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If you’ve ever browsed the ingredient list on the back of a makeup, skincare, or haircare product, you may have noticed this word before: carbomer. Unfamiliar to most, you might've completely glossed over this ingredient without a second thought, but carbomers are actually in tons of skincare products. If you’re curious about what carbomers are, or concerned about what what they do, you can rest easy—according to board-certified plastic surgeon Dr. Konstantin Vasyukevich, there’s nothing to worry about when you see this ingredient listed among others. “Carbomer has been assessed as safe to use in cosmetic products,” he assures. “It has been shown that carbomers can be used by everyone and have no adverse effect.” Known to be safe for all skin types, carbomers are fluffy white powders that allow other ingredients in your products to work together to get the job done.
Type of ingredient: Polymer
Main benefits: Thickening agent, suspends solids in liquids, and works as an emulsifier to prevent oil and water from separating
Who should use it: Carbomers are are considered safe for all skin types
How often can you use it: This will depend on the specific product you are using, but carbomers are known to be safe and do not bioaccumulate, so overuse of this specific product won't be an issue for most
Works well with: Carbomers don't specifically work well with or against any other ingredients.
Don’t use with: Carbomers are very versatile and work well with just about any ingredient.
What Are Carbomers?
Not often talked about, but featured in a number of cosmetic products, most people don’t know what carbomers are, even though they probably benefit from the use of them every day. Unlike active ingredients that offer results-driven value to a product, carbomers are inactive ingredients that help those active ingredients work so well. “A carbomer describes a series of polymers made from acrylic acid,” explains Dr. Vasyukevich. “On their own, carbomers are white, fluffy powders but are frequently used as gels in a wide variety of cosmetics and personal care products made for the skin, hair, nails, and makeup products, as well as dentifrices.” Carbomers are also commonly listed as carbomer 934, carbomer 934 P, carbomer 941, carbopol 910, and carboxyvinyl polymer.
Benefits of Carbomers for Skin
While carbomers alone won’t really do much to improve the condition of your skin or treat an existing issue or concern, they can offer benefits when featured in certain products. Just think of them as the supporting actor in a film, or a backup singer on an album—they may not be the star of the show, but the whole thing couldn’t really come together without their help.
- Thickens or evens-out the consistency of products: “Carbomers are thickening agents that help control the consistency or stickiness, and flow of many cosmetic products.
- Prevents separation in products: Additionally, they help distribute and suspend insoluble solids into liquid, and prevent the oil and liquid parts of a solution from separating,” says Dr. Vasyukevich. This helpful trait is what makes thinner moisturizers like emulsions work.
- Improves the texture of products: “Carbomers can easily absorb and retain water, and can expand immensely when they’re suspended in water—up to 1000 times their original volume,” Dr. Vasyukevich states. “By adding carbomers to things like shampoos, conditioners, creams, and lotions, the formulations will appear more rich, smooth, and creamy.”
Side Effects of Carbomers
According to the Environmental Working Group, carbomers are considered to be a very safe ingredient. It is not considered to be an ingredient associated with causing cancers in “government, industry, or academic studies or assessments,” and has also not been linked to developmental or reproductive toxicity. Additionally, carbomers have not been shown to compromise the immune system or cause allergic reactions. “In reviewing acute oral and dermal studies, they determined that carbomers have a low potential for phototoxicity, photo-contact allergenicity, skin irritation and sensitization at concentrations up to 100%,” Dr. Vasyukevich adds.
So, if you’re using a product that contains carbomers and you are having an adverse or allergic reaction, it is very safe to assume that a different ingredient is to blame.
How to Use It
Because carbomers are ingredients that allow the countless products they’re found in to do their best work, there isn’t really one set of instructions for their use as there might be for, say, SPF or glycolic acid. “Carbomers are versatile and can be used anytime,” Dr. Vasyukevich says. “Carbomers are one of the most versatile polymers in industry, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals and even in oral care products... It seems to be a neutral type of ingredient that works well with everything.” If you’re using a product that relies on carbomers, be sure to follow the use instructions of that specific product carefully, and reduce or discontinue use if you notice negative side effects, like breakouts or irritation.
The Best Products with Carbomers
Because you don’t really see carbomers advertised as selling points for products, you likely wouldn’t know that they’re even in there, but carbomers are fairly common. “There are so many products containing carbomer, from shampoo to lotion to hand sanitizer,” says Dr. Vasyukevich.
One such product is the Squalane + Peptide Eye Gel by Biossance, which offers the hydrating properties of squalane and the anti aging benefits of peptide in a gel formula, thanks to carbomer.
For a disinfected hand on the go, Everyone Coconut & Lemon Natural Hand Sanitizer Gel is 99.9% effective when combating common germs, and features a formula that won’t leave your hands feeling sticky or dried out.
If you prefer a gel-like consistency to help hydrate your skin, look to the healing powers of aloe vera in the Varuza Soothing Gel Aloe Vera 95. Aloe vera offers many skin healing benefits, like reducing inflammatory acne and preventing fine lines and wrinkles, and can also help hair concerns like dandruff when it’s applied to the scalp, according to the Baylor College of Medicine.
The lightweight texture and fluid consistency of Paula’s Choice RESIST Brightening Essence is another carbomer-containing product, which contains antioxidants to leave skin looking bright, glowing, and even.
Products designed to treat your skin’s concerns are only one avenue of skincare carbomers assist with — they can also be found in preventative items which should be part of your daily regimen anyway: SPF. Loved by dermatologists, the CeraVe line offers sunscreen safe enough for a baby’s skin, and fragrance free so it won’t irritate yours.
For those who prefer a cream-based formula to keep their complexions moisturized, the widely celebrated Cetaphil SPF 15 Daily Facial Moisturizer is lightweight and perfect for daytime as it contains a built-in broad spectrum SPF.