Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Vegetable Emulsifying Wax

I've talked about how, although it's a great starting point for learning about chemicals in personal care products, the Cosmetics Databse is not the end-all source for determining product safety. Today, I'm going to show you how an ingredient that scores a "0" in the database, should really score much much higher.

Vegetable emulsifying wax is used in a lot of products, from lotions to conditioners--even makeup--to make oil and water combine in to a lotion form. It's the emulsifier of choice for home crafters and larger companies alike because it's easy to work with and it's relatively cheap. At first glance it looks natural (after all, it's made up from "vegetable" material, right?) but once you learn what it really is, it's not so great after all.

I did some digging and found out what vegetable emulsifying wax is actually comprised of:
Cetearyl Alcohol (a blend of cetyl and steareth alcohol)
Polysorbate 60
PEG-150 Stearate
Let's look at these chemicals one by one.

Cetearyl Alcohol
Although cetearyl alcohol scores a "0" risk score in the Cosmetics Database, the two ingredients that it's made up of, Cetyl and Steareth Alcohol, both score a "1" for a mild risk of skin irritation and tumor formation at high doses. Not a terrible score, and I'm not particularly outraged by this ingredient. However, is it a synthetically produced chemical? Yes. Is it truly natural? No.

Polysorbate 60
Also scores a "1" risk score for possibly being a reproductive toxin and for tumor formation at high doses. When it's in small amounts in a lotion, you're probably pretty safe. That said, it's the same story as the cetearyl alcohol--it's not truly natural and it's still a chemical.

PEG-150 Stearate
This is where it gets hairy. PEG is short for polyethylene glycol. Polyethylene glycol is an ethoxylated compound, meaning that it's been processed with ethylene oxide, a known human carcinogen. Traces of this compound can be left in the product, along with byproducts such as 1,4-dioxane, also a known carcinogen. (Read more about the latest 1,4-dioxane scandal here.) PEG-150 Stearate scores a 4-7 risk score in the cosmetics database, "depending on product usage." So, in a product that would remain on your skin, like lotion or deodorant, I'd imagine that they'd give it a "7".

Even though this ingredient only scores a "1" in the database, it too is an ethoxylated compound, and can also contain traces of ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane. It's created by taking stearyl alcohol (a naturally-ocurring fatty alcohol) and combining it with ethylene oxide. The number following the "steareth" is how many units of ethylene oxide reacted with the stearyl alcohol. So, steareth-20 has been reacted with 20 units of ethylene oxide. There are a lot of steareths that range from 2 on up. Steareth-20 is the highest--meaning it's been processed with the highest amount of ethylene oxide.

So, how does this happen? How does an ingredient with all these chemicals end up with a "0" risk score in the Cosmetics Databse?

How this happens
The Cosmetics Database is just that--a database. When an ingredient is entered in to the database, it searches about 50 other databases for safety information based on the key words of the ingredient. When "vegetable emulsifying wax" is entered, the database searches for studies with those words. It doesn't take in to account the fact that there are separate ingredients within the one ingredient. There are little to no studies on "vegetable emulsifying wax" as an overall blend, so no information comes up and the ingredient passes with a "0" score. This happens all the time. ("Coconut fatty acid cream base", anyone?)

How to avoid ethoxylated compounds

Compounds created with ethylene oxide (or ethoxylated compounds) are pretty easy to spot. Any time that you see an "eth" you can be sure it's ethoxylated. Sodium Laureth sulfate, sodium myreth sulfate, steareth, ceteareth, polyethylene. PEG is short for Polyethylene Glycol, so those are culprits as well.

Safer Alternatives
These lotion products are 95% or more organic, and contain no "vegetable emulsifying wax" or iffy ingredients.

Trillium Organics Organic Body Butter
Bubble & Bee Organic Body Butta
Nature's Paradise
Oracle Organics


3rd Wave Inc said...

Buying quality organic products is the initial move to a healthy, natural, green lifestyle that can bring a good feeling not only to ourselves but as to our environment as well.

Lori Jones said...

Stephanie, thank you for sending me this information. I will update this on my health blog
The more we can educate others on the harmful toxic chemicas that the cosmetic companies continue to get away with the healthier they can be along with their children! Please keep me posted on further findings.

Anonymous said...

LOVE this post. I have often wondered what this seemingly harmless "vegetable emulsifying wax" is since, as you noted, it is used in a ton of products, esp. "natural" ones. Thanks so much for investigating this ingredient and reporting on it for us truly concerned, curious individuals. Before, I was uncertain about the safety of products containing this wax, but I'm going to stay away since reading this info.

I particularly loved the section where you broke down the PEG-150 Stearate and the Steareth-20 and what on EARTH those numbers mean. It was enlightening, and I, literally, said, "Ohhh" while reading.

Unknown said...

You've done your homework! Good job. I've just spent the last week doing the same painfully-extensive research and learned exactly what you've just posted. I've given up on toxic commercial products and plan to start brewing my own body products. Thanks for the informative posting; if we don't educate ourselves, "they" certainly won't!
Wake up, everyone!! Insist on a healthier world.

Stephanie Greenwood said...

Angela--Save yourself some time and order from us! ;) Ha ha. Thanks for your kind comments.

Krystal said...

You are a girl after my own heart. I recently discovered the cosmetic database, which is how I found you. But in my research on their website I would see something listed as like a "0" or "1" but have "Cancer" checked. I was like "????" Thanks so much for the info! I haven't tried your products yet, but I am EXCITED about them and placing an order right now!

