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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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References (3)

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Reader Comments (41)

I am no chemist, so this may be a dumb question. Are potassium polysorbate and/or potassium sorbate different than Polysorbate 20? I see these ingredients in products claiming to "natural, non-toxic."

Fri, November 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSusan

@Susan--potassium polysorbate, potassium sorbate, and polysorbate 20 are all different chemicals.

Tue, November 22, 2011 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

If you really want the extreme, then look for Certified Non Toxic or Toxic Free. You can't get a Certified stamp if its not organically grown and extracted and nothing upwind or downwind of it is affected. Linda Chae of Chae organics is an expert on the subject of what is good and what is not good for your skin, the largest organ we have. You can obtain a list of toxic ingredients for cosmetics online. That was helpful to me.

Fri, February 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDebbi

Hi Stephanie,

I wanted to complement you on your informative site. Its been really helpful to me. I am wondering if you could suggest a natural alternative for polysorbate 20 for dispersible massage oils? Normally polysorbate 20 or 80 is added at aprox. 20% to help prevent staining of linens from massage oils such as grapeseed oil. I would love to make a dispersible massage oil that would be a safer alternative. Do you have any suggestions of what may work?

Wed, April 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDeedee

Polysorbate 20 is also used in tampons, such as playtex sport. How can that be safe?

Thu, September 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

Regarding the comment to incorporate oils when formulating a conditioning shampoo without polysorbate - Lets say jojoba wax and coconut oil or fractionated coconut oil @ 2% - could you use liquid sunflower lecithin to emulsify ?

Sat, November 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJudy


We recently made sugar body scrubs using Polysorbate 20. We had to use 1/4 cup for our recipe. I say in the feed above that maybe we could have used Glycerin. Would that be a suitable replacment. Basically the recipe called for 3 kinds of sugar, salt, essential oil, sunflower oil and polysorbate. If we are able to replace the poly with another natural ingredient that would be great.

Please advise as we are very new to this fun hobby.


Fri, February 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterErika

Glycerin wouldn't mix with your oil very well, so I'd just remove the polysorbate and use more oil. :)

Fri, February 1, 2013 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood] the only difference between polysorbate 20 and 80 the amount of ethylene oxide that's in it? If polysorbate 80 is implicated in fertility issues, wouldn't 20 also be a risk? I mean, if it's in products like tampons and baby wipes, which are used directly on people's reproductive gear much of their lives, not to mention all the dietary and other sources, it's got to be adding up enough to have that kind of effect over time, no?

Tue, March 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

I also would love to know what is a safe choice instead of polysorbate 20 to use in mix of water and oil .

Tue, April 30, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkg

I used Sarakan natural mouthwash last night and woke up with a very hot, pink and slightly swollen cheeks. I used this as I have used their toothpaste with no trouble. However, looking at the ingredients in the mouthwash there is polysorbate 20 listed.
I will not use this mouthwash again (I only use natural toothpastes as I have a problem with lip swelling and the oral specialist at my local hospital told me if he had his way the only toothpastes available on the market would be natural herbal ones).

Thu, September 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFee

This is my problem. I have a water-based air purifier and i bought essential oils (oil based) because i thought i could put it to it.

Now i was told that i need the oil to be water soluble before putting in air purifier. How can i do that with essential oils without adding polysorbate 20? I live in asia and there is no abundant natural/organic emulsifiers here. So I am left with Polysorbate 20. There is very limited supply of natural water-soluble essential oils here. Most products sold are synthetic fragrances that I do not like!
I would rather prefer adding polysorbate 20 to essential oils than using synthetic fragrances.

What other options do i have to make my EOs water soluble beside throwing off my essential oils?

Thu, October 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEms

This came up when I searched for 'caprylyl glucoside" is caprylyl glucoside related to polysorbate 20?

Fri, June 6, 2014 | Registered CommenterDebbie s

"Polysorbate starts out as harmless sorbitol"
Are you kidding?
Sorbitol is a laxative and many people have digestive issues as a result!
Sorbitol, and all derivatives need to be removed from ingredients.

Fri, October 31, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSandra Isaac

So has anyone gotten a response to whether there is a "natural" alternative to P20?

Wed, November 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoan

Is it vegan or vegan friendly?

Wed, May 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterR

Hi, We are currently using Phenoxyethanol as a preservative in our Essential Oil based sprays. Can you suggest a more natural or user friendly alternative.

Mon, June 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGraham

@Graham--perhaps ethanol?

Mon, June 27, 2016 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

I'm searching for an alternative to polysorbate and laurate as a water dispersant in massage oils. As a massage therapist i'm getting skin irritation and it's affecting my work but i have to use a water dispersible massage oil where i work unfortunately. Any suggestions for a more natural or safer ingredient?

Wed, November 2, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterrob

Just in case no one has time to read that blog, just know that there were no harmful side effects if used within the proper usage rates. It is vegan and poses no dangers. This is very laughable.

Sat, December 31, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterVanessa

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