A “sweet” new group of ingredients being used in the green formulating industry is the Sucragel line of products developed by Alfa Chemicals in the UK. Rather than being a single ingredient, these materials are provided as  mixtures of natural oils, glycerin, and esters of the sugar molecule, sucrose.

Sucragels can be easily incorporated into a variety of hair and skin products where they provide thickening to the product, emulsion stabilization, mild cleansing and for leave on products, impart hydration to the skin and hair through the attraction and binding of water molecules to the humectant sugar molecules.

Sucragel enjoys the prestigious European Ecocert label, which means it is internationally accepted as a viable option for natural formulations and can be used in products for companies whose policies regarding the quality and safety of their ingredients are rigorous.

Sucragel is PEG-free, biodegradable, preservative-free, entirely vegetable derived, is available in a 94% organic option, and is amenable to cold process technology, which uses less energy and is considered a more sustainable business practice for manufacture of products. These mixtures add benefit to formulations for both skin and hair, and are found in a variety of products so far, including several Burt's Bees gentle shampoos.


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What are Sucragels?

Sucrose laurate is then mixed with glycerin, water (aqua), and an oil phase consisting of either caprylic/capric triglycerides or sweet almond oil. The final solution is Sucragel, which can be readily mixed with a variety of nonpolar oils, including botanical oils, silicones, mineral oils, and esters, to produce a stable, clear, oily gel. Sucragels are a mixture designed to capitalize upon the nonionic surfactant properties of sugar esters.  These are obtained by an esterification reaction between sucrose and a fatty acid, typically the coconut fatty acid (lauric) to produce sucrose laurate.

Where will I find them?

The resultant gels can be added to aqueous mixtures, where they emulsify spontaneously, which is useful for making lotions, face creams, cleansers, or lightweight conditioners. Additionally, the oily gels can be used to make excellent deep conditioning treatments or as light topical humectants if applied sparingly. The ease with which these materials can be used in formulations makes them suitable materials for home dabbling in cosmetics chemistry.

Sucragels can be used in

  • Shampoos
  • Lightweight leave-in conditioners
  • Skin creams
  • Deep conditioning treatments
  • Light topical humectants

Sucragels also have application as co-surfactants in low-foaming, mild shampoos.  Burt’s Bees makes use of Sucragel in a variety of their natural shampoos for adults and children.  They are also found in A'kin shampoo, Organic Surge shampoo, The Body Shop rainforest shampoo, Madara shampoo, and The Organic Pharmacy, to name a few.  Due to their amphiphilic, nonionic structure, they provide very mild cleansing and are considered moisturizing.  They are used in products targeting safety and health as replacements for PEG-modified surfactants, which are coming under scrutiny for potential health complications.

Sucragel can also be used in lightweight leave-in conditioning products, especially if the primary conditioning agent is a silicone or botanical oil.  In these they impart hydration and moisturization both from the almond oil and the sugar ester.

Sucragel seems to be primarily suited for hydration and emulsification purposes, and is thus appropriate for use in shampoos, leave-in conditioners, and skin creams. It is not readily apparent from the product literature whether it is compatible with some of the typical styling polymers, such as acrylates or pyrrolidones.  It is sensitive to electrolytes in the solution, which indicates that the cationic conditioning and styling polymers would definitely not work well with these materials.  It would be interesting to see if they added anything beneficial to a flax seed gel or something similar.

What to look for on labels

Several different Sucragel mixtures are available for formulators, so they have multiple INCI designations for labels.

  1. Sucragel CF: Glycerin & Caprylic/Capric Triglycerides & Aqua & Sucrose Laurate
  2. Sucragel AOF: Prunus Amygdalus Dulcis (Sweet Almond) Oil & Glycerin & Aqua & Sucrose Laurate
  3. Sucragel AOF BIO (94% Organic): Glycerin & Prunis Amygdalus Dulcis (Sweet Almond) Oil & Sucrose Laurate & Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (Orange) Fruit Water

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Summary

Sucragels are a mixture of sugar esters and oils that enable formulators to create viscous, oily gels and stable emulsions for a variety of hair and skin care products.  They provide mild cleansing, emulsion stabilization, environmentally friendly manufacturing, and are biodegradable, to name some of their desirable traits.  Some research studies have shown that in certain mixtures, these materials form some very interesting structures (bicontinuous phases) that may provide more sophisticated avenues for application in the future.  An additional perk is that they are also obtainable from a variety of sources so that it is possible to play with them at home to see how they work for you.
While these sugar ester based mixtures may not be tasty (but they are edible), they do seem to be a fantastic resource for the cosmetic market. The sugar esters themselves are water soluble, but the plant oils require a mild cleanser to be removed thoroughly from the hair surface.  Due to their highly hydrophilic structures, the humectant properties from both the sucrose ester and the glycerin may produce a tacky feel to the hair and even lead to frizz, especially in certain environmental conditions, so be aware of this if you choose to use leave-in products containing these.  Overall, the Sucragel mixture is very gentle material with much potential as formulators both at home and in labs strive to develop products that embrace the green philosophy.