How to formulate a SERUM

Hyaluronic Acid Serum

We have learnt how to formulate a lotion, but what is and how to formulate a serum? 🙂

There are few rules to follow:
1) a serum is usually a very light lotion (this means usually 2%, maximum 4% fats),
2) it is typically fluid
3) it has a very high concentration of ACTIVE INGREDIENTS.
4) it doesn’t have to be heated (actually this is a consequence of the previous points)
5) the function of a serum is to give an extra boost of good ingredients to your skin (just to be clear: the function of a cream is to be emollient and hydrate to the skin… therefore wishing to create “the ultimate hydrating serum” is like expecting to bake the best cake in the world without an oven: if you want hydration, you make a cream… if you want to feed your skin with an extra-boost of vitamins, antioxidants, anti-aging ingredients and sooo on, you make a serum).

How to proceed:
there is still Phase A and Phase B  but they will be slightly different:

PHASE A – will still contain water, glycerin and a gelling agent (or not, but I will explain this later… so keep reading 🙂 ), but you will have to pay attention to which gelling agent you choose: you need to choose a gelling agent which won’t break down in presence of salts or other tricky ingredients (for example carbopol ultrez 21 is one of these difficult gelling agenta). For instance xanthan gum or hydroxyethylcellulose are good gelling agents for this purpose (in case of hydroxyethylcell. remember the gel is formed only at 70° so you will need to heat your water and, only when it is cooled down, proceed in the making of your serum).

PHASE B – the oil soluble ingredients have to be very few: 1.5 – 4% (maximum!). By this I mean that even your oil soluble active ingredients will be counted in the fat percentage of the serum: for example if you desire to add 1% of vitamin E (tocopherol), you include it in your “maximum 4% count” 🙂
But how to behave with these oily substances in order to have a smooth, silky and specially fluid serum? 🙂
You will need different emulsifiers from those which we have used up to now: you will need actually two emulsifiers (one lipophilic at 0.25% and one hydrophilic at higher percentage) which are liquid and don’t need to be heated!
There are many on the market. Actually you could even use a solubilizer to keep together the emulsion (solubilizers are substances which are used to solubilize small small portions of oils into a lot of water: generally they are surfactants. In case you have a solubilizer at home and you want to use it as a hydrophilic emulsifier: add the oily substances of the serum in your becher and, little by little, add drops of the solubilizer until all the solution in your becher becomes milky white. Then add this solubilized oils into your Phase A).
Just for the record: if you don’t add oily soluble ingredients more than 1-1.5%, you don’t even need to add emulsifiers or solubilizers. This is the easiest and most simple way to make a serum 😀 everything would go in just one phase 😉

PHASE C – actually the Phase C could almost be deleted since you can almost always add the active ingredients directly to the Phase A (do not add them only if you use hydroxyethylcellulose as gelling agent because in this case the Phase A has to be heated and active ingredients are thermolabile).

The percentage of ACTIVE INGREDIENTS in a serum can be extremely high.
Sometimes you could even make a serum using an active ingredient as a gelling agent!
An example is the enriched hyaluronic acid serum which you can find HERE: this is also very easy to copy because there is not even the need of adding an emulsifier.

Let me know if I forgot to explain something or you have any questions.
Have a great day! 😀

28 thoughts on “How to formulate a SERUM

  1. Brandy Moore says:

    Thank you so much for writing this! It’s been very difficult to find info on making serum and your article has helped emmensly! I do have a few questions for you. I’m making a brow serum. I would like my ingredients to include water, glycerin, and my performance ingredients-which are all oils. Can I add hylauronic acid serum to this recipe as the emulsifier? If not, what would be some emulsifiers you would recommend? I’m trying to stay as natural as possible but I’m open to all your suggestions. Lastly, if I’m understanding correctly, I will use 70% water & 1.5-4% oils (active oil soluble ingredients.) How much glycerin would I use? One more question, what preservatives would I need to give it a decent shelf life? Any help you can offer would be greatly appreciated.
    Thanks again!
    Brandy

    Like

    • It's all in my hands says:

