FUN WITH DIY: Gentle Non-Foaming Cleanser Tutorial

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I’ve got a few products in the Stratia development pipeline, being tweaked and fiddled with until I’m 100% happy with the formula. By far, the one that’s been in development the longest right now is a non-foaming cleanser for dry or sensitive skin.

As I explained in my post about surfactants, while foaming detergent-based cleansers can be great for oily skin, they’re overkill for dry skin which under-produces oil. Detergents can easily leave dry skin feeling stripped and parched. They can also be too harsh for sensitive skin, causing redness and irritation. Both skin types would be well-served by utilizing soap-free liquid cleansers, or as I refer to them, non-foaming cleansers.

A Little About Non-Foaming Cleansers

Often, non-foaming cleansers are literally just lotions. Pretty much every lotion recipe has an oil phase and a water phase, which means they need an emulsifier to hold them together: a molecule that has one lipophilic (fat-loving) side and one hydrophilic (water-loving) side. The emulsifier binds the two phases together at the molecular level. It can also bind to oils on your face, then rinse away with water. At the end of the day, that’s all you want from a cleanser: something that’s drawn to the oils on your face, then is drawn to the water you’re rinsing with to remove everything cleanly.

By relying on the emulsifier from a lotion alone to cleanse, you get an extremely gentle cleanser, but one that might not leave you feeling truly clean, or can leave an emollient film behind. Cerave Hydrating Cleanser is a good example of this type of cleanser. Great for some, but I want a little more cleansing power.

There are as many types of cleanser formulations as there are stars in the sky (only a slight exaggeration), so I won’t go into all the other types of non-foaming cleansers. But there was one formula in particular that grabbed my heart and my wallet, which you can read in my rave about Donginbi Red Ginseng Treatment Cleansing Oil Gel.

The Donginbi cleanser has a fairly simple ingredients list, and first on that list is Olive Oil PEG-7 Esters.

A Little About Olive Oil PEG-7 Esters

Olive Oil PEG-7 Esters, also known as PEG-7 Olivate or Olivem 300, is a water-soluble form of olive oil. You’ve probably seen the acronym PEG on ingredients lists before – it stands for polyethylene glycol. A PEG ingredient is what you get when you combine polyethylene glycol with a fatty acid. In this case, you’re using oleic acid from olive oil as the fatty acid, and 7 molecules of polyethylene glycol. (That’s what the number after PEG stands for – the number of polyethylene glycol molecules attached to a single fatty acid. Fun fact: the higher that number, the more water soluble it is. Science is the COOLEST.)

PEGs are esters of fatty acids that turn water-soluble, which is immensely awesome for formulating skincare. They’re surfactants, meaning they’ve got that hydrophilic head and lipophilic tail, and they’re often used as re-fattening agents to counteract the drying effects of foaming surfactants.

Olive Oil PEG-7 Esters in particular are super fun. It can function as a gentle surfactant, an emollient, a thickener, a lubricant, even an anti-irritant. All of those things are qualities we want in a gentle non-foaming cleanser. Sounds like Olive Oil PEG-7 Esters is gonna be our go-to girl for this recipe.

The Recipe

I realize we’re nine paragraphs in and I’m just now getting to the actual recipe, but don’t come to this blog if you expect me to get straight to the point without waxing poetic about the science. It’s science. It’s the coolest.

First, I’ll give you the skeleton of the recipe, so you can make your own substitutions. I’ve calculated out 120g of product, which will give you about 4 ounces.

Ingredient Percent Weight (g)
Olive Oil PEG-7 Esters 40.00% 48
Water or water substitute 40.00% 48
Botanical extract 1.50% 1.8
Glycerin 3.00% 3.6
Oil 10.00% 12
Emulsifier 5.00% 6
Liquid Germall Plus 0.50% 0.6

Let’s break those ingredients down:

  • Olive Oil PEG-7 Esters: we got this one covered.
  • Water or water substitute: You can use distilled water or something that functions the same way, like aloe juice or chamomile hydrosol.
  • Botanical extract: whatever you want. I tend to go for soothing and anti-inflammatory extracts. Some good choices here would be green tea, chamomile, or white willow bark.
  • Glycerin: a cheap-as-dirt humectant.
  • Oil: I want my cleanser to be a little emollient and moisturizing, plus I want the added gentle cleansing power of an emulsifier, so I add an oil here. If you’ve got dry skin, go for a richer oil like olive, macadamia, or avocado. For oilier skin, a light oil like jojoba, rosehip, or mineral would be great.
  • Emulsifier: to keep the oil and water phases combined and to add a little more cleansing power. Use an all-in-one emulsification system (like Polawax) rather than a single ingredient (like polysorbate 80).
  • Liquid Germall Plus: you can use your favorite preservative here, but this one is mine and it plays well with the ingredients in this recipe.

