Polysorbate 20: What Is It, Skin Benefits, Cosmetic Uses & Side Effects

Priya Singh
Fact-Checker: Priya Singh
This article was last updated on: July 23, 2023
Table of Contents

In the labyrinthine world of cosmetic product labels, we encounter an array of tongue-twisting ingredients that leave even the most seasoned beauty enthusiasts perplexed. From phenol-methylphenol-polyphenol to sorbitan monododecanoate polyoxyethylene, the complex science behind our beloved cosmetics can be as enigmatic as an encrypted code.

One such riddle in this ocean of ingredients is Polysorbate 20. Now, you might be thinking, “Polysorbate 20? That sounds more like some celestial body discovered in a far-off galaxy than a skincare ingredient!” But, fear not. This fascinating compound is not as alien as it sounds.

This article aims to demystify Polysorbate 20, a commonly used ingredient in the cosmetic universe. We will delve into its nature, explore its benefits for our skin, and understand its role in various cosmetic preparations.

What is Polysorbate 20?

Polysorbate 20, also known as Sorbitan Monododecanoate Polyoxyethylene, or Tween 20, is a popular player in the world of cosmetics. Primarily acting as a surfactant, it helps to break the tension between water and oils, allowing the two to mix, enabling us to wash away grime and excess oils from our skin with ease. It also amplifies the solubility of various ingredients in a mixture, making it an excellent emulsifier to ensure every component in your product performs in harmony.

It doesn’t end there. Polysorbate 20 also doubles up as a cleansing agent, playing a vital role in personal care items like facial cleansers and body washes, to give you a squeaky-clean feel without harshness. In terms of concentration, less is more. Typically found in cosmetics at a concentration range of 0.1% to 1%, it can be purchased as a stand-alone item, but it’s predominantly seen as part of a more extensive formulation in cosmetic products.

Who Can Use Polysorbate 20?

Polysorbate 20 is an all-rounder that is generally well-tolerated by most skin types, making it suitable for people with dry, oily, combination, and even sensitive skin. Its non-irritating nature allows it to be incorporated into products designed for use on delicate areas, like around the eyes.

In the realm of ethical beauty, Polysorbate 20 checks the box. It’s entirely plant-derived and does not come from any animal sources or animal testing, making it appropriate for those leading a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle.

When it comes to pregnancy and breastfeeding, Polysorbate 20 is generally considered safe to use. Yet, like any other skincare ingredient, it’s always a good idea to discuss usage with a healthcare professional to be on the safe side.

Polysorbate 20 Skin Benefits

Below is how this ingredient plays an active role in benefiting the skin:

  • Cleansing: Above everything, Polysorbate 20 is a rockstar when it comes to cleansing the skin. Have you ever noticed how water and oil refuse to mix and how this can make removing oily makeup or dirt an uphill task? This is where Polysorbate 20 steps in. It acts as a liaison between water and oils, breaking down the tension between the two substances. In simpler terms, it helps water to ‘bind’ with oils and dirt, allowing them to be washed away easily. That’s why you’ll often find Polysorbate 20 in products like facial cleansers and foaming washes, helping you to remove makeup, grime, and excess sebum without leaving your skin feeling stripped dry.

However, keep in mind that these benefits are not a one-and-done deal. As with most skincare ingredients, consistency is crucial. The beneficial effects of Polysorbate 20 are not permanent and require sustained usage over time for the best results.

