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Magic Potions for Radiant Skin: How to Make a Facial Moisturizer With 7% Glycolic Acid

Sharon has been making and selling soaps and personal care products for about five years.

Magic Potions

Magic Potions

Moisture: Your Skin's BFF

Probably the best single thing a person can do to improve their skin is to moisturize. While "moisture" just means "water," there is obviously more to formulating a moisturizer than mixing water with... more water... and applying it to your face.

Here's how to make a water-based facial toner that is loaded with moisturizing ingredients for your skin.

Water-Based Toners for Moisturizing Your Skin

There are a couple of ways to make a moisturizer.

You could make a moisturizing facial lotion, which would include both oil and water ingredients, as well as an emulsifier to keep the oil and water mixed together in a stable emulsion.

OR... You could make an entirely water-based moisturizer—a toner—which would normally be followed by the application of some combination of oils, such as a serum. Applying oils on top of a moisturizing toner seals in the skin's moisture by protecting it from evaporation.

Here I am going to use the water-based "toner" (followed by a serum) approach, and offer a recipe for an entirely water-based moisturizer—so that using it involves two steps: first apply the toner and then apply a serum that is a combination of oils. (You could also use your favorite face cream or lotion instead.)

This type of moisturizer needs to be followed by applying an oil, serum, cream, or lotion since no oils are contained in it to act as occlusives. (Occlusives are agents physically prevent or retard water loss, usually oils.) Therefore, using this product is a two-step process. I like to think it has the same advantages as two-process hair color, versus single-process hair color, but I digress.

I will be posting a serum recipe soon, but the serum for applying over this water-based moisturizing toner need not be complicated, expensive, or loaded with exotic oils. You could just use your favorite facial oil, maybe with a few drops of an essential oil added to it.

I think there are some advantages to going about it this way. For one thing, it is somewhat simpler to make a purely water-based moisturizer. Okay—maybe not that much simpler! But you do get to skip slaving over a hot stick blender. And as for measuring and mixing oils for the serum, you can follow Scarlett O'Hara's policy of "I won't think about it today. I'll think about that tomorrow."

Another advantage, especially if you are making the toner and serum for personal use, or if you would like to experiment with different oils before settling on a lotion formula, or experiment with different botanical extracts before settling on a toner formula, you can try out customized additions to your heart's content.

For example, after you have mixed up the toner, you can decide that today you'd like to see if you like it better with a pinch of cucumber extract. You can pour a little of today's application into a dish and add a pinch of cucumber extract. Tomorrow, you can try adding a pinch of honeysuckle extract, or white willow bark, or papaya, or strawberry.

You can do the same with the oils you choose for your serum. If you use small amounts of oils (and essential oils) to make your serum, you can try different variations. Today's serum application could be a combination of emu oil and pomegranate seed oil, with a drop of frankincense essential oil. Tomorrow you can try grapeseed oil with geranium and carrot seed essential oils.

Serum oils don't have to be fancy. You might like sunflower oil with a drop of lavender essential oil. And, as far as that goes, your facial toner could be as simple as glycerin and rosewater. But be warned! These are just gateway drugs. They are likely to lead to experimenting with panthenol and sea buckthorn oil.

Finest all-natural artisan soaps, bath bombs, facial soaps, facial serums, and healing salves. The most luxurious bath and body products!

Finest all-natural artisan soaps, bath bombs, facial soaps, facial serums, and healing salves. The most luxurious bath and body products!

Ingredients: Choosing the Most Beneficial Ingredients for Radiant Skin

There are several different classes of ingredients that can be included in a moisturizer: Hydrosols (like rosewater), humectants (like glycerin), exfoliants (like glycolic acid), extracts of various kinds (like botanical extracts and fruit extracts), amino acids (like silk amino acids), vitamins (like panthenol), and lab-created versions of substances that are naturally found in the skin that are known to be part of the skin's "natural moisturizing factors" (such as sodium lactate, sodium PCA, and urea).

At this point, you are probably thinking, "She's not REALLY going to put all this stuff in one product, right?"

To which I reply, "Hold my beer."

We are about to formulate the bacon-cheeseburger of moisturizers!

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Here's a breakdown of the ingredients I've chosen.

