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Dimethyl isosorbide [DMI] is a solvent made from starch. It increases the solubility of many different active ingredients and increases their penetration into the skin. This reduces the amount of an active ingredient needed to have an effect, which is particularly good for reducing the irritation of harsher actives. Increasing skin penetration also increases the activity of a formulation, in several cases. Dimethyl isosorbide improves the overall properties of formulations, including skin feel and consistency. It can be used in many different types of products and is compatible with many compounds, including non-ionic surfactants.
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Dimethyl isosorbide [DMI] is a compound produced from isosorbide, which comes from starch. It is a solvent, meaning it can be used to dissolve substances. It has been dubbed a “sustainable solvent,” as its source [starch] is widely available . Dimethyl isosorbide is classified as a hydrotrope. Hydrotopes are small molecules that are able to increase the solubility of formulations . The ability of dimethyl isosorbide to enhance solubility is superior to propylene glycol and ethyl alcohol, two commonly used solvents . It is non-ionic [has no charge] and hydrophilic [water-loving]. This allows it to form a complex with water . Also, dimethyl isosorbide has a low toxicity, so it does not cause irritation . Dimethyl isosorbide has a low viscosity, meaning it is not very thick . This contributes to its pleasant skin feel. Addition of dimethyl isosorbide is helpful for keeping formulations from being too thick and hard to pour. It can prevent “gelling” and cloudiness of formulations. It also increases the shelf stability of a product . Overall, addition of dimethyl isosorbide can improve the properties of a product.
salicylic acid, an anti-acne treatment, to penetrate deep into the skin and have an effect quicker . It helps target delivery of this active to problem areas in the skin. Dimethyl isosorbide acts as a carrier through the skin to deliver active ingredients into the skin layer where a problem exists . Additionally, it increases the penetration of anti-oxidants. One study shows that without dimethyl isosorbide, an anti-oxidant showed no activity. With the addition of dimethyl isosorbide, it was able to penetrate the skin and protect against UV damage . Dimethyl isosorbide also increases the activity of ferulic acid  and L-ascorbic acid [4, 8]. By adding dimethyl isosorbide, the delivery of a hydrophilic active into the skin increased 50% .
Dimethyl isosorbide can also make formulations less irritating. It can be combined with benzoyl peroxide, a common anti-acne medication that can result in skin irritation. Dimethyl isosorbide reduces the irritation potential of benzoyl peroxide and prevents its crystallization when applied to the skin . Also, adding dimethyl isosorbide to a formulation can change the amount of active needed. By increasing solubility, it can allow for a greater amount of hard-to-dissolve actives, increasing the effectiveness of the product. It can also reduce the amount of active ingredient needed, as it allows more of the active to penetrate the skin and have an effect . This is particularly useful for actives that are known to irritate the skin when used in high concentrations.
The compatibility of dimethyl isosorbide with many compounds makes it suited for different types of formulations. It can be used along with other penetration enhancers  or combined with oils . Additionally, it can be mixed with surfactants, including nonionic surfactants . It can be used in a wide variety of products, such as eye-zone treatments, makeup remover, scalp treatments, skin serums, and anti-acne treatments . It can be used in deodorant gel sticks to provide better skin feel . It can also be added to anti-wrinkle formulas . Dimethyl isosorbide is an excellent addition to self-tanning formulas. It increases the solubility of dihydroxyacetone, a main ingredient of self-tanning products, which leads to a more uniform and intense tan that lasts longer .
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