Is Polysorbate 20 biodegradable? 

This article covers some important questions regarding polysorbate 20 (more commonly known as Tween 20). The following topics are addressed:

  • Applications of polysorbate 20
  • Difference between polysorbate 20 and 80
  • Biodegradability status of polysorbate 20
  • Health risks associated with polysorbate 20
  • Environmental impacts of polysorbate 20
  • Is polysorbate 20 sustainable?
  • Are there greener alternatives to polysorbate 20?
  • FAQs

Is Polysorbate 20 biodegradable?

Polysorbate 20 is an organic compound that is readily soluble in water. Polysorbate is completely biodegradable as indicated in its safety data sheet. Still, it is not advised to throw it away unless mixed with a good amount of water so that it can degrade easily. It will also degrade easily in soil.

The safety data sheet indicates that it is safe for humans to use due to the fact that it is non-toxic. However, there are certain cautions to be taken.

As good as it may sound, still polysorbate 20 is not a naturally occurring compound, it is derived from but is not. It is a synthetic compound.

There are natural options such as coconut oil, turkey-red oil etc to be considered instead of polysorbate 20 but the fact that its environmental impact is almost none means that one should not hurry to look for more natural alternatives.

Is polysorbate 20 organic or inorganic?

An organic compound is a compound that is primarily made of hydrocarbons meaning that in every organic compound, carbon and hydrogen are bonded together and in some cases with another compound. 

Most natural living things are made of organic substances which is why it is necessary to know if a substance is organic because it will affect how it is degraded in nature. Inorganic compounds are those which do not contain hydrocarbons i.e., sand so they are not biodegradable.

Polysorbate 20 is an organic compound. It belongs to a class of organic compounds which is known as fatty acid esters. 

Is polysorbate 20 biodegradable?

A material which can be degraded by the action of microorganisms is considered biodegradable. Microorganisms (algae, bacteria, fungi) use special chemical and biological mechanisms to degrade a substance. These processes do not produce any harmful by-products. It will not release any toxic substance into the soil, water, and air. 

Polysorbate 20 is an organic compound that is readily soluble in water. Polysorbate is completely biodegradable as indicated in its safety data sheet. Still, it is not advised to throw it away unless mixed with a good amount of water so that it can degrade easily. It will also degrade easily in soil.

Biodegradability is the breakdown of waste by the action of microbes such as bacteria, fungi or other decomposers. The process of biodegradability is also associated with or facilitated by external factors such as sunlight, aeration, temperature et cetera. 

Biodegradability is an important factor to assess if something is eco-friendly or not as our main goal or idea is to have the maximum amount of eco-friendly products. 

It is seen that there is a general rule of thumb that natural materials are more prone to be biodegradable as compared to non-natural materials. Also, natural and organic materials are comparatively more sustainable as compared to non-natural materials. 

Therefore, as polysorbate 20 is a natural or rather organic material, it is assumed to be eco-friendly, biodegradable and sustainable material. 

What is a polysorbate 20 and what are its uses?

Polysorbates are oily liquids that are used as emulsifying agents in a number of industries. Polysorbates are mainly derived from sorbitol. Polysorbates are divided into four main types:

  • Polysorbate 20 (polyoxyethylene (20) sorbitan monolaurate) or Tween 20
  • Polysorbate 40 (polyoxyethylene (20) sorbitan monopalmitate)
  • Polysorbate 60 (polyoxyethylene (20) sorbitan monostearate)
  • Polysorbate 80 (polyoxyethylene (20) sorbitan monooleate)

Currently, we will discuss only polysorbate 20 or Tween 20. Polysorbate 20 is a type of polysorbate that has broad applications in the food, pharmaceutical and biotech industries which are briefly described.

  • In the food industry, it is used as a wetting agent in products such as mouth drops
  • In the pharmaceutical industry, it is used to stabilize emulsions and suspensions
  • In the biotech industry, it is used in immunoassays

What is the difference between polysorbate 20 and polysorbate 80?

Polysorbate 20 and polysorbate 80 are chemically and physically very similar with a minor structural difference due to which their applications in different industries differ. Although both are used in emulsifying agents, still they have different applications

Polysorbate 20 is soluble in water and glycerine, is pale yellow in colour and is used in formations which have less than 5% oils in them. Polysorbate 20 is less viscous which is why it is used in scrubs more often than polysorbate 80

On the other hand, polysorbate 80 is yellow in colour, is used in formations that have more oil than water and is not soluble in glycerine. Polysorbate 80 is mostly used in cosmetics, it is much thicker than polysorbate 20 and that is why in the food industry it is added to ice cream to make ice cream more stable and easier to handle.

