Article by: Perry Romanowski

Every cosmetic chemist should learn how to make a gel. It has a great look and consumers respond well to the product form. The most common type of gel in the cosmetic industry is hair styling gels so we’ll explain how they work and how to make them.

How a styling gel works

A hair styling gel is designed to help hold hair in a fixed shape. It is a clear product that is smoothed through the hair, coating it, and setting up a rigid film that inhibits movement. A well-formulated gel will remain flexible when initially applied but will become stiff when it dries.

Styling gel ingredients

The primary ingredient that makes a styling gel hold the hair is a styling polymer. These polymers are typically based on vinyl monomers and have names like PVP (Polyvinyl Pyrolidone) or VP (Vinyl Pyrolidone). These polymers give good hold while still being water soluble enough to be easily washed out of the hair.

The other ingredient that is critical to a styling gel is the thickening system. There are a number of cosmetic thickening agents that can be used but the most common for styling gels is Carbomer. Carbomer is an acrylic polymer that has an interesting characteristic. It is acidic when put into a water solution. When the polymer is neutralized with an ingredient like TEA, it causes cross-linking within the polymer which in turn creates the gel. It’s really quite cool to see it happen.

The rest of the ingredients in styling gels include colorants, solubilizers, solvents, emollients, spreading agents, preservatives, and colorants. While important, they have varying degrees of effect on the performance of the product. gel-formula

Here is a typical styling gel  Click on image to enlarge it.

Click here for a complete list of the the Cosmetic Formulation Basics series.


About the Author

Perry Romanowski

Perry has been formulating cosmetic products and inventing solutions to solve consumer problems since the early 1990’s. Additionally, he has written and edited numerous articles and books, taught continuing education classes for industry scientists, and developed successful websites. His latest book is Beginning Cosmetic Chemistry 3rd Edition published by Allured.


  1. Avatar

    I love PVP K90, however, when bought in small quantities, is very costly – about $0.50 per 8 oz bottle when used at 2% in solution.

    I have seen very good products which use the PVP / DMAPA as the primary styling polymer, but “replace” the PVP K90 with flaxseed oil and soy protein to reduce flaking. Chemically speaking, is there any validity to this? PVP K90 provides styling? But it’s main function is to reduce flaking. Looking for a more cost effective solution, and wondering if you have ever tried replacing it? Thank you!

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      No. Flaxseed oil and soy protein will not work the same way as PVP K90.

  2. Avatar

    Does your course cover how to formulate from start to finish?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      Yes, we go through the whole process of product development.

  3. Avatar

    Lanolin (hydrated)_liquid
    Do this formula works without drying hair?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      It doesn’t really have a holding polymer but it won’t dry hair.

  4. Avatar

    Hi sir i am trying to make hard hold hair styling gel please guide me thanks

  5. Avatar
    Ken Miller

    What is the best way to dissolve PVP Into your gel?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      It’s a water soluble ingredient so just dissolve it in your water phase.

  6. Avatar
    Anne Quinn

    Hi Perry, Is it possible to make an anhydrous hair gel using just oils and carbomer?
    Or using an emulsifier maybe? Thanks

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      Carbomer is not a thickener for oils, so no that will not be possible.

  7. Avatar
    jim mento

    How can i clear up my gel. I have carbapol 940, TEA,polysorbate 20, fragrance, preservative, and water. formula is a little cloudy….need clear

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      You probably haven’t mixed your carbomer properly. You need to add the powder very slowly to get it to hydrate properly.

  8. Avatar

    how if i but just water , carbopol 940 , alkali substance as borax

  9. Avatar

    Is it possible to make a simple PVP based hair gel? (I mean… do you know of any links to recipes for a PVP based hair gel?) if you have the PVP in powder form, how to you turn it into the actual “gel” Thanks a ton for your help!

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      To make PVP into a gel you would typically add Carbomer and neutralize it.

      1. Avatar
        Selma Hamimed

        I want to make a solid support gel with PVP . Do you have any ideas how can I make it?
        Ps: This solide support gel is for the food delivery so I want something more safe for the application.

