A carbomer gel

There aren’t a huge number of raw materials developed specifically to fulfill a need in personal care.  Most things that go into your cosmetics and toiletries were originally intended for another purpose altogether and got pressed into service by formulators.  But carbomer was always intended for skin products.  It has subsequently been used by other industries but it was ours to begin with.

Carbomer was first launched in the nineteen fifties, rapidly became a huge hit and by the middle of the sixties no cosmetic lab would have been without a jar of the fluffy white powder.  It has retained this position ever since, despite the best efforts of the company that first created it and all their competitors to try and improve on it.  So what is it?  It doesn’t really do it justice to just call it a thickener.  There are plenty of ways to thicken something up.  But carbomer not only gives you the viscosity you want, it also stabilises your formulation and gives it texture.  By varying the level and the exact way you use it you can use carbomer as a base to create anything from a stiff hair gel that will stay exactly where you put it, a lotion with body but which still flows easily or a rich cream that holds it shape.

Carbomer Neutralisation

If you look at an ingredient list, if you see carbomer listed you will almost always see either sodium hydroxide or triethanolamine listed as well.  These are neutralising agents used to neutralise the carbomer.   Somebody in a lab somewhere will have thought through which neutralising agent at which level would suit the needs of the product best.  If he or she has done their job well you should have a product whose look and feel make the product a joy to use.

Nearly as important as what it does is what it doesn’t do.  It doesn’t seem to have any effect on the skin at all. If you rub a neat carbomer gel into your skin, once it has dried you don’t notice it.  It doesn’t make your skin tacky.  It doesn’t make it feel tight.  You just don’t notice it.   It isn’t there to give any benefits, just to make the formulation elegant and enjoyable.

Carbomer Chemistry

The chemistry of carbomer is totally synthetic and bears no relationship to anything in nature.  This is a good thing.  It means that your immune system has not encountered anything similar in its evolutionary history and so it is unlikely to react to it.  There are millions of people in the world of course, and I dare say there are some of them somewhere who do react to carbomer.  Whatever you use there is somebody somewhere who will react to it.  But I have never come across or heard of a reaction to this particular material.

Carbomer poses no safety concerns.  The Skin Deep database gives it a zero risk, though does give it a 97% data gap.  I am not sure how they work that one out, as there is plenty of data.  It is listed in several pharmaceutical national formularies so it is considered good enough for pharmaceutical use.   There is one UK company I know of that uses carbomer free as a marketing claim.  But even they only object to it on the basis that is a petrochemical derivative, which is true enough.

The only people who have a problem with carbomer are the organic sector.  Carbomer is not specifically banned by the Soil Association, but they do require that natural thickeners be used when they are suitable.  They usually are though they aren’t as good.  I think this is probably the single biggest reason why organic products often seem a bit rubbish compared to conventional ones.  They do the job just as well, potentially at any rate, but they just lack the elegance that can be achieved with carbomer.  But that presumably is a choice that the people who seek out those kinds of products have made.

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that the texture of modern cosmetics have been profoundly changed by this interesting ingredient.  Next time you use a product, in particular a lotion, put a drop on your finger and look at the shape.  You should be able to make a good impression of Frenchman’s beret.  This is the texture you associate with carbomer.  It is possible to achieve it in other ways, but it is really easy with carbomer.   The beauty of of it is that it is firm enough to only go where you want it to go, but soft enough to be easy to rub in.  It isn’t perhaps as spectacular as some of the achievements of science, but it is one that you can see in any bathroom around the world.  And now you know how its done.

If you are looking for a more natural thickener, have a look at my post on xanthan gum.



Notes on Carbomer for Chemists

There are naturally a lot of different grades of carbomer with different CAS numbers i.e.,  9007-20-9, 9003-01-4 , 76050-42-5 , 9062-04-8 , 9007-16-3  or 9007-17-4 but all are listed on the pack simply as carbomer.  The chemistry is relatively simple to describe but can have interesting ramifications.  The backbone of the polymer is made up of acrylic acid monomers with enough acid groups left unreacted for the overall  polymer to be acidic.  Sugar groups are substituted onto it to give desired level of solubility.

