What you didn't know about emulsifiers - and why they're not in our certified organic skin care
If you know anything about Mokosh, you probably know that we do things differently to almost all natural skin care - we use no preservatives, emulsifiers, thickeners, or synthetic ingredients in our products, instead using only 100% certified organic pure plant-derived ingredients. There are many reasons we make our skin care this way - summarised simply as ‘better for your skin, better for the planet’. We have written about emulsifiers before, mostly about how it is very difficult to obtain emulsifiers that are free of palm oil (read it here). However, this time we want to focus on emulsifiers in skin care for another reason - the fact that they can damage the skin. We’d like to explain how this can happen.
What is an emulsifier?
Emulsifiers are ingredients used in small amounts in water-containing creams and lotions that allow the water and oil components to mix. These emulsifiers are special molecules - one end of the molecule is water-soluble, and the other is oil-soluble. In order to make a standard water-containing lotion or cream, small amounts of emulsifier are needed to allow the oil and water to form a stable mixture. However, the molecular structure of the emulsifier, which is commonly called a surfactant, is the same one that makes soaps and detergents very good at cleansing our skin. If you suspect that having a detergent-like molecule in your moisturiser is not going to be very good for your skin, you are not alone! Of greatest concern is their potential to damage the skin’s barrier, which is made up of specialised proteins and lipids. We have already written about the importance of the skin barrier here. Basically, disrupting the skin’s barrier can lead to increased water loss from the skin, and the entry of microorganisms and irritants into the skin resulting in inflammation and irritation.
Are all emulsifiers the same?
All emulsifiers have the same basic detergent-like structure, but are subdivided into 3 types based on their electrical charge.
Anionic emulsifiers are negatively charged and have the greatest potential to disrupt the lipids and proteins in the skin. The classic example is sodium lauryl sulphate, a known skin irritant, although milder ones have been developed which are less harsh on the skin. When used in a moisturiser they are normally combined with one of the milder non-ionic emulsifiers to reduce their potential for irritation.
Cationic emulsifiers are positively charged and can bind to the protein keratin which is located in the outer layer of the skin. Because of this capacity to bind to the skin, they also have the potential to cause skin irritation, mainly due to toxic effects on skin cells. Examples of cationic emulsifiers include benzalkonium chloride and behentrimonium methosulphate.
Non-ionic emulsifiers have no charge and are considered less irritating than anionic and cationic surfactants, yet some of them have been shown to interact with skin lipids, producing microscopic changes in the outer layer of the skin that alter the skin’s barrier function (summarised in 1). Examples of nonionic emulsifiers include cetearyl alcohol and ceteareth-20.
Can emulsifiers really cause a problem?
For most people, the inclusion of an emulsifier in a moisturiser is not problematic. A well-made moisturiser would use a low-irritant emulsifier in small quantities. However, when the skin’s barrier is compromised, for example in the very young, in the aged, or when there is a skin disorder such as acne, eczema or rosacea, all three emulsifier types can potentially cause further damage to the skin’s barrier.
Of additional concern is that emulsifiers themselves have been shown to be allergenic. In one study of patients with skin allergies, 16% were allergic to commonly used emulsifiers (2).
Mokosh certified organic skin care products are emulsifier free
Although many moisturisers are cleverly formulated with low-irritating emulsifiers, and most of us have a good skin barrier, to me it makes sense not to have a detergent molecule lying on your skin 24/7 between showers, potentially wreaking havoc on your skin’s barrier. This is particularly important for people with already compromised skin barriers.
Our 100% certified organic moisturisers are formulated without water, so that emulsifiers are not needed. They are made using only pure oils and butters. This means that in order to achieve the same thin spread of oil over the skin as would be achieved with a water-containing moisturiser, you simply need to apply them to lightly damp skin. The water on your skin takes the place of the water that would normally be in a water-containing cream.
Because our moisturisers are enriched for omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and abundant in antioxidants, vitamins and other phytonutrients, they deliver pure unadulterated nutrition to your skin. Not an emulsifier in sight to mess with your skin's barrier! Did I mention they are also free of preservatives and why we believe that is so beneficial? But we'll leave that story for another day...
1. Levin, J. and Miller, R. (2011) A Guide to the Ingredients and Potential Benefits of Over-the-Counter Cleansers and Moisturizers for Rosacea Patients J Clin Aesthet Dermatolv.4: 31-40
2. Corazza M, Virgili A, Ricci M, et al. (2016) Contact Sensitization to Emulsifying Agents: An Underrated Issue? Dermatitis.27:276-281