We’re here to tell you that you can jump right in to formulation and make your first gorgeous cosmetic products at home with just a small cosmetic formulation kit of essential tools. Most you will either already have at home or can source cheaply and easily online.
At Formula Botanica, we say everyone can formulate. Our mission is to empower you to rekindle skills of home formulation that were so common in centuries past. To do this, we believe there should be no barriers to entry into the world of natural formulation. If you think about how big cosmetics’ businesses operate with their huge research labs, you may think that to formulate you too need expensive lab equipment.
In reality, you just need to find and sanitise a small space, that could be a corner in your kitchen or in a spare bedroom. Later on, if your interest grows and you wish to learn to formulate cosmetics to sell, you will need to upscale and invest in other equipment and also a dedicated home lab or other premises.
For now, all the tools you need to follow along with our Organic Skincare Entrepreneur Masterclass can fit into one small bag; we call it a ‘Lab in a Bag’. One of our students who travelled for her work literally packed her formulation equipment into a small bag to take with her to practice from hotel rooms wherever she went.
12 tools to get you started:
1. Glass beakers
The first piece of equipment in your cosmetic formulation kit is a small range of glass beakers which are available online from Amazon (see our links below) or from school lab suppliers. We love glass beakers as from the get-go using them you will feel like a natural formulator. They represent your new interest and are the beginnings of your home lab.
Don’t go overboard, but do invest in a few 100ml and 250ml beakers to start with as these are suitable sizes for trial batches and experimenting. They are the perfect size for making your first emulsions too. Some tinier ones around 10 or 20ml are useful for very small amounts of ingredients, such as essential oil blends or weighing out preservatives.
2. Glass rods
Glass rods are the mainstay of formulating so grab a 10-piece pack of them now. They are so cheap and usually come in packs anyway. Glass is easy to clean and is the most hygienic option along with stainless steel spoons. Long-handled stainless steel spoons are ideal for handling dry, powdered and more viscous liquid ingredients when weighing out your formula.
3. Mini whisks
Mini whisks are simple, everyday kitchen items that are also indispensable in home formulation. Buy a few and keep them separate from your kitchen utensils. They come in very handy for blending liquids and you will need them for emulsion making when you homogenise the oil and water phases.
You will need pipettes to measure out small amounts of liquid ingredients, especially essential oils and any preservatives which are used at one percent or so. Pipettes come in single-use plastic form or in glass. At Formula Botanica, we recommend and prefer glass pipettes as they can be re-used. You will need a fine bottle brush, hot soapy water and to sanitise them with isopropyl alcohol (see point 10 below). But, it’s far better to take the time and effort to do this than add to the planet’s plastic waste.
At Formula Botanica, we write and measure out formulations in weight and never in fluid ounces or millilitres. This is best practice in cosmetic formulation as otherwise you have only a vague formulation to work with. For example, no two drops of an essential oil would likely ever weigh the same and an emulsifier of wax pellets would have pockets of air between the flakes so could never be measured out using liquid graduations on a beaker. We have several articles explaining why weighing using digital scales is vital to professional cosmetic formulation.
Why you should never measure essential oils in drops
Top 10 organic formulation questions answered
When you start out formulating and are making small trial amounts of product all you need is a pocket or jewellery scales which operates to two decimal points: from 0.01g going up to 500gms. These pocket scales are cheap – around $15, Euros or British pounds – and easy to find online in stores like Amazon. Later on, if you need to scale up cosmetic manufacture, you will need scales that weigh out larger batches in several kilos or pounds.
Many starter cosmetic formulations are cold processed, but to follow our free Organic Skincare Entrepreneur Masterclass in which we make a hot-process emulsion – a face cream – you need to heat the oil and water phases to a specific temperature. A thermometer is essential to take formulation beyond simple cold-blended cosmetics. At some point, you will want to explore emulsion making to create luxurious skin-feel creams, lotions and serums. There are several types of thermometer to choose from; we recommend either those with prongs to place into your ingredients or a digital, infrared thermometer.
7. Mini homogeniser
Strictly speaking, a mini homogeniser is not a necessary tool in your cosmetic formulation kit. But, it’s certainly a useful one as it can speed up blending, especially emulsion making. While there are large, heavy, lab-bench homogenisers that market for hundreds of dollars, all you need is a cheap, mini, hand-held version. We showcase a useful 5-piece mini mixer set on our Amazon storefront. Just note that cappuccino or milk frothers have a different head and may incorporate too much air into your emulsions unless you keep the frother well down in your formulation.