      Hello there.
      I never heard of a brow serum so I don’t know exactly what you want to achieve with it but I try to help! 😀
      1) You shouldn’t start considering how much water you add to the solution: water is, in fact, the last ingredient you should calculate because it is the one which makes your recipe reach 100%: you start planning which ingredients you want to add and, then, you calculate how much water you need to make your recipe reach 100% in order to keep your percentages correct. You could make a serum with 95% water, for example 😉
      2) Hyaluronic Acid is not an emulsifier so if you want to use 4% oily active ingredients you will need a real no-heat emulsifier or a solubilizer (for example PGE-10-laurate – which is a very aggressive surfactant/emulsifier. It is not very eco-friendly but you will need very few).
      3) Glycerin doesn’t need to be added in case you use hyaluronic acid gel as gelling agent: glycerin makes things quite sticky and it is a very hygroscopic ingredient (it attracts water) and the same could be said of our hyaluronic acid gel… therefore, personally, I wouldn’t think it is needed but I think if you want you can add 1%

      I have a question:
      Which active oily ingredients you would like to use?
      Because I was thinking that if your aim is to make a very performing serum but you only have oily active ingredients, then I suggest you to make a cream 🙂 so you will be able to increase the % of your oily ingredients and it will still be very performing 🙂

      Like

  2. betty says:

    Hi, I’m wondering you state that before adding HEC, the water has to be heated to 70 degree.After adding it into water, does the temperature has to be maintained while mixing it?

    Like

    • It's all in my hands says:

      no the temperature will naturally cool down while you mix it 🙂
      the 70°C are needed in order to make the HEC “open” and gel the water 🙂 but once this happened, you make the gel cool down 🙂 and then you add the heat-sensitive ingredients 🙂

      Like

  3. Sara says:

    Hyaa I am back again. You’re incredible, how many information I should learn from you 🙂 I always see you amazing DIY & feel happy. For sure I am going to try out one of them & show you. But I will bother you with my questions. About water too 100, I road it hundred time but I am sorry I didn’t get it.

    I have to tell you something. Do you remember my request I think long time I didn’t check it out. I will pass around here and check your new DIY which I am sure it will be beyond the beauty.

    Can I ask you for one thing plz ? I think no more for this intru with you you’re my friend now :). Can you post for us the methods of making the correct way to soluble the cosmetic powder like Vitamin c Glutathione , ALA and AHA ??

    I think the reader should know how to learn the basic things before making any professional DIY, Is I am right ??

    Like

    • It's all in my hands says:

      Sorry I didn’t remember your request but I never found Vitamin C Glutathione, I don;t know what ALA is and about AHA I always found them in the liquid water soluble form. What form did you find them? 🙂
      Sorry if I couldn’t be of much help.
      ps. Water to 100… you must think that you formulate in percentage. Therefore if you want to add 3% of something to your formulation, you need to adjust the formula in order that all the amounts together reach 100. This is why we calculate water in the end: sum up all the quantities of the other ingredients and eventually calculate how many grams of water are needed to reach 100. This way reaching 100% 😉

      Like

  4. Heather says:

    This is exactly the article I have been searching for!! I am somewhat of a novice at the more complicated DIY skincare. I have been making my basic DIY Vitamin c serum for a while, and started getting into more complex formulas over the last year or so with a hyaluronic acid, B5 serum, BUT I have yet to include oils for fear of separation and most of all, bacterias. I have first-signs-of-aging AND moderately acneic skin and so most products on the market either dry me out (ie more wrinkles) or break me out, or are incredibly expensive, so I feel almost obligated to DIY my own skin care. I also have a little setback in that I live overseas in Spain and so some ingredients are a little hard to find. I do use one website to buy all my potion needs, but could you please explain specific types of lipophilic and hydrophilic emulsifiers?? AND, I just want to make sure <i understand clearly…. if the formula of my serum does not contain more than 1.5% oil/fat, then it is NOT necessary to use an emulsifier?? SO in other words, if I only want to add a few drops of essential oil to my serums, then it's ok to just shake and use??? Thank you in advance and now I am off to scour your blog for more hidden treasures!!

