL CREAMS

The first sort of cream to attempt, water in oil creams are useful to practice and perfect as they are made from such simple ingredients. The two stage process is important, keeping the aqueous and oleaginous phases separate until the latter is fully dissolved and they both have the same temperature – this makes it easier for the emulsifier to do its work.

Basic Cold Cream

Water in oil creams are often referred to as Cold Creams (a historic term from the days when the only comparison was ointments – creams feel more cooling on application).  Although they are seldom found in modern cosmetics, they are useful therapeutically. They are indeed more cooling and less greasy than an ointment and are more easily spread over the skin, useful for dry areas such as elbows, feet, hands, knees and legs. Because they leave a good occlusive barrier behind, they can be useful for conditions like nappy rash and haemorrhoids.

Beeswax pellets

5 – 10

g
VO Vegetable oil

60

ml
Water or infusion

40

ml
EO Essential oils

10-20

gutte

This is a general formula to make 100g. Try this to start with until you’ve got the knack, after which you may want to make larger quantities for convenience. Variations to consider are: -

  • You can substitute one of the ‘butters’ (Coconut, Cocoa or Shea) for some or all of the beeswax.
  • Vegetable oils might be plain Sunflower or Olive oils (cold-pressed will work best) or an infused oil such as Marigold or Comfrey.
  • The water could be an infusion… perhaps of the same herb as the infused oil.
  • Essential oils can be chosen to compliment the therapeutic activity of the cream. If in doubt, use Lavender!

As an example, you might use Marigold (Calendula officinalis) infused oil, an infusion of Marigold flowers, and Tea Tree essential oil).

First make a good, strong infusion of your chosen herb, filter it, and return the infusion to the pan, (or just warm up some plain water if you prefer). Whilst doing this, melt the beeswax in a double boiler or porringer, then stir in the infused oil until it’s all melted. Adjust the temperature to 70°C (using a thermometer). Warm the infusion again until it also reaches 70°C. Remove both from the heat and pour the infusion in a slow, steady stream into the melted beeswax/oil mix, whisking furiously all the time. Keep whisking as it cools down to make sure the water stays finely dispersed in the oil. When it starts to thicken, stir in your chosen essential oils, transfer to a jar and seal when fully cooled. This simple cold cream has no preservatives – keep it in the fridge, but still expect it might go off within 3 months.

You may get away without using a thermometer – 70°C is close to the point at which beeswax will melt, whilst in an aqueous infusion 70°C is a comfortable ‘sipping’ temperature. The important things is that both phases should be close to the same temperature, otherwise things will probably go wrong.

You’ll probably go on to develop your own fail-safe recipes & methods. Experiment with different ingredients and proportions – and remember to keep notes! The two examples given below use the same basic method as detailed above. Both of them incorporate macerated oils (MO), which you would already have as stock preparations.

Nappy Cream

This cream is easy to make in small amounts, the recipe below is for just a 30g pot – if it gets used fairly quickly it can be made without preservatives.

Beeswax pellets

2

g
MO Anthemis nobilis

15

ml
VO Jojoba

5

ml
Inf Calendula officinalis

10

ml
EO Lavandula angustifolia

10

gutte
EO Anthemis nobilis

10

gutte

Eczema Cream

Oily, soothing but with a high enough water content to be subjectively cooling and anti-pruritic (reduces itching). This is another cream to make in small amounts to order, so a preservative may not be necessary.

Beeswax pellets

2

g
MO Stellaria media (in Olive oil)

20

ml
Inf Viola tricolor + Chamomilla recutita

10

ml
EO Chamomilla recutita

10

gutte
EO Anthemis nobilis

10

gutte

Rich Moisturising Cream

This formula is a delight it breaks the rules that say a cream with close to equal parts of aqueous and oleaginous constituents is impossible. Despite the high water content, all the ingredients are natural, and there is no emulsifying agent or preservative. It will rely on using good quality, preferably organic ingredients (with their own natural emulsifying properties), and a method demanding close observation and probably a little practice. It will keep for about three months in a cool place ­– if in doubt keep in a fridge.

VO Infused oil(s)

175

ml
Coconut (or Cocoa or Shea) butter

75

g
Beeswax

25

g
Infusion or floral water*

250

ml
Vegetable glycerine

5

ml
Vitamin E oil

5

ml
EO Essential oil(s) up to

5

ml

*There may be problems if this is all floral water – rose water, lavender water, etc. are likely to contain about 15% alcohol, and may be enough to cause this delicate recipe to ‘crack’.

Melt the butter, beeswax and infused oil together in a double boiler or porringer. Pour into a blender bowl and allow to cool until it is still liquid but has gone completely opaque and will still flow slightly if the bowl is tilted, (depending on the constituents, this should happen somewhere below 45°C). This is the most important part – if the mixture is too hot it will separate and if it’s too cool it the waxes will solidify and not blend properly.