The Non-active Cosmetic Uses of Polysorbate 20

While Polysorbate 20 certainly shines in active skin benefits, it also offers a plethora of non-active properties that enhance the overall performance and user experience of cosmetic products. Here’s what this versatile ingredient brings to the table:

  • Surfactant: This term, derived from ‘surface active agent,’ refers to Polysorbate 20’s ability to reduce surface tension. But how does this translate to your everyday beauty routine? For starters, it boosts the effectiveness of cleansing products. Ever noticed how your face wash or body cleanser can efficiently remove dirt, grime, and oil, leaving your skin feeling clean but not overly dry? That’s the surfactant properties working their magic. By reducing surface tension, it allows water to mix with grease and oil, making it easier to rinse away impurities without stripping the skin’s natural moisture.
  • Emulsifying: Emulsification is the process of blending two substances that don’t usually mix — like oil and water. Polysorbate 20 acts as a stabilizer in this process, promoting the formation and longevity of a uniform mixture in your cosmetic product. This is why your favorite creams and lotions don’t separate over time, maintaining their silky, smooth texture. Emulsifying agents are vital to the consistency, effectiveness, and overall aesthetic of many personal care items, and Polysorbate 20 fulfills this role with aplomb.

Undeniably, Polysorbate 20 wears many hats in the cosmetic world, enhancing not only the performance of products but also their texture and consistency, contributing to the luxurious experience we’ve come to associate with our favorite beauty treats.

Polysorbate 20 Potential Side Effects

As with any skincare ingredient, the way our skin reacts to Polysorbate 20 can vary greatly from person to person. Why? Our skin is as unique as we are. Numerous factors can influence how our skin responds to an ingredient. These can include our individual skin type, existing skin conditions, overall health, and even environmental factors. It’s essential to understand your skin well, and you can find your skin type here to tailor your skincare regime effectively.

Potential side effects and interactions, though rare, may include:

  • Skin irritation: Some individuals, especially those with sensitive skin, might experience redness, itching, or a mild burning sensation.
  • Allergic reactions: While less common, there is still a possibility of an allergic reaction, leading to rashes or hives.
  • Eye irritation: If a product containing Polysorbate 20 comes into contact with the eyes, it may cause irritation.

If you experience any of these side effects while using a product containing Polysorbate 20, stop its use immediately and consult a dermatologist. They can provide appropriate treatment and suggest alternative products if necessary.

However, it’s crucial to remember that adverse reactions to Polysorbate 20 are quite rare. Generally speaking, this ingredient is safe, effective, and well-tolerated by most people.

Finally, before introducing any new product into your skincare routine, it’s highly recommended to conduct a patch test. This simple step can help determine your skin’s potential reaction to a particular ingredient and prevent any surprise reactions. For an easy-to-follow guide on how to conduct a patch test, you can refer to our comprehensive patch-testing guide.

Comedogenic Rating

The comedogenic scale, a rating from 0 to 5, measures the likelihood of a substance clogging pores, with 0 being non-comedogenic and 5 being highly comedogenic. When it comes to Polysorbate 20, it boasts a comedogenic rating of 0, meaning it is typically non-comedogenic. This rating is bestowed due to its unique properties- it helps dissolve oil and grime without leaving residue behind that can clog the pores.

Given its low comedogenic score, Polysorbate 20 is a suitable ingredient for those who are prone to acne or breakouts, helping to cleanse the skin without contributing to further congestion.


Navigating the world of skincare is indeed an experiment — a journey of trial and error. Every skin type reacts differently to ingredients and products, what works for one might not work for another. Polysorbate 20, with its double-edged sword of active and non-active effects, offers immediate benefits for your skin while also enhancing the overall performance and integrity of cosmetic products.

In a sea of skincare options, Polysorbate 20 stands out for its versatility, why choose between a product that cleanses and one that offers a smooth application when you can have both in one ingredient? Its ability to act as a surfactant, cleansing agent, and emulsifier makes it a desirable component in a slew of cosmetic compounds – whether you’re seeking intensive cleansing or a product that delivers an even application, Polysorbate 20 delivers.

Though it might not gather the same hype as some other avant-garde ingredients, don’t be fooled. Polysorbate 20 offers its share of skin-loving benefits. While it might be more of an unsung hero than a superstar, it remains a staple in many cosmetic formulations.

As with most skincare ingredients, patience is key when it comes to seeing results. Regular and sustained use of products containing Polysorbate 20 will contribute to the overall health and cleanliness of your skin over time.

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