Polysorbate 20: Should You Avoid This Skincare Ingredient?

Polysorbate 20: Should You Avoid This Skincare Ingredient?

Skincare products are an interesting breed of cosmetic tools, primarily because there are so many options that it can be hard to tell which are viable. Furthermore, the ingredients used in skin care products are not what you would call "simple." As a result, knowing whether the ingredients in your skincare products are harmful requires a lot of information you might not know off the top of your head. Some ingredients are so complex that you essentially need a small encyclopedia to keep track of every single one. 

Fortunately, most major ingredients are well publicized, so people know whether to seek or avoid them. Some ingredients are touted as miracle cures for common ailments and blemishes and are hazardous to your health. Therefore, looking into the safety of certain ingredients has become an important part of modern skincare.

Whenever you pick up a skincare or makeup product, you might give the ingredients a look to see if there are any substances you have been warned against. Among the products that might be included within a skincare product are polysorbates, which encompass several different compounds with minor variances from one another. The different polysorbates follow a numbered naming convention to help people distinguish between them. 

With the number of different polysorbates, it can be difficult to track which ones are beneficial or harmful (assuming the issue exists). Recently, the polysorbate that faces scrutiny is polysorbate 20, commonly used in various skincare products.

What is Polysorbate 20?

Polysorbate 20 is one of the various types of polysorbates commonly used in food, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals. In the skincare industry, polysorbate 20 is used as an excipient compound in emulsions and suspensions. It is essentially an oily liquid that binds oil and water together in mixtures where they would typically remain separate. Most emulsions use polysorbate 20 to keep these substances bound and ensure the product functions appropriately. 

Without an emulsifier, the products would separate, and they would no longer function properly despite the ingredients being present in the separated product. Polysorbate 20 shares its role with polysorbate 80, with both compounds serving as effective emulsifiers for skincare products. The difference is that polysorbate 20 is rarer and is generally used to mix lighter liquids, while polysorbate 80 excels in mixing denser liquids. Despite these differences, polysorbate 20 remains a common choice for several manufacturers.

What is Polysorbate 20

Polysorbate 20 appears as an oily liquid with colors ranging from yellow to orange and has a faint odor with a slightly bitter taste. It is also highly soluble in water, methanol, toluene, and ethyl acetate but insoluble in mineral and vegetable oils. These characteristics can help you identify polysorbate 20 in its base form, but they are predominantly absent when refined into a product. 

Therefore, you might be unable to tell when polysorbate 20 is present in your product unless you check the ingredients listed on the container. Ultimately, polysorbate 20 is a tool for keeping emulsions viable, but there is still a lot of mystery surrounding it. The biggest question people have is whether polysorbate 20 is safe or if it represents a threat to their health.

Is Polysorbate 20 Dangerous?

While many supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), cosmetics receive attention. Polysorbate 20 was studied to determine whether it was safe for human use and was ultimately determined to be safe. The main study that determined polysorbate 20's safety was conducted on August 27th, 2021. A safety verification experiment involved administering polysorbate 20 to Sprague-Dawley rats and New Zealand white rabbits. 

Previous studies confirmed the substance to be safe for human use, but the 2021 study used a more invasive approach to determine the full risks involved. Ultimately, the study determined that polysorbate 20 is a safe excipient regardless of the administration method. For most people, that would be the end of their concern, and they might go and purchase a product using polysorbate 20 right away.

Woman Applying a Skincare Product

Unfortunately, polysorbate 20's safety rating comes with a very important caveat that might give you pause. Products using polysorbate 20 are often treated with ethylene oxide to stabilize the compound further. Ethylene oxide is not inherently dangerous on its own, but it does have a risk of being contaminated with a chemical called 1,4-Dioxane. 1,4-Dioxane is a form of ether and is highly toxic to animals (including humans). 

Exposure to 1,4-Dioxane triggers skin allergies and, in the worst-case scenario, causes cancer. There was a huge class-action lawsuit against a New Jersey company for manufacturing, distributing, and marketing children's skincare products with formaldehyde and 1,4-Dioxane. 

At one point, a Minnesota-based advocacy group called the Organic Consumers Organization released a fact sheet about 1,4-Dioxane. The sheet claimed that the concentration of 1,4-Dioxane in cosmetic products is 1,000 times higher than in animal studies that uncovered the cancer risk. While the OCO is not a government-recognized organization, this fact sheet was sufficient to scare several consumers away from polysorbate 20. 

Assuming the product manufacturer followed safety procedures, there should be no risk of 1,4-Dioxane contamination. Unfortunately, not everyone is willing to take that risk, which begs the question: What can be done to avoid polysorbate 20?

What Are Emulsions?

Chemically speaking, emulsions are any compounds created from two or more substances that do not naturally mix. Water and oil are the best example since oil floats at the top of the water rather than merging with the rest of the fluid. The two compounds are immiscible due to liquid-liquid phase separation, which prevents them from occupying the same space as a mixture. 

Despite the nature of these mixtures, this state is the first step for a marketable emulsion since the liquid-liquid phase separation can be suspended, allowing the otherwise immiscible substances to fuse. The trick is that outside intervention is essential to creating the mixture and will be impossible without the right compound. 

