Lecithin: How is it Used? - The Dermatology Review

Lecithin: How is it Used?

ARTICLE

05.04.21 AD DISCLOSURE

What Is Lecithin?

Lecithin describes a natural substance made up of fatty acids that functions as an emollient, emulsifier, and penetration enhancer when added to formulations of cosmetics and skincare products.

Lecithin is a generic term that describes any group of yellow-brownish fatty substances that naturally occur in plant and animal tissues, as well as in the human body. 

Lecithin is made up of fatty acids, typically a mixture of the diglycerides of stearic, palmitic and oleic acids, linked to the choline ester of phosphoric acid. Lecithin fats are amphiphilic, which means they attract both water and fatty substances (they are hydrophilic and lipophilic).

Lecithin was first isolated in 1845 by the French chemist and pharmacist Theodore Gobley from egg yolk. It can also be derived from sources such as soybeans, milk, marine sources, rapeseed, cottonseed, and sunflower.

Lecithin can be used for smoothing food textures, dissolving powders, creating even  liquid mixtures, and repelling sticking materials. Lecithin is also sold as an over-the-counter dietary supplement that is proported to help improve the strength and function of the heart, aid cognitive functions like memory retention and logical reasoning, and might also reduce inflammation and internal swelling.

In cosmetics and personal care products, the kind of lecithin used is called hydrogenated lecithin. Hydrogenated lecithin is the product of controlled hydrogenation (addition of hydrogen) of lecithin.

Lecithin

the good: Lecithin helps to improve the texture and feel of skincare and cosmetic formulations. It also has an added benefit of acting as a protective barrier for the skin.

the not so good: Since lecithin functions as a penetration enhancer, caution should be exercised when it is combined in formulations that contain other ingredients that can be harmful if absorbed through the skin barrier.

Who is it for? All skin types except those that have an identified allergy to it.

Synergetic ingredients: Works well with most ingredients.

Keep an eye on: Nothing to keep an eye on here.

How Does Lecithin Benefit The Skin?

In cosmetics and personal care products, lecithin functions as an emollient, an emulsifier, and as a penetration enhancer.

 

Emollient 

As an emollient, topically applied lecithin has the ability to soften and soothe the skin. Its high concentration of fatty acids creates a barrier on the skin that effectively seals moisture in while keeping air and other environmental elements out. 

This property makes lecithin an excellent ingredient to add to restorative creams, or for products designed for mature, dry, or overworked skin. Additionally, lecithin is commonly used in hair conditioners and other hair products due to its emollient properties.

 

Emulsifier 

Even though lecithin has a low solubility in water, it functions as an excellent emulsifier. An emulsifier is needed for products that contain both water and oil components. According to EFEMA, when water and oil are mixed together and vigorously shaken, a dispersion of oil droplets in water is formed. When shaking stops, however, the two ingredient types start to separate. To address this problem, an emulsifier like lecithin can be to stabilize the product.

Penetration enhancer 

Lecithin can also be classified as a penetration enhancer. This means it has the ability to deeply penetrate through the layers of skin, enhancing the penetration of other active ingredients.

 In a water-based solution, lecithin’s phospholipids can form liposomes, a spherical structure in which the acyl chains are inside and not exposed to the water-based ingredients. Think of a liposome as an oily ball that repels water. 

According to an article published in the International Journal of Toxicology, liposomes are considered effective in delivering other ingredients inside their spherical structure and penetrating through the skin barrier.

 This property of lecithin is also utilized by the pharmaceutical industry to enhance the penetration of a drug through the skin.

Is Lecithin Vegan?

Lecithin is generally considered to be a vegan ingredient. It is usually derived from soy or plant-based ingredients. 

If you are looking for a vegan product always check the other ingredients in the product and the brand’s stance in terms of cruelty free. 

Is Lecithin Safe?

The US Food and Drug Administration or FDA includes lecithin on its list of substances affirmed as Generally Recognized As Safe for direct addition to food.

The safety of lecithin and hydrogenated lecithin has also been assessed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel is a group responsible for the independent evaluation of the safety and efficacy of skincare and cosmetic ingredients. 

The Expert Panel evaluated the scientific data and concluded that lecithin and hydrogenated lecithin are safe as used in rinse-off products. However, the Expert Panel limited the use of lecithin and hydrogenated lecithin in leave-on products to concentrations less than or equal to 15 percent.

A leave on product is a product designed to be left on the skin such as moisturizers, serums and creams. Whereas rinse off products include cleansers, body washes and scrubs. 

Since lecithin functions as a penetration enhancer, you should be careful when lecithin is combined in formulations that contain other ingredients that can be harmful if absorbed through the skin barrier.

It is possible for some people to have allergies to lecithin since it can be derived from soybeans, eggs, and milk, which are common allergenic foods. Those that are highly sensitive to these foods might react to lecithin.

References:CIR, 2015. ‘Safety Assessment of Lecithin and Other Phosphoglycerides as Used in Cosmetics’, Cosmetic Ingredient Review.

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