I’ve been saving recipes for homemade lotion bars on Pinterest for years. This winter, I finally got around to testing some of the recipes out. My tests included some failures, but also some revelations. “If at first you don’t succeed, Try, try, try again.” In the end, I discovered what I believe is the easiest recipe for creating pleasant-smelling eco-friendly lotion bars at home.
Spoiler alert – the final recipe is vegan (i.e. no beeswax)
I wanted to share my lessons learned with lotion bar “beginners”. If you are a “homemade beauty product genius”, you may already know most of this (or even have some extra insight for me). But, if you are just getting started as part of a toxin-free + zero-waste lifestyle, then this post is for you!
Lesson 1: Shea Butter Smells…Well, Weird
Many of the recipes recommend shea butter. The first recipe I tried was simple: equal parts shea butter, coconut oil, and beeswax. Shea butter is non-comedogenic, meaning it has less of a tendency to clog pores (other natural non-comedogenic oils include hemp seed oil and argan oil). Conversely, coconut oil and cocoa butter are comedegenic. Since I don’t plan on using lotion bars as a facial moisturizer, this isn’t a concern for me, but might be something to think about when adapting this recipe for different uses.
I’m not alone in noticing the weird smell associated with shea butter. Some describe the odor as “fresh + nutty” while others describe a slight chemical smell. My experience was somewhere in the middle, not awful – but also not particularly pleasant (especially when heated). Refined shea butter contains residual chemical solvents. Since I purchased “100% raw, unrefined, organic shea butter”, that shouldn’t have been the problem. If you have a recommendation for a good-smelling shea butter I can try, please let me know in the comments!
To mask the smell, I ended up remelting this batch down and overloading it with essential oils. This can get expensive if you are using these bars as an everyday, basic moisturizer. Also, since I was making the bars as gifts, these ended up in the “I’ll use these myself just to not go to waste” pile.
I’ve used this same shea butter when making homemade reef-safe sunscreen. But, this recipe used a much smaller amount, likely diluting the odor in the final product. Even so, I will still replace shea butter with other alternatives in future recipes.
Lesson 2: Cocoa Butter Smells Much Better
I tried a cocoa butter lotion bar recipe for my second batch. These smell good on their own – so essential oils can be an added bonus instead of a necessity. This recipe also used a lower percentage of beeswax which may have also made a difference in the final product. But, I’ve used this same beeswax batch in other projects without noticing any odor issues. Once I run out of my current stash of beeswax, I will be using alternatives, as described below.
Lesson 3: Beeswax Shouldn’t be Part of an Eco-Friendly Lotion Bar Recipe
Lotion Bars are inherently eco-friendly due to the lack of required packaging. But, the ingredients used must also be sustainable. Since these have been on my DIY bucket list for a while, I already had beeswax in my cabinet.
For the last 1.5 years, I have identified myself as a honey-eating vegan. But, I’ve recently decided honey and beeswax don’t belong in my ecologically-motivated vegan lifestyle.
Bees create beeswax to safeguard their honey and help them get through the winter. Generally speaking, sustainable beekeepers won’t have a plethora of beeswax to share or sell.
A vegan beeswax alternative can be derived from the Candelilla plant. Both waxes can be used to make lotion bars
Lesson 4: Candelilla Wax is a Better Vegan Alternative
The candelilla plant is a drought-tolerant shrub native to southwestern US and northwestern mexico. Wax derived from the plant’s leaves tend to be a bit more brittle than beeswax. But, if used at the appropriate ratios, can serve as the perfect sustainable alternative.
Carnauba and soy waxes are other viable alternatives, but each have their own problems. Carnauba wax, derived from palm trees, can contribute to rainforest deforestation. And, although soy is ubiquitous, most is genetically modified and pesticide-laden. In all reality, there are ecological issues associated with any commercially-produced product. The key is to pay close attention to the vendors you choose.
Lesson 5: The Microwave works in a Pinch
Microwaves have gotten a bad rap over the last couple decades, but I still use mine occasionally. There are some technologies of the modern era that just make sense. After my trials and tribulations through this process, I moved to using the microwave. It worked just as well, and faster.
The one main hazard: wax can catch on fire. Stick with 30 to 40 second intervals until you have a sense of your own microwave’s power. Because wax tends to have the higher melting point, heat the wax on its own first. The heat from the melted wax should be enough to melt down your other ingredients.
Lesson 6: Essential Oils – not Extracts…
As an environmental engineer, forgetting the basics of water and lipid-solubilities is embarrassing.
I had envisioned using my homemade peppermint extract to create candy cane scented bars. However, oil and alcohol don’t tend to mix well (duh!). The extract instantly separates from the mixture without leaving behind any scent. That’s why recipes call for essential oils, not extracts 🙂
Lesson 7: Essential Oil Timing is Important
Again with the chemistry. Since essential oils are volatile, don’t add them to the final product until it has had a chance to cool a bit (right before the wax begins to re-solidify after pouring in your mold is the best time). Essential oils are expensive, and you don’t want them to go to waste. Side Note: it’s important to choose organic essential oils. Why? Most pesticides are fat-soluble (i.e. water repellant). Thus, when concentrating a plant into an aromatic oil, you are concentrating the pesticides as well.
Eco-Friendly Vegan Lotion Bars
- 1/2 cup organic, unrefined coconut oil
- 2 cups cocoa butter*, in chunks
- 1/4 cup candelilla wax pellets
- 1.5 teaspoons organic essential oil (optional)
- 0.5 teaspoons vitamin E oil (optional)
- Heat the wax and cocoa butter in a glass bowl in the microwave or using a double boiler on the stove. Monitor carefully while heating, stirring occasionally.
- Add the coconut oil and stir.
- Let cool slightly (before wax starts to solidify), then add in essential oils, if using.
- Pour your mixture into your silicone mold of choice. Add dry ingredients, if using, such as exfoliants or dry herbs.
- Pour remaining liquid in an old tin or glass jar.
- To speed up cooling, place molds in the freezer. Be sure they are completely solidified before removing from molds.
- Keep the room well ventilated.- Use dedicated equipment if possible - the wax sticks to everything.
- Want something to take on a backpacking trip? Use citronella to make a natural bug repellant lotion. Add peppermint, cedar, lemongrass, and/or geranium essential oils for added outdoorsy appeal.
- Need something to help you relax after a long work day? Use lavendar, rose, ylang ylang, chamomile and/or vanilla oil for a calming nighttime blend.
- Want something to energize you in the morning? Use grapefruit, sweet orange, rosemary, eucalyptus, or juniper berry.
- Planning a day out in the sun? Make your own reef-safe sunscreen bars. Add 1 teaspoon red raspberry seed oil +/or carrot seed oil. Add ¼ cup non-nano zinc oxide* (less or more zinc oxide based on your personal preference for opacity vs. protection).