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Ingredient Investigation: Polysorbate 80 the Good, Bad, and Ugly...

Hello friends! As I write this blog post I recall my days as a high school teacher.

Yep, I taught high school science at a private school in San Francisco. My teaching load included 9th grade general science, A.P. Biology, and Chemistry in the Community ( a class for students who really needed a science credit to graduate).

In my 9th general science class I taught a lesson about bacteria and fungi called "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly".

We explored the truth about bacteria and fungus -- aka germs and their role in health and sickness.

For the good, we mostly looked at food (I was teaching high schoolers after all and what better way to get their attention by feeding them?)

We learned that bacteria can help create foods such as yogurt, cheese, sauerkraut, and sour dough bread and yeast are an essential component to bread.

Bacteria are also essential to our skin and digestive microbiome.

But we also discussed that bacteria and fungi can cause sickness and disease. And overall these are a small (albeit very nasty) part of the bacterial and fungal kingdoms.

And how does this relate to polysorbate 80 you might wonder?

Well, I suppose it too has a good, bad, and ugly side. But unlike bacteria and fungi I think it's bad and ugly sides are not actually going to make anyone sick or in fact cause harm.

What is Polysorbate 80?

Polysorbate 80 is a nonionic surfactant and emulsifier used in pharmaceuticals, food, and cosmetics.

Polysorbate 80 is synthetic and derived from poly ethoxylated sorbitan and oleic acid. It work really well as a solubulizer to allow oils and water to mix to create clear solutions and to help stabilize a variety of formulations.

As with all cosmetic raw materials approved for use it is considered clean and safe when used as directed.

Concern about it use comes from (in addition to being a synthetic ingredient) from the possibility that it may contain 1,4 dioxane and ethylene oxide which are known to potentially cause cancer and birth defects.

Is Polysorbate 80 Safe?

As mentioned before, any ingredient that is approved by certifying bodies such as the FDA, the EU commission, Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Labor in Japan, etc. are considered safe and clean when used as directed.

Polysorbate 80 is also approved as a food additive -- that means it is considered safe enough to eat!

And what about the dioxane and ethylene oxide?

Raw material suppliers are currently required to remove these chemicals and ensure that dioxane levels are less than 10 parts per million and ethylene oxide is less than 1 part per million.

And typically polysorbate 80 is used at 5% or less in cosmetic formulations. Which means that dioxane levels would be reduced to 0.5 ppm or less and ethylene oxide levels to 0.05 ppm or less.

To further put things into perspective, I like to point out to people who may not be aware that there are essential oils (as well as other natural ingredients), that while safe and natural, can also contain potential carcinogens, hepatotoxins, neurotoxins, phototoxins, and the like.

What people sometimes don't realize is that naturally derived ingredients they personally deem as "safe" and use indiscriminately can also fall under the same scrutiny as things such as polysorbate 80 .

So for example as an aromatherapist I am aware that certain pure, naturally derived, even organic or wildcrafted essential oils may contain aromatic compounds that are known to cause cancer, are hepatotoxic, neurotoxic, or phototoxic and have topical use limits and contraindications. (To learn more about essential oil safety and research check out Essential Oil Safety.) (1)

But in the long run people often vilify ingredients without truly investigating of understanding them. Polysorbate 80 is a helpful and useful ingredient that may harbor some nasty chemical residue as a result of its processing. And much like natural ingredients that also harbor undesired compounds we are aware of their presence and either work to reduce or eliminate them or make sure to avoid overexposure to them.

And just like too much sun because of UV radiation can cause anything from a burn to skin cancer, but we know that the sun also helps the body to synthesize vitamin D and support our sleep cycle, mood, and more it is important to know the truth.

So the truth is:

* Polysorbate 80 is a synthetic ingredient

* It can contain trace amounts of 1,4 dioxane and ethylene oxide but these are required to be removed and tested for to ensure that levels in the final product are less that 10 ppm for 1,4 dioxane and less than 1 ppm ethylene oxide

* Polysorbate 80 is consider safe for use in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and food by numerous safety organizations world wide

As always we have to make personal choices as to what we allow in our food and cosmetics, but polysorbate 80 is used in a variety of products because it is very effective, cost affordable, and considered safe (especially in lieu of being tested for potential carcinogens).

On the other hand essential oils that may potentially contain carcinogens, hepatoxins, and nuerotoxins, photons, or dermal irritants but are in consumers hands and they may or may not be aware of the similar health risks.

And it is possible to drink too much water and cause adverse health risks.

Personally although I love creating green, clean, organic, and natural formulations sometimes I need to use things like polysorbate 80 to help keep a formation stable and safe.

And based on science polysorbate 80 is safe ingredient to use in cosmetic formulations.

What are your thoughts?

aromatic blessings,


1 Tisserand R Young R. Essential Oil Safety : A Guide for Health Care Professionals. Second ed. Edinburgh: Elsevier Limited; 2014. Accessed September 8 2023.


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