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Polysorbate 20

Polysorbate 20

Fast Facts       


Type of Ingredient: A cleansing agent, known as polysorbate 20 or polysorbate 60.

Main Benefits: Polysorbate is a surfactant, emulsifier, and fragrance ingredient that is used in a variety of cosmetics and personal care products.

Who Should Use It: Polysorbate is used in a variety of cosmetics and personal care products including cleansers, makeup bases and foundations, shampoos, fragrances, and more. 

Ideal For These Concerns: allowing skincare products, especially the cleansing kind to pick up dirt, dead skin cells or any other residue off your skin.

How Often Can You Use It: Can be used daily 

Works well with: Polysorbates are created by reacting with stearic acid, sorbitol, and ethylene oxide. They form a nonionic surfactant, with hydrophilic and hydrophobic ends. It allows water and oil to mix, and gives oil-in-water emulsions. It can also be combined with other HLB emulsifiers to create stable products that work best with fatty alcohols.


What is Polysorbate? 

Polysorbate is a synthetic compound, also known as Tween 80.

It is made from polyethoxylated sorbitan, a chemical compound derived from the dehydration of sugar alcohols, and oleic acid, a fatty acid found in most animal and vegetable fats.

It is mainly used as a surfactant in soaps and cosmetics, as well as a solubilizer, helping dissolve ingredients so that they can easily blend, and make products look creamier and more attractive.


The Benefits of Polysorbate


Polysorbates function as a surfactant, emulsifier, and fragrance ingredient.

Surfactant is the short term for the surface-active agent. Surfactants are composites that lower 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 fats, allowing them to be washed away. This is possible because when one end of the molecule is attracted to water, the other end is attracted to oil. Therefore, surfactants pick up the oil, dirt, and other impurities that have accumulated on your skin during the day and wash them away. It can be found in many different cleansers and body washes.

An emulsifier is needed for products that contain both water and oil components, when water and oil are mixed and vigorously shaken, a dispersion of oil droplets in water – and vice versa – is formed. When shaking stops, however, the two phases start to separate. To fix this problem, an emulsifier can be added to help the droplets remain dispersed and produce a stable emulsion. This is why it is used in most creams and moisturizers to create a creamy and an evenly dispersed texture, Dr. Baumann explains. “It is very important for dermatologists and their patients to become familiar with the individual ingredients in moisturizers and cleansers (polysorbates) and to know what they do. Without this knowledge, you may not be able to respond appropriately because your patient has come in with an unfamiliar product, and you are unable to offer sound medical advice.”

Finally, polysorbates function as a fragrance ingredient. As mentioned above, polysorbates are originally derived from sorbitol, which can naturally be found in sweet-smelling fruits like apples, pears, peaches, and prunes.





The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows polysorbates to be added to foods as an adjuvant and emulsifier for flavoring agents. The safety of polysorbates has been assessed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel. The CIR expert panel evaluated the scientific data and concluded that polysorbates 20, 21, 40, 60, 61, 65, 80, 81 and 85 were safe as cosmetic ingredients.

Despite the approval of polysorbate 20 by the CIR Expert Panel, there are concerns about the presence of ethylene oxide in this ingredient. This is because the process of ethoxylation can lead to contamination with 1,4-dioxane, a potentially dangerous by-product. 1,4-dioxane is a known animal carcinogen that penetrates easily into the skin. This ingredient has also been linked to skin allergies.

The Organic Consumers Organization released a fact sheet on 1,4-dioxane based on information from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. The fact sheet outlines facts versus myths regarding 1,4-dioxane in personal care products. One concerning fact is that the levels of 1,4-dioxane found in many personal care products are 1,000 times higher than those found to cause cancer in animal studies.



Harvell, J, M. Bason, and H. Maibach. Contact Urticaria and its Mechanisms. Food Chemistry and Toxicology 32(2): 103-112. 1994. (Table 2: Substances identified as capable of causing contact urticaria).

Food Safety Commission of Japan, 2007. Evaluation report of food additives. Polysorbates (polysorbates 20, 60, 65 and 80).