Make lotions like a pro: all the tools you need to set up a skincare lab.
“Which tools do I really need if I want to set up a lab to make lotions, gels or creams?”
“How much space do I need?”
“How much money do I have to invest? “
These are some of the most common questions I receive from my clients.
If you want to know the answers, keep reading.
I know some of you are making lotions just for fun, while others intend to start a business based on that. For the purpose of this article, there’s no difference. Even if you create products for you and your family only, you still want them to be of the highest possible quality.
Am I right?
Unlike what some bloggers are saying out there, you won’t get high quality products using the wrong equipment. If you want to do things properly, forget stick blenders and kitchen scales.
LUISA'S TIP: from a business point of view, consider working with a contract manufacturer if you're not sure you'll be able to fulfill all the orders by manufacturing yourself. This is especially true for people who also have another job and don't feel quite ready to leave it.
When you are just starting out, the advantages of working with a contractor manufacturer are numerous:
- The products are manufactured by trained personnel with professional equipment which means high reproducibility.
- Large-scale production.
- Higher rate of production, including filling and packaging.
- More time to focus on other aspects of your business.
As usual, there are downsides, too.
- It is a more expensive route (but definitely worthy of consideration when the business is still in its embryonic phase)
- Depending on the manufacturer, you’re usually bonded to certain ingredients.
- Production time can take longer.
- High MOQ (minimum order quantity) which means higher capital investment and therefore higher risk.
- Low control on what is going on. This is why, when possible, I recommend you visit the facility before starting the process. Is it clean? Do they follow GMP (good manufacturing practices)? Is their practice transparent?
Setting up a cosmetic lab at your place.
The choice of manufacturing by yourself makes sense when:
- Your budget is limited.
- You want to make medium size batches to test the market (which I highly recommend).
- You want to try different formulas and directly scale-up in a few days with no intermediates.
- You are completely independent and want to proceed at your own pace.
The tools you decide to use to make your lotions affect the overall quality and stability of your products.
This is the truth, like it or not.
If you are into some DIY Facebook groups or blogs, pay attention to how many products simply don’t come out right. Sure the formula is important, but equipment is equally crucial.
If you want to start your cosmetic business and manufacture cosmetics at home, you need to choose products that are simple and do not require sophisticated tools to be produced OR you need to invest in professional tools. If you're on a budget, opt for the former. If you have more money, for the latter.
Setting up a cosmetic lab and scale up. Kristy's story.
I want you to pay attention to the story below because it shows how profitable the beauty market is and how low are the entry barriers.
When I talked to Kristy for the first time, I was impressed by her determination; she wanted to launch a skincare line. Her job was to sell wholesale cosmetic products to beauty salons, and she forecasted it would have been much more profitable to sell her own skincare set (and she was right-the margin is a lot higher).
With so many other products on the market, she didn’t know whether her current clients would have bought her private label line or not.
I remember talking to her during our first consultation; she was so worried about losing money and time pursuing an uncertain project!
What I told her, is the same I am telling you now: START SMALL.
Test the market first.
Kristy, therefore, decided to set up a small lab area in the back of her showroom, and we worked together on her project. I provided her with two different formulas for lotions, and I explained in detail how to make them.
She bought the tools specific for lotion making, the necessary ingredients, and started creating prototypes.
Finally, she gave away these prototypes as free samples to her customers.
Kristy chooses to manufacture the formulation that received the most positive feedbacks.
Together, we decided to start with the production of 250 units that sold quickly. For the second round, she decided to work with a contract manufacturer for 2500 units. This decision was mainly due to the fact she couldn't keep up with her other job. After the second round , she worked with the same manufacturer for 3 additional production rounds.
With the revenues from the sales, she was able to move to a bigger place and hired people to take care of the production. She implemented the business with an e-commerce site and reached 6 figures profit in about 1 year and a half.
I don’t want to convey the wrong message here; Kristy succeeded quickly because she had some marketing background and some already established clients. Furthermore, she got a professional formulation and paid to see how it was done.