Polysorbate 20 has been used as this outside force since it is an emulsifier (a substance that reduces the oil-water interface tension). Emulsifiers cause the liquid molecules to become denser, which causes the denser liquid to mix with the other. An emulsifier makes the water as dense as the oil so it can mix, whereas the water molecules are usually too small to mix with oil molecules.

An Emulsion

Insofar as skincare is concerned, emulsions are designed to treat the effects of dry skin, which can cause pain and discomfort if allowed to thrive. Dry skin is an extremely common issue, with almost everyone experiencing it at some point. Emulsions can be effective tools for restoring the moisture in your skin and keeping it from getting dry and possibly cracking. 

There are rumors that emulsions will eventually replace traditional moisturizers entirely, but the common consensus is that emulsions are better used as a support tool. Combining an emulsion with a common moisturizer helps enhance the effects of both products and ensures dry skin is not a problem.

The biggest issue is that most emulsions on the market use emulsifiers that can be somewhat harsh on the skin. Furthermore, anyone concerned about exposure to tainted emulsifiers like polysorbate 20 might want to avoid them. Fortunately, other options use more holistic ingredients to deliver the same quality skincare without the riskier compounds. All natural emulsions are similar in composition to moisturizer creams, but they can contain other substances that improve the skin's hydration without needing heavy-duty emulsifiers. The tricky part is figuring out which substances best suit the task.

Matcha Products

If you hope to avoid emulsions, finding a powerful moisturizer that uses natural compounds is one of the best alternatives. Interestingly, one of nature's most effective skincare products is harvested from the Camellia sinensis plant, which is famous for being a common household beverage. C. sinensis is the plant from which several tea varieties are harvested, specifically green tea. 

Green tea is one of the most common teas worldwide and is renowned for being a soothing and energizing drink. The true marvel of green tea is that it is packed with essential nutrients and powerful antioxidants called catechins. The most powerful catechin in green tea is epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which provides the bulk of green tea's health and cosmetic benefits. Green tea has become an amazing product for the skincare industry and is commonly used, but it pales compared to its cousin.

Certain C. sinensis plants are grown in special conditions that enhance the concentration of nutrients and catechins in a single leaf. These leaves have such unique properties that they have been reclassified as an entirely different type of tea. This super green tea, called matcha, is considered the best type of tea harvested from C. sinensis plants because of its alluring flavor and potent nutrients. Matcha's biggest advantage is that the enhanced nutrient content means matcha products can provide the same benefits as green tea, but they are more effective, and the results are more powerful.

Matcha Powder

While green tea and matcha are both highly valued, you might be curious about what makes either of them a viable alternative to emulsions. The biggest reason is that matcha and green tea naturally moisturize the skin while stripping away excess sebum (skin oil). This means your skin will get the hydration it needs to stay healthy while preventing the accumulation of oil that could cause acne breakouts.

Furthermore, matcha is renowned for its anti-inflammatory effects, which can protect your skin from redness and swelling. As we mentioned, these effects are shared by common green tea, but matcha is significantly more powerful. As a result, matcha moisturizers are just as effective as emulsions for protecting your skin and are likely more valuable despite not being true emulsions.

While matcha is highly effective as a skincare product, there is a caveat you must consider. Matcha is only as effective as the quality you purchase, and matcha has an existing grading system that has been used for decades to measure quality. There are 3 distinct grades of matcha that determine how valuable they are. These grades are:

  • Ceremonial Grade Matcha: Ceremonial matcha is considered the pinnacle of matcha and has a longstanding history of being used in tea ceremonies. Ceremonial matcha is considered a sacred substance in Buddhist culture. Ceremonial matcha is reserved for the highest quality products and teas.
  • Premium Grade Matcha: Premium matcha is the 2nd best variety and is almost as pure as ceremonial matcha. Premium matcha was not used in any religious ceremonies, but it is still extremely potent and provides almost the same level of benefits as ceremonial matcha.
  • Culinary Grade Matcha: Culinary matcha is the lowest grade and is ineffective as a supplement. Culinary matcha is used to give other foods matcha flavors but lacks the same nutritional content as the other 2 grades.

Matcha can be more effective than emulsions insofar as skincare is concerned, and they do not require polysorbate 20 to function. The biggest challenge will be finding a quality matcha product that produces the benefits on the same scale as an emulsion.

Finding the Right Blend

Polysorbate 20 is an interesting substance that has value in producing an increasingly popular skincare tool. While the substance does pass muster in the eyes of health organizations, the threat of contamination is enough to put some people off. If you do not want to risk getting a tainted emulsion, you might be better off finding a natural alternative. The tricky part is finding a product that fits the bill and is sold by a reliable vendor.

We at Teami believe in the healing properties of nature to enhance and protect our skin (among other things). While we do not have anything against emulsions per se, the use of chemicals that might be contaminated is something we do not espouse. Instead, we focus on creating natural skincare products that use substances like matcha to moisturize and protect your skin.

Teami Superfood Moisturizer Cream

One of our best products is our Superfood Moisturizer, Lightweight Daily Cream, which is similar in function and composition to an emulsion without risky ingredients. We encourage you to visit our website to see if our product suits your needs. After all, finding the right blend is a Teami effort.

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