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Ingredient Deep Dive: Polysorbate 80

Polysorbate 80 is a commonly used ingredient in both the cosmetics and food industry. In a nutshell it helps oil and water mix. It can be used in products like toners or room sprays to help solubilize fragrance or oils in water and create a clear, stable product, or in foods such as ice cream to help create a more creamy, smooth texture. For the purpose of this blog post I'm going to focus on personal care products -- skin care and hair care.

Personally I use polysorbate 80 in products for several reasons.

  1. To help stabilize a cosmetic and create an esthetically pleasing clear product.

  2. Polysorbate 80 is often more cost effective and performs better that other options.

  3. Polysorbate 80 is easy to obtain and use.

But is it safe?

Polysorbate 80 is created from ethoxylated sorbitan and oleic acid. Although the starting materials are derived from natural ingredients it is considered a synthetic ingredient because of its processings.

And like much of technology it was created to solve a problem -- incorporate oil soluble ingredients into a water base without separation.

Why does it raise concern? Ethoxylation can produce compounds linked to cancer. This is why a formulator may see the following warning when purchasing polysorbate 80 and why a blogger may raise alarm: this product may contain 1,4-dioxane (< 10ppm) and ethylene oxide (< 1ppm), which are known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. 

However, manufacturers of polysorbate 80 are required to test their products and ensure that these questionable cancer causing compounds are removed and determined to be present at less than 10 to 1 parts per million.

For context while most essential oil enthusiasts have no qualms about using rose absolute or elemi essential oil, there is potential for these oils to contain compounds such as methyleugenol that are known to cause cancer and are far more restricted for use in cosmetics that casual users realize.

A search of polysorbate 80 in the European Commission cosmetic ingredient database reveals that it is considered safe for use in cosmetics. It is likewise Cosmetic suppliers have the dioxane and ethylene oxide warning but if an ingredient is approved by certifying bodies and approved for cosmetics is considered safe for use.

For further context alcohol, despite the fact that alcoholic beverages such as beer and wine have long been created naturally by humans, was declared a class I carcinogen by the World Health Organization in 1990.

As a cosmetic formulator living in Temecula wine country I believe used as intended both polysorbate 80 and wine are safe.

The Bottom Line:

As a cosmetic formulator or brand we need to decide our ethos and stick to the ethos of our clients and brands. Some people may wish to formulate with natural and organic ingredients and polysorbate 80 is not natural or approved for use in organic products.

However it is considered a safe ingredient for use in cosmetic products.

Science has uncovered many carcinogens and many of them occur naturally in our environment and even USDA organically grown products can contain a prop 65 warning.

In the long run you will have to decide what is best for you and your family. And in navigating the truth and facts it can be quite difficult in a googleverse of information.

The truth is typically not sensational and emotion driven, but rather looks at the pros and cons. It is not the opinion of a single person but rather the thoughtful process of the wise council of a group of knowledgable people who meet, discuss facts, and come to reasonable conclusions. It considers pros and cons. It asks you to think, evaluate, and decide.

Polysorbate 80 is considered safe for use in cosmetic formulations. Compounds that are produced in its manufacture that may give rise to cancer are removed and tested for and must not be present above set limits. These same conditions are also imposed on natural ingredients such as rose absolute, elemi essential oil, and organically grown products that might contains chemicals that could give rise to cancer (such as lead or methyleugenol).

Cosmetic formulators do have more natural options to replace polysorbate 80 to help solubulize oil in water but they vary in performance and cost.

In the end as a formulator and consumer you have to decide what you choose to use in your products and on your skin.

If you have questions feel free to comment or reach out to me.

Aromatic blessings,




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