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Polysorbate 20 is an ingredient commonly found in many skin care and cosmetic products, serving as an emulsifier to blend oils and water. However, there is increasing concern from consumers about the safety and effects of this synthetic ingredient as more people grow wary of chemical additives in their beauty routines.
Take a look at the ingredient list on your facial cleanser, body wash, toner, or moisturizer, and see if you find polysorbate 20 in your skin care products. If you do, you may want to shop for something better next time—particularly if your child uses the product, too.
In this article, we will examine the chemical composition of polysorbate 20, how it is produced, and research on its possible health impacts. We’ll also provide suggestions for natural alternatives, so you can avoid polysorbate 20 and feel confident about the ingredients you put on your skin.
What is Polysorbate 20 in Skin Care?
Polysorbate 20 is an emulsifier used in many cosmetic and skin care products like lotions, creams, cleansers, and more. Its job is to help blend oils and water together into a stabilized emulsion.
In its original form, polysorbate is a harmless sorbitol, which is a sugar alcohol. To make polysorbate 20 however, the sorbitol undergoes a process called ethoxylation. This involves reacting the sorbitol with ethylene oxide, which results in the synthesized ingredient we know as polysorbate 20.
The number 20 in the name refers to the fact that the sorbitol has been ethoxylated with 20 units of ethylene oxide. The more ethylene oxide units added, the lower the viscosity and enhanced emulsification ability.
Why is Polysorbate 20 Bad for Your Skin?
Contaminated with 1,4-Dioxane
While polysorbate 20 is functional for emulsifying, the ethoxylation process to produce it also results in contaminants. One of these byproducts is 1,4-dioxane, a known carcinogen and irritant that readily penetrates skin.
While no federal limits on 1,4-dioxane in cosmetics currently exist, independent studies have detected its presence in many personal care products.
When considering that many people use multiple beauty products daily from a young age, chronic exposure to 1,4-dioxane is a valid concern. The risk is even greater with increased use, larger surface areas of application, and practices like bathing that can allow deeper penetration.
Skin Irritation and Allergies
Beyond 1,4-dioxane, polysorbate 20 has been associated with skin irritation in animal studies. Cases of allergic reactions have also been reported, especially in children’s products containing the ingredient.
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. Defendants manufactured, distributed, marketed, or sold products containing formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane.
More Concerns about 1,4-Dioxane in Cosmetics
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.
And 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, your skin could be taking in even more of the 1,4-dioxane in the product.
Other Polysorbate 20 Toxicity Concerns
In addition to the risks of 1,4-dioxane contamination, polysorbate 20 itself may also have concerning toxicity effects:
- Polysorbate 20 could potentially disrupt hormone function and reproduction by interfering with the endocrine system.
- Polysorbate 20 is identified as an irritant to mucous membranes in safety data sheets and chemical hazard classifications.
- Upper respiratory irritation has been reported from occupational settings with polysorbate 20 exposure. Precautions recommended for workers to avoid inhalation.
- Inhalation of polysorbate 20, such as from aerosolized products, heightens risk of respiratory irritation. Symptoms may include coughing, wheezing, chest tightness.
- Polysorbate 20 is also identified as a potential trigger for fungal acne (malassezia folliculitis), an inflammatory skin condition exacerbated by yeast overgrowth. The structure of polysorbate 20 resembles lipids in the skin that malassezia consumes as a food source.
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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.
If even a couple of those have polysorbate-20, the exposure could be adding up, especially if it’s penetrating the skin. And The concern is even greater for young children.
Natural Substitutes for Polysorbate 20
To avoid this ingredient, just read the ingredient lists on labels. It’s easy enough to find. Better yet, prioritize shopping at whole foods stores, organic shops, and online stores that offer natural and nourishing alternatives.
For Natural Emulsifiers
The good news is there are natural alternatives to polysorbate 20 that avoid the risks and provide effective emulsification.
Here are some options:
- Beeswax: Made by bees to hold honeycomb together, beeswax thickens oils and helps bind them to water naturally. It conditions skin too.
- Cetearyl alcohol: Derived from coconut or palm oil, cetearyl alcohol acts as an emollient and emulsifier, providing stability and a creamy texture to cosmetics.
- Sorbitan Olivate: Derived from olive oil, Sorbitan Olivate is a moisturizing emulsifying agent that blends water and oil seamlessly, creating stable and luxurious cosmetic formulations.
- Candelilla Wax: Obtained from the candelilla shrub, this wax serves as a natural thickening and stabilizing agent, providing structure to products like lip balms, creams, and lotions.
- Xanthan Gum: A polysaccharide produced through fermentation. A versatile emulsifier and thickener that enhances texture and viscosity in cosmetic formulations.
- Vegetable Glycerin: Derived from plant oils. A natural humectant that attracts and retains moisture, improving the moisturizing properties of cosmetic products such as creams, lotions, and serums.
Identifying Polysorbate 20-Free Products
Making informed choices is key to avoiding risky ingredients like polysorbate 20 in your beauty routine. When purchasing cosmetics and skin care:
- Check ingredient lists carefully and avoid purchasing items containing polysorbate 20.
- Look for products from natural, organic brands that you trust that emphasize safe ingredients.
- Do research on companies and contact them with questions if uncertain about specific ingredients.
- Opt for items where you recognize and understand all ingredients on the label.
You can also visit our online store for products that are free of Polysorbate 20 and safe for you and your family.
Polysorbate 20 is an ubiquitous ingredient in many beauty and skin care products, valued for its emulsification abilities. However, the risks of contaminants like cancer-causing 1,4-dioxane give reason for concern, especially with repeated use over many years.
While some exposure may be harmless, it is wise to exercise caution with ingredients made using harsh chemical processes. Seeking out safer products that use natural emulsifiers, like e beeswax and xanthan gum, allows you to avoid potential hazards while still caring gently for your skin.
As shoppers pay more attention to what goes onto and into their bodies, knowing what you are buying becomes critical. Stay curious and don’t feel afraid to question the status quo when it comes to commonly-seen ingredients like polysorbate 20. Opt for products using pure, , high-quality, trustworthy ingredients whenever possible.
Your skin is your body’s largest organ–nourish it well by being an educated, selective shopper. Avoiding chemical additives like polysorbate 20 is one way to care both for your health and appearance safely.