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Comparatively Speaking: O/W, W/O, Micro, Pickering and Suspo Emulsions

Contact Author Tony O'Lenick, Nascent Technologies Corp.
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Cosmetic chemists are all familiar with emulsions. We are all quite aware that oil and water don’t mix, so if both are in our formulation, an emulsifier is often added to maintain an emulsion.

An emulsion is a mixture of two phases that are immiscible in one another; most often oil (esters, hydrocarbons and silicone) and water, together with a surface active agent that allows for the preparation of a metastable product that, over time, will separate. Good emulsions are stable for a long time but thermodynamically, they will separate.

See related: Emulsion vs. Invert Emulsion


There are at least two immiscible phases in an emulsion. The phase listed first in the description, represented by the round spheres in Figure 1, is the internal or discontinuous phase. The phase listed second is the external or continuous phase;1 shown here are both oil-in-water (o/w) and water-in-oil (w/o) emulsions. Additional types include silicone-in-water (si/w) and water-in-silicone (w/si) emulsions, wherein silicone is the oil phase.

Figure 1. Depiction of an o/w and w/o emulsion2



Unlike other types of emulsions, microemulsions are thermodynamically stable, fluid, optically clear dispersions of two immiscible liquids such as oil and water. Robust microemulsions with low surfactant levels can be formulated via the use of efficient surfactants, interfacial active cosurfactants and proper formulation conditions (e.g., low electrolyte content).3
Microemulsions have very low particle size, which contributes to their stability. Table 1 shows differences between an emulsion and a microemulsion.4 Figure 2 shows a microemulsion;5 note the bluish tint to the product, which relates to the particle size.

Unlike other types of emulsions, microemulsions are thermodynamically stable, fluid, optically clear dispersions.

Table 1. Emulsion vs. Microemulsion Properties4
Figure 2. Microemulsions are optically clear systems5


Pickering Emulsion

A Pickering emulsion is an emulsion that is stabilized by solid particles (for example, colloidal silica), which adsorb onto the interface between the two phases (see Figure 3).5, 6 The great advantage of Pickering emulsions is that they are relatively stable once they are made. The disadvantage is related to the advantage: the tough particle shell is slow to equilibrate during production, so it can be difficult to form the final desired equilibrium drop size.7

Figure 3. Schematic of a Pickering emulsion



Finally, a suspoemulsion consists of solid particles or polymer capsules suspended in an emulsion system (see Figure 4); i.e., a suspension and an emulsion.8

Figure 4. Depiction of a suspoemulsion system9



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