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Polysorbate 20

Today's Chemical:

Polysorbate 20

EWG Risk Score:

1   (Steph's risk score: 5)

What is it?

Polysorbate-20 is fragrance component, a surfactant, an emulsifying agent, and a solubilizing agent.   

Why is it a risk?

Polysorbate starts out as harmless sorbitol, but then it's treated with carcinogenic ethylene oxide.  It's called Polysorbate 20 because it's treated with 20 "parts" of ethylene oxide.  The higher the number, the more ethylene oxide it has been treated with.  This substance is then combined with various fatty acids.  The Skin Deep Database rates it as only a "one," and doesn't pick up on the risk that it could be contaminated with ethylene oxide, and subsequently, 1,4 dioxane.  In addition, it can be laced with heavy metals.

Types of products it's found in:

Facial cleanser, body wash, toners, moisturizer

A Few Brands that use this ingredient:

Kid Kare

Afterglow Cosmetics

Daisy Blue


Lotus Moon

derma e

Kiss My Face


Terra Firma


Steph's Opinion:

Although it's derived from a natural ingredient, it is not natural--it is an ethoxylated compound.  This is another case in point proving that you need to do your own research and not just count on the EWG risk score, as there are many ingredients that can slip through the cracks. 


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Reader Comments (44)

It's hard to say in one word whether Polysorbate is good or bad - it's neither. It's used for incorporation of oils into the water based substances. As we know oils do not mix with water, but with polysorbate it makes it possible. That's done for the toners, linen sprays, everything that has water in the formula. And we do like them smelling good, don't we? I would rather put up with Polysorbate then synthetic fragrances.

Tue, February 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNatalja


Polysorbate 20 does not need to be used in order for a product to contain good-smelling natural fragrances. There are many manufacturers that do not use it.

Also, Stephanie didn't write Polysorbate was bad in one word. Looks to me like she used many words to call it so ;) You do not address or refute the risks she identified but simply explained why it is used in products. Just because an ingredient serves a purpose in a product doesn't mean its not harmful or unnatural.

Wed, February 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFig+Sage

I'm sorry to be thick, but for the life of me I can't find an essential oil solubilizer that is an alternative to Polysorbate 20 that is ACTUALLY natural. Please help!

Tue, February 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBee

I'll be happy to help you find something...tell me more about your formula and what you're trying to accomplish.

Wed, February 10, 2010 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

It's a new role and I will be working with TTO a lot. We're concerned with using natural ingredients in our products and being gentle on the skin, and the majority of the I think I'll be asked to create water-based products over alcohol when that is the alternative. At the moment I'm doing alot of information gathering in terms of natural ingredients and while I can always find lists of what I can't use (and what people are claiming is natural when it is not), I'm really struggling to find ingredients that I actually CAN use.

Wed, February 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBee

it's also an ingredient in Gatorade G2

Sat, April 3, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterx

Hey Stephanie. I like your enthusiasm.

Full disclousure: I am a published chemist by letter, but I don't work in the cosmetics industry, never have or will. I've been following the "natural" personal care movement for over 20 yrs, just as a hobby and out of personal interest. I am a practicing, ADA dietician and work mostly with people that have unusually many allergies. I love your site and if this comment in any way negatively impacts your livelihood, please remove it :)

Please tell me this- If the ethoxylated compound is completely removed, then would you still have some problem with polysorbate besides it not fitting your definition of natural?

Frankly, I don't consider sorbitol or anything not certified organically grown to qualify as natural. (Do you know how the sorbitol is"extracted" from the sugar beets?)

I think your products are great. Just wanted to see if you would concede that in the case of "natural" vs certified organically grown, even some of the ingredients you use would be left for someones personal preference to decide it's suitability.

I'm of the opinion that unless we literally use food for our body care, some ingredients must fall below someones definition of natural.

I only mean in this limited context. Everyone knows many chemicals are bad. So please know I am simply asking in the limited context of natural vs. certified organically grown.

Finally, what is your opinion on thymol as a natural ingredient in personal care products? Thank you so much. If you answer these, you are a good sport!

