Well here is a challenge. Can I write an interesting post about a very basic raw material? Glyceryl monostearate is one of the names you will see cropping up on ingredient lists pretty often, especially for creams. Its official name is glyceryl stearate. What is it?
Well it isn’t controversial. I don’t recall anyone claiming it is dangerous, which is nice. Another thing it isn’t is synthetic. It can be derived from most vegetable oils easily enough. You take a a couple of fatty chains off of a triglyceride oil and there you have it. So if you think of a natural oil as being a glycerin backbone with three fatty chains attached to it, you can think of glyceryl monostearate as a glycerin backbone with just one fatty chain attached.
If someone came up with it today, it would no doubt be hailed as a fine example of green technology. You make it simply by hydrolysing a suitable oil feedstock. This is a process not much more complex than making soap, which people can manage in their kitchens without too much trouble. It uses renewable resources and is not energy intensive. And the product itself is not toxic and is readily biodegradable. In fact biodegradation can be achieved not only by micro-organisms but by humans. The process of breaking down a triglyceride into its component parts is a very basic one that is one of the body’s major sources of energy and is going on in your cells right now. If you put a product containing glyceryl monostearate onto your skin I doubt that very much would get through to your bloodstream, but if it did the body would know exactly what to do with it once it got there.
Cleaving the fatty chains off the glycerol gives us a cheap but really useful ingredient. The glycerin bit is water soluble and the fat chain is oil soluble giving you a molecule that can stabilise emulsions.
I said that the production process was similar to soap making. For the most popular form of glyceryl monostearate it actually involves a bit of soap making. By putting a splash of sodium and potassium hydroxide in the mix a small amount of soap is formed in addition. This is handy because the glyceryl monostearate alone isn’t that good as an emulsifier on its own. The soap enhances it considerably, making the grade known as glyceryl stearate self emulsifying. When you see glyceryl stearate SE on an ingredient list, it is the more usual form in skin creams, then there is a trace of soap as well.
There is a great deal more I could write about this stuff, but I have probably already exhausted your patience.
Notes for Chemists
All the grades of glyceryl monostearate tend to get called GMS. The most widely used grade is the self emulsifying version with the official ICID name of Glyceryl Stearate SE and with CAS number 11099-07-3 and EINECS number 234-325-6. It is listed on the Cos Ing database and the SCCS have never troubled to express any opinions about it. Even the easily spooked guys over at the Environmental Working Group can’t get very worked up about it giving it a zero hazard rating. They do moan about a 93% data gap. I don’t know how the data gap is worked out but it is hard to imagine that there is any particular shortage of information on such a well known material. In particular, given that we eat it daily it would seem a little pointless to feed it to laboratory animals to assess its toxicity.