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The Beauty Of Chelating Agents – Cosmetic Formulating 101

August 18, 2015

Did you ever play with these as a child?

Stickle BricksThose are stickle bricks or bristle blocks if you are from the USA.

They are also the closest thing in terms of free and easily relatable visual teaching aid that I can find to help communicate the power of the chelating agent.

If you are looking for a quick-fix definition and that’s all here it is. Chelating agents bind up trace metal ion contaminants in your water-containing cosmetic thus keeping the product microbe free for longer. They are not preservatives in their own right, they just help to kill microbes by starving them. They starve them by locking up or binding to their trace metal ion food supply.

In a cosmetic we use a small amount to boost preservative efficacy, especially in hard-to-preserve products.

But chelating agents are used in much higher volumes in other industries including water remediation, household cleaning, agrochemicals, textiles, chemical production, pharmaceutical manufacture, paint and coatings and soaping.

There are 141 Chelating agents registered in the European cosmetic ingredient database. Here are some of the most common ones:

EDTA – cheap, very effective and wide formula compatibility.  Use at between 0.05-0.2%  The down side is that this is made from petroleum derivatives and is therefore not a sustainable ‘green chemistry’ option. It also got a very bad wrap about ten years ago for its patchy biodegradability but since then the data gaps seem to have been filled and it now looks like as long as the soil is alkali EDTA biodegrades although some of the heavy metal complexes are more resistant to degradation and that is a worry.  It is irritating to the eyes and skin in its neat form but then again most things are so that is less of a concern.


Sodium Phytate/ Phytic Acid – These are two of the new generation natural chelating agents.  They are expensive though and are not as effective as EDTA BUT are natural and plant derived.  Use between 0.1-0.3%

Citric Acid/ Sodium Citrate – This is a relatively poor chelating agent but it can help to boost preservative efficacy and bind some metal ions. Typically it is used at between 0.0-5-0.8% or to achieve a formula pH of between 4-5

Sodium Gluconate – This is a natural and gentle chelating agent which sounds lovely but I’m not sure you want your bug killers to be gentle.  Anyway, it has a place and can help to boost preservation in natural formulations without sounding scary or overly ‘chemical.  Use at 0.1-1% and best in acidic formulations.

NTA – This is what you get before you get EDTA so they are structurally similar.  NTA is more commonly used as a chelator in industrial processes and cleaning products but rarely used in cosmetics.

EDDS (TRISODIUM ETHYLENEDIAMINE DISUCCINATE)– This is a structural isomer (same stuff but in a different order) of EDTA, an isomer that made it readily biodegradable. It is also made from sustainable resources so is a ‘green chemistry’ alternative to EDTA.  EDDS came out of a company called Associated Octel whom I worked for when I was in the UK. We won a ‘Green Chemistry’ award for this and I spent many days talking to cleaning companies about how good it was vs EDTA so do check it out.  Use between 0.05-0.2%

The next two have secondary chelating benefits that might be useful but shouldn’t necessarily be relied upon in difficult formulations. 

Cyclodextrin – This works like a physical trap as cyclodextrins are structured a bit like Hoberman Spheres that trap metal ions inside them.  Cyclodextrins are most often used in a formula to help protect and slow-release actives but this secondary chelating benefit is most welcome.

Activated Carbon (INCI: Charcoal) works like cyclodextrin too and can also help with chelation to a certain extent.  Do see our post on Charcoal though to make sure you get the right stuff. 

Here is a Hoberman Sphere, they make great toys!

Hoberman Sphere


Some natural extracts have chelating power too and there are a few listed on the European COSING database.  Just be aware that while this is a great bonus, adding plant material to a formula makes it need a chelating agent more as plants come with trace metal ions.  So in a way it is part of both the problem and the solution. As long as the benefits outweigh the risks I’d say that plant chelating is a great way to go.

I like to think of chelating agents as my tiny little soldiers that do an amazing job considering how little there is in the formula.  I try to use chelating agents in all of my water containing formulations and recommend that you do too as a safe cosmetic is one that is microbially clean and protected.

Have fun experimenting and if you need my professional consulting help do drop me a line:

Amanda x



8 Comments leave one →
  1. March 21, 2016 8:28 pm

    I loved playing with these!

  2. ayse permalink
    July 31, 2016 1:23 am

    Thanks Amanda, this is a great article for someone like me, totally confused in preservation matter and beginning to understand chelating agents’ value in difficult to preserve formulations. Is glycerine a chelator? If so how efficient?
    Thanks again, Ayse

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      August 2, 2016 5:45 pm

      Hi Ayse,
      Glycerin is not a chelating agent. What it can do is reduce the amount of free water in a formula by sucking it up. If there is a very low level of free water the formula will be self-preserving. That said relying on glycerin in a cosmetic formula is not a good thing unless you have done your micro testing to prove the product is safe and clean.

  3. ayse permalink
    August 2, 2016 8:30 pm

    Thanks Amanda. So, glycerine will be no help to me as my formula is 90% hydrosol. I read somewhere that glycerine could help in preservation. Thank you for making it clear how and why. It seems there is no safe escape from EDTA. As soon as I find a preservation system that makes sense to me and it is pH appropriate and so on, I will surely do the micro testing.

  4. constance permalink
    January 15, 2018 11:05 am

    I’m having an hard time finding a supplier of Sodium Phytate/ Phytic Acid. Do you have any suggestions?

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      January 19, 2018 8:30 pm

      The manufacturer is Dr Straetmans. You could probably contact the manufacturer though their website and they will tell you of the correct distributor for your location. Not all materials are available in small lots though so check the minimum pack size before sampling to make sure you can access the material when you need to buy it as this is quite expensive, especially if you have to buy heaps of it.


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