Before it is neutralised the polymer chain fills the space relatively poorly.  Once it is neutralised the volume occupied by the polymer expands enormously thickening up the formulation.  Judicious choice of polymer concentration and degree of neutralisation gives you a lot of control over the rheology of the final product.  One other feature of carbomer that is worth remembering is that it is the salt of a weak acid and so has a pretty good buffering effect.  This can be good or bad depending on what you are trying to achieve, but is unavoidable.

The other feature that really cannot be ignored is that it is very shear sensitive, so you will lose structure if you knock it around too much.  I once talked to a skilled rheologist who was able to detect the loss of viscosty in a carbomer gel if it was simply pumped through a pipe with a corner in it.  On a more practical level, you need to keep control of the manufacturing process pretty nicely or every batch will come out different.  Whatever other properties your product does or doesn’t have, variety is one that you don’t want.

(For worthy but dull safety information etc see the cosmetics info entry .)

38 thoughts on “Carbomer”

  1. You are so very right about organic alternatives being hard to find. Texture is (almost) everything in a product. This is one of the things that has been my biggest focus and a huge challenge in my own products. It is possible to acheive that luxurious feeling in a plant-based product, but it’s a darn sight harder to do! Thanks for another great article.

  2. Thanks for a really interesting and informative article. As an internet retailer selling both mainstream and organic cosmetics it is often really difficult to find concise and impartial information about some of the standard cosmetic ingredients. Your website is a great resource and much appreciated!

  3. Thanks for this post! I found it while looking for a carbomer supplier in the UK. I make creams and I would just like to buy 50grs but it seems impossible to find a supplier…would you please advice me…i live in Portugal and I already tried here and they will only sell me big amounts… thanks so much

    1. Carbomer isn’t really very suitable for home use. You need to be able to weigh out exactly the right amount of neutralising agent and the actual swelling process takes a bit of a knack. It is also an extremely fluffy powder so it isn’t easy to handle. I am sure you know what you are doing Julia – just explaining why the companies that supply small volumes of cosmetic ingredients, companies like Gracefruit and New Directions, generally don’t stock it. You might do better to see if any companies manufacturing cosmetics in Portugal will let you have some. Claus Porto are the most famous company in this line in Portugal, though there must be many others.

      1. Natasha Jaeger

        I did it! I got my French Beret 🙂 happy newbie cream maker I am… thank you for this post again Colin!

  4. Julia:

    This suggestion might be too late to be useful. If you’re still in the research phase with your products, we have found that many suppliers will offer research samples in small quantities and often on a complimentary basis.

    1. Hi Syd, I have since discovered at my expense that’s carbomer isn’t the The product I am after , if you are for Milear with polyethylene polymer this is exactly the consistency I am after but it has to be crystal clear, And be safe enough even to be edible, polyethylene polymer is used as a veterinary obstetric lubricant, if this may be sheds more light on this ….

  5. How does Acrylates/C10-30 Alkyl Acrylate Crosspolymer differ from Carbomers (I know both need a neutralizer). And, I see Carbomer and this ingredient in my hair gel that I want to replicate, possibly the Crosspolymer is used to make the formula sustain shearing? I am willing to guess that this Crosspolymer is a relatively new ingredient. In the States we wouldn’t have had the hair most of us did in the 80’s without Carbomer, that is for sure!

    1. The acrylate copolymers are a bit newer than carbomer, but have been around for a while. The main reason for using them is that they are a bit better at suspending than straight carbomer, you are probably right about shear resistance too but that has never crossed my mind. But it is also sometimes just down to the personal preference of the formulator. Some people just like the texture you get from the cross polymers. Formulation isn’t an exact science.

  6. Hi Colin I have just seen your blog on Carbomers I know I am late to the party but your lady in Portugal could use PNC 400 ex 3V Sigma (Sodium Carbomer) which requires no neutraliser and can be added at any stage.

