What Is Polysorbate 20?
Polysorbate 20 is an ingredient used in skincare and cosmetic formulations to improve the texture, feel, and scent of the product. It is mainly used as a surfactant, emulsifier, and fragrance ingredient.
Polysorbate 20, also listed on an ingredient label as Tween 20, is formed by the ethoxylation of sorbitan before the addition of lauric acid. The process of making polysorbate 20 begins with sorbitol, a sugar alcohol that can naturally be found in some fruits. The dehydration of sorbitol results in sorbitan. The next step in the process of making polysorbate 20 is ethoxylation, which is a chemical reaction in which ethylene oxide is added to a substrate, in this case, sorbitan. Thus, sorbitan is reacted with 20 units of ethylene oxide, giving polysorbate 20 its name. The final step is the addition of one lauric acid group.
Polysorbate 20 is used in a variety of cosmetics and skincare products including cleansers, makeup bases and foundations, shampoos, fragrances, and more. This ingredient exists in the form of a clear to a light yellow viscous liquid.
the good:Polysorbate 20 is used to improve the texture, feel, and the scent of skincare and cosmetic products.
the not so good:There are concerns about the presence of 1,4-dioxane in this ingredient. This is less of a concern recently, as the process of purifying polysorbate 20 is highly regulated.
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.
Why Is Polysorbate 20 Used?
Polysorbate 20 functions as a surfactant, emulsifier, and fragrance ingredient.
Surfactant is the short term for surface-active agents. Surfactants are compounds that lower the surface tension between two substances, such as two liquids or a liquid and a solid. In skincare products, surfactants work to degrease and emulsify oils and fats and suspend dirt, allowing them to be washed away. This is possible because while one end of the surfactant molecule is attracted to water, the other end is attracted to oil. Thus, surfactants attract the oil, dirt, and other impurities that have accumulated on your skin during the day and wash them away. Due to these properties, polysorbate 20 can be found in many different cleansers and body washes.
Polysorbate 20 also functions as an emulsifier. An emulsifier is needed for products that contain both water and oil components, for example, when essential oils are added to a water-based formula. According to The European Food Emulsifiers Manufacturers Association, when oil and water-based ingredients are used together they tend to separate and split. To address this problem, an emulsifier can be added to produce a stable product.
Finally, polysorbate 20 functions as a fragrance ingredient. As mentioned above, polysorbate 20 is initially derived from sorbitol, which can naturally be found in sweet-smelling fruits like apples, pears, peaches, and prunes, so it is often used to improve the scent of products.
Is Polysorbate 20 Safe?
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel, a group responsible for evaluating the safety of skincare and cosmetic ingredients evaluated the scientific data and concluded that polysorbate 20 is safe for use in cosmetic formulations.
Despite the approval of polysorbate 20 by the CIR Expert Panel, there are concerns about the presence of ethylene oxide in this ingredient. This is because the process of ethoxylation may lead to contamination with 1,4-dioxane, a potentially dangerous by-product. 1,4-dioxane is a known animal carcinogen that penetrates readily into the skin. According to the National Toxicology Program, ‘1,4-dioxane is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.’ It has also been linked with skin allergies. However, the potential presence of 1,4-dioxane can be controlled through purification steps to remove it before blending polysorbate 20 into cosmetic formulations.
References:Panico, A, Serio, F, Bagordo, F, Grassi, T, Idolo, A, DE Giorgi, M, Guido, M, Congedo, M, & DE Donno, A, 2019. ‘Skin safety and health prevention: an overview of chemicals in cosmetic products’, Journal of Preventive Medicine and Hygiene.