Falling For The Wrong Type - Carbomer

Forgive me, but I've fallen a teensy bit in love. I tried not to. I tried to stay away, but I was wooed. I was ambushed!

My initial introduction was a no-fail aloe vera gel that magically outdistanced all the others I had ever used. It had the perfect texture – light, yet firm. The perfect behavior – it went on smooth, melted in and simply disappeared with no tackiness or residue. It was almost too good to be true.

It was too good to be true.

The Bursting of The Bubble

After discovering it was carbomer that was responsible for (almost) everything I had fallen for in this particular gel, I looked elsewhere for the same properties – diligently. Before long I found myself comparing every other thickener/gelling agent/texturizer to it.

Sigh.

Carbomer is not plant based. It's not even animal based.

Here comes the shocker.

It's ... petro-chemical based.



But Maybe There's a Touch of Plant Something in There Somewhere... Right?

Not even close, I'm afraid. Carbomer is a generic name for 'synthetic high molecular weight polymers of acrylic acid commonly used as thickening, dispersing and emulsifying agents in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics' (see more at Wikipedia here). In short, it probably couldn't be any further from plants or plant-based materials.


Then There Must be Dangers, Warnings and Other Bad News... Right?

I tried, but couldn't find a thing. Carbomer is actually one of a very few petro-chemical based ingredients that I am unable to find any dangers, warnings, or even environmentally-worrying facts about – at all. Even the hard-core green sites can't find anything bad to say about carbomer.

Why No One is Complaining About it

Carbomer won't cause irritation or allergic reactions – even if a product contains up to 100% of the stuff.

CosmeticsInfo.Org says
"Clinical studies with Carbomers showed that these polymers have low potential for skin irritation and sensitization at concentrations up to 100%. A carbomer polymer demonstrated low potential for phototoxicity and photo-contact allergenicity."

Carbomer is, in fact, so departed from nature that nature can hardly figure out what it's dealing with, so chooses to ignore it completely.

Cosmetics Scientist Colin Sanders says 
"The chemistry of carbomer is totally synthetic and bears no relationship to anything in nature. This is a good thing. It means that your immune system has not encountered anything similar in its evolutionary history and so it is unlikely to react to it. There are millions of people in the world of course, and I dare say there are some of them somewhere who do react to carbomer. Whatever you use there is somebody somewhere who will react to it. But I have never come across or heard of a reaction to this particular material."
(Read his entire post on carbomer here.)

Knowing all of these incredibly positive things about carbomer, a person could be tempted to make an exception to their stubborn plant-based rules and just give in and embrace this wonder ingredient, but ...


There May Just be a Plant-Based Alternative After All

I recently found a new gelling agent/thickener that is plant-based and advertised by my supplier as 'having qualities like carbomer' (nice to see I'm not the only one comparing gelling agents and thickeners to carbomer). I am in the process of testing this new ingredient and promise to update soon.

Meantime, even though carbomer did sneak its way in through the back door, I've decided not to be mad at it for not being plant based. How can you be mad at something that nature can't even be bothered about?

Comments

Rikke said…
Altså Halåååå - må jeg lige sige noget her?

Lise. Er der ikke noget med, at petrokemi er basert på råolie? Og så vidt jeg er informeret, så er olie "lavet af" meget meget meget meget meget gamle planter. Jaaa, se det er jo plantebaseret. Så er den reddet ;-)

