Polysorbate 20 (ps20) is a mild surfactant used to emulsify oils, specifically fragrance or essential oils, into water. It is derived from lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid found mainly in coconut oil. When applied to the skin it lays down a soothing, lubricating effect. Ps20 holds the lightest molecular weight within the polysorbate family. Within this family, you can find ps20, 40, 60, 80, etc. These “oils” are also called Tween 20, 40, 60, 80, etc. The simple rule of thumb with these oils is, the higher the number, the stronger their potency for emulsifying water with heavier oils. For instance, if you need to blend essential or fragrance oils into water, ps20 would be all you need. If you are looking to emulsify a carrier oil into water, ps20 wouldn’t be sufficient for the job, you would have to rely on a higher rated polysorbate such as 80.
Ps20 is also used in food production, though this version is cosmetic grade.
For most people, the lower-rated polysorbates are generally gentle and non-irritating except possibly to those who are sensitive to coconut oil.
To use: mix equal parts of essential or fragrance oils with polysorbate 20 and mix until the solution is clear. Then add in water or vodka to dilute & shake well until blended. This simple recipe can be used to make body, linen, or room sprays.
INCI: Polysorbate 20
The debate over the safety of surfactants is probably one of the biggest questions I get asked. I personally do not see all surfactants as being equal, and therefore don’t toss them all out with the bathwater. To do so really limits the scope of what ingredients we can use. There are only a few ways that “soap” can be achieved. One method is to use lye and oil, the other is to use surfactants. To be fair, there is a third method of using herbs and botanicals. Though they do clean, they do so on their own terms and they behave absolutely nothing like soap does today (example: they don’t create any lather, they are thin as water, and they ever-so-mildly clean). So moving back to the topic of surfactants … we at Organic Creations feel that some of the more mild and gentle surfactants are really okay to use topically. As with everything we put in and on our bodies, research should be done. We’ve done a lot of that over the years, and in regards to the family of polysorbates, we feel that they fall within the safe category for topical use at the concentration levels that they are normally associated with inside a formulation.
One last thought on this topic … polysorbates are a common food-grade additive that can be found in many consumables on the market today. I am certainly not a big fan of eating products with polysorbates on the ingredients list. Some may say that this sounds hypocritical but I truly don’t think so. There are many products that are in skincare that I find perfectly fine to put on my skin, that I surely wouldn’t consume. Soap is one of them, hair conditioner is another, perfume, mineral make up, and even raw products like jojoba or beeswax, these are great for your skin … but I wouldn’t cook with them. So the way I see it, there IS still a difference in topical vs. internal applications.
There are no surfactants that can be considered certified organic. This doesn’t put them directly on the “bad” list, because in doing so – you would have to reason that clay, salt, and other non-certifiable products would then also have to be placed on that same ‘bad’ list. To be certified organic, the product has to come from a field, grown by a farmer, and there are many natural, and thousands of naturally derived ingredients that do not meet the USDA definition for certification.
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