Stephanie Greenwood said...

I know-it's confusing. Actually, all the checkmark usually means is that it has been tested for cancerous effects. If it's a grey check it checks out okay. If it's purple, that's when it's bad. Another reason to do your own research and not just rely on the's confusing!

drames said...

There are some emulsifiers that are completely PEG free and biodegradable - it still has "man-made" products, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's harmful to nature.

What is your opinion on the following stuff:

AS102 and PlantaMulse?

Anonymous said...

Great blog, but I just wanted to let everyone know that Nature's Paradise has horrible customer service, so I wouldn't recommend buying from them. The quality of their hand creams and body wash is also disappointing :(

- Diane

Unknown said...

Stephanie, I recently became one of your new customers, and I have been reading extensively on your blog. Your knowledge about all the so called "safe" ingredients blows me away. I can't tell you how happy I am to have found your products. You have gained a life-long fan! You show to be fearless when opposed, and present your knowledge and wisdom with grace and truthfulness - my two favorite characteristics in any human being! Thank goodness for people like you!

Anonymous said...

At first I was very happy to find your website, but after going back to I found that they state that the inredients you use in your own products are not as good as well. And they have purple check marks, so it is very bad. Can you explain this? Here is the link for your own Bubble and Bee site in the

Stephanie Greenwood said...

You have to look at the individual products to get an accurate score. That page is an overall addition of every ingredient. The main problem that the database has is with our list of ingredients is the alcohol that we use in our spray deodorants. Because drinking alcohol has long been studied and known to increase your risk for cancer, be toxic to the system, create liver liver disease, etc, it gets a bad score and all the purple checkmarks. However, you'll notice that while it has a high score, there's also a notation in the database on that ingredient that says that the primary risks of alcohol are from drinking it, not from applying it to your skin. So, because we use alcohol in two of our products, it gives us those purple checkmarks on our overall company page. Which, really isn't fair--but oh well. We know our products are safe. Still, it's frustrating.

Also note that the Cosmetics Database is not the end-all resource for cosmetic safety. It's a starting point, but there are many dangerous chemicals that slip through the cracks and score a "0." (Mineral salts, honeysuckle extract, emulsifying wax) So, just because something scores a "0" doesn't mean it's safe. You have to you use your own common sense and think...has this ingredient been used safely for centuries? If the answer is yes, not matter what the database my say, then it's a good ingredient.

Laura said...

Great info... thank you for sharing.

Jenya Bushmich said...

I just checked This ingredients has a score of "4" as of March 2011.

Stephanie Greenwood said...

Yes! It does. After my article circulated a bit, they Cosmetics Database decided to change the score. Woo hoo!

Deeanna Franklin Campbell said...

Very informative. Just stopped me from making a potentially bad and expensive purchase on another site.


Anonymous said...

I like how you gave options for pre-made lotions that don't contain vegetable wax. However, I have been trying to find information on making my own lotions and do not want to use emulsifying wax. From what I've seen the most common alternative is beeswax and borax (Sodium Borate) and I'm not sure this is what I want either. Looking into Sodium Borate in cosmetics most places say that it should never be used on your skin as it is a toxin. Do you have any other suggestions for home crafters that are less toxic or (most desired) non-toxic?

Anonymous said...

The only problem with natural emulsifiers is that they are impossible to find. Lecithin is soy based so is most likely a GMO. There is one website that sells a cold process emulsifier, but is not located in the United States. One has a minimum purchase, so if you want one product, you also have to order something else you don't want.
I would like to try sucrose laurate in my lotions, but it is not available. There are also blogs on the difficulty of getting some of them to work.

Kadija said...

Thank you for this wonderful post. I'm all about making my own personal products. I get unrefined pure raw Shea butter from Africa where my parents live and create body lotions face creams hair care products. Check out my blog.

angeli said...

Where can i buy emulsifying wax? We are trying to make a home made lotion, I know that it is purely chemical in nature but I really have difficulty in looking beeswax suppliers in the Philippines. If you know where to buy beeswax.. that would be great. I just need the emulsifying wax since I cannot find supplier of raw beeswax. Thank you.

Kat Da Silva said...

I'm interested in making my own lotions for personal use. What then do I use as a base if not VEW?

Kat Da Silva said...

I'm interested in making my own lotions for personal use. What then do I use as a base if not VEW?

Unknown said...

Great read! I was about to purchase some 'vegetable emulsifying wax' but I'd rather have my face cream 'sweat' a little. So far it's 100% natural, with bees wax ;)

Jamie said...

Finding all natural emulsifiers aren't hard. Learn the HLB system. Beeswax, lecithin, lanolin etc are co-emulsifiers. Heated and blended properly they make a very stable cream. I also make creams with no e-wax or palm products.

Juilee Dandekar said...

What's the best alternative to emulsifying wax which would be completely organic?

Stephanie Greenwood said...

There won't be something that acts just like E-Wax in organic form. E-Wax does such a good job of not just emulsifying but thickening a formula. Beeswax + lecithin can be helpful for water in oil emulsions. Add some xanthan gum and you may be able to get an oil-in-water emulsion with them as well. Olivem 900 and Olivem 1000 are nice products to work with--they act a lot like E-Wax but without the PEGs and such. They're not certified organic, but are a better alternative.