Thickening Agents for Cosmetic Formulations

One of the requirements of most cosmetic products is that they have an appealing rheology. This means that you as a cosmetic formulator you are going to have to figure out a way to control the viscosity (or thickness) of your products. There are a number of ingredients that are used for this purpose. Each kind has applications to different formulation types. Here is a basic introduction.

Lipid Thickeners

Lipid thickeners are primarily composed of lipophillic materials. They work by imparting their natural thickness to the formula. Typically, these materials are solids at room temperature but are liquified via heat and incorporated into emulsions. They are used most often in creams and lotions. Some common types include Cetyl Alcohol, Stearyl Alcohol, Carnauba Wax, and Stearic acid.

Naturally derived thickeners

Various thickeners are found in nature or are derivatives of natural thickeners. These ingredients are polymers that work by absorbing water to swell up and increase viscosity. Cellulose derivatives like Hydroxyethylcellulose are frequently used in liquid cleansing products such as shampoo or body wash. Guar gum is another example of a naturally derived thickener. Others include Locust Bean Gum, Xanthan Gum, and Gelatin. These thickeners can be used in any formula that contains a high level of water. Unfortunately, they can be inconsistent, cause clear formulas to become cloudy, and feel sticky on skin.

Mineral thickeners

Mineral thickeners are naturally occurring, mined ingredients that can absorb water or oils and boost viscosity. They give a different kind of viscosity than the natural gums. Materials include Silica, Bentonite, and Magnesium Aluminum Silicate. These thickeners can be used to thicken oils as well as water based formulations.

Synthetic thickeners

Perhaps the most versatile of all thickeners are the synthetic molecules. Carbomer is the most common example. It is a water-swellable acrylic acid polymer that can be used to form crystal clear gels. They have a desirable feel which makes them superior to other thickening agents that leave a sticky feel. Carbomer thickeners also have the ability to suspend materials in solution so you can have low viscosity formulas with large particles suspended. These thickeners also help to stabilize emulsions and are frequently used in lotion and cream products.

Ionic thickening

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the most common thickeners for surfactant solutions. Simply adding Salt (NaCl) you can get an anionic surfactant solution to become thicker. In fact, salt is frequently used as an adjusting agent during production.  In a future article, we’ll discuss the salt curve and what it means for rheology.

What is your favorite cosmetic thickening agent? Leave a comment below.

29 thoughts on “Thickening Agents for Cosmetic Formulations

  1. Avatar
    Mohamad al Sibai says:

    i prepare 500 k.g shampoo with herbal extracts but the viscosoty is low i add the c.m.c carboxymethylcelloluse no without high progress
    can you help me wattsapp 00963/0936900517

  2. Avatar
    Sade says:


    We are creating a natural leave in conditioner. It was great but the ingredient we took out ceteareth 20 seems to be the ingredient is making the product work. All the other ingredients are natural so we looking for a natural alternative to ceteareth 20.

    • Avatar
      Perry Romanowski says:

      There probably isn’t a good natural alternative. You took out the emulsifier & there aren’t any natural emulsifiers that work well. I’d suggest you post your question in our forum with some more information. Maybe you’ll get some more useful information.

  3. Avatar
    Suki says:

    Dear Perry,
    Hello one-of-my-top-three-Chemistry-Heroes! (the other two are Colin in the UK, & Amanda Foxon-Hill from RealizeBeauty)-not that there aren’t a solid 6-8 or so more, out on the web, or right here at Chemists’ Corner! also making it their mission to illuminate this seemingly dark age of dumb-assery & the avid mongering of fear & loathing in Lies Vagueness..

    My query for Perry:
    Please rest assured I have sought this answer in all the usual places..but no love..
    Regarding specifically: Tylose HS 60K (INCI: Hydroxyethylcellulose) use rate is between 0.5-1.5%, neutralizing with 1% TEA.
    My question is, can I substitute the TEA, which I don’t have, with either Sodium or Potassium Hydroxide, which I do have?
    If, by some chance, I can, would you think I should use a 1% solution? Because, for example, with carbomer, I didn’t get a proper gel until I used my 18% (as vs. the 10%) Sodium Hydroxide solution.
    I sincerely hope this is not a dumb question, framed incorrectly, too long, too many dumb jokes, etc.
    Thank you sincerely, as always, Perry, for your kindness & patience, your time & attention.

    Respectfully yours,
    Suki Marmelaide

  4. Avatar
    usman says:

    hello! i want to know , which thickening agent will use for Oil , i want to do White Oil thick and don’t change oil’s transparency .?

  5. Avatar
    Ola says:

    Thanks so much,
    Can I use nitrosol as thickening and gelling chemical for a hand sanitizer. If yes, what quantity will be ok

  6. Avatar
    Kate says:

    Good day sir,your post was really helpful however,I tried making hand sanitizer but it’s not thick at all,the ingredients I used are:ethanol,rose water ,glycerin and isopropyl alcohol,but it’s not thick at all,pls help suggest what I can use,thanks n looking forward to your feedback.

  7. Avatar
    yohan says:

    i am looking for a naturals usda organic to thicken my alovera 90% water . i just saw agar agar powder what do you think about this ingredient? there is another organic alternative?

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