Tonic ingredients

Basic ingredients for tonics

Aqueous extracts/aqueous phase

In the age of the internet and fine scented solutions, hydrolates or floral waters have become synonymous with tonics. But are they both the only and basic raw material? No. If we return to the world of our grandmothers, we will easily see that the basic raw materials for making tonics can be:

  • macerates, infusions and decoctions (teas) made from various types of medicinal plants (see in general extraction)
  • hydrolates or floral waters
  • essential waters
  • oligoelements known from oligotherapy. They are relatively rarely used in cosmetics (unfortunately), and they can be gold, silver, copper, manganese, germanium, platinum, silicon, magnesium, calcium and many others.

Teas are unfortunately a forgotten category and I will try to correct this injustice now, if nothing else then out of respect for our ancestors for whom it was the only cosmetics. Macerate, infusion and decoction tonics are always made fresh, every day. It may be tedious, but you have a very good motive- these are effective and extremely cheap tonics, as ideal for Croatia which is in crisis since the arrival of Slavic peoples in the Balkans (what we did in the steppes of Asia fortunately no one remembers). In contrast, tonics made of hydrolates and essential waters are more stable and more similar to the cosmetics we know today.

Tonic additives

Glycerol/glycerin (INCI: Glycerine). Compatible with COSMOS. Once we learn about aqueous extracts as a tonic foundation, it’s time to get to know another, almost regular tonic ingredient. It’s glycerol. Glycerol, you will remember, is a type of alcohol that is part of fats and oils, combined with fatty acids to triglyceride. It is a thick, viscous, completely transparent liquid that resembles honey in consistency, and is odorless. Glycerol (older and not correct name is glycerin which is still present in the INCI name), is a very dear ingredient in cosmetics for several reasons. It is a good humectant, i.e. it gives the skin moisture and softness, in itself it is almost an anti-inflammatory compound, it is a natural substance, completely metabolically usable, it is not harmful and it is very cheap. In addition, it improves the solubility of some substances in water, so we will discreetly use this property. It is added everywhere and we will mention it very often. In addition to tonics, it is added to emulsion systems , shower gels and shampoos, masks, scrubs and peelings, gels, mostly everywhere where there is water as part of cosmetics. It also has another advantage: glycerol has a very sweet taste and is therefore added to toothpastes as one of the sources of sweetness.
Immediately to be clear, glycerol is obtained from:

  • vegetable oils (by decomposition or saponification of vegetable oils),
  • animal fats, or saponification of fats (very rare today),
  • chemical synthesis from petroleum products.

I do not need to emphasize that glycerol from plant sources is used in natural cosmetics and is declared as such. Vegetable glycerol, fortunately, dominates the market, but just in case, ask for a certificate that proves that it is obtained from vegetable oils. The reasons are simple: vegans do not tolerate the presence of something obtained by sacrificing animals, and synthetic glycerol always contains residues of compounds from the production process.

If glycerol is so great, is it good to apply it on the skin? Of course not. Namely, glycerol loves water, that is, it absorbs water. If you use it neat on the skin, it will essentially draw water out of the skin and thus only make matters worse. However, if you dissolve it in a small concentration in water (i.e. hydrolate or some aqueous extract of plants), it will “keep” part of the moisture in itself and will not allow all this water to evaporate from the skin, but it will enble it to penetrate the skin. And it stays there for at least a while. This makes the skin healthier, moisturized and youthful. Be careful – if you overdo it with the amount of glycerol, you will get an uncomfortable feeling of sticky skin, whether it’s tonics, gels or creams. I usually add it 0.5-4%, which is quite enough for a pleasant feeling of moist and fresh skin, and a very reasonable limit is 2%, so we will never worry that we put too much.

Glycerol extracts of plants are water-glycerol extracts: they contain water and glycerol in which the plant material has been immersed and are usually preserved with eco-preservatives. They can be added in a wide range of concentrations, from 5-50%, but they are usually used in a concentration of 10-20%. In Croatia, they are only occasionally available or even unavailable, and the most famous are, for example, cucumber extracts that moisturize the skin and extracts of marshmallow and poppy flowers that soothe skin prone to irritation. As they are composite, they never have their own INCI name, but are declared as a mixture.
An example is glycerol extract of grapevine leaves whose INCI composition is as follows: Aqua, Glycerin, Vitis vinifera rubra leaf, Sodium benzoate, Potassium sorbate, Citric acid.

