There are some things that are often left undisclosed or only discussed behind closed doors with specialists and manufactures. One of those things is an ingredient known as carbomer. You likely haven’t got a clue what this is and why it’s important to understand. That’s totally fine and part of the reason we run is to help you better understand things like the ingredients and what’s actually in these skin and beauty products. Trust me, knowing what you’re putting on your skin and ultimately ingesting is more important than you think. I’ll cover what I know about this topic in as much depth as possible.

carbomersWhat Exactly Is Carbomer?

When you read the ingredient labels of some of the cosmetics products, you will eventually read “carbomer,” but chances are you probably won’t know what this is or what it does in the product. It can be found in many different products. This is commonly found in products as a gel-like consistency.

Since it’s a common ingredient, I’ve decided to write this article explaining what it is, its application and the potential toxicity of this ingredient. I tried to keep it simple and basic here, making it easy to understand.

The Origin Of Carbomer

Carbomer is the trade name of poly(acrylic acid) or PAA. This compound is actually a polymer with the high molecular weight of the acrylic acid. And its origin is of course in a lab. What I mean by that is that it’s made in a laboratory or man made so to speak. The carbomers used throughout the cosmetics industry are all synthetically produced and have been around for over fifty years. In fact, this ingredient might be older than most of the people using the products that it’s used it.

The polymer, when dry has a white color and a fluffy appearance. It’s the structure of the molecule that gives it its unique properties.

The polymer chain of PAA can be made of only acrylic acid molecules (homopolymer) or it can be cross-linked with other polyether molecules. No matter the composition, when PAA is dissolved in pH neutral water, it becomes an anionic polymer, meaning that it has a negative charge and it becomes a polyelectrolyte. Well, this doesn’t mean anything to the chemically uninformed readers, right? Either way, it’s important for you to understand especially if you’re a habitual skin and beauty product user.

To dumb things down a bit, in layman’s terms, this means that the PAA has the ability to absorb and retain water molecules, containing water several times over its original volume. It’s a powerhouse ingredient when it comes to water retention, no doubt about that.

The Use Of Carbomers

Due to the ingredients ability to absorb water, carbomers are used as thickening agents in many products. When reading a label, you can see that some products contain up to 50% carbomers. The codes of the carbomers used are typically 910, 934, 934P, 940, 941, and point to the molecular weight of the carbomer used in the product.

The PAAs used can have different pH levels, and for them to properly work, these need to be brought to a neutral state. This is done by neutralizing them with specific agents like sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, tetrasodium ethylenediaminetetraacetate (EDTA) or some other neutralizing agents.

The Effects Of This Ingredient

The swelling of carbomers and their water retention capability is what makes them so popular in the cosmetic industry, pharmaceuticals and in paints.

In addition to its thickening effect, carbomers are used as emulsifying agents. This means that they have the ability to help with the blending of two or more ingredients that usually don’t mix well together. Think oil and vinegar. This is used when there is the need to mix oil-based and water-based ingredients and keep them blended together, for example in creams, lotions, shampoos and other products.

Another reason why these are used is for dispersing and suspending various ingredients in respective mediums. Carbomers are also the absorbing agents in disposable diapers and feminine hygiene products, and in bandages as well as wound dressings that need to absorb liquids. You’ll find that these are also used in detergents and medical glues as well.

Is It Toxic?

The carbomer molecule is biologically completely inert. That means that carbomers don’t have any effect on the skin. Even when we use products containing carbomers, they dry on the skin and don’t interfere and can’t even be felt on the skin.

There is, however, the possibility of irritation due to neutralizing agents which are used to bring the carbomers to neutral pH level.


Carbomers can be found in many everyday products starting with cosmetics, personal care products, detergents, diapers, pharmaceuticals, and paints. They are polymers of acrylic acid, and although they don’t offer any benefits alone, they are used as thickening agents. This ingredient helps improve the texture of beauty products, or it’s used as a suspension or an emulsifying agent.

Based on what I know carbomers are safe to use, as they don’t interact with the skin, and typically don’t cause irritation of any kind. So, no worries when you read the label of your favorite shampoo and find out that it contains a lot of carbomers. Just go with the flow and keep using that product. If you’re really concerned, then perhaps you should speak with a dermatologist to find out whether it’s truly harmful or not. My guess is that you’re in the clear.

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