    Like

    • It's all in my hands says:

      Hello Heather! I am not American and I can assure you, you can buy almost every ingredient inside EU with no problems. There are so many websites that sell ingredients (I have used many from Italy, Spain, UK, France, Germany, Poland…) So nothing to worry about.
      You should worry about bacteria every time there is water, not oils 🙂
      However! I have many recipes I make using usually methyl glucose sesquistearate + cetyl alcohol. You could buy these two or you cpuld buy already “complete” emulsifiers like, for example, olivem 1000, montanov 68 (if I remember the commercial name correctly)! Just surf these websites and read what they suggest for use: if they say to use between 3% to 5%, try using at 4% and then make few experiments to see what’s the difference and what works best for your formulation!
      Don’t be afraid to try and make mistakes! It is all part of the process! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Allie says:

    Hi. I dont know if i understand correctly, is porlysorbate 20 or 60 the emulsifier to add to the water?

    Like

    • It's all in my hands says:

      You could use those if you need to add a low percentage of oils.
      Remember to solubilise the oils into the solvent before adding them to the recipe.
      There are many other solubilisers as well 🙂

      Like

  6. SilentSeduction says:

    Yesterday I made one NAG Serum (I tried *lol*), but after one hour it separated in my bottle =((
    If it`s ok for you, please would you look at my recipe ?

    water phase:

    1) water 18,5%
    N-Acetylglucosamine 3%
    Niacinamide 5%
    Sea Emollient 30%
    Licorice Extract 3%
    (here I heated up SEA and water only and hold for 20 min., at about 40-50 C I added NAG, Niacinamide and Licorice)

    2) Oil/ Solvent phase (=) ):

    a)

    Vodka 13.5% (I still have to buy ethanol and propylene glycol, had a hard time dissolving my Idebenone in it *ugh*)
    Idebenone 0,5%

    b) Vitamin E Acetate 1,5%
    Oil 10%
    Polysorbate 80 11,5%

    (heated the oil only, than added Vit. E at 45C, than Poly 80. Than I put the vodka stuff a) in b) )

    Than I mixed 2 in 1.

    At the end I added:
    3)
    Sclerotium Gum 0,5%
    Geogard 1 %
    Natriumlaktat 2%

    Please don`t laugh ^^

    Was it too much Poly, I remembered I read it has to be 1:1 to oil? And on my face this was so sticky. I still watn to use it up, I just shake it before. It was a small batch, only 30 ml, so do you think it is ok to shake before use? I kinda don`t want to throw it away.

    Like

    • It's all in my hands says:

      Sclerotium gum needs a heated phase and has to be added to the water phase BEFORE other ingredients. If there are oils, it will not gel properly.
      But all this recipe is a little problematic.
      Too many things!!
      What is “sea emollient”? Is it electrolyte?
      Vodka will destabilyze things and it is very high and you added it to the oil phase (why?). But why would you add idebenone?
      Polysorbate – the problem is that this is not a cream and polysorbate is a solubilizer but it won’t necessarily work as a great emulsifier. You add almost 12% oils to this and call it a serum but it is not. This formula needs a real emulsifier in my opinion. 12% oils is more than any of my face cream have 😀
      Plus I am not convinced about the 1:1. You should have checked before if the oils + polysorbate were transparent when mixed together. And polysorbate is not a good ingredient to keep on the skin at such a high amount (my opinion here).
      But anyway then you added 12% vodka and created more problems… and then the sclerotium… 😀

      The thing is: when you formulate you need to have in mind a CLEAR idea of what you want your formula to be for. Mixing every cool active ingredient you can find, is TEMPTING but you should avoid that.
      You should also try to learn how to use ingredients before you formulate with them. 🙂
      So, sclerotium goes in A, take away vodka and the active you wanted to dissolve in it. Change the polysorbate with a real emulsifier and make a cream jf you want 12% oils. Otherwise keep polysorbate but no more than 1.5% oils. The Sea thing sounds like a strong electrolyte but it should be ok with sclerotium.
      Ah Licorice Extract – is it powder? If so, lower it to 0.2%. Powders destroy stability. You already have 5% Niacinamide (but usually it is fine cause it dossolves). About NAG I have no clue: never used, don’t know its suggested concentration or pH or anything.
      Is the pH of all the ingredients compatible with the Niacinamide?

      Like

  7. SilentSeduction says:

    I wrote so much, I`m not sure if you got my comment. I saved it to clipboard meanwhile =) . I don`t want to double-post it.

    Like

  8. Sharron Cosgrove says:

    Hi It’s All in my hands.

    I absolutely have found this blog to be sooo inspiring – you are a wealth of information and so very generous with the help you give to people!