PCA or pyrrolidone-carboxylic acid, or 5-oxoproline, or pyroglutamic acid exists only to show how chemists can be creative in inventing parallel names. In the meantime, it serves us for many other interesting purposes. It comes to us in the form of two salts:

  • Sodium PCA or Sodium Salt PCA (INCI: Sodium PCA)
  • Potassium PCA or Potassium Salt PCA (INCI: Potassium PCA)

Both salts are compatible with the COSMOS directive. PCA is a natural compound formed in the skin from the amino acid glutamine, more precisely by its cyclization. By its structure, it belongs to a group of chemical compounds that we call lactams. PCA is formed enzymatically, but also spontaneously. Its biological function is to retain water in the skin (humectants). It is a far better humectant than glycerol, is a permitted additive in organic cosmetics and is ECOCERT certified, although it is obtained semi-synthetically from natural sources. In Europe, it is produced by the Italian company Kalichem. In addition to being a humectant, PCA is also a natural antistatic compound, so it is often added to shampoos, in order to prevent “electrification” of the hair.

Unlike glycerol, sodium-PCA and potassium-PCA do not cause a feeling of stickiness. It comes commercially as a concentrated, clear, transparent, slightly viscous solution that is usually added in concentrations of 1-5%. It is used everywhere, from tonics, emulsion systems, to shower gels and shampoos. It is a real pity that it is poorly used in home cosmetics, so we will try to correct this injustice. It is sometimes added to emulsion systems (creams and milks), but it can have a devastating effect on the stability of emulsions.

Allantoin (INCI: Allantoin). Even if you are not an expert, you are familiar with it from various cosmetic preparations, from shampoos to creams. It is unusual where it was discovered in the amniotic fluid of a cow. It is found in many animal species, from snails, or snail mucus, to various mammals, but not in humans and monkeys. Hence some snail-based cosmetic lines! Allantoin is a xanthine produced in animals, other than humans and monkeys, from uric acid (urate). We have evolutionarily lost the ability to break down urate and instead of allantoin we excrete urate by the kidneys. Allantoin has different effects (in some species it is also a hormone), but what interests us most is its anti-inflammatory effect and promoting healing of minor skin damage, mild keratolytic effect and general feeling of fresh skin, as the cosmetics industry likes to say.
In plants, it is mostly found in comfrey root and is one of the compounds responsible for the healing properties of this plant. Allantoin, as an odorless white powder, dissolves rapidly in water, especially warm water, but cannot be dissolved in too high a concentration- at room temperature its solubility is 0.57g/100mL of water. Since it has a very strong action and relatively low solubility, it is added in a low concentration of 0.1-0.3% by weight of the tonic. This is approximately the amount on the tip of a knife of dry allantoin, which is dissolved in 100mL of hydrolate lightly heated in a water bath.
Allantoin is completely harmless and inexpensive. Therefore, I recommend its use, which is no longer a secret of the cosmetics industry. As a raw material, it is usually of good quality, because its quality is defined by very strict regulations of the pharmacopoeia. Theoretically, allantoin obtained from plant sources is compatible with the COSMOS standard, but not the synthetic one (which is the most common), and by no means the one obtained from snails. We forgive this small inconsistency of synthetic allantoin because of its good medicinal properties, and it has been a part of pharmacy for decades anyway.

Dexpanthenol (INCI: Panthenol) is provitamin B5, i.e. vitamin B5, or pantothenic acid, is formed from it in the body. Pantothenic acid is an integral part of coenzyme A which is necessary in the degradation and synthesis of many biological molecules, including lipids. In addition to taking this provitamin and vitamin in food, panthenol also has interesting cosmetic properties. One of the few water-soluble vitamins that penetrates the skin. It is the only secret of the healing properties of the brands Bepanthen and Pantexol, but also others like Panten Pro-V (this Pro-V stands for the name provitamin).
In addition to glycerol, it is a good skin moisturizer (humectant) and stimulates its regeneration. It is added up to 5% by weight of the tonic, but the same rule applies as with glycerol – if there is too much, there is a feeling of stickiness. Therefore, I like to use it in a concentration of 2-4%, but even 4% can cause such a feeling depending on the person and skin type. In addition to tonics, it is added to emulsion systems (creams and milks), and is also useful in shampoos because it protects hair and nourishes the scalp.
Dexpanthenol is a real pain to weigh, because the completely transparent mass is thicker than honey and very sticky, so we will have to learn how to weigh as simply as possible. It is obtained synthetically and is a well-known pharmaceutical raw material with a strict quality requirement, but you can hardly find it in organic cosmetics. Therefore, we will make an exception with it, as well as with allantoin, because it is really good for the skin.

Niacinamide or nicotinamide (INCI: Niacinamide) is also a water-soluble vitamin, vitamin B3 (niacin) amide. It is an integral part of coenzymes that participate in many oxidations and reductions and is necessary for metabolism, i.e. in the energetic biochemistry of the cell. It is used in tonics and creams against acne, but its most important use is to help with hyperpigmentation of the skin caused by various causes, from hormonal to those caused by inflammatory skin diseases. Unlike all the other ingredients listed so far, it is not used lightly for everyday cosmetics, but is used if needed. It dissolves very easily in water and is added by 1-5%. For its effect on acne and hyperpigmentation, it was tested in concentrations of 4-5%.

