UPDATE: The recipe below (well, a much-tweaked, greatly improved version) is now for sale at the Stratia store!
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This week on True Life: My Neighbors Think I’m Running a Meth Lab, we’re covering one of the most exciting parts of DIY skincare: creating a new recipe from scratch. Spoiler alert: it’s a process of trial and error, and the recipe I’m going to walk you through ended up being a big-time error that went straight down my garbage disposal. Sigh.
Step 1: Pick a Focal Point
Start with a theme. What do you want this product to do? Are you looking for heavy hydration? Brightening? Exfoliating? Or you can start with an ingredient that’s caught your eye. In my case, I decided to create something centered around DMAE, an ingredient that has strong anti-aging claims. In one study, a gel featuring 3% DMAE reduced fine lines on the forehead and around the eyes of its subjects – and those lines didn’t come back even after they stopped using the DMAE gel. That means it wasn’t just plumping from hydration. Exciting stuff!
Step 2: Round Out The Good Stuff
Okay, I’ve decided on an anti-aging formula with DMAE. It’s best at 3% concentration, so that’s what I’m going with. What else can I put in it that will also have anti-aging effects (moisturizing, increasing cell turnover, stimulating collagen production, fading sun spots)?
In this case, I decided to create a water-only solution, without an oil phase, because honestly I’m a little sick of figuring out emulsification systems. They’re so fucking tricky. WHY CAN’T OIL AND WATER JUST MIX AND BE HAPPY LIKE THE REST OF US.
I didn’t even want to go there, so I stuck with ingredients that are water-soluble. Here’s what I came up with:
Magnesium ascorbyl phosphate (MAP): this is a stable version of vitamin C that can fade hyperpigmentation and stimulate collagen production. A superstar in the anti-aging world. Based on usage rates I researched, I decided to go with 10% MAP. (Total so far: 13%)
Niacinamide: increases cell turnover, fades hyperpigmentation, evens skin tone, just the all-around best. It’s ideal in concentrations of 2-5%, so I went whole-hog and landed on 5%. (Total so far: 18%)
N-acetyl glucosamine: another brightening and skin tone-evening agent that works synergistically with niacinamide to make both ingredients work better. I like to use it at 2%. However, this shit is expensive and I don’t want to add it until I’ve otherwise perfected the recipe, so for now it’s 0%. (Total so far: 18%)
Panthenol: this is a pretty standard soothing and conditioning agent, but I discovered through research that it works synergistically with DMAE. I decided to make a 1:1 ratio between the two and add 3% panthenol. (Total so far: 21%)
Licorice root extract: a fabulous, hanbang ingredient that does wonders for brightening and fading hyperpigmentation. My supplier recommends capping it at 5%, so I did. (Total so far: 26%)
Green tea extract: a powerful source of antioxidants and polyphenols that can help protect collagen from degradation. It’s strong stuff and shouldn’t be used above 2%, so I went with 1.5%. (Total so far: 27.5%)
Hyaluronic acid: an skin-identical humectant that can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water. It’s also the main ingredient used in dermal fillers like Restylane and Juvederm because it’s so great at plumping and firming, so it’s a no-brainer for an anti-aging recipe. Because it holds so much water, we only need a tiny amount, so I’m adding 0.25%. But I made up a stock of 1% hyaluronic acid, 98% distilled water, and 1% preservative, so in my recipe, I’ll be adding 25% of that 1% hyaluronic acid stock. (Total so far: 52.5%)
Step 3: Fill In the Boring Stuff
We’re up to 52.5% of a total mixture. We need to add few things here: solvents (to dissolve all the above ingredients and make sure they stay dissolved), humectants (to make it more moisturizing and feel nicer), penetration enhancers (to get the good stuff as deep in our epidermis as possible), and preservatives (to keep it from getting infested with bacteria, yeast, and mold).
Sea kelp bioferment: a great, gel-textured humectant that gives a little more oomph to a hydrating product. You can add this at any percentage up to 100%; I went with 10%. (Total so far: 62.5%)
Medical-grade manuka honey: with moisturizing, soothing, anti-redness, and anti-bacterial properties, honey is one of my all-time favorite ingredients. It’s very sticky and unpleasant in texture, so I only added 5%. (Total so far: 67.5%)
Propylene glycol: a solvent, humectant, and penetration enhancer, this is a great ingredient in most recipes. Use it up to 10%; I went with 7% here. (Total so far: 74.5%)
Ethoxydiglycol: a great solvent that also gives serums a smooth, quick-absorbing feel. I used 5%. (Total so far: 79.5%)
Optiphen: a gentle preservative featuring phenoxyethanol. Use it at 1%. (Total so far: 80.5%)
Distilled water: I always make up a recipe in this order and then add distilled water to get it up to 100%. So, we add 19.5% distilled water. (Total so far: 100%)
We’ve got a recipe for our DMAE anti-aging serum. Now we just have to make it. It’s all water-soluble, so we don’t have to worry about creating separate oil and water phases and then combining them, which is a real load off. Here’s what we do have to worry about:
- Combine and mix the non-heat sensitive ingredients
- Heat to 70C and hold it for 20 minutes to kill off pathogens and help stuff dissolve
- Cool it down to room temperature
- Add the heat sensitive ingredients
So that’s what I did. You can find out if an ingredient is heat-sensitive or not from your supplier; in this recipe, I saved niacinamide, green tea, licorice root, DMAE, and Optiphen for the cool-down phase.
Step 5: Things Fall Apart
Before trying this recipe, I’d never worked with MAP before. According to my research, it dissolves easily in water, so I wasn’t worried. I should have been worried.
I made the mistake of putting the MAP into my beaker first, and then adding the water on top. This caused the MAP to gel together into a pellet of stubborn, sticky, non-dissolving ickiness. No matter how much I heated it, no matter how vigorously I went at it with my hand mixer, it was done. It was in pellet form and that was that.
Step 6: Observe, Analyze, Edit, Repeat
My main problem, obviously, was the MAP not dissolving. A little more research found that MAP dissolves in water up to a concentration of 15%. I reduced my hyaluronic levels in order to get my water percentage up to 34.5%, and reduced my MAP percentage to 5%. I also decided to up my solvent game, and changed percentages of ethoxidiglycol to 10% and propylene glycol to 5%. Finally, in terms of formulation, I decided to mix the water and solvents first, heat them to 70C, and then add the MAP while stirring to ensure it dissolved completely.
During another DIY session, I reached a semi-devastating conclusion: honey was what was making my concoctions feel gross. There’s a big different between the feel of honey and honey extract. I don’t know if there’s a way to make straight honey not feel gross and tacky in leave-on products, even at very low percentages. I cut out the honey completely, from this and all my other recipes. Bye bye, honey.
Step 7: Victory!
I tried my new formula this weekend, and it worked beautifully! For some reason, when I add the DMAE, the solution magically turns from cloudy and yellowish-white to clear and golden. I love it so much.
This formula is light, quick-absorbing, and feels like a dream on my face. I’ve only used it for a day so I can’t speak to its anti-aging effects, but hopefully this formulation allows its superstar ingredients to shine through.
Don’t worry, this step will come naturally.
**Reminder: if you want to be a guinea pig for my DIY monstrosities, sign up using this form! I’ll send you some for free in exchange for you telling me what you do and don’t like about it.