  • Humectants: glycerin, propylene glycol, sodium PCA, sodium lactate, and Honeyquat. This recipe is loaded with humectants! For a more in-depth discussion of humectants, see Susan Barclay-Nichols' discussion on her blog.
  • Natural Moisturizing Factors: sodium lactate, sodium PCA, and urea. These are all components of healthy skin (components of the skin's "natural moisturizing factor"), and there are a lot of benefits to replenishing them. I have been very impressed with urea as an addition to products, especially lotions.
  • Amino Acids: silk amino acids. Amino acids are claimed to enhance collagen production. Actual scientific evidence of this, when applied topically, seems to be a little thin on the ground, but amino acids do make up about 40% of the skin's natural moisturizing factor. Amino acids also act as humectants. I've found that silk amino acids (the only kind I've used) do wonders for the "feel" of creams and lotions, and they do wonders for hair!
  • Vitamins: D-L Panthenol (pro-Vitamin B-5). Panthenol is moisturizing and healing. According to Susan Barclay-Nichols, "It penetrates deep into the epidermis to bring water into the stratum corneum, and can retain water in the skin." Panthenol is also an indispensable ingredient in hair-care products like shampoo and conditioner.
  • Exfoliants: glycolic acid and urea. Glycolic acid works by accelerating the removal of dead skin, increasing collagen, and reducing the appearance of fine lines, sun damage, and hyper-pigmentation. Along with reducing the appearance of large pores and acne scarring, it will also help to clear up blackheads and oily/acne-prone skin.
  • Urea has been used to treat dry, rough, or itchy skin since the 1940s. It makes up 7% of the skin's natural moisturizing factor and works both as an exfoliant and a humectant. But the urea content of skin decreases with age. Among people with dry skin, urea content is about 50% lower than normal, and for people with eczema, it can be as much as 80% less than normal. Some consider urea to be one of the most effective moisturizing ingredients in cosmetic chemistry.
  • NOTE: For this recipe, it is fine if you leave out the glycolic acid. Leaving it out does not significantly effect the final percentages of the other ingredients, and the final formula will still be 0.5% Liquid Germall Plus. With the glycolic acid, the percentage of Liquid Germall Plus is 0.485%. Without it, the formula is exactly 0.5%. So it's okay either way.
  • A chemical exfoliant such as glycolic acid is a nice ingredient in a moisturizing toner. Daily or twice-daily use at 7% will help keep the skin gently exfoliated, promote the renewal of skin cells, and encourage better delivery of the active ingredients. Don't expect chemical-peel-like effects at this rate. Very sensitive skin types might be well advised to test this toner on a small area of skin before plunging in an using it on their faces, but for most people, 7% glycolic acid is barely enough to give you a tingle.


Also, since this recipe uses 70% glycolic acid solution, it is a strong acid. DON'T get the full-strength solution on your skin. (Wear polypropylene gloves.) It could (and probably would) burn your skin.

  • Botanical extracts: I haven't included any in this formula. I have experimented with adding small amounts of botanical extracts (in powdered form), by pouring a little of this toner in a dish and adding a pinch of various extracts, before using, just to get a feel for what various extracts do for the toner. I've been impressed by the results. Extracts like cucumber and chamomile really seem to give a more moisturizing feel. There are many botanical extracts, as well as fruit extracts, that I'd like to try. Adding extracts could be a good way to customize your toner for different skin types.
  • ANOTHER NOTE: The more exotic and unusual ingredients are available from Lotioncrafter. (Lotioncrafter also sells a pH meter suited for cosmetic formulations. I like mine a lot.) Many of the more common ingredients are available from Brambleberry and New Directions Aromatics. New Directions Aromatics also carries powdered botanical extracts and silk amino acids in powdered form, which is more economical. Glycolic acid in various concentrations is available online. I think I got mine from eBay.
  • AND ONE MORE NOTE: It is strongly recommended that you use sunscreen following applications of products containing glycolic acid, as it can increase the skin's sensitivity to sunlight.


  • 6 ounces Distilled Water, 28%
  • 2 ounces Rosewater, 9%
  • 8 ounces Glycerin, 37%
  • 0.4 ounces Propylene Glycol, 2%
  • 0.4 ounces Sodium PCA, 2%
  • 0.4 ounces Sodium Lactate, 2%
  • 2 ounces Urea, 9%
  • 0.4 ounces Honeyquat, 2%
  • 0.4 ounces D-L Panthenol, 2%
  • 0.4 ounces Silk Amino Acids, 2%
  • 1.5 ounces 70% Glycolic Acid Solution, 6.8% (optional)
  • 3 grams Liquid Germall Plus, 0.5%

TOTAL = 21.8 ounces, or 618 grams

NOTE: This recipe uses 70% glycolic acid solution! Glycolic acid is available in lower concentrations. Using a lower concentration of glycolic acid solution, such as 40% or 50%, will pretty much throw a monkey wrench into the whole recipe.

