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How on earth is it possible to make a cream out of beeswax without creating a soap?

April 19, 2015

Back in 2011 when I was much stupider than I am now (I know, I know) I wrote that it was impossible to form a cream with oil and water using beeswax alone.  I was wrong.

I wasn’t very wrong but I was wrong nonetheless.  However, this being the internet and here being my blog of writing for the last goodness knows how long the original article is still around.  Type Beeswax into the search box and you will see what I have to say.

This week I re-visited my position on beeswax and gave a couple of recipes a try, recipes that I would have never tried back in 2011 when I thought that the world was much more black and white than I do now.   Those recipes turned out better than I’d hoped and while they weren’t going to be showing up in a supermarket near you any time soon they proved to me that beeswax does have something complex and rather special going on and I’m sure that with a bit more time and fiddling I could get a cream to stay creamy – using beeswax alone- for at least a couple of weeks or so.  I was stunned.

Beeswax Cream

The cream on the left uses a synthetic beeswax – it didn’t work well at all and leaked heaps of water very quickly.  On the right is premium beeswax and that looked and felt good although it was still unstable.

Beeswax was one of the original cosmetic emulsifiers, well, at least it was once borax or some other alkali substance was reacted with it to form a soap.  Borax can no longer be used but as there are plenty of other alkali’s out there it is absolutely possible to form a beeswax soap cream and use it safety today.  But I wanted to look at beeswax alone.

Beeswax is a complex material consisting of a veritable chemical factory of ingredients that I’m not convinced we know everything about.  On looking at a typical breakdown of beeswax chemistry it struck me that the only components that could do any oil and water binding were the minor ones – the dregs so to speak:

12% Free fatty acids – some chance of being surface active and may bind water.

1% Free Alcohols – yes, these can work to bind water.

12% Acid Polyesters – probably not helping much.

1% Acid Esters – as above.

3% Triesters – almost certainly no help.

14% Diesters – as above.

35% Monoesters – yet again, no help.

So for every 1% of beeswax that I put into a formula there is only 0.13% of ’emulsifier’.

Only fatty acids and fatty alcohols are not emulsifiers.

Both of the above are usually only mildly interested in water due to their oxygen containing functional groups and the fact that they have a free hand to grab stuff with – hopefully water.  That said they would still rather hang out with oils and will only grab water reluctantly and only then when they are in a gang. Probably…..

Fatty acids such as Cetyl Alcohol and Stearyl Alcohol have long been known to have some surface activity and it is possible to form an oil-and-water mixture with these fatty alcohols and no other emulsifier.  That said the ’emulsion’ is generally not as stable or beautiful as an emulsion using a custom-made emulsifying ingredient.  Fatty Acids can also help and we often use Stearic Acid in an emulsion to modify the feel of the both the water and the oil phase, even though stearic acid is not water-soluble or particularly attracted to the stuff, it still seems to work although I’d hazard a guess that one can’t make an emulsion with stearic or oleic acid alone.

But maybe they are enough.

The formulation that I looked at is listed below.  It came together nice and creamy (which surprised me) but within 24 hours it was leaking water (which wasn’t so much of a shock).

Aloe Vera Extract 43%

Glycerin 10%

Sweet Almond Oil 25%

Cocoa Butter 10%

Beeswax  10%

Vitamin E 1%

Essential Oils 1%

I popped my finger into the pot and experienced the cold sensation that made cold creams cold creams.  Water, the evaporation of water, the cream yielded its water phase on touching and as I spread the ‘cream’ across my arm the water and oil parted company rather dramatically leaving me wearing a greasy layer and feeling cooled.

Not altogether unpleasant but not great stability wise.

As I could see the water slowly seeping out of the formula above my brain switched to ways to fix it.  I couldn’t go past the notion that this formula was not emulsified and added lecithin, it worked.  I also didn’t like the way that this recipe used hard wax and hard butter – cocoa butter is quite a hard and dry butter, much more so than Shea.  I swapped out some cocoa and in some shea.  I was also bemused about the high level of glycerin, especially as glycerin tends to make the water phase more dense (heavy).  As the oil phase was already light I wondered if the heavy water vs light oils, wax and butters mattered.  I didn’t have time to dwell on it too much.