  10. Avatar

    This time basic formulation are not showing !
    I thin your Website have an error

  11. Avatar

    I want to prepare hair wax formulation but I am confused about prservative because it is mixed and filled at very high temperature and preservativs are heat sensitive. Can you suggest the one?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      I would need to know what else is in the formula. However, Phenoxyethanol can work at higher temperatures. Also, you can incorporate your preservative into the formula as it cools down (say under 45C)

  12. Avatar

    I want to make a pour-able gel which would be for dry/frizzy hair. What ingredients can I add in a gel to make more resistance to humidity. Styling polymer in the gel will help with that but I want to add something for conditioning and some film-formers like oil, esters or protein that will prevent frizz in high humid weather. If I will add protein then it might not suit people with protein sensitive hair.

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      Most of the time a silicone is incorporated into the formula for this. Something like low molecular weight dimethicone would help.

  13. Avatar

    thank you so much. this is very helpful

  14. Avatar
    Brandon L

    During either Mixing processes do either solutions need to be heated in any way to assist in solubility?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      It depends on what is in the formula. But if everything is water soluble then no they don’t need to be heated.

  15. Avatar

    thanx for the information,,, now m starting to make my own product i.e pore away gel …!!but i just want to know what should i use to get more transparency in my gel as the one i am making is not so transparent as compared to the other available in the market…

    1. Avatar

      hello everybody ,please help me
      i want to make a alcohol fuel gel with carbomer-water-TEA -methanol
      but the mixure that i made it was little watery .
      i want the current formula to produce it .is there the other materials that can be used for fuel gel or like sterno?!!!!!

    2. Avatar

      i want to make antispatter gel .which ingredients I should use

  16. Avatar

    Hello everyone I am starting to try and make some hair pomade. I was wondering if someone could tell me what I could add to change the gel to green? I also wondering what is the viscority of this recipe? Thanks in advance

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      You could add a mix of FD&C blue and yellow colors. Or you can add FD&C green color. I don’t know but the viscosity of a gel is typically over 20,000 cps

  17. Avatar
    Sandi Gilang

    Hi, thanks for the good information. I’m now starting to make my own hair pomade product. I use unrefined beeswax, olive oil, shea butter, and scented oil. The result is good enough. it has a firm hold, greasy look, and nice smell. I’m wondering how to scoop easily from the tin? How to get my product a shiny look? What are the materials that I missed? Sorry for asking too much. Thanks, I really appreciate it.

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      The answer to your question is complicated and requires more information than you’ve provided. I’d suggest you post the question in our forum where multiple chemists can provide an answer. Basically, you’ll probably need to create an emulsion product to get the product you want.

  18. Avatar
    Andres Salazar

    I’m a barber/hair stylist. I would like to start manufacturing my own hair gel / product. how can i make my own brand of hair gel to sell to my customers. who can make this hair gel for me and what do i need or who do i need to contact?

  19. Avatar

    Hi Perry,
    I would like to make Moulding wax for Dreads locks. Do you perhaps have any formulations. Can you guys help…

  20. Avatar

    Hi Perry:
    You mentioned that a colorant can be used as part of the formulation. What type of colorant will mix with gel so that it deposits on the hair as wash out hair colour? I find the Manic Panic Dye Hard styling gel very expensive and would like to make my own.

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      I’m not sure. It depends on the formulation. Look at what Manic Panic is using to find your answer.

  21. Avatar
    Hasnine Osmani

    Thz for yr sharing.
    I would like to know why do u use 2 kinds of PVP instead of one? Is there any special purpose?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      The PVP copolymer is less water soluble so the formula will not be as sticky in humid conditions. Pure PVP formulas tend to be sticky

  22. Avatar

    Hello, Do you have any advice when substituting Xanthum gum for Carbomer? Do you still need to add Tetrasodium EDTA & Suttocide A ?

    Thank you in advance!

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      Xanthan gum is a little more slimy and sticky than carbomer. Also, you might not have a formula that is clear. Yes, you still need EDTA and the preservative.

  23. Avatar
    Hector Tapia

    We recently formulated our first water based water soluble gel type pomade. We used a formula handed down to us by another pomade brewer.
    I love the end result except for 2 things: the end result is a white formula but when rubbed in the palms it comes through clear. Second, it scoops out with a fluffy feel and pours into the tins and dries with froth/bubbles at the top.
    What do you suggest I do to lessen the fluffy feel and minimize the bubbles in our formula?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      You haven’t given enough information for me to answer. I would need to know at least the list of ingredients in your formula.