Step #1

Cosmetic formulations containing water MUST be prepared in an antiseptic environment. Spray all surfaces and utensils with 90% isopropyl alcohol (IPA) and wipe with clean paper towels. Wear polypropylene gloves and spray them with IPA, and repeat after you touch any surface or object that has not been sprayed.

Step #2

The first seven ingredients will go in the heat-and-hold phase, in order to destroy microbes. The heating-and-holding step is critical to making a product that is free of harmful bacteria.

Weigh the first seven ingredients (heat-and-hold phase) and put them in a saucepan. Now weigh the saucepan after these ingredients are in it. MAKE A NOTE OF THIS WEIGHT. There is a reason for doing this.

I think it's easiest to weigh the first seven ingredients directly into a saucepan. After all seven ingredients have been added, weigh the saucepan with the ingredients in it and make a note of the weight.

I think it's easiest to weigh the first seven ingredients directly into a saucepan. After all seven ingredients have been added, weigh the saucepan with the ingredients in it and make a note of the weight.

Step #3

Heat this pan of ingredients to 165° F. and hold for 20 minutes.

Pour a few ounces of distilled water into a separate saucepan and heat to 165° F. and hold for 20 minutes.

After the first seven ingredients are added to the saucepan, pour 4-6 ounces of distilled water in a second saucepan. Heat both pans to 165° F. and hold for 20 minutes.

After the first seven ingredients are added to the saucepan, pour 4-6 ounces of distilled water in a second saucepan. Heat both pans to 165° F. and hold for 20 minutes.

Step #4

During the "heat and hold" process, mix together the last five ingredients in a small bowl. These are heat-sensitive ingredients. They should not be heated above about 100° F.

Step #5

After the pan containing the heat-and-hold phase ingredients (and the separate pan of distilled water) has been heated to 165° F. and held for 20 minutes, remove both pans from heat.

Weigh the saucepan containing the heat-and-hold phase ingredients. You will notice that this pan does not weigh as much as it did before you heated it, because water has been lost through evaporation.

This water lost through evaporation must be replaced.

Refer to the weight of the pan, which you noted in Step 2. Using the distilled water that you heated and held in the second saucepan, add enough distilled water to bring the pan and its contents back up to its original weight.

Now let your saucepan of ingredients cool to about 100° F.

Step #6

After the heat and hold ingredients have cooled to about 100° F., add the last five ingredients (cool-down-phase ingredients), mix well, and bottle.

pH Testing

Ideally, a product of this kind should have a pH between 3.5 and 3.6. I did not own a pH meter at the time I made this formula for the first time.

When I did get a pH meter, I tested the product after it had been bottled for a little over six weeks. The pH was 3.58.

I made a second batch of this toner, to which I added 0.2 ounces of lactic acid (which is used to stabilize urea). I also substituted a botanical glycerite for half the glycerin in the formula. The pH of this second batch tested at 3.55.

This recipe should yield a product with the correct pH—but it's always reassuring and kind of fun to test the pH of products yourself. A pH meter is just a nice thing to have, especially if you make other products (such as liquid soaps or shampoos) where you would like to be sure of the correct pH.

You're Done! But You Can Have More Fun With This Toner

Be sure to experiment with adding various types of botanical and fruit extracts to this moisturizing toner. One way to do this is to simply add a small amount of a powdered botanical extract to a small amount of the toner before using it. Another way to do this is to make a glycerite using the botanicals of your choice and substitute all or part of the glycerin called for in the recipe with your glycerite. In my second batch of this formula, I substituted a glycerite of shitake mushrooms and calendula for half the glycerin. I would have substituted it for all the glycerin, but I didn't have quite enough of the glycerite.

I think this formula is also excellent for applying to hands to help soften roughness and improve ragged cuticles. But if you included glycolic acid in this recipe, do a patch test first, if your hands are inflamed or otherwise in bad shape, as from overexposure to harsh cleansers. Glycolic acid, even in this low amount, could further irritate damaged skin.

When using this toner on your hands, follow the application with your favorite oil, or with a cream or lotion, just as you would with a facial application.

This toner can also be applied to feet to help roughness and dryness. A little goes a long way! As with using on the hands, follow the application with your favorite oil, or with a cream or lotion.

Bottled and labeled glycolic acid toner

Bottled and labeled glycolic acid toner

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Sharon Vile


Sharon Vile (author) from Odessa, MO on July 20, 2020:

No. I struggle to keep up with producing the products I sell at farmers' markets. This is partly because I'm getting to be an old lady.

Nkhensani on July 18, 2020:

Do you offer training?

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