8. pH strips
Any formulation that contains water will have a pH and one of the first things you learn as a beginner formulator is that water-containing cosmetics like emulsions should be within the skin-friendly pH range of 4.5-5.5. Our skin is naturally slightly acidic. Some cosmetics, such as AHA/BHA formulations are designed to work in a more acidic pH range. Generally, we are making skin-compatible pH range cosmetics, not acidic peels or other treatments designed for professional salon use.
To measure the pH of your formulations, you need either pH strips or a pH meter. Paper strips which come with a colour chart to guide you are the cheapest option and perfectly fine to use as a beginner formulator. When it comes to upgrading, there are a lot of pH meters on the market. We advise understanding the principles of pH more fully before investing in more complex equipment which will need maintenance. First, you need to know how to adjust the pH of your products using an alkaline base such as L-Arginine to increase pH, or an acid like lactic acid to lower pH. Our Diploma in Organic Skincare Formulation covers pH in depth.
9. Lab notebook
If you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen. This is our mantra at Formula Botanica. We can’t stress enough how important it is, not only when you are learning cosmetic formulation but throughout your career as a formulator, to keep notes. You need to not only write down the formula itself, but also every stage in manufacture, every change you made or changes to the product over time, and everything you observe about your formulation trials. So, grab a fresh, clean notebook now and get into the habit of writing everything about your formulations down. This is a good habit to adopt and will set you up for learning about Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) which is required if you go on to make and sell your cosmetics.
Wherever you are learning and whatever equipment you use in your cosmetic formulation kit, you need to sanitise your working space counter top and tools before starting to formulate. This is as simple as filling a clean, new spray bottle with Isopropyl alcohol, spraying your working areas and tools and leaving them to dry. We advise using 70 percent Isopropyl alcohol as higher percentages evaporate too quickly to sanitise surfaces properly. If you can find only 99 percent proof, then simply dilute it 70:30 with pure water.
11. Simple PPE
Botanical ingredients are lovely to work with but that does not mean some aren’t potent and have the potential to harm skin and eyes, or be inhaled. We know that essential oils, for example, should always be applied to skin in dilution in a carrier oil, but as you may accidentally spill some while formulating with them, you need to protect yourself. Be prepared and be safe.
But while you are familiar with PPE these days, what do you need to ensure safety and hygiene while making cosmetics? All you need is a clean apron, some rubber gloves (if you have sensitive skin, buy some nitrile, powder-free gloves), something to tie up or keep your hair back, and some protective glasses. You may wish also to use a face mask but for now, with our starter formulations for home use only, that isn’t necessary. At Formula Botanica, we use our signature green gloves and similar ones are available on our storefront via the links at the end of this article.
12. Bowls, pans and boards
To heat plant butters, oils and waxes for simple anhydrous blends, and the oil and water phases in emulsions, you need heat-proof pans and bowls to create a bain-marie or water bath, and a heat source like a hotplate. To start out, your kitchen hob is fine to use, but later you may wish to have a hotplate to use in your home lab.
Along with these larger items come cutting boards to prepare ingredients on and to protect your surfaces, and utensils like knives and spoons. Stainless steel and glass are easier to sanitise and keep hygienic. Ensure you use heatproof pads to handle any hot bowls; silicon is an ideal material to use to protect surfaces and hands. Avoid plastic boards or implements.
For your first formulations you can use kitchen utensils and bowls, but once you know you want to take organic cosmetic formulation further, invest in a new set of equipment and keep it separate from your everyday kitchen utensils.
If you would like to read more about setting up a home lab and what is involved in starting out in natural formulation, you might like these articles:
The beginner’s guide to setting up a home formulation lab
How to sell your homemade cosmetics
Behind the scenes’ video tour of our students’ labs
Cosmetic Formulation Kit: supplier information
Formula Botanica store on Amazon.co.uk.
Formula Botanica store on Amazon.com.
Leave us a comment
Liz is Formula Botanica’s Content Coordinator and joined our team in August 2020. Liz worked as a professional blogger, journalist and site developer for many years and was also part of the Formula Botanica student community. Read more about the Formula Botanica Team.