Polysorbate 20 is used as a surfactant, emulsifier, and fragrance ingredient.
Surfactant is short for the surface active agent. Surfactants are compounds that reduce the surface tension between two substances, such as two liquids or a liquid and a solid. In skincare products, surfactants work to degrease and emulsify oils and suspend dirt so that they can be washed away. This is possible because one end of the surfactant molecule is attracted to water while the other end is attracted to oil. Therefore, surfactants attract the oil, dirt, and other impurities that accumulate on the skin during the day and wash them away. Because of these properties, polysorbate 20 can be found in many different cleansers and body washes.
Polysorbate 20 is also used as an emulsifier. Products that contain both water and oil components require emulsifiers, for example, when adding essential oils to a water-based formula. According to the European Food Emulsifiers Manufacturers Association, when oil and water-based components are used together, they often separate. To solve this problem, emulsifiers can be added to produce stable products.
Finally, polysorbate 20 acts as a fragrance ingredient. As mentioned earlier, Polysorbate 20originally comes from sorbitol, a naturally occurring substance in sweet-tasting fruits such as apples, pears, peaches, and plums, so it is often used to enhance the scent of a product.
There is a Cosmetic Ingredient Review expert panel responsible for assessing the safety evaluation of skincare and cosmetic ingredient, and the scientific data concluded that polysorbate 20 is safe for use in cosmetic formulations.
Although the expert panel has approved polysorbate 20, some people are still concerned about the presence of ethylene oxide in this ingredient. This is because the ethoxylation process can lead to 1,4-dioxane contamination, a potentially hazardous byproduct. 1,4-dioxane is a known animal carcinogen and can easily penetrate the skin. According to the Toxicology Program, "there is a reasonable expectation that 1,4-dioxane is a human carcinogen." It is also associated with skin allergies. However, the potential presence of 1,4-dioxane can be controlled by purification steps before mixing polysorbate 20 into a cosmetic formulation, so it is safe.