Final report on the safety assessment of Lecithin and Hydrogenated Lecithin

Int J Toxicol. 2001:20 Suppl 1:21-45. doi: 10.1080/109158101750300937.


Lecithin is a naturally occurring mixture of the diglycerides of stearic, palmitic, and oleic acids, linked to the choline ester of phosphoric acid, commonly called phosphatidylcholine. Hydrogenated Lecithin is the product of controlled hydrogenation of Lecithin. Bilayers of these phospholipids in water may form liposomes, a spherical structure in which the acyl chains are inside and not exposed to the aqueous phase. Lecithin and Hydrogenated Lecithin are used in a large number of cosmetic formulations as skin conditioning agents-miscellaneous and as surfactant-emulsifying agents. Hydrogenated Lecithin is also used as a suspending agent-nonsurfactant. Historical data on concentration of use of Lecithin reveals that 0.1% to 1.0% is the concentration range most frequently seen, with concentrations up to 50% reported for two moisturizing products. A solution of 65% Lecithin is currently reported to be used at concentrations up to 3% in cosmetics. Nonocclusive application of Lecithin-containing liposomes to murine skin resulted in 30% penetration to the subdermis. In piglet skin, the same application resulted in 99% accumulating in the stratum corneum. In general, liposomes are considered effective in capturing other compounds inside their spherical structure and delivering any such captured compound through the skin barrier. As a result, caution should be exhibited in formulating cosmetic products that contain these ingredients in combination with other ingredients whose safety is based on their lack of absorption or where dermal absorption is a concern. Lecithin is virtually nontoxic in acute oral studies, short-term oral studies, and subchronic dermal studies in animals. Lecithin is not a reproductive toxicant, nor is it mutagenic in several assays. In an oral carcinogenicity study, brain neoplasms were found in mice exposed to Lecithin. In a subcutaneous carcinogenicity study, no neoplasms were found in mice and rats exposed to Lecithin. Adverse reactions to Lecithin in a metered-dose inhaler have been reported. Lecithin and Hydrogenated Lecithin were generally nonirritating and nonsensitizing in animal and human skin. Based on the available data, Lecithin and Hydrogenated Lecithin are safe as used in rinse-off cosmetic products; they may be safely used in leave-on products at concentrations up to 15%, the highest concentration tested in clinical irritation and sensitization studies; but the safety of use could not be substantiated in cosmetic products likely to be inhaled. Because of the possibility of formation of nitrosamines, these ingredients should not be used in cosmetic products in which N-nitroso compounds may be formed.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Inhalation
  • Animals
  • Attention
  • Consumer Product Safety
  • Cosmetics / adverse effects*
  • Cosmetics / toxicity
  • Drug Carriers
  • Hair Preparations / adverse effects
  • Humans
  • Liposomes / adverse effects
  • Liposomes / metabolism
  • Phosphatidylcholines / adverse effects*
  • Phosphatidylcholines / chemistry
  • Phosphatidylcholines / toxicity
  • Skin / metabolism
  • Skin Care / adverse effects
  • Skin Irritancy Tests


  • Cosmetics
  • Drug Carriers
  • Hair Preparations
  • Liposomes
  • Phosphatidylcholines