Monday, 30 March 2009

An A-Z of emulsifiers (the good, the bad and the ugly)

"Are you a chemist?" is a question I get asked from time-to-time. But - as any chemists who happen across my site will know - I'm definitely no chemist! I have started to learn a bit more about the ingredients that go into my products though, including the odd latin name here and there. At the recent demo I did, I was aware that some of the ingredients I use are a step or two away from the kitchen table, as Debs at Herbal Haven commented afterwards...
"...using a mix of items you’d find in the average herbaholic’s cupboard and items that you won’t currently find there, such as Cetyl Alcohol, VE Emulsifier and MF Emulsifier. I’d always steered clear of those types of things thinking they were very hard to work with, worried about the paraben’s the products contained and preferred to use beeswax, tinctures and things like benzoin oil as preservatives, but Elizabeth showed us that it was easy, that there are plenty of the ’scientific’ products that are paraben free, and that it isn’t as hard as we thought."
Through the process of learning to make my own products its been wonderful to learn that I can make products that are sophisticated enough to sit on a shop shelf, while still retaining some of the naturalness and simplicity of the kitchen table. And after all, making these products is so much liking cooking for me - a way of nourishing the body from the outside in! :) Funnily enough I recently had comments that my shampoos look "good enough to drink" and the cream looks "good enough to eat" - I don't recommend doing that with either, but I think it is testimony to their lovely, natural ingredients, appearance and feel.

All of this got me to thinking about the range of ingredients that do get used in cosmetics and I started by looking at emulsifiers - from the most natural and good, through the bad, to the really quite ugly which are unfortunately used by some of our major cosmetics companies. To get in the mood I tried my hand at mayonnaise making today. Egg yolk is a natural emulsifier we're very familiar with, and gets its emulsifying qualities from lecithin, which can also be extracted from soy beans. Well the mayonnaise went really well, right up until it separated! LOL! Practice and all that... fortunately I seem to do better with cream and lotions. 

I'll keep adding to this list, so let me know of emulsifiers I'm missing, or any additional information:
  • Beeswax can be used as a gentle emulsifier in salves. I use a mixture of 15% beeswax, 80% vegetable oil, 5% tincture.
  • Beheneth 10 (Emulsifan CB) is a water-into-oil emulsifier. I can't seem to find out all that much about this other than that there are no hazard warnings for it in the Cosmetic Database, and that it seems to be quite often used in natural cosmetics.
  • Cetearyl Glycoside (a.k.a. Vegetal) is derived from vegetable sources in a very ecologically friendly fashion, and is supposed to be ideal for making light creams and lotions because it doesn't block the pores. It's got good natural credentials but in my experience it's very hard to work with as the cream separates very easily.
  • Glyceryl Monostearate (a.k.a Base Emulsifier) from stearic and palmitic acid is used quite widely in both the food and cosmetic industry. It does seem to have some warnings attached to it in the Cosmetic Safety Database such as "recommended restricted in cosmetics - use, concentration, or manufacturing restrictions" and "human irritant - strong evidence", but these appear to be more about using the appropriate amount than avoiding it completely.
  • Cetyl stearyl alcohol, ceteareth-20 (a.k.a Emulsifying Wax B.P.) I have often see herbalists used this emulsifier to make a simple cream as a base to administer herbal infusions or tinctures.. It is readily available to buy, e.g. - from Neal's Yard and is used at a concentration of around 3-6% total product volume. Note: cetyl alcohol on its own is used as a stabiliser in creams, only with the addition of Ceteareth-20 does it become an emulsifier.
  • Lecithin occurs naturally and can be derived from animal or vegetable origins, and is used as a dietary supplement to help build cell membranes. Sometimes used in its liquid form in recipes for homemade creams, but apparently makes quite a sticky cream and is hard to get a constant consistency.
  • Polysorbate 20 (a.k.a. Emulsifan) is used for emulsifying essential oils and water, e.g. - for making perfumes or insect repellant sprays. It has been certified as safe for use in cosmetics at a recommended amount of ?
  • Sodium Borate (a.k.a Borax) is a cheap emulsifier used in combination with beeswax as an emulsifier. However, it is classified by the Cosmetic Safety Database as a "moderate hazard", can cause irritation, and is banned for use on children's skin in some countries. I find it pops up in a lot of old-fashioned recipes, but one to be avoided if possible I think.
  • Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate & Glyceryl Stearate (a.k.a MF & VE emulsifiers) are used mostly in the food industry - you could say they're good enough to eat. :-) MF is the fat-loving one, and VE is the water-loving one! These are my current favourites as they are very reliable and produce a lovely smooth cream.
  • Triethanolamine (a.k.a TEA). Used in products from Lush, Body Shop, Neutrogena and Avon. Concerns about this emulsifier include "limited evidence of carcinogenity" and "human immune and respiratory toxicant - strong evidence" according to the Cosmetic Safety Database. I think that classifies in the "ugly" category. :-(

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