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Unless you're a dermatologist or cosmetic chemist, you probably won’t know what every single ingredient found in your favorite products actually does. Sure, it's common knowledge that hyaluronic acid can help your skin retain moisture or that vitamin C can help brighten the complexion while fighting off free radical damage. But what about frequently seen additives on an ingredient list that aren't necessarily highlighted on the packaging, such as lecithin? What exactly is lecithin's role for your skin and in today's cosmetic formulations?
Extremely common, yet not often given enough credit, lecithin is a multi-functional ingredient rich in skin- and hair-nurturing fatty acids. Originally isolated from animal-based sources such as egg yolks and milk, today, it's also derived from several plant-based sources such as soybeans and natural oils like sunflower and grapeseed.
As a cosmetic ingredient, lecithin provides three main benefits: it's a skin-softening emollient, a gentle emulsifier (an ingredient that keeps the product from separating), and it’s used to encapsulate active ingredients.
Lecithin’s Trifecta Of Benefits
According to board-certified dermatologist Dr. Angela Lamb, lecithin “makes a product more moisturizing and penetrates the top layers of the skin.” As a moisturizing agent, lecithin has emollient properties, meaning it replenishes the skin by essentially filling in any gaps in its natural moisture barrier (thanks to its high lipid and fatty acid content). "Lecithin is made up of fatty acids including stearic, palmitic, and oleic acids and helps to soften and smooth the skin," says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Marisa Garshick. "It also contains phospholipids and triglycerides to help replenish moisture and support the skin barrier."
Lecithin is also an excellent emulsifier, which are agents that help water- and oil-based ingredients better blend and stay together, explains Dr. Lamb. They're also what give products that creamy, smooth texture. While many emulsifiers can be harsh and irritating for the skin (sodium lauryl sulphate is a common one), Nick Dindio, cosmetic chemist and director of research and development for SOS Beauty, notes that lecithin is especially gentle. “[This] prevents disruption of the skin barrier, leading to less irritated and more hydrated skin," he says.
Emulsifying and emollient benefits aside, Dindio says lecithin is also a great ingredient for encapsulating unstable, active ingredients — think retinol and vitamin C — in order to help them better penetrate the skin and protect them from degrading (thus, losing their efficacy) over time.
And it’s not just skin that can benefit from the ingredient — lecithin can also be found in all kinds of hair care products, from shampoos and conditioners to styling products. As an emulsifier, it helps create that rich, creamy lather that feels luxurious when worked into the scalp and hair. Given that it's an emollient, it can also help soften and smooth out the hair, says Dr. Garshick, making it a particularly great choice for extra-parched or damaged strands. A nice bonus? "It can also help with preventing fly-aways," she says.
All in all, lecithin is mainly seen as a "helper" ingredient, added to a product to maximize the efficacy of other actives in the formula. Just keep in mind that, as Dindio explains, because it has several different purposes in cosmetic formulas, it's not always possible to determine lecithin’s exact function in a product just by reading an ingredient list.
How To Use Lecithin
Chances are, at least one of the products in your medicine cabinet or shower contains lecithin. When used for emollient purposes, it's typically found in moisturizing products like face creams, heavier serums, or hydrating hair products. In this case, Dr. Garshick says they usually are fine to use as often as you like and that once or twice daily, morning or night, is generally safe. However, when lecithin is in a formula with actives, whether as an emulsifier or to encapsulate, it’s best to follow the directions on the product packaging. You wouldn't want to apply a retinol product in the morning or overuse it, which may lead to irritation and flaking, for example.
In terms of ingredient compatibility, Dindio says that lecithin can work in almost any formula and plays nicely with most other ingredients, so there shouldn't be any concern when layering with other products. Again, just be aware of whether or not the product you're using contains any actives and how those actives will interact with any products you plan to apply before or after.
Who Can Benefit From Lecithin?
According to Dr. Garshick, all skin types are compatible with lecithin, though she says it's especially helpful for those with dry skin (and dry scalps and hair, too).
Because lecithin is one of the gentler emulsifiers out there, Dindio says it's a particularly great choice for sensitive skin types. He also recommends looking for it on the ingredient list of products with expensive active ingredients prone to degradation to ensure better stability.
However, Dr. Lamb advises that anyone with a soy allergy should err on the side of caution, as it could potentially trigger a reaction. Look out for any allergen listings, and when in doubt, always patch test first. Similarly, if you live a vegan lifestyle or are simply looking to avoid animal products, look out for vegan labels and symbols on the packaging to ensure it's not sourced from eggs or dairy.
Ready to reap the skin and hair-softening, penetration-boosting benefits of lecithin? Keep reading for seven skin, hair, and body products that utilize this soothing emollient, gentle emulsifier, and effective encapsulator.
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