Tue, August 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEddie R. Janetopoulos

Eddie--you raise some great questions here which I am happy to answer.

Let's first note the differences between the terms "natural" and "organic." This will help clarify our discourse.

"Organic," of course, means that it has been grown and harvested without the use of pesticides, herbicides, and other synthetic chemicals. It has third-party certification that it has been processed within USDA NOP standards.

"Natural" has a much wider meaning. It can mean anything that occurs in nature. Coconuts are natural. Trees are natural. Rocks are natural. Even Uranium is natural. To me, however, in the context in which we are speaking of cosmetic ingredients, natural means minimal processing from its raw ingredients, which are typically plant-based. To me, the degree of "natural-ness" is directly proportional to the levels of processing it has gone through. I define an ingredient to be "natural" when it has undergone no more than one step of processing. Let's take a look, for instance at sodium lauryl sulfate vs. soap.

To create SLS, one must take coconut or palm oil and, through the process of reduction, create lauryl alcohol (or dodecanol) and react it with sulfuric acid to create hydrogen lauryl sulfate, which is then reacted with sodium carbonate. So, from the raw ingredient, there are three steps and chemical reactions.

Now, let's look at soap. The saponification process only requires one chemical reaction to occur, the oils combining with the alkali to create soap.


Coconut/Palm Oil > Lauryl Alcohol > Hydrogen Lauryl Sulfate > Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (3 chemical reactions)

Natural Oils > Soap (1 chemical reaction)

As you can see, only one chemical reaction is needed to create soap, thus, according to my definition, soap is natural, and SLS is not.

Now, in this context, let us look at sorbitol.

Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol that occurs naturally in many fruits. It is in the same family as xylitol, mannitol, and erythritol, all of which are considered to be natural sweeteners. Many are even available in certified organic form. Just based on the fact that sorbitol is present in nature would suggest that it is, indeed, a natural compound. But what about when it is extracted from sugar beets?

When sorbitol is created on any kind of scale, it starts out as glucose. Glucose comes directly from the sugar beet without any chemical reaction occurring. Through the reduction process, glucose becomes sorbitol. So in this instance we have:

Glucose > Sorbitol

Only one chemical reaction has occurred.

Now, to answer your question about polysorbate 20. "If the ethoxylated compound is completely removed, then would you still have the same problem with polysorbate besides is not fitting your definition of natural?" I'm assuming when you say "the ethoxylated compound" you mean the traces of 1,4 dioxane, ethylene oxide, and other contaminants. If those were removed completely I would have only two issues with the ingredient. The first, as you said, is that under my above-defined definition, it is not natural. The second would be the concern for the workers and the environment. Ethylene oxide is highly carcinogenic and using it in an industrial setting always poses risk to the workers and the environment. Even if the contaminants were removed from the finished product, it is not a harmless ingredient because the processing has most likely, polluted someone, somewhere.

And finally, regarding thymol as a natural ingredient...well, it does fall under the category of "natural" because it naturally occurs in thyme, oregano, and other essential oils. However, just because something is natural, doesn't mean that it's safe. Uranium is natural. Poison ivy is natural. Rattlesnake venom is natural. I choose not to use thymol (or oregano or thyme essential oils) because thymol can be irritating to skin, and it is also a phenol, which has the potential to be an estrogen mimicker.

I hope that answers your questions!

Fri, August 27, 2010 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

I was just wondering recently about that. The glycoside surfactant is multi step processed if I recall correctly... Just saying, if something is not "certified organically grown", isn't it possible it's sprayed with fungicides, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers? I do concede that the quantity so small in a cosmetic that any residual stuff is negligible. My beef is with produce like strawberries. They are nefarious for overkill with the chems, and we eat them internally. But if every natural item in cosmetics was certified organic, it's prob overkill and expensive. I mean, does peppermint NEED to be certified organic if in a toothpaste, cosmetic, etc? It's fairly resilient to bugs and fungus. (sorry, it's late and the college kids drive me crazy with their green-ness sometimes!) Have a great week. You are a pioneer, teacher, and sell really cool, effective stuff!!!! Please do keep it up :)

Sun, September 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEdward J.

Thanks, Edward!