Azeloglycine (INCI: Potassium azeloyl diglycinate) is the “youngest” of all the listed ingredients. Azeloglycine, as its name suggests, contains in its structure the chemical compound azaleic acid. Azaleic acid is used clinically for acne because it works against bacteria that participate in the process of acne formation (Propionobacterium acnes) and is found in the drug Skinoren. Nevertheless, azaleic acid is a drug with its side effects and is a typical raw material of the classical pharmaceutical industry. That is why the Italian company Sinerga developed an azaleic acid derivative by combining it with two molecules of the amino acid glycine. The compound itself is mildly irritating and problematic, and has retained its healing properties in acne. At the same time, azeloglycin also works against hyperpigmentation and thus has an excellent “dual” effect that can be useful in hyperpigmentation caused by acne. Azeloglycin is one of my favorite acne tonic ingredients. It is usually used in concentrations of 5-10%, with more pronounced acne I suggest a 10% concentration.

Sopholiance S/Bacti-pur (INCI: Candida bombicola/glucose/methyl rapeseedate ferment (and water) ). Don’t be intimidated by the name Candida in the INCI name. This is not the pathogen Candida albicans or any of its wicked sister. It is a completely safe, Ecocert certified raw material of the French company Soliance, which is obtained by fermenting rapeseed with this fungus. Preclinical and clinical studies have shown that it acts on Propionobacterium acnes, a bacterium that is one of the factors in the development of inflammatory forms of acne. It also reduces the production of sebum, which is very useful for oily skin. Apart from being a active ingredient against acne, it has also found its place as a natural deodorant because it prevents the formation of unpleasant odors due to the action of bacterial flora on the skin, but at the same time it is not an antiperspirant. It is used in a dose of 1-2%. Be careful not to overdo it (as always!) as higher concentration can be irritating. Tonics made with this ingredient are usually opalescent/cloudy.

Aloe. Aloe is a world-famous plant, a succulent that originates from Africa. Let’s try to be a little more precise: two types of extracts are obtained from aloe. One is rich in anthraquinones and anthraquinone glycosides. It is used as a symptomatic remedy for constipation and we do not use it in cosmetics. Therefore, we use aloe juice, which is rich in galactomannans. It is a humectant, but also stimulates skin regeneration and is very popular in various cosmetic formulations, from shower gels, gels to tonics and emulsion systems. Aloe is obtained from several species, so the INCI name depends on it. The most common are Aloe barbadensis leaf juice and Aloe ferox leaf juice. The succulent aloe leaves in the center contain a gel-like mass from which a thick, transparent juice is squeezed.

Fresh aloe juice is probably the best of all possible face tonics, and you wouldn’t believe it: you can make it yourself. Just be sure to use real aloe, with broad and juicy leaves. I have seen it often in the gardens of Dalmatia, where it is grown for aesthetic reasons, and people probably don’t even know that they have a real little green treasure for their skin in their garden.
The procedure is very simple.

  • Tear off one larger aloe leaf and wash it well
  • Use a sharp scalpel to cut a square across the surface of the leaf
  • Peel a thick protective cuticle (top leaf cover) with a knife
  • Using a spoon, remove the fleshy and juicy, gel-like inside of the leaf
  • Place on a strainer and squeeze with a spoon to squeeze out the slippery, gel-like juice

Juice prepared in this way is mostly no longer made in industry today. The cuticle must be removed to prevent the juice from containing too much anthraquinone. Today, in industrial production, the whole plant is usually ground, and then these compounds are separated by chemical processes. Therefore, the old, “homemade” way, really gives the highest quality product. Aloe juice is easily spoiled, so you can preserve it with grapefruit seed extract, Geogard 211 or Leucidal. Such juice is applied neat on the face, is added to tonics and shower gels and various emulsion systems.

If you do not have aloe and do not intend to bother with it, on the market, of course, a ready solution awaits you. Aloe is sold as:

  • aloe 1:1. This means that it is diluted 1:1, meaning, in, for example, a total of 100mL/100g of tonic you have 50mL/50g of aloe juice 1:1.
  • aloe 10:1. In this case the juice is a concentrate, so it is diluted 10 times. The name itself is chemically a bit incorrect, because the juice is diluted 9:1, i.e. a total of 100mL of tonic should contain 10mL of aloe juice 10:1. This is the most common commercial type in Croatia.
  • aloe 40:1. Now you already know for yourself- a total of 100mL of tonic should contain 2,5mL of 40:1 aloe juice. This type is less common on the market, but it is good and elegant when we need the volume of aloe to be as small as possible, while maintaining the effect.
  • aloe 200:1. It is very is common in industry, but it is difficult to find on the market. It is such a strong juice concentrate that it is in the form of a dry powder that dissolves in water. Per 100mL of tonic comes 0.5g of 200:1 aloe powder. This dry powder also has a different INCI name: Aloe barbadensis leaf juice powder and Aloe ferox leaf juice powder.

