I was misintroduced as a food chemist at a party once. I was asked if I was the one who put the polysorbate 80 in the yoghurts. I should have said was ‘no, that was Brian’. I didn’t think quickly enough.
Polysorbate 80 is widely enough used in food products for many people to recognise the name. It is much less widely used in cosmetics, but is nonetheless something you will see on ingredient lists from time to time. You’ll also see polysorbates with other numbers, like polysorbate 20 for example.
The polysorbates were pioneered by ICI and are used as solubilisers and emulsifiers. They are made from a relative of sugar called sorbitol, some oleic acid, a fatty acid usually derived from olive oil and some polyethylene glycol, which is a product of the petrochemical industry. Polysorbates aren’t really what you could call green, but they are certainly safe as their use in food shows. The great thing about them from a formulator’s point of view is that there is a range of them with slightly varying properties so you can fine tune them to get just the performance you want.
I don’t think they actually created them, but the company that did most to develop the polysorbates was ICI. This is a name which might not be too familiar if you are under 45. It was once the biggest UK company but has now split into smaller ones. I remember ICI once had a trade stand where they characterised the polysorbates and some similar ranges as notes on a musical scale. The idea was that you could select the materials you wanted to get them to sing any tune you could think of. It was quite a nice description. It said a lot about the product and what you can do with it. With the emphasis on naturalness nowadays the trade stands of raw material suppliers often look like bits of jungle with loads of greenery and plants and big photos of exotic botanical specimens from distant rain forests. I sometimes expect to meet a Japanese soldier on one who nobody has told that the war has ended.
But I digress. Polysorbates in combination with some related materials have enabled a lot of formulations that would otherwise be either impossible or far from attractive to be created. I think the most worthy use in coal tar shampoos where they enable a very beneficial but rather smelly and horrible active to be formulated into easy to use shampoos. They have a place on the shelf in every formulation lab. Even if you don’t want to use them in your products because they aren’t as environmentally friendly and sustainable as some alternatives, they can still be handy to have. If you can’t solubilise something with polysorbates there is a pretty good chance you won’t solubilise it with anything. So thanks to ICI for giving us all a handy tool and helping us to produce some great products.
If you are interested in the chemical structure and other important stuff the Wikipedia entry on Polysorbates is quite good.