  7. Thank you Colin Sir,
    Nice information about carbomer

    Recently i made antiseptic han gel by using carbomer as kadpole 940
    i have used the following chemical
    carbomer kadpole940
    Chlorohexadine,triethanolamaine,and ethanol of 99.9%
    but there is a problem of that hand gel is not colourless as its white milky colour appear
    but i need to make colourless !
    i think there is problem of kadpole 940
    So Me.Colin Sir can u suggest me and tell me how should i make my handgel colourless as shown in figure if this article
    thank you

  8. I would like more information on carbomers. I must be that RARE person who appears to have an allergy to carbomers. I had a dangerous reaction (headache, sensation of numb but pins & needles in lip, feeling of tightness in throat) after using a US prescription gel that contained carbomer homopolymer Type C in February 2012. In March 2016, I had another similar allergic reaction with another prescription creme that contained carbomer copolymer Type B. In both cases, I took an allergy pill containing an antihistamine and the reaction did not progress any further. I want to avoid this scary situation in the future. I will be more diligent in checking labels…

    1. Hi Mary, do you mind my asking what other symptoms, besides tingling, you experienced? Had you already been exposed to all the other ingredients in the product (that is, you’re certain it was the carbomer and not something else )

      I have been using a product with carbopol and want to be sure im not reacting to it.

      Thanks a bunch!

  9. Hi, does FDA regulates Carbomer for handmade cosmetics? Do I need to be approved using Carbomer in my handmade skincare? Thanks for helping you guys!!!

  10. Hi there Mr. Collins!
    Can CMC or carboxymethylcellulose be a good subtitute for carbomer in cosmetic making? Can it have comparable benefits?Thank you

  11. Hi Colin I wonder if you can help I am trying to make a very slippery Gel for use as a massage lubricant I have been trying to find the right ingredients for this for ages I was sent some samples from Japan I have since discovered that it was carbomer undersupply had told me that the extra ingredient is sucrose Not quite sure why they would be adding this, if this is mixed up to a very thick gel can it be used as a lubricant and is it possible to use it without neutralising it your help would be very much appreciated

    1. Hello Martin. I can’t help much without seeing samples and knowing exactly what you are talking about. Carbomer gels do get affected by osmotic pressure so I can see why adding a bit of sugar might modulate performance. You usually need to neutralise carbomer to at least some extent to make it into a gel. But on the whole, you should be able to make a very suitable lubricant with carbomer, though I’d probably go for a cellulose for that kind of application. What’s good about carbomer is that it gives the product a very appealing structure, but that isn’t particularly desirable in a massage product.

      1. I coming I will appreciate your comments thank you forgetting back to me so quickly, could I message you are a private email as the information is commercially sensitive, I can then send you a link to explain exactly what I’m trying to achieve …

  12. Thanks for nice informative article. I m having following question: is their any natural ingredient (plant based ) as alternative to carbomer. I m preparing creams & lotions from natural ingredients (no any synthetic ingredients).thanks

  13. Thank you so much for your thorough & useful & accurate data & my own personal expertise in this art/science develops, my dependence on yourself, Amanda from Realize, & Perry R., increases commensurately. However, my doofis-ness, also proportionately growing, is solely my own, & i hold none of you to account.
    My question is re:the standard neutralizers used to stabilize gel structure in carbomer. I’m not asking b/c
    i am a member of the lye-phobic masses on the web, & although i’m not as familiar w/TEA, i have no innate reflexive fear of chems ‘that i cannot pronounce’, (although i can actually), but i do think this might be 1 of my top 5 most irritating & by far, 1 of the most ignorant “standards” a consumer could apply when choosing what they feel is the safest & most ‘natural’ product to use or buy.
    Nope, its just that i wanna play w/it, b/c i just got some, & a comment you made earlier in this thread & alluded to in the post, makes me think i might not have the skills yet to ascertain the best amount & the proper use, timing, et al, in each of my myriad projects, all of which would likely require slight differences in structure, viscosity, feel, etc.
    Also, although i do have both sod.& potassium hydroxide, i guess i’d prefer to use something a scosh more benign, maybe? & i’m also just curious..why not magnesium hydroxide? it has a high (10.5?) p.h… or sodium carbonate for a product needing a lil’ detergent boost? or sod.bicarb. for more personal care apps? or for that matter, i don’t know if carbomer is used in surfactant type formulae, but why not decyl glucoside?
    I think you’re going to tell me that those original chemists figured all this stuff out exactly & arrived @ the very best, most impeccable solutions to this issue & why fix it if its not..BUT, i just know that you, Genius that you are, of the highest order of genius-ness, can throw me a few extra little morsels of intel on this, which is to me, a most perplexing & baffling matter.
    Thank you in advance for the exhaustive treatise on alternate carbomer neutralizers which i am certain you’re absolutely dying to pen for me..& i send you, in all seriousness, my best & sincerely most respectful regards, suki

  14. I have the same question as Suki MIller, why using sodium hydroxyde to neutralize carbomer if there are alkaline ingredients, for instance Decyl glucoside, in the formula that need to be neutralized by an acid?

