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I bought some hydroxyethylcellulose from Lotioncrafter* for a duplication of ASDM Beverly Hills Ultra Firming Cream over on my Patreon feed, and I realized that I haven’t worked with this ingredient before. I did a search, went through my lab book, went through my old formulating binder, and nothing! What? There’s an ingredient I haven’t used? What madness is this?
So what is it? It’s a non-ionic or neutrally charged polymer used to thicken aqueous products to produce “crystal” clear gels or to thicken emulsions. It’s a polysaccharide, which will hydrate and create a film or light barrier on our skin to act as an emollient, hydrator, and anti-inflammatory.
Why do we care if it’s non-ionic? This means it can be used with things like anionic or negatively charged surfactants in body washes, bubble baths, and so on, and with negatively charged emulsifiers like Ritamulse SCG, although I don’t think this one has trouble getting thicker! It can be used with cationic or positively charged ingredients, like conditioners, and it’s a nice thickener for things like cetrimonium chloride, which is water thin, to make detanglers. (Oh, so many hair care products we can make with HEC!)
And it’s stable at an acidic pH – which is to say, at the pH of just about everything we make! Woo!
It can tolerate salts, like those found in aloe vera and sodium lactate, and film form to offer more hydrating goodness. which means we can use this to thicken aloe vera gels or hydrating products. Again, I say woo!
With surfactants, it can help stabilize bubbles, increase viscosity, and increase mildness, which is always welcome in a surfactant mix. Awesome news! It can help thicken surfactants that don’t want to thicken well, like sarcosinates and sulfosuccinates (like disodium laureth sulfosuccinate or DLS), and may thicken decyl glucoside at an acidic pH level. Using it at as low as 0.2% can create a “nice thick creamy lather from a loose large bubble foam”, which means we can use this to take something like foaming silk protein, which has “lacy glove bubbles” to something much creamier. Woo!
Use it in hair gels for a “soft hold” or as a gel base for things like facial moisturizers, cleansers, and serums.
Lotioncrafter recommends that it be “added to room temperature water with a neutral pH”, after which it can be heated and the pH adjusted as these two factors can affect hydration time or the time that it takes for HEC to be hydrated. Add it to the water phase and “stir until the polymer is dissolved” to prevent the particles from settling. The version I bought from Lotioncrafter can take between 4 and 25 minutes to hydrate, while other versions I saw said it could take 30 to 60 minutes, so my recommendation is to put on some awesome music and do some fancy dancing as you mix this to hydration.
Definitely do the water phase first, then the surfactants last as mixing those for 4 to 25 minutes will result in a container of bubbles and nothing else!
We use it at 0.1% to 3% in the water phase. At 1%, it has a pH of 6.7, which is a great, almost neutral pH place to start. It has a shelf life of about 2 years.
It’s derived from wood, so I guess you could call it natural, although it has to undergo a heck of a lot of processing to stop being splinters to become this product. It’s a cellulose ether, which is cellulose that has been chemically modified. “[C]ellulose fibers are heated with a caustic solution that, in turn, is treated with methyl chloride, and either propylene oxide or ethylene oxide, yielding hydroxypropyl methyl cellulose or hydroxyethyl methyl cellulose, respectively. The fibrous reaction product is purified and ground to a fine, uniform powder.” (This is a really interesting document, if you’d like to know more.)
What am I making with this? I’m making up this lotion I mentioned above, then a few conditioning products for thinner or finer hair with cetrimonium chloride, quaternium 31, and more. This is a really cool ingredient if you can get the mixing right!
THICKENING OF FOAMING COSMETIC FORMULATIONS (Geert De Lathauwer, Daisy De Rycke, Annelies Duynslager, Stijn Tanghe, Caroline Oudt EOC Surfactants nv, Belgium)
Liquid Detergents, page 406