I also wondered about the Aloe Vera. In the original recipe I found the type of Aloe wasn’t specified so I wasn’t sure if it was fresh, powdered or gelled. There is a huge difference between the three so I chose to just add water and pop some aloe powder into that to re-constitute it.  As stability wasn’t that great I was wondering if gelling the water would be better?  I vowed to try thickening the water phase next time.  It worked well.

Finally I was slightly twitchy about the lack of preservative – oil and water = bug food.  Maybe that’s where the high level of glycerin came in, glycerin is a water binder, no free water, no micro issue.  Maybe I should leave preservation for now, we can always pop some potassium sorbate in later.

So my new verdict on beeswax is……

It does look play an important role in stabilising an emulsion and can even hold some water in a similar way to how cetearyl alcohol does.  I have been reading and reading to find out more about the capacity of beeswax to hold water but I haven’t found exactly what I’m looking for yet.  It seems that I’ll just have to carry on experimenting but am heading towards the idea that it helps to form a physical and chemical structure in the both the oil and the water phase that affects the whole formulation and not just the oils – again similar to how cetyl and stearyl alcohol work. The only issue being that beeswax is far more complex than either of those two fatty alcohols so finding out exactly what’s going on might take some time.

The final modification of the above formula contained less water, a dash of lecithin (HLB 4) and a bit of shea butter to balance the hardness of the cocoa.  It worked lovely and seems to be very stable (as it should be being as though it is now emulsified).  When I have more time again I’ll probably fiddle with this some more to see if I can identify any other mysterious qualities of this often overlooked wax.

Oh and by the way, in my first experiment as per the picture above I formulated the first cream with synthetic beeswax and the second with premium grade beeswax to try and establish if the emulsification powers were purely physical or if there was some chemistry involved.  My conclusion was that there seemed to be a bit of both with the real beeswax significantly out performing the man-made material.  Sweet.

Before I go I want to show you a beautiful microscope slide image of the emulsion that I formed in my favourite balm (with the lecithin).  It looks to have created a liquid crystal structure (with giant cat prints all through it) which would probably make this a good base for the delivery of fatty actives through the skin – retinols maybe.  I should give that a try next.

its not a cat on the moon its a beeswax and lecithin liquid crystal emulsion

Isn’t chemistry grand?










5 Comments leave one →
  1. David S. Parnas, M.D. permalink
    August 20, 2018 10:00 am

    Thank you ❗️. This has been an enlightening read and may have saved me some of the disastrous pitfalls I expect from the overly complex project I have on my drawing board and for which have already purchased the ingredients (including lecithin and he purest beeswax I could find. It’s an oil / H2O and will use no Borax as my alkali. Calls for much more Shea than Cocao and will present me with how to slow the degradation of Ascorbate beyond that which refrigeration might provide. Predict I’m in for trouble with over a dozen ingredients but am a determined boy so maybe will end-up alright. First small batch test in about ten days.D

  2. Andrew Morse permalink
    March 16, 2021 3:07 am

    Hi Amanda,

    This is an interesting read! Thank you for posting. I am wondering if you can help me with something. I am trying to combine beeswax with apple cider vinegar to make a cream. I would like the highest concentration of apple cider vinegar as possible. I am having a hard time getting the beeswax to take to the vinegar. I am melting equal parts olive oil and beeswax to help in the emulsification which I am also adding a little water to. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

    Thank you,

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      March 16, 2021 10:10 am

      Hi there, this isn’t going to be possible with only those ingredients. This article explains how beeswax is not an emulsifier and that beeswax emulsions typically contains borax also and that worked to emulsify the balm. Borax is now banned for cosmetic use so you would need something else.

  3. January 7, 2022 2:28 pm

    Hi, I have a formulation I’ve been fiddling with, which uses beeswax and borax. I’d like to stop using borax, since it isn’t allowed commercially. What can I use instead to saponify the beeswax? I’m kinda new to this and it’s been hard to find information. Do you know of any resources I can use to figure out what ingredient to use and how much?

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      January 8, 2022 11:39 am

      Hello, you would have to replace the borax with another emulsifier. You could try any one of a number (there are hundreds) including a blend of cetearyl alcohol and cetearyl glucoside (naturally derived) or ceteareth 20 (synthetic or glyceryl stearate citrate (natural and palm free) plus many more.

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