An emulsifier is a binding agent used in products like processed foods, cleaning agents, and personal care items. Overconsuming them is linked to increased inflammation, gut health issues, and cancer risks.

Emulsifiers are substances that help blend together two ingredients that don’t typically mix, like oil and water. Without an emulsifier, your store-bought ice cream or packaged cookies just wouldn’t have the same texture or consistency — they also wouldn’t have as long of a shelf life.

The same goes for many personal care products, including shampoo or lotion.

While emulsifiers are Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved and generally considered safe, there are some potential health effects to know about, especially when it comes to consuming foods and drinks that contain emulsifiers. Here’s what to know.

Emulsifiers help create stable emulsions, a combination of two or more liquids that are otherwise unmixable. Oil-in-water emulsions tend to be a core part of many products in the following industries:

  • processed foods
  • supplements
  • personal care
  • cosmetic
  • detergents
  • pharmaceutical
  • paint
  • pesticide

Adding an emulsion to a product can improve its:

  • appearance
  • texture
  • smell
  • taste
  • shelf life

For example, if you’ve ever bought “natural” peanut butter without an emulsifier, you know that you need to manually remix the oil and nut spread every time you open the container. You’ll also need to store it in the fridge so it doesn’t go bad, and it will expire faster than your typical tub of big-brand peanut butter.

Some common emulsifiers used in foods and beverages include:

  • carrageenan
  • gelatin
  • egg protein
  • whey protein
  • soy lecithin
  • guar gum
  • xanthan gum
  • polysorbates
  • fatty acids from vegetable oil or animal fat
  • ammonium phosphatides

You can find these ingredients in many processed foods found at your local grocery store, including:

  • mayonnaise
  • margarine
  • salad dressing
  • packaged breads, baked goods, etc.
  • packaged crackers and other snacks
  • deli meats
  • dairy products (like sliced cheese)
  • dairy alternative products (like soy milk)
  • candy
  • frosting
  • ice cream
  • chocolate
  • nut butters
  • sauces

Some common emulsifiers used in beauty and personal care products include:

  • cetearyl or cetyl alcohol
  • ceteareth
  • stearate and glyceryl stearate
  • hydrogenated castor oil
  • beeswax

Some common products you can find these ingredients in include:

  • lotion
  • shampoo and conditioner
  • sunscreen
  • lipstick, gloss, chapstick, etc.
  • mascara
  • face or body wash

Other products that often contain emulsifiers include:

  • laundry detergent
  • household cleaners
  • wax or polish for cars, floors
  • glue or latex paint

Like many additives found in processed food and personal care products, emulsifiers are generally considered safe by the FDA — but that doesn’t mean that they’re healthy in large quantities. Meanwhile, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) classifies dietary emulsifiers as an emerging safety risk.

Preliminary research has uncovered a link between emulsifier consumption and increased gut inflammation, food allergies, and risk of certain types of cancer.

In a 2021 study on mice, researchers concluded that consuming certain emulsifiers may be a risk factor for developing colorectal cancer. The emulsifiers carboxymethylcellulose or polysorbate 80 have also been found to worsen the development of colonic cancer tumors.

Researchers think this link could be due to the increased inflammation and negative impact on the gut microbiome that excess emulsifier consumption causes. In general, emulsifiers seem to decrease the diversity of bacteria in the gut.

In a 2022 study, researchers concluded that consuming emulsifiers, especially polysorbate 80, led to increased food allergy symptoms in mice.

Meanwhile, 2021 research links common dietary emulsifiers to intestinal inflammation, inflammatory bowel diseases, and metabolic syndrome. The synthetic emulsifiers carboxymethylcellulose and polysorbate 80 seem to be particularly problematic, researchers say.

In a large 2022 study on nearly 103,000 French adults, researchers concluded that:

  • Sodium citrate, xanthan gum, and mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids were associated with increased overall cancer risk.
  • E331, sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate, carob bean gum, total lactylates, and total celluloses were linked to a higher risk of breast cancer.
  • Carrageenan, E415, and triphosphates were linked to an increased postmenopausal breast cancer risk.

There’s also some limited research on mice from 2020 that suggests that limiting emulsifier consumption can improve Crohn’s disease symptoms.

Emulsifier safety in skin care

The potential hazards aren’t just limited to consuming them, either: In a 2023 study, researchers noted that excess use of emulsifiers in products like lotion, soap, and makeup can destroy the skin barrier and cause contact dermatitis (eczema).

In general, limiting processed foods will limit your consumption of emulsifiers and other potentially harmful additives, including:

If this seems overwhelming, try to “shop the perimeter” next time you go to the grocery store. By purchasing the bulk of your food from the fresh food sections generally found on the outer edges of the store, you can avoid loading up on too many processed foods found in the center aisles.

Keep in mind, however, that all processed foods aren’t created equally: A can of tomato sauce that contains just two or three ingredients is still a healthier option than a Bolognese sauce containing dozens (including, most likely, some emulsifiers).

Healthline has also compiled a list of 25 tips that can simplify eating healthy in your life.

Emulsifiers are common additives found in processed foods and personal care products. Though they’re FDA-approved, emerging research links consuming some emulsifiers to gut inflammation, microbiome disruption, and higher cancer and allergy risks.

Emulsifiers in products like cosmetics and cleaning agents are also known to cause contact dermatitis in mice.

The current research is limited, especially human-based studies. It’s important to continue research, that way, definitive conclusions can be made.

If you find that you react poorly to foods with excessive emulsifiers, you can limit your exposure to emulsifiers by avoiding excess consumption of processed foods. Buying natural cleaning supplies, skin care, and beauty products can also help prevent potential skin issues.