Aloe juice has been extensively clinically tested (skin regeneration, atopic dermatitis…). Because it costs money, it is very rarely added to perishable tonics made from aqueous extracts (teas) of plants, but is mostly added to more permanent tonics made from hydrolates and essential waters.

Red algae gel (INCI: Algae extract). Algae create a number of complex molecules that allow them to survive. One of them is mucus to protect against potential dehydration and environmental hazards. Much more will be said about it in the chapter on gels, for now we need to know that it is biotechnologically obtained from the Pacific species Ahnfeldtia concinna. The raw material is Ecocert certified, and it is added to tonics in smaller quantities for the function of moisturizing and protecting the skin. Be very moderate, because larger amounts turn the tonic into a gel, it is harder to disperse in a spray and can slightly “tighten” the skin.


The word “preservative” is not popular among fans of natural, but they are still often needed, which we will see in emulsion systems. Then we will explain the preservatives in more detail. But here we will meet a few more important ones that are suitable for tonics.

I immediately repeat that tonics- teas we always use fresh anyway. If we want to use aqueous extracts of plants, which are on the market, we would have to filter them multiple times, stabilize them so that sensitive biological molecules do not oxidise, and at the same time we would have to add a preservative such as benzoic acid to prevent spoilage due to growth of microorganisms, mostly mould.

The big question is whether hydrolate and essential water tonics should be preserved. My experience is that it is usually not needed- once we make them for use, it can be stable for months, especially if we keep them in the cold. However, if you notice sediment or turbidity, it is contamination and you will have to throw away such tonics. The perishability of tonics depends on the water part- hydrolates and essential waters that themselves have antibacterial activity, such as thyme linalool or tea tree, will be more difficult to spoil.

Leucidal (INCI: Leuconostoc/radish root ferment filtrate). Leucidal is a natural preservative compliant with COSMOS principles. Its antimicrobial activity rests in part on antimicrobial peptides secreted by the microorganism Leuconostoc kimchii during the fermentation of radish and cabbage. It was created by the small biotechnology company Active Microtechnologies. It is an odorless and colorless aqueous extract and is ideal for tonics. Some companies that produce hydrolates use it as a preservative. It is usually added in concentrations of 2-4%, with a concentration of 2% sufficient for good protection of the tonic from spoilage. It should not be heated to a temperature higher than 70°C because it becomes inactive and acts in the pH range of 3-8, which is quite a wide enough range for most tonics, shower gels and emulsion systems. It is mainly available in Croatia. However, it contains salicylates, in a low enough concentration that it does not harm any skin type, but it is not used in people who are allergic to salicylates.

Leucidal SF (INCI: Lactobacillus ferment). In name and theoretical foundation, this is a preservative very similar to Leucidal, but biotechnologically it is of a completely different origin. The INCI name of Leucidial SF is Lactobacillus ferment which means that antimicrobial peptides are isolated from the genus Lactobacillus, lactic acid fermentation bacteria. SF in the name means “Salicylate free”, which means it does not contain salicylates. Although the company clearly states the effect against the growth of fungi, moulds and bacteria, in my experience this is a weaker preservative. Not available in Croatia.

Tinosan SDC (INCI: Citric acid (and) silver citrate). Tinosan SDC is a reflection of the old pharmacy in a new guise. Compatible with the COSMOS standard, it was developed and manufactured by Ciba (Novartis). Silver has been used in skin care for centuries as a mild antiseptic and as a means of stimulating skin regeneration. But the most commonly used was silver nitrate which is quite unstable. Therefore, a chelate of silver ions with citric acid has been developed which is far more stable. Silver was popular in Croatia as a panacea, most often in the form of colloidal silver, sometimes of questionable quality. The pharmaceutical industry has its virtues, and one of them is certainly quality control, so Tinosan is always reproducible in composition. Its working concentration is 0.1-0.3%. My suggestion is to use it in the range between 0.2-0.3%. Tinosan does not give taste or smell, but it should be borne in mind that silver, as a precious metal, is prone to reduction, i.e. elemental silver is formed from the silver cation, which can be excreted on the walls of the vessel (bottle). This process is greatly accelerated by light, so such tonics must be stored in dark glass bottles, or in typical pharmaceutical bottles with a bottleneck. That will be enough to slow down this process significantly. I definitely suggest it when we want the preservative to have other functions, for example as a mild antiseptic in aftershave tonics or for acne.


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