      1. Avatar
        Hector Tapia


        I believe I am fine with the look of my previous product. We are thinking of actually venturing into fiber pomades but the ingredients elude us. The ingredient list we found that is ideal for what we wish to do goes like so: Water, Ceteareth-25, Polyvinylpyrrolidone, PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, PEG-7 Glyceryl Cocoate, AMP-Acrylates/Allyl Methacrylate Copolymer, Glycerin, Polysorbate-20, Sodium Polyacrylate, Titanium Dioxide, Mica, DMDM Hydantoin, Fragrance (Parfum)

        Is there any way you can describe what it is that each of these ingredients bring to the table? Obviously we know what eater is but everything else is a bit strange to us.

        Please help!

        Thank you

  24. Avatar

    Where can I buy all the ingredients to made the gelatin?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      You must be talking about gels not gelatin. Go to for sources for raw materials to make gels.

  25. Avatar
    herman limas

    hi sir
    can i use alkohol 96% for pvp solvent ?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      It really depends on the local regulations for alcohol. PVP is soluble in water.

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      It is a solvent.

  26. Avatar
    Monica Esi Crentsil

    pls am into cosmetics but my styling gel turns watery after two weeks of preparation why? apart from Gelatin and flax seed what else can i use?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      It depends on what else is in your formula

  27. Avatar
    walter iweanya

    please can you give me the minimum quality of water use in gel production to ensure a longer shelf life.

  28. Avatar

    i do ave a problem after i had finish d end product of my styling gel. I realise after sum weeks dat my styling gel normal has a white substances on top of d gel. What causes that? Pls what will i do to stop it from having dis white substances…

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      It depends on what else is in your formula.

  29. Avatar

    i am fresh chemist in cosmetic and i want to start formulating hair cream
    i know the ingredients moisturizing cream and how to make it but i don not about other creams or cosmetic product like hair cream
    i really need your helps
    thanks a lot

  30. Avatar
    walter iweanya

    my styling gel turns watery after some time. I use Soibact preservative and NaOH (25%) solution (1.5/1 ratio of carbomer). What do I do to stop this.

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      Use a different neutralizer like TEA or AMP.

  31. Avatar
    Nishant Doshi

    I am almost through with myformulla of making a hair styling gel. but i just want to know what should i use to get more transparency in my gel as the one i am making is not so transparent as compared to the other available in the market

  32. Avatar
    sulu giwa

    please can i get your personal contact number to have business with you

  33. Avatar

    I tried making hair gel with “natural polymer derived from xanthan gum.” Supposedly you can just mix with water and it gels-pre-neutralized. When I did it, I added Cetac for a little conditioning and aloe vera and it gelled but was opaque instead of clear. What kinds of things affect clarity in gels?

  34. Avatar

    What kind of preservative is best?
    And in what ratio?
    Thank u

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      It depends on what type of formula you are making. DMDM Hydantoin and Methylparaben work well for most applications.

  35. Avatar

    I want recipe of hair styling gel and what type of precautions we should take during manufacturing it ?

  36. Avatar

    I would like to make a natural eye gel, can you help

  37. Avatar

    i have lotion with botton formulation:
    (making baby creamy lotion)
    Cetearyl ısononanoate
    Cetearyl alcohol(Cetostearyl)
    Glyceryl Stearate
    Cetyl Palmitate
    Peg-7 Glycerylcocoate
    Citric Acid
    Vitamin E (Tocopheryl acetate )
    Chamomille Recutıta Extract
    Sodium acrylates/C10-30 alkyl acrylate crosspolymer
    Paraffinum liquıdum
    Aloe vera extract
    please tell me how make this lotion, with materials

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      You haven’t given enough information to answer your question.

      Also, your question has nothing to do with the topic of this post. Please submit your question to our cosmetic science forum (

  38. Avatar
    Faith ibidun

    Thanks, that was very helpful. Especially how to mix the solutions of the gel

  39. Avatar
    Billy Elder

    hi there guys i am looking to make my own pomade and i think i have the correct ingredients but i seem to have problems in the mixing process etc i would love some help.

    the ingredients are

    DPG-Dipropylene Glycol
    Cetearyl Alcohol
    Microcrystalline Wax
    Decyl Oleate
    PEG-7 Glyceral Cocoate
    Xanthum Gum
    Mineral Oil
    Water (Di-ionised)

    can someone please let me know if 1) these ingredients are enough to make a slightly tacky medium hold pomade 2) rough measurements to make 120ml.

    if you cannot help then i would really appreciate some help in the matter thank you in advance.