Kh Rikke
Lise M Andersen said…
yes ma'am- man er da helt og aldeles forelsket i din logik! Bravo! Tihi!
Ser Candelaria said…
Hi Lise
Do you have an update about the plant-based carbomer-like thickening agent? Thanks!
Lise M Andersen said…
Hi Ser - yes! Please do a search for konjac glucomannan on this blog - I did several posts on this gelling agent as it was advertised as being an alternative to carbomer.
Ser Candelaria said…
Thank you for your reply and for the info. Very useful!
Anonymous said…
You can be allergic to carbomers. I am. Found this out after skin testing from my dermatologist. Expisure causes rases ans,d eczema.
Lise M Andersen said…
Hey there Anon - thanks for sharing this. Since it is very rare to find persons who react to carbomers, I imagine you are among a very select few. I wish you all the best.
Anonymous said…
I was just researching more on carbomer.I was using moisture drops for dry eye and my eyelids became swollen and eyes burning, allergic reaction. Dr had to put me on cortisol drops for 2 wks,Then I was prescribed Restassis which they said would burn a little when I first put drops in. Burning was all day long and went back to Dr after I found the inactive ingredient was Carbopal 980.Realized it was the Carbopol which is related to the carbomer polymer.I found moisture gel drops that don't have it and is preservative free and no problem. Now I know why some moisture lotions give me eczema on my hands and am in the process of finding new eye makeup too without polymers. I'm sure there are more people that don't know why they have irritation at times.Check for co-polymers
Lise M Andersen said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lise M Andersen said…
Hey there Ser - Thanks so much for getting back with this additional info - you've given me something to research!
Anonymous said…
Even petrol came originally from organic substances. Just like not everything organic is safe, maybe not everything inorganic is unsafe.
Lise M Andersen said…
You are spot on with that observation!
Kat said…
I believe I am allergic as well... so not that rare to be allergic
Lise M Andersen said…
Hi Kat - thanks for sharing this.
laughingspider said…
hi...tell me what this product is...that doesn't contain this carbo..?
Lise M Andersen said…
Hey there laughing spider - the product is konjac glucomannen. I've done several posts on it while I was testing it-- try using the search field on the blog to see several posts about how it compares with carbomer
Unknown said…
Have been researching this ingredient because of an allergy to rubber accelerators. It's in one of my products that claim to be petrolatum free. It sounds so much like carba mix that I'm afraid to use it. This information has helped me a lot! If the plant based version was used, it would be listed as the actual name you mentioned and not as Carbomer right?
Lise M Andersen said…
Hi unknown -- the plant based version I worked with that came close to functioning as well as carbomer was konjac glucomannan
ST said…
I have tried HEC that gives the same crystal clear look that I liked. However the only set back is it is gluey and sticky. I have been trying to neutralize that without success. Just wondering if Konjac will give a clear look and has the same feel as Carbomer?
ST said…
I have tried HEC that gives the same crystal clear look that I liked. However the only set back is it is gluey and sticky. I have been trying to neutralize that without success. Just wondering if Konjac will give a clear look and has the same feel as Carbomer?
Lise M Andersen said…
Hey there ST - You may just love konjac glucomannan - it is very close. I did a comparative of konjac to crabber in this post: http://www.lisaliseblog.com/2012/05/konjac-glucomannan-vs-carbomer-whos.html
Lise M Andersen said…
Carbomer! not Crabber (silly autocorrect!)
soakandlather said…
Thank you for this info. I am looking to find what carbomer is. I am making a face cream using aloe vera gel gelled with carbomer. I wasn't sure back then if it is suitable for vegan. I guess it is.
Lise M Andersen said…
HI SoakandLather - yes, carbomer is vegan friendly :)
Damina Helena said…
Hi, thanks for your info here.
I have been prescribed eye gel that contains carbomer and have really bad itching that only gets worse. I was looking for info about the ingredients and came across your blog. The gel also contains sorbitol (E 420), which seem to be totally uncalled for as it is a sweetener and I am obviously not going to eat the eye gel. Anyway, I can not say what substance is causing the itching, but I will have to stop using the product and I thought it could be useful for other people with similar problems. As you say, info about carbomer is suspiciously scarce.
Lise M Andersen said…
HI Damina, Thanks for your input. I'm sorry to hear you are among problems with your eye gel. Carbomer has been used in cosmetics for a very long time with very very few adverse reactions, which makes it an obvious industry favourite as it is also quite functional.

The addition of sorbitol in your gel is as a humectant. The company could just as well have used glycerine - the 2 function just the same in skincare products. You are correct in that they are indeed both sweeteners. Glycerine and Sorbitol are both multifunctional ingredients and are used in food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries. I hope you find some relief from your itchiness!
Lise M Andersen said…
Arghh! Please excuse the backwards sounding sentence (silly autocorrect). The first sentence is to read: I am sorry to hear you are having problems...
Damina Helena said…
Thanks for your reply and yes autocorrect is annoying :)

I am sure carbomer can be useful in skin products, but less sure about using it in eye products. I have used a different make of eye gel before without any problem, that does not contain either carbomer or sorbitol. This is why I can not be sure what ingredient is causing the itching. Although I should say, the leaflet states quite a few possible side effects without revealing which substance that could be the cause.
Lise M Andersen said…
HI Damina - I hope you find the culprit ingredient!
Anonymous said…
Hi! Thanks for this topic and information. I really appreciate the discussion, and that you are taking this seriously!