If you start from 0, it is definitely doable, BUT you need to surround yourself with different experts or acquire some knowledge in areas you have a lack of it. On Udemy.com you can find online courses on almost any topic you can think of. These include marketing, social media advertising, photography, design. All these skills play an important role in building a successful cosmetic brand.
If you want to read more about how to launch your own cosmetic line, here‘s another useful post.
Lotion Making Equipment- What to Buy
Before we start we the list of the tools, remember that everything you buy for your home lab/production site must be properly stored, maintained, cleaned, and checked periodically (this includes all the raw materials and ingredients).
It can be a table, a desk or whatever you want. I personally like industrial stainless steel tables because they’re very sturdy and easy to clean. I used to use lab specific desks but I found porous surfaces more difficult to clean. To sanitize before use, I suggest using a solution of alcohol/water 60%. To clean, use any multi-purpose detergent. See an example of a suitable table here (affiliate link- Thank you for your support).
Buying a good scale is pivotal as often you’ll have to weigh incredibly small amounts of material.
Accuracy in science is everything.
Which factors should you take into account when buying a scale? First, capacity and readability. Capacity is basically the maximum weight the scale can sustain while readability is the smallest division at which the balance’s screen increments. So for example, if a scale has a 1 gram readability, it means the screen will increment only by 1 gram. It won’t be able to read smaller increments, for instance, 0.5 grams.
As the capacity increases, the readability decreases. This is why it is almost always necessary to own at least 2 scales: one with small capacity yet high readability and the other just the opposite. If you don’t need a super high capacity, then you can compromise by buying a scale that has a 0.01g readability and a 2200 grams capacity (see below).
A good readability for making cosmetics starts at 0.1 grams. Spend some time becoming familiar with the metric system and measure by weight rather than volume (volume = cups, tbsp etc). Simply put weight never changes, while volume depends on what you are considering. Measuring by weight guarantees reproducible measurements, and reproducibility is definitely something to look forward to when dealing with science.
Ohaus NV 2101 is the scale I use for almost all my formulations. It has a readability of 0.1 g and a capacity of 2.1 kg (74 oz). I’ve been using it for years and never, never had any problem. The box includes a calibrating weight, so you don’t have to purchase one (calibrate it once every few months). It comes with an AC adaptor but works with batteries, too. You can find it here
Another excellent scale more budget friendly is this one.
Hot plates are small machines that heat and maintain a fixed temperature over time. As for lotion making equipment, they’re used to melt waxes and other solid ingredients. The hot plate can be thought of as the professional equivalent for the double boiler mentioned in some DIY blogs. The hot plate surface can consist of different materials; I recommend ceramic as it’s easier to clean. When making lotions, it’s useful to have a hot plate coupled with a magnetic stirrer.
A magnetic stirrer is a device that employs a magnetic field to make a small bar stir, thus stirring the liquid.
Hotplate and magnetic stirrer are usually found within the same instrument. The magnetic stirrer is very useful to ensure heating and agitation while adding powders to a liquid so that dissolution happens faster.
The brand Corning makes are real workhorses when it comes to hot plates.
this is the hot plate I use to make some of my formulations. For a cheaper option (that still works great), consider this one. The latter has a more powerful magnetic stirrer, but the temperature control is not so great.
Overhead Mixers are probably going to be the most expensive tool in your lab.
I don’t know you, but I don’t mind paying a lot for something that gives me back enormous value. What I hate is to waste money on stuff I don’t really need. This is why I've never regretted the $$$ I spent on my mixer.
Cosmetic mixers have an electric motor, and the mixing tool is attached to a metal rod. Mixing speed is adjustable within certain ranges.
Overhead cosmetic mixers come with different impellers and each has a different purpose. For lotion-making purposes, the best one is a rotor stator system as shown in the photo.
I’ve been doing some digging on eBay and Amazon and found this mixer to be very similar to the Silverson. Ebay.com is better than Amazon for this kind of industrial equipment. You can find some good deals on used instruments.