    Billy Elder

  40. Avatar
    Jitender Madan

    How to prevent PVP interaction with carbopol. Is PVP added after making gel of carbopol after neutralization with base?

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      PVP would be added before neutralization

      1. Avatar
        Jitender Madan

        So is it that in PVP solution base (Triethanolamine) is added and this solution is added to carbopol solution?

        1. Avatar
          Perry Romanowski

          Typically, you make a water solution of Carbomer. Then you make a separate solution of everything else in your gel. Then you add the two systems together to create your gel.

          1. Avatar
            Jitender Madan

            Thank you very much. We made two solutions: one of Carbomer, other of PVP+sorbitol+color+preservatives. We thought to add TEA after mixing both solutions. But PVP and Carbomer makes complex and precipitate as literature suggest. I hope adding TEA to PVP solution will prevent complex formation.

        2. Avatar

          I am having the same problem as you (PVP and Carbomer makes complex and precipitate). Does adding the TEA to the PVP solution helps solve this problem?
          Do you mind to also share the literature where PVP and Carbomer makes complex and precipitate?
          Thank you

          1. Avatar
            Perry Romanowski

            You should not have a problem with PVP and Carbomer precipitating. Perhaps there is another ingredient causing the problem? You can separately mix the Carbomer and water, then add it to a solution that already has water with PVP dissolved. You should not get a precipitate then.

  41. Avatar

    am missing some of ingredients in my country and the retailers doesnt know others exists what help can you give me

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      I’m not really sure. I would post your question to our cosmetic science forum.

  42. Avatar
    devendra sharma

    wish to make green leaf brand aloe vera gel. Is it possible to make this type of transparant gel in home level.

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      If you can get the raw materials it is.

  43. Avatar

    Hi, dear
    I search a good , safe formulation for hair styling wax, please help me
    thank you in advance

  44. Avatar

    i am facing issue in the transparance of gel ,and i need the roote coue of it

  45. Avatar
    Esraa Assran

    Hii … I need alternatives for PVP K90 which will be more safe ??

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      There is not much that is more safe than PVP K90. It is a food grade material.

  46. Avatar
    Carla González

    Hi everyone!

    My company recently changed our gel packaging, from transparent PVC to black PVC. The problem is, we have gotten complaints from our customers saying that the product becomes “too dry” after some time. I assume this water loss is due to our new packaging.
    Is there any modification we could make to the formula to minimize this problem?
    Thanks for your suggestions.

  47. Avatar
    Victor Soto

    Thanks for the information! I just have to modify some % and I hope its works.

  48. Avatar
    alpesh surani

    hi 2 all
    plese send me hair gel farmulation

  49. Avatar

    I used to work in formulation as 7 years ago and I am trying to get a job in cosmetics but I do not remember how to prepare the solutions for gel as : quantity of the colorant, solvent; water or mineral oil ,% used. Do you recomend some infor mation to get it.

    Thanks you

  50. Avatar

    Hi Perry,

    I am working right now on underarm whitening cream but the problem is I can’t hardly make a emulsion. the product separates as soon as i add Aluminum Zirconium Tetrachlorohydrex Gly.
    what do you think should i consider in making this product?
    do you have prototype formulae that i can use a s guide?
    kindly help. thanks,

    1. Avatar

      Use Emulsogen LP… Oleth-5 Prior to adding Aluminum Zirconium T***G***…… make sure the oil and water phase are up to temperature before mixing your emulsion!!

  51. Avatar
    Angela S.

    I am a graduate student at the University of Michigan. In my group, we are trying to research new methods to accurate detect early signs of breast cancer. In short, we want to take a 3D x-ray image of the breast and then right after apply an automatic ultrasound to the breast. In order to eliminate scattering in the images, we need to come up with a coupling medium that is more of a mineral oil based gel. Do you have any suggestions? In the past we have found a few mineral oil based gels that work well with both x-rays and ultrasounds, however they are very difficult to clean off and often leave a gel-like residue. Do you know of any surfactants that can be added into a mineral gel that will make the mineral-oil based gel easy to clean off?
    Thank you for your help!

    1. Avatar

      Hi Angela,

      i’m care for your search and i hope if u like to tell me if you have any development.
      thank you in advance

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