Here is my experience and the reason I've been looking for information on carbomer: I have arthritis and the homeopathic remedies I have been applying on and off are carried in carbomer. Well, I began to realize that after some initial relief, if I used the carbomer gel rubs more than a couple days in a row, the skin and flesh around my joints began to swell and I felt even lousier. No more carbomer for me. We didn't evolve ingesting these petro-chemo substances so I cannot imagine a scenario where they would be helpful. Convenience and/or product 'feel' are not important to me, but good health is. I'm even worrying now about all the medical exams where these gels play a role -- such as ultrasound imaging; isn't it like adding another thing to the toxic load of an already ill-feeling person needing diagnostics? This is something I hope is given more serious safety research. Thanks again.
Lise M Andersen said…
HI Anon - thanks for sharing your experience. I can't help wondering about the other ingredients in the gel you were using. Are you sure it was the carbomer?
Anonymous said…
If you are allergic to acrylates, adhesives, such as super glue or bandaid adhesive, such as me you will be allergic to carbomer. I found out I was allergic after having surgery and they closed the wound with surgical super glue. Not good. Carbomer and acrylates are in the same family. Carbomer is in a lot of medicines as a binder as well as lots of face, skin- suntan lotions and hair products like hairspray. I now can't wear, use or ingest any form of this without getting a severe rash or itching.
Lise M Andersen said…
HI Anon - thank you so much for explaining! This kind of allergy must make a lot of things a real challenge for you! I wish you the very best.
WildTortoise said…
I had patch testing for dermatitis a few years ago, with Carbomer sited as an irritant which came out as an allergy as I'm prone to excema. I subsequently unknowingly used eye drops for dry eyes, and had the signature rash along the bottom of my eye, and down the side of my nose where the drops had run.The product was made of Carbmoer and not much else.

Soil Association in UK won't approve Carbomer as an ingredient as it's totally synthetic, so I have some criteria to go by in buying cosmetics, but it can be expensive.
Lise M Andersen said…
Hi WildTortoise - Thank you for sharing this. I am sorry you seem to be having a reaction to carbomer . . it is not a very common at all as far as I am aware. You have prompted a bit of additional research now!
Colin Sanders said…
If I can add a few points.

The chemistry of carbomer and acrylates in general is like all polymers somewhat complicated. Superglue and carbomer have some similarities but they are not the same and you can't predict the behaviour of one by reference to the other. If you are allergic to superglue you just might be allergic to carbomer as well, but there is no particularly strong reason to expect it. Perspex is an acrylate polymer as well, just to illustrate just how diverse this family of materials is.

Petrochemicals is an even bigger family and the idea that all members of it could possibly be harmful is quite wrong. (Avoiding petrochemicals for the effect their manufacture has on the planet is a totally different argument and one I personally am very sympathetic to. )

Polymers in general are large molecules which don't easily penetrate the skin so on the whole they are low risk from an allergy point of view. There is a possibility that some polymers might shrink on the skin and cause small scale damage which in turn provokes an allergic reaction. This is as likely to happen with natural polymers as synthetic ones. I haven't ever come across such a case myself nor seen any medical reports, but I have sometimes read things people have posted online for which this could be a possible explanation. The anonymous account of getting a reaction several days after rubbing the product in for example might be explained by this. Normal allergic reactions are usually quicker. I am not a medic and am not qualified to offer advice on specific cases I should hastily add.

Finally just to point out that carbomer is used really really widely. I think every human being on the planet must have come into contact with it. While we can't rule out something hitherto unsuspected coming to light, at the moment its track record is pretty much impeccable.
Lise M Andersen said…
Thank you kindly Colin for your input here! I may just have to do an updated post on this with this information. :)
Unknown said…
The statement that carbomers do not cause allegic reactions is false. I am highly allergic to carbomers and will swell and blister when my skin comes in contact with it. When the swelling goes down and blisters break, I lose the skin because it has been effectively killed. It's like I got a chemical burn from the product. Needless to say, I have a terrible time finding ANY soaps, shampoos, detergents, lotions, etc. that are carbomer free.
Lise M Andersen said…
Hey there Unknown - Thanks for sharing this. I'm sorry to hear you have trouble with this ingredient. You are in all likelihood among a very few people who react to carbomer. My colleagues who have worked with it extensively have even been hard pressed to remember any cases of reactions to it at all. The statement you referred to as being false is the one by CosmeticsInfo.org I assume? It says -'low potential', not 'no potential', so they aren't claiming it is perfect. I hope you are able to find sufficient products without this ingredient, and wish you the best.