Polysorbate represents a group of emulsifiers used in pharmaceuticals, food preparation, and beauty and personal care products. An emulsifier is a substance that allows two or more liquids that are typically immiscible (unblendable) to combine. Polysorbates are oily liquids that consist of sorbitan and fatty acids. They are formed by producing reactions of polyol and sorbitol with ethylene oxide.
Several common types of polysorbate exist: Polysorbate 20, Polysorbate 21, Polysorbate 40, Polysorbate 60, Polysorbate 61, and Polysorbate 80, among others. The number following “Polysorbate” represents the type of fatty acid associated with the polyoxyethylene sorbitan part of the molecule. Specifically, 20 represents monolaurate, or lauric acid; 40 represents monopalmitate, or palmitic acid; 60 represents monostearate, or stearic acid; and 80 represents monooleate, or oleic acid. Brand names for these polysorbates include Tween, Alkest, and Canarcel.
Unlike other beauty and personal care ingredients that serve many functions across industries, polysorbate has one primary function: to act as a surfactant to create emulsions, allowing ingredients to better combine, thus making the product more effective. Simply put, polysorbate helps to disperse oil in water. Polysorbate’s primary function makes it useful in beauty and personal care products, including cosmetics, as well as food products and pharmaceuticals.
In foods, polysorbate is most commonly used in ice cream, making it smoother and easier to handle. It also prevents it from melting more quickly. Some versions of polysorbate are used as a wetting agent in products such as flavored mouth drops, helping the flavor spread. Still others are used as an emulsifier in powdered drink products, such as hot cocoa mix. In medicine, polysorbate is a common ingredient in the influenza vaccine in Europe and Canada. It also helps emulsify medicines such as amiodarone.
Several types of polysorbate are widely used in the beauty and personal care industries, thanks to the ingredients surfactant and emulsion benefits. Thanks to these properties, polysorbates are found in a range of products, including skin care products; cleansing products; cosmetics, particularly bases and foundations; shampoos; and fragrances. These products need a well-blended consistency in order for them to be both appealing and effective. When added to such products, polysorbates improve the product’s consistency and allow it to blend into the skin or hair more smoothly.
Polysorbate 20, for example, is a common ingredient in facial cleansers, anti-aging products, and hair styling gels. Polysorbate 40 serves as an emulsifier in cosmetic creams, stabilizing essential oils in water. Polysorbate 80 is common in baby lotions, cold creams, suntan lotion, and bath oils. Polysorbate 85 is a common ingredient in tanning lotion.
The safety of polysorbates has been well studied, and polysorbates have gained approval for use from several organizations. The Food and Drug Administration approved Polysorbate 20, Polysorbate 60, Polysorbate 65, and Polysorbate 80 to be used in food products for two purposes.
First, it these types of polysorbates work as adjuvants of flavoring agents, helping to add a taste or flavor to food. The FDA has also approved these polysorbates as multipurpose additives in foods. In addition, the FDA allows Polysorbates 20, 40, 60, 65, 80, and 85 to be used as indirect food additives, meaning they become a part of the food in trace amounts; specifically, they are used as emulsifiers and surface active agents. Finally, Polysorbate 80 is used in over-the-counter ophthalmic drug products, serving as a demulcent that creates a soothing film and relieves irritation of mucous membranes.
The safety of polysorbates in beauty and personal care products has also been investigated. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel has determined that the following polysorbates are safe to use in such products: Polysorbate 20, Polysorbate 21, Polysorbate 40, Polysorbate 60, Polysorbate 61, Polysorbate 65, Polysorbate 80, Polysorbate 81, and Polysorbate 85.
Minimal side effects are associated with polysorbates. They are used in small quantities in food products, medicines, and beauty and personal care ingredients in conjunction with many other ingredients. Research by the FDA and CIR Expert Panel has deemed polysorbates as nontoxic and safe to use. Minor side effects, such as skin irritation, can occur on sensitive skin. Discontinuation of polysorbate-based products can relieve such side effects. For the majority of users, however, no significant side effects will occur, thus explaining the FDA and CIR Expert Panel approval of this ingredient.