What Are They?
Polyethylene glycol compounds are widespread in household products from skin care and cosmetics, to baby wipes and cleaners. They are used as thickeners, softeners, moisture-carrying agents, penetration enhancers, and surfactants.
The raw materials used to produce polyethylene glycol are by-products from petroleum refining and can also be derived from natural gas or coal. These are non-renewable sources. Synthesizing PEG compounds can follow multiple different routes, depending on the desired end-product. However, the process always involves ethylene oxide.
Polyetheylene glycol compounds are listed on product labels multiple different ways:
- They often appear notated as PEG followed by a number (ex: PEG-40). In U.S. personal care nomenclature, the number represents the number of moles (aka the amount) of ethylene oxide added to the compound.
- PEG compounds can also be listed as PEG followed by a number and then another ingredient name (ex: PEG-20 cocamine). This represents a complex PEG compound – polyethylene glycol combined with another ingredient.
- Complex PEG compounds can also appear as complicated-looking ingredients, usually containing many slashes in their names. (ex: BIS-PEG/PPG-16/16 PEG/PPG-16/16 Dimethicone). These names vary wildly, but will always contain “PEG.”
The Health Concern
The primary concern with PEG compounds is that ethylene oxide is used in their production in a process called ethoxylation. This process can cause contamination with ethylene oxide, a chemical associated with multiple kinds of cancer. Additionally, ethoxylated ingredients can also be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, which is also a carcinogen. Neither ethylene oxide nor 1,4-dioxane are intentionally added ingredients, which means that neither will be listed on ingredient labels, but could still be present in the product.
PEGs are considered penetration enhancers, which are substances that make it easier for other ingredient to pass through the skin. When PEGs are found in formulations containing other toxic ingredients, those ingredients could more readily enter the body. See our Hazard List for some of the most egregiously toxic substances used in products.
How to Avoid Them
- Look for “PEG” on labels, both in the simpler form (PEG-#), the compound form (PEG-# ingredient name), and the complex form (complicated-looking ingredients containing “PEG”).
- 1,4-dioxane is not intentionally added to ingredients because it is a contaminant. Ethylene oxide is also not an intentionally added ingredient because it’s used in the synthesis of PEGs. This means that neither will be listed on ingredient labels, but could still be present. So remember, just because they’re not listed doesn’t mean they’re not there. Avoiding PEGs in any form in the ingredients will help you avoid these potentially harmful contaminants.
- Shop for MADE SAFE certified products, which do not allow PEGs, as well as numerous other ingredients and materials known or suspected to be harmful to people or the planet.