Vegetable Emulsifying Wax Not as Natural as it Sounds

Vegetable emulsifying wax is widely used in a variety of skin care, hair care and cosmetic products as an emulsifier (keeps oil and water from separating) because it is easy to work with and relatively inexpensive.  Sounds harmless enough, right?  You may be surprised to find out that it is actually a chemical cocktail and not the natural ingredient the name implies.  Stephanie Greenwood of Bubble & Bee Organic did some research on this innocuous sounding ingredient and found that it is actually made up of Cetearyl Alcohol (a blend of cetyl and steareth alcohol), Polysorbate 60, PEG-150 Stearate and Steareth-20.  Not sounding quite so natural now.

Let’s break it down:

  • Cetearyl Alcohol carries a low risk for skin irritation and tumor formation when used at high doses.  Not terribly hazardous, but still a synthetically produced ingredient.
  • Polysorbate 60 is a possible reproductive toxin and could cause tumor formation at high doses.  Again, not horrible but not natural either.
  • PEG-150 Stearate (short for polyethylene glycol) is an ethoxylated compound, which means that it has been processed with ethylene oxide, a known human carcinogen.  When processed with ethylene oxide, the product can contain traces of this compound, along with byproducts such as 1,4-dioxane, also a known carcinogen. 
  • Steareth-20 is also an ethoxylated compound and can contain trace amounts of ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane.  Stearyl alcohol (a naturally-ocurring fatty alcohol) is combined with ethylene oxide.  The number at the end is how many units of ethylene oxide reacted with the stearyl alcohol.  Steareth-20 has been reacted with 20 units of ethylene oxide.  There are steareths ranging from 2 on up, Steareth-20 being the highest.

The Cosmetics Database ranks most of these synthetic compounds fairly low (a lower number signifying a less hazardous ingredient); Cetearyl Alcohol-“0”,  Steareth-20-“1”, Polysorbate 60-“1”, and PEG-150 Stearate would probably rank “5-7” (PEG-100 Stearate ranks a “5”).  At this point vegetable emulsifying wax carries a rank of “0”.  Though the Cosmetics Database is a great place to start in researching ingredients, it is not fool proof and not all ingredients are researched fully.

To avoid ethoxylated compounds look for ingredients with “eth” in them, like Sodium Laureth Sulfate, sodium myreth sulfate, steareth, ceteareth, polyethylene.

Image credit:  bering at Flickr.com, Creative Commons license.


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About the Author

I am an organic beauty expert, writer, and mom of two young environmentalists who can already spot a toxic product when they see one. Read more about me at Organic Beauty Source.com, and find me on , Twitter, Pinterest, and Facebook.
  • Well great! I’m trying to find a safe and ‘natural’ way to make my own moisturizer; which is a pretty easy thing to do, however i need an emulsifying compound. Do you know anything about the AS102 Emulsifying Compound made by AquaSapone out of Australia?

  • Well great! I’m trying to find a safe and ‘natural’ way to make my own moisturizer; which is a pretty easy thing to do, however i need an emulsifying compound. Do you know anything about the AS102 Emulsifying Compound made by AquaSapone out of Australia?

  • OK, AS102 is made up of Glyceryl monostearate, Cetearyl alcohol, Sodium stearoyl lactylate — all of which receive a relatively low score on The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database. This is the first I personally have heard of AS102 Emulsifying Compound and have checked with a couple of my more science-y friends on the subject and will get back to you when they get back to me. In the mean time, some safe and natural emulsifiers are: lecithin; cetearyl alcohol, cetearyl glucoside, and cetearyl olivate; coco caprylate/caprate from coconut; cholesterol; and algae extract (as taken from the The Green Beauty Guide).

  • OK, AS102 is made up of Glyceryl monostearate, Cetearyl alcohol, Sodium stearoyl lactylate — all of which receive a relatively low score on The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database. This is the first I personally have heard of AS102 Emulsifying Compound and have checked with a couple of my more science-y friends on the subject and will get back to you when they get back to me. In the mean time, some safe and natural emulsifiers are: lecithin; cetearyl alcohol, cetearyl glucoside, and cetearyl olivate; coco caprylate/caprate from coconut; cholesterol; and algae extract (as taken from the The Green Beauty Guide).

  • Melanie

    Hi Liz,

    I’m confused – the article above says Cetearyl alcohol is synthetically produced, but then you recommend it as a natural emulsifier? I read that it is derived from coconut oil?

    Thanks for any help in clearing this up!

  • Melanie

    Hi Liz,

    I’m confused – the article above says Cetearyl alcohol is synthetically produced, but then you recommend it as a natural emulsifier? I read that it is derived from coconut oil?

    Thanks for any help in clearing this up!

  • Toni

    I’m trying to find a good natural emulsifier and was told emulsifying wax nf was a natural one. After reading the article, I see it isn’t. Can you recommend one to me. I am making me a hair moisturizer and my water based product and my oil based product keeps separating. If you can, please advise.

  • Toni

    I’m trying to find a good natural emulsifier and was told emulsifying wax nf was a natural one. After reading the article, I see it isn’t. Can you recommend one to me. I am making me a hair moisturizer and my water based product and my oil based product keeps separating. If you can, please advise.

    • Bea

      I believe that lecithin (like soy lecithin, sold in both liquid and granular forms) is an emulsifier.

  • Hi there,

    I am used to making moisturisers with emulsifying wax but as I now realise this is not a natural product, I am now wanting to try out lecithin as a replacement. Could anyone advise as to how much I should be using in comparison to emulsifying wax? Normally for a 230g tub I am using 6 teaspoons, or 30ml, of emulsifying wax. How much lecithin should I be substituting? Thanks 🙂