Hectorite is a naturally occurring clay mineral first discovered in mines near Hector, a town in the San Bernadino area of California. This natural mineral also comes from other mines including mines in the mountains of Morocco. Hectorite has various industrial uses and is an ingredient in some cosmetic and personal care products. It’s available in the form of a fine powder that varies in color from white to light brown.
Clay minerals like hectorite are made up of very finely grained minerals including hydrous silicates of calcium, magnesium and aluminum. Hectorite is rich in magnesium and also contains some lithium, making it an important natural source for lithium metal. Lithium metal is used in industrial and pharmaceutical applications and is the primary component in lithium-based batteries. To obtain natural hectorite, the ore is mined, and hectorite is placed into water for purification. The ore is then dried and dispersed into a stable gel. At this point, it’s ready to be used in industrial or cosmetic applications. Hectorite can also be made synthetically.
Hectorite clay has some advantages, including a small particle size. This makes it useful in the cosmetic industry where it can be used as a thickener and to change the texture and consistency of cosmetic and personal care products. It also helps to stabilize emulsions. Emulsions are mixtures of two or more liquids that are not compatible, such as an oil-based and a water-based one. Cosmetic products typically combine both oil and water-based ingredients, so emulsion stabilizers are important. Without them the two phases would separate like oil separates from water, making the product less effective, less pleasing to the eye and shortening its shelf-life. Emulsion stabilizers help to keep cosmetic formulations stable while extending their lifespan.
Other types of clay are also used in the cosmetics industry. Other than hectorite, the two most common are bentonite and magnesium aluminum silicate. Hectorite offers some advantages over these types of clay due to its capacity to readily expand and swell. It also has a low iron content and is light in color. Its light color means it’s less likely to alter the shade of cosmetic products it’s formulated into. Because hectorite often comes from natural sources, cosmetic companies that offer natural products frequently use it as a thickener and emulsion stabilizer.
In the cosmetic industry, hectorite is sometimes chemically combined with other ingredients to make compounds like quaternium-18 hectorite and disteardimonium hectorite. In cosmetic products, these compounds act as thickeners and stabilizers for cosmetic emulsions and help control the viscosity of products. Some common cosmetic products that contain quaternium-18 hectorite include foundation, lipstick, lip gloss, mascara, eyeliner, antiperspirants and deodorants. Sunscreen manufacturers have recently discovered the benefits of adding hectorite to sunscreens. Adding it to sun products helps to boosts protection against ultraviolet light, allows the sunscreen to spread better and gives it better texture and "feel."
Is hectorite and its derivatives safe? Hectorite clay in cosmetic products comes from natural sources and has an excellent safety profile. According to the International Journal of Toxicology, quaternium-18 hectorite has little to no systemic toxicity and is only mildly irritating to the eyes. The clay and its derivatives aren’t easily absorbed through the skin. Therefore, little, if any, of this ingredient reaches the bloodstream from products applied topically. It also doesn’t appear to sensitize skin to the sun or increase the risk of allergies or contact dermatitis.
The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database classifies quaternium-18 hectorite as a low-hazard cosmetic ingredient. Since the raw ingredient is a fine powder, breathing in the powder could cause lung problems since the tiny particles could become trapped in the lungs. The fine powder is suspended in a liquid medium in most cosmetic products, so this isn’t an issue.
Hectorite clay and its derivatives serve the important function of thickening and stabilizing cosmetic and personal care products - and gives them improved texture and tactile feel. It’s also non-toxic and isn’t absorbed into the bloodstream to any significant degree. In addition, it’s non-irritating to the skin and is unlikely to cause problems even for people with sensitive skin.