Wonky talk: Emulsifiers (oil and water do not mix)


Please pardon me. I’m feeling wonkish, and in the mood to wax poetic about emulsions. What’s an emulsion, you ask? An emulsion is a mixture of two or more liquids, like oil and water. All 137 of your hair butters, creams and conditioners are emulsions. As you know, oil and water don’t mix. They need something to bind them. An emulsifier is just that—the glue that holds the mixture together.

Why, my dear Still Room Mistress, should you give a rip about emulsifiers?

For starters, an emulsifier will keep your precious recipes from separating. Emulsifiers can also give your mix volume, texture and slip. I use Trader Joe Nourish Spa Conditioner (TJNSC) as an emulsifier for many mixes. It works like a charm, but it also means that I’m adding  a host of other unintended ingredients to the mix. That said, I’m cutting the cord and finally investing in an emulsifier, BTMS to be exact (see description below). It’ll save money in the long run, and allow for more control over recipes.

Here are some emulsifiers commonly used in hair care products:

  • BTMS (Behentrimonium Methosulfate): vegetable based conditioning emulsifier derived from the natural plant oil Colza (Rapeseed Oil).
  • Beeswax
  • Borax
  • Cetaryl Alcohol
  • Cetyl Alcohol
  • Emulsifying Wax NF
  • Guar Gum
  • Lecithin
  • OlivEm
  • PEG-20 Stearate
  • Polysorbate 80
  • Soy lechitin
  • Stearyl Alcohol NF

As you can imagine, these emulsifiers have different uses. Below is a very useful table listing a wider range of emulsifiers, and the type of product (i.e. shampoo, conditioner, etc.) they are used in.

This table is also helpful in that is lists how the various emulsifiers behave.

So based on these charts, I can, in fact, confirm that BTMS is the best emulsifier to purchase for use in leave-ins because it provides:


  • thickening (of the mixture)
  • conditioning
  • emollience

The fact that BTMS is from a natural source is so mint. Check the ingredients label of your fave leave-in or detangler. There’s a good chance you will find BTMS.

Are you a Mistress of the Still Room? What are you using to bind your oil and water mixtures?