    What I am looking for is a very light facial serum that moisturizes and nourishes the skin in the most natural way possible. Almost like water liquid with oils in it. The following is what I have tried and not succeeded – hoping you can help with this and how I can reformulate/formulate so that it works properly

    Oils used were:
    organic rosehip oil, organic camellia oil, organic pumpkin seed oil, essential oils of french lavender, carrot.

    In a combination of:
    Oil phase = 20 grams of oil, 5 grams of emulsifying Wax N
    Emulsifier used was from NewDirections.ca https://www.newdirectionsaromatics.ca/products/waxes/self-emulsifying-wax-n-sls-free.html

    Water phase = 75 grams of water
    During the preparation state, I kept the two phases separated, the water from the fats (oily based) – heated both to 70 degrees then cooled and started mixing. Afterwards I added the essential oils.

    Three days later, the oil is in a clear jar and has 3 separate sections – the water is on the bottom, oils in the middle and a slight layer of foam remains on the top.

    Is there a possibility you can instruct on how to make a combination like this work! Is it best W/O or O/W-
    As per your comment below, is there need for an emulsifier or can it be done otherwise?
    Also, can you please explain this comment from your blog and how it might be applicable to the above “ If you don’t add oily soluble ingredients more than 1-1.5% you don’t need to add emulsifiers or solubilizers”

    Thank you in advance

    Sharron

    Like

    • It's all in my hands says:

      Hello.
      Thank you 🙂
      Well there are quite some issues here: 20% oils is a lot and it is difficult to make an emulsified cream as liquid as you want it to be, specially with such a high concentration of oils.

      The technic mistakes are these:
      – the emulsifier cannot work alone. I have never used this one, but it needs to be supported by:
      – a gellin agent in the water phase
      – a stabilizer/thickener that will help the phases stay together.
      Every emulsion is unstable so you have to enhance stability. A liquid emulsion is difficult to get and anyway there are specific emulsifiers to get one.
      You also didn’t add a preservative: you should 🙂

      Now to the last thing: when I said that 1-1.5% oils don’t need an emulsifier or a stabilizer, I was only talkin about this kind of formula, as the gel is going to hold up a little (but it won’t emulsify or solubilize anything! However, in this % you must include the fragrance or the essential oil)

      Finally: a facial serum shouldn’t include oils more than few percent. If you want more oils, you want a cream/lotion and not a serum.
      If you want this amount, I would give up the idea of making a liquid lotion to when you are experienced in emulsifying and formulating 🙂
      All the best!!

      Like

  9. SilentSeduction says:

    Ah crap, sorry, but I had to crash close my linux yesterday, so of course file wasn`t saved. I have to write all over again. I will try today, when I`m back at home.
    *Thank you* ^^ (for your detailed answer above to my recipe)

    Like

  10. SilentSeduction says:

    Hi, uhm I hope you got my post now, cause I can`t see it again, but when I want to re-post it, an error comes up: “Duplicate comment detected; it looks as though you’ve already said that!”

    Like

  11. Eru says:

    Hi, great resources here!
    I was looking for more info to enable me to make my own serum. I’m really hoping you can help.
    I’d like to make a mix with distilled water (main ingredient), pure L-ascorbic acid (didn’t determine yet), pure vitamin E (up to 5%), glycerine (a few %). I have to add some emulsifier because of vit E but not sure exactly what to do there. I’ll put in ascorbic acid as much as the ph allows (it needs to be around 3). I’ll check this with strips.

    I’m not in EU or USA so I don’t have great choice of lab ingredients available. I have no access to more stable forms of vitamin C and I don’t know how to conserve this, so I’d make a small batch weekly or even every few days and keep in fridge. I barely got a hold of glycerine. Please help me with the ratios.

    Or maybe – this might be smarter – I should just add the vitamin E into my oil mix that I apply at night for skin care and apply this on top of serum – oils will penetrate. But in that case, how to improve the formula, maybe to add 1-1.5% of vitamin E into the water based serum mix? I’d make it weekly anyway and store in fridge in dark bottle, I think vitamin E would help prevent it from oxidizing. Please help me out with this???

    Like

    • It's all in my hands says:

      Hello.
      Weekly won’t work as vitamin C oxidizes extremely quickly (hours).
      But I do have an article about a vitamin C serum using the ingredients you mention.
      Check “Vitamin C serum” in the search box! 😉
      Hope this helped

      Like

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