The herbal infusion (or part floral water) should be at room temperature. Mix thoroughly with the glycerine in a jug. When the oil mixture is cooled just right, turn the blender on to a low speed and pour in the aqueous mixture in a slow, steady trickle. When fully incorporated the blender will start to choke as the cream becomes more solid. Stir in the vitamin E and essential oils by hand, then transfer to clean jars, and cap when fully cooled.

Macerated cream

This unusual approach has nonetheless been used by at least two grower-producers, (perhaps because it’s as quick and unfussy as making fresh-herb tinctures). The results are very popular. The example given below is for Marigold Cream, but can be adapted for just about any herb or combination freshly gathered. You can just about get away with gently simmering this on the hob rather than the usual double-boiler requirement.

Emulsifying ointment BP*

600

g
Vegetable glycerine

270

ml
Water

330

ml
Marigold petals (fresh)

120

g

Put the emulsifying ointment, glycerine and water in a pan and place over a low heat, stirring occasionally until fully melted and mixed. Stir in the Marigold petals and stew gently for 3 hours. Warm a fine sieve (i.e. by plunging briefly into boiling water – so that the cream doesn’t cool on it and clog it up) and pour the cream through it into a bowl, leaving the plant material behind. When semi-cool, add any essential oils or preservative according to preference, and spoon into waiting jars. The yield will be about 1kg, as there is loss both from evaporation and some of the cream being retained in the straining process.

*You can make your own emulsifying ointment by heating/stirring together emulsifying wax (or Lanette wax) 30%, white soft paraffin 50%, and liquid paraffin 2%.

OIL IN WATER CREAMS

Oil in water creams are far more popular – partly because they are what everybody has become familiar with from the cosmetics industry – but they’re also cheaper, lighter, more versatile, and can be formulated (within limits) to be drying, moisturising or neutral according to constituents. As will be demonstrated, it’s possible to make an oil-in-water cream from all-natural ingredients, but it will not have the sort of shelf life that is expected from a practitioner-dispensed product.

Base Cream

Most herbal and aromatherapy suppliers will have a reliable base cream on offer. A base cream should be able to take up about 40% of its own volume in herbal tinctures, fixed oils, etc, which can simply be stirred in cold. This is enormously valuable as it’s possible to make up a therapeutic cream on the spot for an individual patient’s needs. You can save money by making your own if you prefer. The simplest way is to melt 300g of Emulsifying Ointment BP (available from most high-street chemists) in a double boiler and stir in 700ml of freshly boiled water, plus a preservative. Or you can start from scratch, thus: -

Lanette wax or Emulsifying Wax BP

90

g
Soft paraffin

150

g
Liquid paraffin

60

g
Water

700

ml
Preservative

Melt the oleaginous constituents in a double boiler and then stir in the water, freshly boiled, and the preservative. Remove from the heat and stir until it starts to set, and pour into jar(s).

Below is a random example of how a base cream can be used to make a medicinal herbal cream on the spot – provided you have the ingredients readily to hand, it takes less than 5 minutes: -

Acne Cream

Base Cream

85

g
VO Calendula

5

ml
Aqua Hamamelis

10

ml
EO Rosewood, Tea Tree aa

5

gutte
EO Yarrow

2

gutte

Place the base cream in a 100g jar, pour (or drip!) in the other constituents, and stir carefully and thoroughly with a glass rod or similar until fully mixed.

An easy general formula for practitioners

The formula given below is handy as it requires the bare minimum of equipment and resources, is quickly made, and the technique is uncomplicated too – so it’s good for beginners or anybody who wants to keep it simple. It won’t have the smooth, glossy appearance achievable with more complex formulations, but it does get plenty of herb onto the skin very efficiently, and will have a good shelf life even in adverse conditions.

Emulsifying wax

150

g
Vegetable/Infused oil(s)

150

ml
Vegetable glycerine

50

ml
Water or infusions, etc

650

ml
Preservative of choice

Melt the wax and vegetable or infused oils together in a double boiler. Meanwhile mix the glycerine the other aqueous constituents and the preservative thoroughly in a jug*. When the oleaginous phase is melted, keep it on the heat and very slowly pour in the aqueous phase, stirring steadily throughout, ensuring that everything is smoothly combined before removing from the heat. Keep stirring, always in the same direction, (a tongue depressor is ideal for this task), making sure you scrape back in any of the cream that is hardening prematurely on the sides or base. When it starts to set, becoming thick and cloudy, transfer to jar(s) and leave to cool before sealing.

