Ingredient Watch List: Polysorbate 20—It May Be Contaminated with Carcinogenic 1,4-Dioxane

Polysorbate 20

Take a look at the ingredient list on your facial cleanser, body wash, toner, or moisturizer, and see if you find polysorbate 20. If you do, you may want to shop for something better next time—particularly if your child uses the product, too.

Here's why.

Before you buy another bottle of that lotion, check to see if it has polysorbate 20.

What is Polysorbate 20?

In its original form, polysorbate is a harmless sorbitol, which is a sugar alcohol. For its use in personal care products, however, it's treated with ethylene oxide—thus, the name “polysorbate 20,” because it's treated with 20 parts of ethylene oxide.

The result is an ingredient used as an emulsifier in cosmetic creams (to help mix oil and water), lotions, cream deodorant, baby oil, sun lotion, etc.

What are the Concerns?

The problem with any ingredient that is treated with ethylene oxide (or “ethoxylated”) is that it can then become contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a potentially dangerous by-product. In fact, 1,4-dioxane is a known animal carcinogen that penetrates readily into the skin. This ingredient has also been linked with skin allergies. There is so much concern about this contaminant that a class-action lawsuit was filed in New Jersey against manufacturers of children's bath and personal-care products because defendants manufactured, distributed, marketed, or sold products containing formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane.

More Concerns about 1,4-Dioxane

The Organic Consumers Organization, adopting information from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, released a fact sheet on 1,4-dioxane. They report that the levels of 1,4-dioxane found in many personal care products are 1,000 times higher than those found to cause cancer in animal studies. They add that according to the FDA, “Skin absorption studies demonstrated that dioxane readily penetrates animal and human skin from various types of vehicles.”

This can be especially concerning if you're taking a hot bath or shower, as your pores open up, which means your skin could be taking in even more of the 1,4-dioxane in the product.

Other Potential Concerns

Other concerns with polysorbate-20 are that it resulted in developmental and reproductive toxicity in animal studies, but high doses were administered before these results were observed. Moderate doses are also linked with skin irritation.

As I've often said, if you were exposed to this ingredient only once in awhile, you likely would have no reason to be concerned. The problem is that most of us use 10 or more products a day, several times a day, every day, and if even a couple of those have polysorbate-20, the exposure could be adding up, especially if it's penetrating the skin.

The concern is even greater for young children.

To avoid this ingredient, just read the ingredient lists on labels. It's easy enough to find. Better yet, just get used to shopping at whole foods stores, organic shops, and online stores that offer natural and nourishing alternatives.

You can also visit my online store for products that are free of  Polysorbate 20 and safe for you and your family.

Do you avoid polysorbate-20?

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Photo courtesy elizabetheastcobber via

comments (34 and counting)


Reader Interactions


  1. Stephen says

    There are so many blogs warning against polysorbate-20 but have yet to find one that offer any advice for alternatives which can be really frustrating.
    From the info I’ve gathered over the last few days, here’s a list of potential (unverified) alternatives to polysorbate-20 – none of which I’ve tried (yet):
    1. Coco Glucoside
    2. Cetearyl Glucoside
    3. Decyl Glucoside
    4. Laurel Glucoside
    5. Caprylyl/Capryl Glucoside
    6. Potassium Cocoate
    7. Sulfated Castor Oil (Turkey-Red Oil)
    8. Glyceryl Oleate

    Has anyone had any experience with these?

  2. Veronica says


    Im trying some DYI home and body tutorials off a Pure natural company who sells this Polysorbate 20 ingredient.

    Can you advise if the following ingredients combined with the Polysorbate 20 ingredient will be harmful?:

    100ml Mist glass spray bottle
    20ml Witch Hazel Extract
    2ml Fragrance or Essential Oil of your choice
    10ml Polysorbate 20
    Distilled water to fill

    I think you suggest that the ingredient is ok to use (not harmful)…. but may be harmful if combined with other potential ingredients in the product?


  3. Jodi says

    I purchased and used Banana Boat Aloe Vera spray gel which contains Polysorbate 20. This morning I woke up with a rash. Small blister type bumps all over my back, chest and stomach area. My husband applied this to my back after I was in the sun for about 30 minutes.
    This urged me to look up the ingredients to see if there was anything that I could have caused me an allergic reaction.

    I am not, to my knowledge allergic to many things, especially lotions, etc..
    After reading this article, I have now become more aware of what I am suing and putting on my body.

    Great article, thanks for the knowledge!

  4. Sally McKenzie says

    I have a very bad reaction to coconut and any of its derivatives – especially the cocamides. I ordered a kid’s shampoo that promised not to have anything like that in it but I notice today, the fourth ingredients is Polysorbate 20.

    I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that this is derived from coconut. Do you know?

    I’m putting off giving it ‘a go’ because my reaction can be really ghastly.

    • Annmarie Skin Care says

      Hi Sally,

      We’re not sure what the source of the Polysorbate 20 is in the shampoo you bought. We would suggest emailing the company and asking because it’s possible that this ingredient can be derived from many different things.

    • Nat says

      What is a good replacement to emulsify and combine water and oil?–

      Yes, that is what exactly what i’ve been searching. Most of them gave negative input of this polysorbate-20 and EG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, but none have given the “organic and natural” replacement for this. Pls help. Pls.

      • Nicolette says

        This is exactly what I want to know and nobody seems to be able to answer! And this is wat led me to this site: what do I replace polysorbate with??

  5. Melanie LaRocca says

    Polysorbate 20 is used in some pet products. Sorbitol is toxic to dogs. Please read the labels on your pets’ skin care and shampoo products.