Can polysorbate 20 be used in place of polysorbate 80?

Yes, but it depends on the type of product that you are using because both polysorbate 20 and polysorbate 80 have different properties which are explored differently in different industries. As discussed earlier, both are quite similar but have minor differences due to which their use varies.

It can be easily explained with the help of an example. We have discussed that polysorbate 80 is used to make ice cream more stable so that it is easier to handle. So if polysorbate 20 was to be used instead of polysorbate 20 then it would not serve the purpose because polysorbate 20 is not as thick and viscous as polysorbate 80.

Is polysorbate 20 safe for humans and marine life? (3 cautions)

Yes. The safety data sheet indicates that it is safe for humans to use due to the fact that it is non-toxic. However, there are certain cautions to be taken.

  • The amount used in food products should not exceed the recommended limits.
  • It is flammable so direct heat should be avoided.
  • It should not come in contact with skin and eyes during laboratory work

Regarding marine life. It is stated that the fact that it is readily soluble in water means that it does not create any harm to marine life and it is non-toxic which means it is safe for fish to take in and that it does not bioaccumulate so it is one of those things that are a lot of benefits but very less risk for marine, animal and human life.

Still, guidelines must be followed when disposing of polysorbate 20, it should not be thrown directly into the stream or waterway rather it should be diluted which will start its degradable process.

Are there any better alternatives to be used as wetting agents?

There are many more natural and greener alternatives to emulsifiers such as polysorbate 20. As good as it may sound, still polysorbate 20 is not a naturally occurring compound, it is derived from but is not. It is a synthetic compound.

There are natural options such as coconut oil, turkey-red oil etc to be considered instead of polysorbate 20 but the fact that its environmental impact is almost none means that one should not hurry to look for more natural alternatives.

However, time and again, we have seen that natural alternatives are much better than synthetic ones. Although polysorbate is a natural and organic material, it is not made that way and therefore, in terms of neutrality, it will lag behind the options discussed in the last paragraph. 

Is polysorbate sustainable?

After all the due elaboration, let us move towards the main question which is whether the product can be called sustainable or not. 

As has been discussed, there are certain qualities that should be present in order to call a product sustainable. These qualities include:

  • The product should be made from natural ingredients
  • The product should be biodegradable
  • The product should be made from recycled material
  • The product should be recyclable 
  • The product could be reused in creative and abundant ways

If we assess our product, which is polysorbate 20, it can be seen that polysorbate 20 checks many points mentioned in the list. 

In light of these details, it can be argued that press-on nails can be considered sustainable, but, the product needs to be made sustainable by the inclusion and use of natural and biodegradable materials. 

Conclusion

It is concluded that Polysorbate 20 is an organic compound that is readily soluble in water. Polysorbate is completely biodegradable as indicated in its safety data sheet. Still, it is not advised to throw it away unless mixed with a good amount of water so that it can degrade easily. It will also degrade easily in soil.

The safety data sheet indicates that it is safe for humans to use due to the fact that it is non-toxic. However, there are certain cautions to be taken.

As good as it may sound, still polysorbate 20 is not a naturally occurring compound, it is derived from but is not. It is a synthetic compound.

There are natural options such as coconut oil, turkey-red oil etc to be considered instead of polysorbate 20 but the fact that its environmental impact is almost none means that one should not hurry to look for more natural alternatives.

Frequently Asked Questions: Is Polysorbate 20 biodegradable?

What is the other name for polysorbate 20?

Tween 20 is the other name for polysorbate 20. 

Is polysorbate 20 natural?

By nature, it is an organic compound. However, based on how it is processed, it may also be termed a synthetic compound. 

References 

  • Penfield, K., Young, B., Young, J. K., Kruger, G. R., Henry, R., & Lindner, G. (2015). Physical and biological effects of modified polysorbate 20.
  • Deechongkit, S., Wen, J., Narhi, L. O., Jiang, Y., Park, S. S., Kim, J., & Kerwin, B. A. (2009). Physical and biophysical effects of polysorbate 20 and 80 on darbepoetin alfa. Journal of pharmaceutical sciences, 98(9), 3200-3217.
  • Franzetti, A., Di Gennaro, P., Bevilacqua, A., Papacchini, M., & Bestetti, G. (2006). Environmental features of two commercial surfactants widely used in soil remediation. Chemosphere, 62(9), 1474-1480.
  • Safety Data Sheet. Retrieved from https://cdn.gbiosciences.com/pdfs/msds/786-518_msds.pdf
  • Difference between Polysorbate 20 and 80. Retrieved from https://www.huanachemical.com/differences-between-polysorbate-20-and-polysorbate-80.htm 

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