    1. The answer is that polymers are three dimensional things and different alkalis give a different final shape. Sodium and triethanolamine are the most widely used neutralising agents and they give results that are distinctive enough that you can tell which has been used if you are familiar with both.

  15. I have had an allergic reaction to carbomer on several occasions. I realised what I was reacting to when using an aloe gel that had carbomer as an ingredient. I also had a reaction to Musinex, and realized it’s an ingredient in that as well. I have had reaction to latex. Is customer and latex related?

    1. Hello Patty, latex allergies are usually the latex from rubber. Carbomer is similar to some plastics that also get referred to as latex, but there is not much chemical similarity between natural rubber and synthetic latex even though they look much the same. Rubber allergies are way more common than allergies to carbomer, but it sounds like you might have both. I’d get a dermatologist to confirm your allergy with a patch test. Carbomer is a pretty common ingredient so you don’t want to avoid it if you don’t have to.

  16. Hi Colin, me again..okay, just wanted to elucidate some of what i’ve learned RE: the subject of alternate neutralizers..
    Magnesium Hydroxide-apparently does this odd plateau/bottoming out-type action when it hits a PH of 7-8, & becomes inconsistent & cannot be relied upon to even stay there, let alone provide a reliable (bufferable/stable) PH, like when facing an acid ninja like carbomer..
    Sodium Bicarbonate-might not even be a high enough PH in the 1st place! to neutralize carbomer, but even if it was, think of how it interacts w/citric, acetic, or tartaric acids (bath bombs & sink drain-volcanoes)!
    You want an elegant gel structure, not a beaker full of pop-rocks..RE:Sodium Carbonate-see above..
    Lastly, RE:Decyl Glucoside..all i have for this ingredient is spotty, anecdotal tales. Basically, a scant handful (3 total, i think), of those who claim to have achieved success in their surfactant formulae, using DG to neutralize carbomer.
    This is ONLY if we assume that all other factors, in each case, are consistent w/our experimental parameters (an unwieldy, unsound assumption, that if it was a house, wouldn’t survive a strong wind)..
    However, although i am going to experiment with the DG & carbomer myself, & will post the results here, if any are interested, my own experience with Sodium Hydroxide has proved to be so comfy & rewarding, that i’m in no particular rush to do so.
    I’ve now mixed my already prepp’d carbomer+most other water-soluble constituents+preservative, scent, color, etc w/ a 10% & an 18% lye solution, & had a much greater level of success w/the 18% the point that i no longer seek other options, i am ecstatic w/the results achieved, & have now begun the practice of pre-mixing just the carbomer & preservative & distilled water (although i did have to strain out the unwetted boogers before adding the lye), then adding a high amount of 18%lye solution..jarring this in an air&light-tight wide-mouth jar,& placing on my cool shelf ahead of time, so i have it on hand for when needed.
    You’re still a genius, Colin, moreso now, to me @ least..thanks for not taking the easy option of publicly spanking &humiliating totally rock!
    muchlove, suki

  17. Hi Colin,
    I just wanted to let you know that it appears carbomer allergies are rising. I have been allergic for years and two more of my co-workers just found out they are, as well. We work in a medical environment and I believe are becoming sensitized to carba-mix products. I truly believe in the next 20-30 years, it will be as common as latex allergies among health-care workers. It’s a shame, because, as a skincare junkie there are SO many great products and brands I have to avoid.

  18. My problem with carbomer is that it only works in higher PH which makes it a non-candidate for formulations where PH needs to be lower, i.e., eye gel. Would that be correct? The minute you attempt to lower the PH you lose the viscosity. As a matter of fact because carbomer needs a higher PH, it loses it’s candidacy for a lot of products – hair gel being one of them. Any way around that?

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