Updated September 12, 2017
This is the next instalment in our ongoing series about chemicals often found in home and personal care products. Here, we investigate ingredients so you can make informed choices about the products you buy.
Today, we’re looking at polyethylene glycols or PEGs.
What are PEGs?
Polyethylene glycols or PEGs are polyether compounds that are in a wide variety of products—from toothpastes and laxatives to rocket fuel and liquid body armour.
In cosmetics and personal care products, PEGs serve as emulsifiers, surfactants, cleansing agents, and skin conditioners.
They're in shampoos, deodorants, moisturisers, facial cleansers, eye creams, and various other personal care products and cosmetics.
When you look for PEGs on product labels, you’ll see that they include a number, e.g. PEG-4 or PEG-80. The number lets you know their average molecular weights.
It also tells you how easily the compound sinks into the skin. The lower the number, the more easily the PEG compound penetrates the skin’s layers.
What’s the problem with PEGs?
There's a few issues with PEGs.
- PEGs can cause skin irritation and severe hypersensitivity reactions.
- Polyethylene glycols can contain contaminants.
- They're penetration enhancers.
- And, they cause problems if used on broken skin.
According to a report from the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel, PEGs often come with impurities like ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, both of which pose some serious health risks.
PEGs are And because polyethylene glycols enhance the ability of these toxins to penetrate skin, it’s that much easier for them to enter your bloodstream and poison you.
Let’s break down what’s wrong with PEGs.
Ethylene oxide is a poisonous gas that was a precursor to the mustard gas used during World War I. It’s a mutagen, an irritant, and is highly toxic even in small doses.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer has labeled it a proven human carcinogen. Ethylene oxide also damages the central nervous system and disrupts normal human development. As a result, it has an EWG score of 10.
Next, there's 1,4-dioxane, which has been classified a possible carcinogen and has been linked to liver, lung, breast, skin, and gallbladder cancer.
This one is irritating to the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract. It can also damage the kidneys, liver, and central nervous system. EWG gave 1,4-dioxane a score of 8.
In addition to this toxic duo, PEGs may also be contaminated with propylene oxide, another possible carcinogen and mutagen. Some PEGs are also tainted with heavy metals like arsenic, lead, cobalt, nickel, iron, and cadmium.
Unfortunately, there's no way for consumers to tell by the label alone if the PEGs in a product contain impurities. Every time you use a product with PEGs, you risk exposing yourself to ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane (and other toxins).
Penetration enhancing effects
PEGs are penetration enhancers. This means that they allow ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products to be absorbed more easily through your skin. When PEGs are combined with other problematic ingredients, this isn't good.
And the PEGs themselves may have contaminants. So you really don't want these getting through your skin.
This is also why it's important to avoid using products with PEGs on damaged or broken skin.
Irritation and hypersensitivity
In addition, PEGs can cause irritation, system toxicity, and hypersensitivity. A study published in 2016 showed that although polyethylene glycols are thought to be biologically inert and safe:
“cases of mild to life-threatening immediate-type PEG hypersensitivity are reported with increasing frequency.”
According to the study, most healthcare professionals are unfamiliar with polyethylene glycols. So they don't pinpoint PEGs as the cause of hypersensitivity reactions in some patients.
Doctors often misdiagnose patients with PEG hypersensitivities, believing that they are allergic to other substances. Patients usually suffer through repeated severe reactions until they finally get a proper diagnosis.
What the experts say about PEGs
PEGs have an EWG hazard score of 3.
There are currently no restrictions on PEGs in cosmetics in the U.S., Canada, and the European Union. However, both 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide are included in Health Canada’s Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist as chemicals that are prohibited for use in cosmetic products.
The CIR Expert Panel has deemed most PEG compounds safe for use in cosmetics, with the caveat that they should not be used on damaged skin.
How to avoid PEGs
The experts might have classified PEGs as safe for use in cosmetics, but the fact that they can contain carcinogenic impurities is enough reason for us to avoid them.
The best solution is to look for PEG-free alternatives to your favourite beauty and skincare products.
If you wish to avoid PEGs, remember that it's not enough to look for words like "natural." A 2008 study found 1,4-dioxane in many products labeled "natural" or "organic."
Read the ingredients on the back of the label. Aside from “PEG,” look for “polyethylene glycol,” “polyethylene oxide,” and “polyoxyethylene.”