* The result will be smoother and glossier the closer the temperature of the aqueous phase is to the temperature of the oily phase. This is easily managed if you are using plain water or a herbal infusion. If you are incorporating, for instance, herbal waters, etc, mix the aqueous phase together first in a beaker or jug and stand this in a bowl of hot water whilst you are waiting for the oily phase to melt, so it will at least be warm.

The emulsifying wax can be either Emulsifying Wax BP or Lanette Wax. The vegetable oils can be any fixed oil, but it’s an ideal opportunity to use one or more of the stock infused oils you’ve made. The glycerine is included to help make the cream stick and spread better. The other aqueous constituents might be plain boiled water, herbal waters such as Witch Hazel or Rosewater, infusions or decoctions, honey, vinegars, tinctures, or any combination of these. Note that it’s seldom advisable to use more than 20% tinctures, certainly not if they have a high alcohol content, as it’s likely to cause the cream to crack – also, alcohol on broken skin stings! If you also want to incorporate essential oils, (there should be no problems adding up to 1%) stir these in at the last minute, just before transferring the cream to jars.

Here’s an example of the ever-popular Marigold cream, following the general formula and method above: -

Lanette wax

150

g
VO Calendula officinalis flos.

150

ml
Glycerine

50

ml
Tr Calendula officinalis flos (96%)

50

ml
Inf Calendula officinalis flos

600

ml
Preservative of choice

You could substitute Rosewater for the Marigold infusion, use honey instead of glycerine, or you might like to add a few drops of appropriate essential oil(s).

A modern two-part cream

A clarification about ingredients used below: cetyl alcohol is a stabilising ingredient, aiding emulsification & giving a firmer result. It’s the modern version of spermaceti (which was derived from whales) – often seen in older recipes for cold creams. MF & VE are proprietary names for a two-part emulsifier, widely used in vegan ice creams: the chemical (or INCI) names are sodium stearyl lactylate and glyceryl stearate respectively. Preservative 12 is also a proprietary name for a preservative mix containing phenoxyethanol & ethylhexylglycerine.

This is a more sophisticated approach, but nonetheless popular. It will reliably produce a high-quality product with plenty of ‘showroom appeal’ and excellent shelf life. It’s particularly useful as a stock base cream as it will take up to 20% extras. It is also almost idiot proof… almost because nothing will save a cream if you forget to add one of the emulsifiers!

Aqueous Phase: -

Herbal infusion

750

ml
Glycerine

20

ml
MF emulsifier

45

g
Preservative 12

10

ml

First boil a litre of water and pour over approx. 50g of the herb(s) you have chosen, and infuse for at least 10 minutes. (If you are instead making a decoction, simmer for 30 minutes). In either case, try to time things so everything will be ready together. Strain or filter to yield 750ml. Measure the MF emulsifier and glycerine into a double boiler, then pour the infusion or decoction over them and whisk together making sure that the emulsifier is fully dissolved without lumps and that there is no powder around the edge. Heat the mixture in the double boiler to 75-80°C.

Oily Phase :-

Infused oil

75

ml
Cocoa butter

60

g
Cetyl alcohol

20

g
VE emulsifier

25

g

Heat the Cocoa butter, VE emulsifier and Cetyl alcohol in a second double boiler until they have completely melted. Then add the infused oil(s) and continue to heat until the temperature has risen to 75-80°C.

When both phases reach approx. 75°C remove the oily phase from the heat. Turn the heat off under the aqueous phase but do not remove it so its heat is maintained. Pour the oily phase into the aqueous phase in a thin stream, whisking continuously from side to side for 5 minutes. (At this point you’ll wish you had an electric whisk!) Then remove from the double boiler and allow to cool, stirring frequently with a spatula until the mixture starts to thicken.

Once the mixture has cooled to under 40°C stir in the Preservative 12 (and, at this stage, any heat-sensitive fixed oils such as hemp seed or borage seed). When it has cooled to below 30°C you can stir in any essential oils. Pour into jars and label – but do not fit lids until completely cool.

Saving creams when things go wrong

Most rescue attempts on creams involve reheating and proceeding as before – this seldom does any harm, except volatile constituents will be vulnerable to evaporation. If you have essential oils in the recipe, you might want to perk things up by adding a few extra drops.

Creams sometimes turn out lumpy or granular – this is usually because waxes in the oily phase have cooled too quickly. Reheat until everything is fully melted again, and stir or whisk very thoroughly whilst cooling, making sure that any waxes solidifying on the sides of the pan are constantly scraped back in.