  6. maya says


    what i find important with organic skin care is that the ingredients are not tested on animals in an unnecessary or cruel way:

    “The Cosmetics Database rates Polysorbate 20 as a low hazard ingredient, noting developmental and reproductive toxicity as concerns, but finding these results only in animals after high doses were administered. Lesser concerns regarding this ingredient are endocrine disruption, organ toxicity, and irritation, and one or more animal studies show skin irritation at moderate doses.”


  7. Meredith says

    Hi. I find all of this very interesting as I have started making my own natural deodorant which calls for polysorbate 20. Would you mind posting a link to your source of information regarding the lawsuit filed in New Jersey? Also I clicked the link to view your fact sheet & received an error that it was invalid. Valid links to your sources, as well as links to the websites of organizations such as The Organic Consumers Organization & Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, would greatly help me see the validity in your statements. I’m curious about polysorbate 20, but I don’t want to be mislead. Thanks so much for your time!

  8. N Vaughn says

    Yes, Jay and Marcus, not only does she vilify a perfectly safe ingredient, according to listed ingredients on this site, she also sells rosemary hydrosol with zero preservatives. I can only imagine what folks are spraying on their faces after that has been around awhile. Talk about unsafe. A $30 yeast and bacteria cocktail.

    • admin says

      Hi there! Thanks for reading and commenting. Don’t worry, our toning mists are perfectly safe. Rosemary is actually a natural antimicrobial, but yes, their shelf life is shorter than a product that has synthetic preservatives in it.

      • Deb says

        Rosemary extract is an antioxidant not an antimicrobial preservative.
        I live n the EU where it would be illegal to sell your product due to health risks from bacteria, yeasts and moulds which thrive in hydrous products.

  9. valerie says

    I have a recipe for making a liquid dish soap that calls for 15% polysorbate 20 and would like to know if you can recommend an alternative I could try in my formulation? I am looking everywhere for advice and can not find anything. I realize that you make and sell products but I hope you can share this information with me! Thank you!

  10. Markus L says

    Wow, again another misinformed piece of information for the sole purpose of promoting ones own brand. The truth is that not every single blend of poly sorbate 20 is “contaminated” with 1-4 dioxane. I am sure you can find some cheaper raw material blends which have trace amounts, but in general the majority of producers have eliminated it.

    So you say you are polysorbate free? What emulsifiers are you using instead? Have you done 1-4 dioxane tests on your own products!

    I sincerely hope consumers do a bit more research before vilifying a perfectly safe ingredient thar has been used for decades with no issue.

  11. Jay Morresey says

    Watch out folks….this is the new 21st century marketing angle. Scare consumers away from the competition. I’ve been formulating lotions and cremes going on 30 years. This type of misinformation just keeps piling up. Do your homework and PLEASE DON’T believe everything you read and see online. Thanks

  12. Jaime says

    I got a tattoo about 6 months ago and my body wash has been making my tattoo itch. Didn’t think much of it. Then my kid used some of her tattoo markers on me and when she drew on my tattoo it started itching like crazy! I had to wash it off immediately! I looked at the ingredients in both products to see if it had a similar ingredient. I found that the body wash had potassium sorbate in it and the markers had polysorbate 20 in them. I don’t know the ingredients in the tattoo ink but I think something in it may be reacting with the polysorbate. What harm am I causing my body?

  13. Bobbie Beckman says

    I came across e toothpaste (in Italy) called Dietifricio. The Italian word for toothpaste is Dentifricio. It was said to bleach your teeth better than anything else( they all do) and to make you loose your weight! You don’t have to swallow five tubes before breakfast to feel full up. You just do as usual brush and rinse and the aftertaste is so horrible specially if combined with sweet drinks and food that it lasts til the next meal, and stop eating between meals. It is just an other way to get intoxicated, if you haven’t been to the dentist recently. It is when I red the contain list I came across your sympathetic site. Among other chemicals this toothpaste contain polysorbate 20. Which one of the other ingredients causes the disgusting taste isn’t yet on the clean.
    The dentists are the real polluters in this world and I, being a dentist since -71 fight against the toxic world of the dentists, amalgam, root canal, heavy metals and fluoridation. Bobbie Beckman, Italy.

    • Keeley says

      Hi, you can use activated charcoal for teeth whitening as well as take it internally to rid your body of toxins. I use coconut activated charcoal rather than from the hardwood which I purchased on Amazon. Don’t let the color intimidate you though!

  14. Denise says

    I arrived at this page while investigating the ingredients in my Whole Foods Citrus Grapefruit Shampoo. It contains polysorbate-20 and Sodium Benzoate (When sodium benzoate combines with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) benzene can form, which is a known carcinogen).

  15. Em says

    Hi I use a fake tan that has polysorbate 20 as the 2nd ingredient. Iv been using it since 2010 on and off, but recently been using it every 2nd week for a few months now.. I’m starting to become ingredient conscious and this worries me. What do you mean when you say the polysorbate gets contaminate with the 1,4-dioxane? Does this sometimes not happen and I will be safe??
    I might search for an organic fake tan asap

    • wbliss says

      The manufacturers are required to test for it by law and they do in fact keep the levels very low. Cosmetic companies lean on manufacturers to keep it even lower. This goes for other common contaminants in cosmetic ingredients as well. There is an anti-anything that does not come directly from nature campaign going on all over the internet right now. If you were doing a campaign such as this where you want people to completely abandon things that are widely used (such as anything that makes foam) would you not overstate the problem? Some unscrupulous biased people will fail to mention problem is being regulated and controlled? Or they use it as a way to dupe people into spending money on their “natural” product. They laugh all the way to the bank. On the other hand. Just like people with allergies to certain things like peanuts or coconuts. It does not affect the majority of the populous. But it is life threatening for a few. They have to know what is in the products they use.

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