There’s your customizable recipe. Here’s the one I chose:

nfc ingredients

Olive Oil PEG-7 Esters 40.00% 48
Aloe juice 40.00% 48
Chamomile extract 1.50% 1.8
Glycerin 3.00% 3.6
Sweet almond oil 10.00% 12
CreamMaker CA-20 5.00% 6
Liquid Germall Plus 0.50% 0.6

CreamMaker CA-20 is cetearyl alcohol and ceteareth-20. It’s a fabulous, bomb-proof emulsifier that doesn’t feel too waxy or thick.

The Process

Step 1: Prepare your lab.

Sterilize, disinfect, repeat. You’ll need a digital scale that measures to 0.1g, two beakers, two stirrers, disposable pipettes, weigh boats, some way to heat and hold (in my case, a hot plate, a borosilicate tub, and a silicone trivet), a hand mixer or immersion blender, and a bottle to put it all in. A pump or squeeze bottle that’s at least 4oz would be best.

nfc setup

Step 2: Mix your heated water phase.

That’s the Olive Oil PEG-7 Esters, aloe juice, and glycerin.

nfc water pre
Before stirring – so pretty
nfc water post
After stirring – less pretty
Step 3: Mix your oil phase.

That’s the sweet almond oil and the CreamMaker CA-20.

nfc oil

Step 4: Heat and hold.

In a double boiler setup, heat the two phases to 70 degrees celsius for at least ten minutes. The oil phase should be completely clear and liquid.

nfc heat and hold

Step 5: Emulsify.

Take the two phases off the heat and immediately combine them in the larger beaker. Mix them with a hand mixer or immersion blender on the lowest possible setting for 3-4 minutes.

nfc hot

Step 6: Let your mixture cool to room temperature.

Stir gently every so often to help the air bubbles settle out. Once it’s cool, add your heat-sensitive ingredients: the chamomile extract and Liquid Germall Plus. You can see how the emulsifier has re-thickened, turning the product from translucent to mostly opaque.

nfc cool

Step 7: Bottle and enjoy!

Foaming cleansers have the benefit of mixing with air to take up more volume, so you don’t need to use as much product. You’ll need to use quite a lot of this when you cleanse. Fortunately, this recipe is pretty dang cheap to make. And look how rich and creamy and beautiful!

non foaming cleanser

If you want to make this thicker and more emollient, you can try adding some stearic acid to the oil phase at 2-3%. If you want it to clean more efficiently, you can add a gentle foaming surfactant like cocamidopropyl betaine or disodium cocoamphodiacetate at 5-10% (you’d gently stir that in right after you finished mixing the emulsion).

Did you try this recipe? Let me know how it went in the comments!

The non-foaming cleanser isn’t quite ready to sell yet, but be sure to check out the Stratia store for more science-based skincare goodness!


  1. So interesting! Thanks for the post – I would love to read more about the formulation process of other products as well 🙂

  2. Oooh, I’m so tempted by this cleanser. I mean, I love cerave hydrating cleanser, but I wouldn’t mind if it were a little more cleansing.

    Thank you so much for the recipe!

    1. I haven’t used PEG-7 glyceryl cocoate, but you’re right, they do seem really similar! If you try this recipe with that ingredient, please let me know how it goes – I’m super curious now.

      1. I have combo skin and where I live is really humid so this might be a little too moisturising for me. I am going to try the cocoate in a cleansing oil when my current batches are used up, will let you know how it goes.

  3. I think I have the same heater, though I’ve never used it to make skincare -silly question- the heater does not show the temperature -how do you know it’s reached 70 degrees and how do you ensure it does not go over 70? I think the settings on mine are “warm”, “hot” but not degree specific. Thank you!

    1. I use a thermometer (either a meat thermometer or a laser thermometer) to check the water temp every few minutes and adjust the hot plate to keep it in the right range.

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