Water-in-oil creams can easily ‘crack’ (separate), but it’s often only apparent when water droplets appear on the surface once fully cooled, or when pressure is applied (for instance, by a spatula when transferring to jars). The reason is likely to be that the aqueous content is too high. If the problem is mild, reheating to a full melt and proceeding as before should cause sufficient evaporation to solve it. If severe, add in a further proportion of oleaginous constituents, particularly those that have emulsifying properties.

Oil-in-water creams are notorious for ‘cracking’ – everything is going well until the whole thing suddenly curdles and separates, or it might just take on a coarse and unpleasant structure. If so, however illogical it sounds, you need to add more aqueous constituents (or just a little plain water). Reheat until the whole is fully melted and proceed as before.

MILKS

A lotion is more or less anything designed to be applied to large areas of the skin that is essentially cooling or soothing – it could be something as simple as a herbal infusion. However, we’re more used to lotions being served up as suntan or cleansing lotions, which are examples of milks. Just like dairy milk, it’s going to be much thinner than a cream, and again like dairy milk, will need to be fully homogenised (a technical way of saying very thoroughly mixed) if you want to avoid it separating. You’re not likely to be able to achieve this without using an emulsifying wax of some sort. A milk is perfectly possible using a domestic blender with as little as 2% emulsifying wax, but aim for a maximum 5%, and a maximum 10% overall oleaginous constituents, otherwise it will set too firm. Unlike creams, the result should be pourable and hence kept in (and dispensed from) bottles rather than jars.

After-sun lotion

It’s very useful to have a good multi-purpose lotion available for use after a session in the sun – this one will rehydrate the skin nicely (hot sun is always drying), but is also very effective in the case of genuine sunburn: -

Lanette or emulsifying wax

10

g
Coconut oil (solid)

15

g
Inf Hypericum perforatum

275

ml
Aloe juice (aka Aloe gel)

200

ml
EO Lavender

50

gutte
Preservative (optional)

Melt the emulsifying wax with the Coconut oil in a double boiler or porringer. Whilst it is melting, make an infusion with the St John’s Wort, strain and filter, and measure out 275ml. Take the melted oleaginous constituents off the heat and stir in the still-warm infusion, followed by the Aloe juice. Then use a hand blender, (intermittently so as not to introduce too much air), until a smooth, fine emulsion is formed, adding the Lavender oil at the last minute. Funnel into a bottle whilst still warm, cap when cold. In use, a polythene bottle with a one-hole plug insert is ideal. A milk bottled in this fashion is much less vulnerable to contamination than creams in jars, so you shouldn’t need a preservative if it’s going to be used up in a single season.

Note that this is an AFTER-sun lotion! The St John’s Wort may cause a photosensitivity reaction in susceptible individuals if used before sunbathing. 

LINIMENTS

A liniment, (or sometimes ‘embrocation’) is designed for liberal application to the skin, but in comparison to a milk is essentially heating and stimulating. Many herbal oils, particularly if essential oils are incorporated, can be used as liniments: ‘Vapour Rub’ and ‘O/A Oil’ quoted in the ‘Herbal Oils’ section are good examples. However, liniments often contain aqueous constituents as well, which are often combined in a temporary emulsion (the aqueous and oleaginous phases separate on standing, but recombine satisfactorily on shaking). Liniments of this sort used to be very popular in times gone by with high-street pharmacists, who all had their own patent formulas. Traditionally they were rubbed on vigorously, though this may not add significantly to the therapeutic effect. Below is one example, applicable to rheumatism, sore muscles, ‘lumbago’, muscle spasm and the like.

Tr Capsicum frutescens 1:3

75

ml
Hard soap

2.5

g
Ammonia solution

10

ml
Camphor flowers

2.5

g
EO Terebinth

10

ml
EO Cloves, Cinnamon aa

10

gutte

This requires some good old-fashioned work with a pestle & mortar. Grate the soap and work in the mortar with a little of the tincture (a process called trituration) until fully combined, work in the rest of the tincture, then the ammonia solution, and reserve. (Warning! Neat ammonia solution can catch your breath and sting your eyes, so don’t lean over your work). Place the Camphor in the mortar with the essential oils and triturate until smooth. Slowly work in the tincture/soap mixture until smooth, bottle & seal.

Tinctures of Cayenne & Black peppers in equal parts would be even better, or perhaps the Ayurvedic mixture, ‘ Trikatu’. You could also use decoctions as your starting point if preferred, although adding a little alcohol to preserve would be called for. For the soap, use a good quality Olive oil soap or similar, preferably unscented. You’re unlikely to find essential oil of Terebinth in an aromatherapy catalogue (why on earth not? It’s wonderful stuff!), instead go to a hardware store where it will be sold as Genuine Turpentine (make sure it’s the real thing, not the awful and far-from therapeutic White Spirit). Ammonia solution also comes from a hardware store, sold as a cleaning agent.

 

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