One can be forgiven for not thinking too hard about what goes into making everyday substances these days. However, one should perhaps appreciate the incredible science behind a tub of Vaseline, or a bottle of factor 50, something which a mere one hundred years ago would not have even been heard of.
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How Thickening Agents Work
A thickening agent works by increasing the viscosity of a substance, usually a liquid, by altering the physical properties of water. This is usually done via emulsions, in which another substance dissolves in and/or absorbs the moisture around it, making the overall mixture less watery. In food, for example, flour does this via starch gelatinization, where the intermolecular bonds between starch molecules break down, altering its crystalline structure and allowing dissolved granules to absorb more water. Other, more synthetic substances, such as SimplyThick gel, work in a similar fashion via the introduction of polymer-based substances, such as hydroxyethyl cellulose, glucono delta-lactone, or guar gum. These can be very useful both for various culinary functions and for medicinal purposes, such as treating various forms of dysphagia.
Cosmetics and Personal Hygiene
Thickening agents are essential in the physical makeup of cosmetics, as many of these substances need to bind to the skin in order to perform their given functions. It is also essential that the cosmetic thickener in question is relatively free of allergens, lest it adversely affects the user’s skin, hence why most will always undergo a rigorous process of dermatological testing and passing health and safety regulations. Cosmetic and hygiene products often include liquids such as polyethylene glycol, which, ironically, is actually derived from petroleum and is used for a variety of purposes within medical manufacturing. Other common ingredients include polyacrylic acid, also known as carbomer, or natural products, such as beeswax. These generally work by introducing polymers that absorb water, increasing a substance’s viscosity. Honey has also been used historically in herbal medicines and used to treat various injuries to the skin, as well as other dermatological issues.
If a cosmetic or hygiene product is very viscous, then chances are it has been introduced to a thickening agent at some point in the manufacturing process. These can be anything, including hand creams, moisturizers, foundation in makeup, concealers, shampoos, conditioners, mascara, hair gel, nail varnish, Vaseline, or sunscreen. In fact, the only things they are unlikely to appear in so much are pure liquids or powders, such as perfumes, face powders, or exfoliants.
Always Read the Label
As stated, great care is always taken when bringing cosmetic or hygiene products to market, and this usually centers on reducing the use of allergenic substances which trigger allergic reactions in users. However, as any doctor will tell you, screening out all possible allergens and still ending up with a usable product is nigh impossible. This is why, unfortunately, there is some necessary responsibility on behalf of the user to identify which ingredients they are allergic to and read the packaging carefully before using.