Used instruments are recommended when you’re just starting out. Whatever you decide to buy, remember that the stability and quality of the final product will depend on this decision. ..A good formula doesn’t guarantee a professional result itself!
For dispersion purposes you want to use another kind of impeller that is commonly known as saw tooth impeller (see picture below). This kind of impeller is the best option when you need to disperse a powder (for example carbomer) into a liquid. It's also widely used to disperse pigments in their base.
MISCELLANEOUS & DISPOSABLE
Pipettes are meant to precisely handle liquids. Those made of glass are usually reusable, while plastic ones are disposable. Pipettes are excellent to avoid waste when picking up liquids from inside a bottle.
Make sure to use a different one for each material. By doing this, you’ll avoid cross contamination. If you’re not discarding them after use, use a solution of water and ethanol or rubbing alcohol to clean and sanitize.
pH strips and pH meter
pH strips are used to calculate pH values. They provide a range rather than a single value. Therefore, they’re not very precise. Once you become more familiar with the process of lotion-making, switch to a portable pH meter which is way more reliable.
Here's the pH meter I use.
When making lab batches, create between 100 and 300 grams of product. Don’t go below 100 grams as some product’s features could be difficult to detect with such a small batch size. Beakers are the pyrex glass containers to hold your products. They come in different sizes.
The following are the most common beakers sizes: 50ml, 250 ml, 100 ml and eventually 500 ml. Bigger sizes do exist and are useful when you need to scale up your production.
Weighing dishes are made of polystyrene. You can use them to weigh powders but also liquids. Some scales have a limited capacity making it impossible to weigh substances directly in the beaker. These dishes hold the solutions. You can wash and reuse them.
Cleaning up the mess is the least fun part of the job! Not everything can be washed off with water and soap. This is especially true for anhydrous products or water in silicone emulsions. In these cases, for an effective cleaning use paper and a compatible chemical (for example mineral oil, paraffin, or cyclopentasiloxane). After all the anhydrous residues are gone, wash the beaker thoroughly with water and soap and finally wipe it with an alcohol pad.
Equipment to perform some in-house basic stability tests.
Stability tests are of 2 different kinds: microbiological stability and physical/chemical stability.
Microbiological tests aim to make sure the product has a limited number of bacteria and absolutely no pathogens ones (for example Pseudomonas Aeruginosa).
I recommend using a third party professional lab, unless you can handle cell cultures and have some kind of biology experience. However, there are some kit you can use BEFORE you spend money for the tests. See this page.
As far as the physical stability, you can perform the so called accelerated stability tests. These allow you to estimate the shelf life of your lotion and give you results in approximately 3 months. Accelerated stability testing consists in keeping your laboratory batches or finished goods at a set temperature and humidity. An incubator creates this controlled environment.
Best is to buy one that has a temperature range of at least -10C to 40C so you can test your sample at both temperatures with the same instrument. Chamber’s sizes vary, allowing to choose the most suitable one for your needs. Look for bargains on labx.com. A good brand of chambers is Sanyo. Just starting out? Then you want to give a try to this incubator.
When it comes to lotions, changes in viscosity are one of the signs of instability. A viscosimeter, therefore, can really help you out, but it is not necessary if you’re just starting out or if you have no intention to sell your lotions. Viscosity must be recorded always at the same temperature. The most recognizable brand for viscosimeter is Brookfield and here’s the link to one of their valuable, yet affordable models. Another useful instrument to test the physical stability of lotions is a bench top centrifuge. The high-speed spinning uncovers any kind of latent separation issue.
I guarantee that if you performed the right stability tests on lotions made with DIY formulas and kitchen equipment, they’ll fail.
Lotion Making Equipment- Conclusions
If you’re serious about making cosmetics, in particular skincare products such as lotions and cream, you must invest in some basic laboratory equipment.
The right tools will allow you to obtain professional products with a long shelf life and superior quality.
What tools do you use to make your lotions? If there’s anything you’d like to add to this list, please post it in the comment section below.