This is a group of hydrophilic chemicals that includes polysorbate 20, polysorbate 40, polysorbate 60, and polysorbate 80. Common brand names are Canarcel, Scattics, Tween, and Alkest. The following code names have been assigned to polysorbates in Australia: E 431 (polysorbate 40); E 432 (polysorbate 20); E 433 (polysorbate 80); E 435 (polysorbate 60); E 436 (polysorbate 65).

Polysorbates are derivatives of natural sugar alcohols (e.g. sorbitol and polyol), which aren’t harmful per se. In spite of their preparation from natural sources, they’re generally not considered natural.

Polysorbates are commonly used as non-ionic surfactants, emulsifiers, solubilizers or dispersants in personal care product, cosmetic, food, and pharmaceutical formulations to create a more attractive texture by bringing together oil, water, and other immiscible solvents. Basically, they help to dissolve ingredients to enable them blend together easily. They’re also helpful in stabilizing emulsions and suspensions.

Before polysorbates can be used as surfactants, they must undergo a number of chemical changes. This includes reacting them with ethylene oxide and vegetable fats and oils, e.g. lauric, stearic, or palmitic acid. The major concern is that any product that contains an ingredient that is ethoxylated or treated with ethylene oxide can be contaminated by 1,4-dioxane. The latter is a cancer-inducing (carcinogenic) chemical that mimics estrogen activity, and is easily absorbed by the skin, the lungs, and the gastrointestinal tract. Moreover, it lowers sperm counts in males. Acute inhalation causes vertigo, headaches as well as nose, throat, lungs, and eyes irritation.

A fact sheet released by the Organic Consumers Association in Finland, Minnesota, as part of their Campaign for Safe Cosmetics shows that the 1,4-dioxane content of antiperspirants and personal care items is a thousand times greater than the amount that causes cancers in animals. When animals are subjected to 1,4-dioxane over their life time, they tend to develop cancer. Some US manufacturers were drawn to court in a class action suit when their personal care products were found to contain 1,4-dioxane, which is considered carcinogenic by a number of US agencies, including the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), State of California EPA, and New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services.

In addition to their carcinogenic effects, polysorbates can decrease fertility. Some (e.g. polysorbate 80) can also alter bacteria population in the gastrointestinal tract, resulting in inflammation. The inflammation can occur even if you don’t have pre-existing inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). If you’ve already got IBD like Crohn’s disease, exposure to some of these polysorbates can exacerbate the condition. Once you start experiencing the inflammation, your chances of developing metabolic syndrome increases. This means you’re more likely to develop insulin resistance and experience obesity-related problems, among other things.