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

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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?

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