Sun, September 5, 2010 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

In a pack of Baby Wipes I have before me there is a list of fifteen Ingredients. Among them is Polysorbate 20 and most of the others are substances the great majority of us have never heared of, let alone know their purpose.

As I see it, adults can coat themselves in whatever the adverts tell them is the best thing on earth to make them beautiful, but, surely an innocent little baby being subjected to these same ingredients is diabolical. Whatever happened to ordinary good quality soap and water? Also there are plenty of nice smelling perfumes available if you want baby to pass the test.

I tried one of these wipes on my bottom and it burned. Well, there is Citric acid in the mix.

Thu, October 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Calder Hardy

I'm making a shampoo that I'd like to put a little bit of jojoba or argan oil into, but have been advised that I'd need polysorbate 20 or 80 to do this.

Is that advice correct, and is there something natural I could use instead? The whole point of making my own shampoo is to use something nicer!

Thu, February 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnn Larson

It wouldn't hurt to give it a try without. Usually the surfactants present can absorb the oil in to the formula.

Fri, February 18, 2011 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

Recently introduced to this blog I am happy to see you supporting Skin Deep ratings albeit with some reservations but more of that in another posting

The Natural vs Synthetic argument just goes on and on without real resolution.
I suspect that this suits some unscrupulous producers of so called "natural" cosmetics. Perhaps a consumer led initiative could set a standard.

A plant root, bark, leaf, flower or extrusion such as sap or resin is a "Natural"
ingredient if used without modification of its basic chemistry.
It will carry bacterial and fungal micro-organisms.

To me, an ingredient that has been produced by cold pressing, cool water extraction or excavation and crushing remains "Natural".
If extracted by more dynamic methods like steam or carbon dioxide
distillation or the use of alcohols or glycols, the ingredient may be
changed by the extraction process. This is the first stage of "manufacture"
or processing.
It is no longer "Natural" but has been processed to enhance or produce a specific substance.A new name for this type of ingredient could be useful?

If a "Natural" ingredient as defined above is "treated " with another "Natural" ingredient to kill or prevent micro-organism contamination or prevent other undesirable changes like oxidation the mixture is still a "Natural" ingredient.
These would be rare.
If derived or synthetic chemicals are used even in very small quantites, the description "Natural" ingredient would no longer apply and a simple new name could be created for this type of ingredient.
All synthetic ingredients whether derived from "Natural" substances or synthetic chemicals mimicking natural substances would simply be "Synthetic"

The soaps you describe would not be "Natural" but either "Made from Natural Ingredients" or "Synthesized from Natural Ingredients".

Tue, April 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTweedy

I just bought a new brand of tampons that lists polysorbate 20 as an ingredient. Can anyone explain to me why a manufacturer might put polysorbate 20 in such a product?

Tue, May 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPsipsina

Maybe as an emollient to help the glide?

Thu, May 26, 2011 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

I found out: it supposedly helps with absorption.

Fri, May 27, 2011 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

I did realized that many natural toners contain Polysorbate 20. I want to make a toner with glycerin but I'm not sure if glycerin is water soluble, how can I replace Polysorbate 20?

Mon, August 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEmma

Glycerin is water-soluble. Good luck formulating!

Mon, August 8, 2011 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]


A potential alternative to Polysorbate is to use an alternative liquid emulsifier such as CCC Surfactant. I know where to get it in Australia but not elsewhere. Olivemulse is also another alternative. Polysorbate is a low mole surfactant (they are usually wetting agents) and acts as an emulsifier of oil in water emulsions.

I don't have anything to do with the company (honestly) but Aussie Soap Supplies carries these alternatives plus the chemical in question.

More info I found -

PlantaSol CCG can be used to replace, or partially replace, Polysorbate 20 and other solubilizers in essential oil or fragrance oil spray mist products. Begin with 1/1 ratio, can increase up to 1/10 ratio.

PlantaSol CCG can be used as a co-emulsifier in leave-on products such as lotions and creams.

This nonionic, vegetable derived solubilizer is EcoCert and perfect for formulations that strive for as natural as can be.

INCI Name: Caprylyl Capryl Glucoside


Sat, September 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Chapman

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