TIP: Avoid skincare and haircare products containing any ingredients with ‘polysorbate’ as part of their name.
Polysorbates are used in a variety of skincare, haircare, makeup and cleaning products. They alter surface tension and their inclusion in formulations is usually to help dissolve oils into water.
These chemicals are not particularly harmful per se, however the way they’re made mean that they can introduce impurities of chemicals that are a great concern: Ethylene Oxide and 1,4-dioxane.
Ethylene Oxide scores 10 on a scale of 1-to-10 of hazardous chemicals. It’s carcinogenic, shown to induce tumours in mammary glands. It’s also linked with developmental and reproductive toxicity, immunotoxicity and allergies.
1,4-dioxane is included on California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known or suspected to cause cancer or birth defects. Readily penetrating the skin, it is a known carcinogen with evidence suggesting a possible link to breast cancer. While pregnant women, infants and teenagers are considered to be most vulnerable, it’s reasonable to suggest this is a chemical best avoided more widely.
Note that you will not see the name of either of these chemicals on a product list. The traces of Ethylene Oxide are there as leftovers from it being combined with other chemicals (including some nice ingredients like fatty acids from coconut or almonds) in a process called ethoxylation. The 1,4-dioxane is present as a by-product of the ethoxylation process.
To avoid polysorbates, look on the label for any ingredient with ‘polysorbate’ as part of its name: Polysorbate-20, Polysorbate-21, Polysorbate-40, Polysorbate-60, Polysorbate-61, Polysorbate-65, Polysorbate-80, Polysorbate-81 and Polysorbate-85.
Just as an aside, each of the names listed above has a swag of alternative names. For example, every single chemical on this long list is simply another name for Polysorbate-80:
TWEEN 80, MONO-9-OCTADECENOATE POLY (OXY-1,2-ETHANEDIYL) DERIVS. SORBITAN; POLY (OXY-1,2-ETHANEDIYL) DERIVS. SORBITAN, MONO-9-OCTADECENOATE; POLYOXYETHYLENE (20) SORBITAN MONOOLEATE; SORBIMACROGOL OLEATE 300; SORBITAN, MONO- (9Z) -9-OCTADECENOATE, POLY (OXY-1,2-ETHANEDIYL) DERIVS.; SORBITAN, MONO-9-OCTADECENOATE, (Z) -POLY (OXY-1,2-ETHANEDIYL) DERIVS.; SORBITAN, MONO-9-OCTADECENOATE, POLY (OXY-1,2-ETHANEDIYL) DERIVS.; SORBITAN, MONO9OCTADECENOATE, POLY (OXY1,2ETHANEDIYL) DERIVS., (Z) ; ARMOTAN PMO-20; ATLOX 1087; ATLOX 8916TF.
It’s simply too overwhelming to learn everything off by heart. This is why we put the tips on our Ingredients to Avoid cards. It’s partly so that from the one tip you know enough to spot a whole family of chemicals, and partly because we can alert you to the most common chemical names used on product labels.
I hope this explains why we recommend to avoid choosing products containing Polysorbates!
Til soon xx