When you come to Plant Therapy, we know you are coming for trustworthy and informative information and DIYs. While searching the blog or website, you probably came across an ingredient or two that made you raise an eyebrow and ask, “What the heck is this, and why do I need it?” In most instances, that ingredient was probably an emulsifier or preservative. When talking about emulsifiers, that questionable ingredient was most likely some variant of Polysorbate. This might raise another question, like “Why would PT recommend Polysorbate?” Let’s talk a little bit more about that.
What is Polysorbate?
In purely basic terms, Polysorbates are a class of emulsifiers used in cosmetics, food preparation, and some pharmaceuticals. As mentioned in the emulsifier blog post we linked above, emulsifiers help incompatible substances like oil and water stick together and prevent separation. This is important for essential oil-based products as it helps dilute the essential oils in products that contain water or Witch Hazel. While there are several different types of Polysorbate, the ones you may see most on our blog are Polysorbate 20 and Polysorbate 80.
The Difference Between Polysorbate 20 & 80
The number that follows the term Polysorbate relates to the type of fatty acid connected to the ethoxylated sorbitan part of the molecule. This in and out of itself is an entirely different and separate science lesson, so don’t really worry too much about that; focus on the different uses.
Polysorbate 20, unlike Polysorbate 80, is used more in cosmetic formulations rather than as an emulsifier and stabilizer in food. In cosmetics, it serves many purposes. Polysorbate 20 serves as an emulsifier and surfactant, as well as a viscosity modifier, stabilizer, and dispersing agent. It works well for lighter oils such as essential oils and is ideal for DIYs like perfumes or body sprays.
Polysorbate 80 is used in both cosmetic formulations and as an emulsifying and stabilizing additive in the food manufacturing process. It works best for heavier oils such as carrier oils that aren’t as thin and volatile as essential oils. Due to the enhanced emulsifying properties of Polysorbate 80, it is ideal in DIYs such as bath bombs. It greatly reduces the bathtub’s slipperiness as more of the carrier oil is blended with the water.
Is It Safe?
This is probably the biggest question you have, and it’s an important one. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) database, both Polysorbate 20 and Polysorbate 80 receive a score of 1-3, depending on usage and purity. They are both not suspected to be an environmental toxin and are both designated safe for limited use in food. The EWG also reports that they are both generally safe and that there is minimal evidence of sense organ toxicity.
The critical takeaway here is that not all Polysorbate products are created equal. The dangers and risks associated with Polysorbate aren’t with the product itself, but the contamination concerns of lower quality, lower grade Polysorbate products. In both Polysorbate 20 and 80, the contaminants that cause concern are Ethylene Oxide and 1,4-Dioxane. These contaminants can be avoided by sourcing Polysorbate from reputable suppliers that only provide the best, highest quality products available.
Why Not Use Something More Natural?
The short answer is, there isn’t really another option. There is a natural dispersant called Solubol, but it is a lot harder to source, it is quite a bit more expensive. It also doesn’t have quite the range of ability either. There is of course Everclear, which can double as both a solubilizer and preservative, but even that isn’t an exact substitution. If you wanted to use Everclear, you would not be able to add the finished product to the bath. It’s also not the nicest on the skin. It’s also not available everywhere.