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The HLB Concept

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

Introduction to the use of HLB in surfactant selection for emulsification.

In developing emulsifier systems, it is important to select a surfactant/emulsifier system with the correct characteristics to match the requirements of the oil phase plus other factors, such as the temperature of the emulsion and electrolytes.

The use of the HLB system can help in quickly identifying the optimum surfactant system.

HLB = Hydrophile - Lipophile Balance

It provides the starting point for matching the HLB of the surfactant with the required HLB of the oil to form stable emulsions. One can predict the approximate HLB needed to emulsify a given material and make more intelligent estimates of which surfactant or combinations of surfactants are appropriate to a given application. When blends are used the HLB can be

estimated by using a weighted average of the surfactants used in the blend.

Calculation of the HLB of nonionic surfactants

This method has proved very successful with alkoxylated nonionic surfactants but

less successful with ionic surfactants. The HLB system, in it's most basic form, allows for the calculation of HLB using the following formulation :

HLB = % Hydrophile by weight of molecule


Example: Oleyl alcohol 10 EO

  • Molecular weight of hydrophile we calculate the molecular weight of the 10 moles of ethylene oxide (one mole EO =44)

10 x 44 = 440

  • We add this number to the molecular weight of the oleyl alcohol

440+ 270 = 710

  • What percentage of 710 is 440?

440 / 710 *100= 61.97%

Therefore: HLB is 61.97/5 = 12.4

Example of HLB mixture calculation

HLB of a blend of two surfactants, 70 wt% Lansurf SMO80 (HLB=15) and 30 wt% Lansurf SMO (HLB=4.3) can be computed as follows:

HLB mixture = 0.3 x 4.3 + 0.7 x 15 = 11.8

Similarly for a 70:30wt% mixture of oleic acid (HLB=17) and lanolin (HLB=12):

HLB mixture = 0.7 x 17 + 0.3 x 12 = 15.5

The HLB values measured against solubility in water

The HLB of a surfactant, ranging from 1 to 20, affects its characteristics in aqueous solutions and dictates their characteristics and the typical applications where they will be used.

An emulsion is most accurately defined as a dispersion of liquid droplets in a second immiscible liquid. Temporary emulsions may be formed by mixing the two normally immiscible liquids, however, the stability of temporary emulsions produced in this way is poor. Emulsifiers are surface-active materials (surfactants) that are used to assist in the formation and stabilisation of an emulsion.

The optimum emulsifier will also be dictated by the external phase, with oil in water emulsion requiring higher HLB emulsifier systems than water in oil.

When determining the optimum HLB the nature of the oil phase and the emulsion type (oil in water or water in oil) is the starting point. There are literature values available for several materials:

Example Emulsification of paraffinic mineral oil

The literature HLB value for the emulsification of paraffinic mineral oil is 10, but this is an approximate value as the exact HLB will be effected by the composition of the specific oil, plus the HLB values assigned to emulsifiers are not particularly accurate, therefore the optimum HLB for each oil and emulsifier needs to be established by experimentation.

This is achieved by preparing emulsions based on blends of emulsifiers to give HLB’s around the theory value as in the table below. Based on the emulsion quality the optimum ratio and HLB can be determined. It may be necessary to make further blends, for example if the best result is obtained with sample 6 further blends with HLB’s of 9.3 and 9.1 should be evaluated.

Using blends of surfactants has a number of benefits. Firstly it allows the optimum HLB to be used for each application. Also in many applications, blending emulsifiers with different HLB’s can be beneficial, to provide a broader range of HLB’s present in the system. This is often beneficial when the oil phase is a mixture rather than an individual chemical species. Blending nonionic and anionic emulsifiers can also be beneficial, in many applications it can increase the stability in applications where a wide range of temperatures can occur.

Sometimes the HLB of the oil may not be known. In this case experimental analysis using a range of nonionic surfactants with varying degrees of ethoxylation but with the same hydrophobe is a good starting method to establish an approximation of the emulsifiers HLB.

Lankem manufactures a wide range of emulsifiers, the following table provides information on their HLB values:




Sorbitan tri-oleate


Sorbitan mono-oleate


Sorbitan mono-stearate


Cetyl oleyl + 3EO


Castor oil + 12EO


C10 alcohol + 3EO


Sorbitan mono-laurate


C13 alcohol + 3EO


C10 alcohol + 5EO


Sorbitan mono-oleate + 5EO


Oleic acid + 7EO


C13 alcohol + 5EO


Sorbitan tri-oleate + 20EO


Oleic acid + 10EO


C10 alcohol + 7EO


C13 alcohol + 7EO


BioLoop 68L

100% Biobased BioLoop


C13 alcohol + 10EO


Castor oil + 40EO


Oleic acid + 14EO


C10 alcohol + 9EO


BioLoop 84L

100% Biobased BioLoop


Tallow amine + 15EO


C10 alcohol + 8EO


C13 alcohol + 12EO


Sorbitan mono-oleate + 20EO


Sorbitan mono-stearate + 20EO


C13 alcohol + 15EO


C13 alcohol + 20EO


Sorbitan mono-laurate + 20EO


Tallow amine + 30EO


Cetyl oleyl + 35EO


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