Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) and Why You Should Avoid It

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Take a look at the ingredient list of nearly any health or beauty product. You are likely to see polyethylene glycol (PEG).

In this article:

  1. Introduction to Polyethylene Glycol (PEG)
  2. The Problem with Polyethylene Glycol
  3. PEG or Polyethylene Glycol Definition
  4. Types of PEG
  5. PEG in the Cosmetic and Beauty Industry
  6. Effects of PEG on the Skin
  7. Impurities and Toxins in PEGs

Why You Should Avoid Using Beauty Products with Polyethylene Glycol


Introduction to Polyethylene Glycol (PEG)

PEGs are the base of many cosmetic creams. You can find them in cosmetics as thickeners, solvents, softeners, and moisture-carriers. Polyethylene glycol is also an ingredient in laxatives.

Manufacturers in the health and beauty industries often use PEGs to improve the consistency of the products they sell. PEGs also improve how the product works. Unfortunately, polyethylene glycols can have long-term side effects on your health and skin.

The Problem with Polyethylene Glycol

Woman applying moisturizer | Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) and Why You Should Avoid It

The health of your skin is important to your overall health and appearance. Skin is the largest organ of the body, and it performs several important functions. Healthy skin keeps vital nutrients and chemicals in your body. It also regulates your body temperature.

Healthy skin absorbs important vitamins, acids, water, and oxygen. It acts as a barrier to prevent dangerous substances from getting into your body.

Good skin care can keep your skin in top condition. Cleansers can help rinse away bacteria and dirt that lead to acne and blemishes. Exfoliants remove the top layer of dead skin cells while lotions keep your skin soft and supple.

Some of these skin care products contain PEGs, though, which may not be good for your skin or overall health.

PEG or Polyethylene Glycol Definition

Polyethylene glycol is a petroleum product and is the most common plastic on earth, according to Tufts University. Polyethylene adds strength and lightness to plastic bags, bottles, containers, caps and lids, pipes, and much more. When combined with glycol, polyethylene turns into a thick, sticky liquid that is easy to smear on your skin.

PEGs in cosmetics perform three basic functions. First, they act as emollients to soften and lubricate the skin. Second, they work as emulsifiers to help oil-based and water-based ingredients mix well to create a smooth product. Finally, PEGs help deliver other ingredients deeper into your skin.

RELATED: How To Choose The Best Organic Skin Care Products For You

Types of PEG

Beautiful woman applying cream on her face | Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) and Why You Should Avoid It

When talking about various types of polyethylene glycol, scientists often attach a number at the end of PEGs. In other words, you might see them written as PEG-6, PEG-8, PEG-100, and so on. The number represents the molecular weight of the compound. The lower the molecular weight number, the easier it gets into your skin.

Scientists sometimes refer to this as the “penetration enhancing effect.” PEG-6 has a better penetration enhancing effect than PEG-100 because it gets deep into the skin quicker.

PEG is not one individual chemical, but rather a mixture of compounds bonded together. You might see PEG-100 stearate, for example. This means the PEG is mixed with stearic acid. Manufacturers use stearic acid to thicken lotion and harden soaps. The 100 means the compound is very thick.

PEG in the Cosmetic and Beauty Industry

Manufacturers in the health and beauty industries like to add other ingredients to the PEGs for various effects. They usually prefer PEGs with very low molecular weights so that the skin readily absorbs these special ingredients. Skin absorbs PEGs with high molecular weight, too. PEG-2 and PEG-9 stearate have skin penetrating enhancing effects.

Manufacturers like using PEGs because the plastic helps deliver beneficial compounds deep into the skin. This penetration enhancing effect also means that PEGs can deliver unhealthy substances into the skin. They can even get around the natural barrier that skin creates against the outside world.

Effects of PEG on the Skin

Woman applying lotion facing the mirror | Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) and Why You Should Avoid It

The magnitude at which PEGs penetrate the skin depends on a number of things. The chemical structure and molecular weight play a role, of course. The other ingredients in the formula can affect how PEGs penetrate your skin. Some ingredients make the skin absorb the PEGs faster and some slow down absorption.

Most importantly, the overall health of your skin affects the penetration of polyethylene glycol. PEGs of all molecular weights, large and small, can penetrate broken or injured skin. In other words, PEGs and other compounds in a product can bypass the natural barriers of skin and penetrate too far into the body. People with broken or irritated skin should avoid PEGs.

The penetrating enhancing effect is important to your skin health in three ways. First, PEGs make it easier for any undesirable ingredients in a product to get deep into your skin. Second, PEGs can upset the natural moisture balance of your skin. Third, PEGs are not always pure, and these impurities can be toxic.

Impurities and Toxins in PEGs

PEGs may become contaminated during the manufacturing process. The PEGs can then deliver these contaminants deep into the skin. Most notably, PEGs may become contaminated with substances known as ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane.

While the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has reported that there is limited evidence that ethylene oxide causes cancer in humans, the IARC also says that ethylene oxide may cause cancer in humans. Ethylene oxide can harm your nervous system and even interfere with human development.

1,4-dioxane is found in PEG-6, PEG-8, PEG-32, PEG-75, PEG-150 and other formulations of polyethylene glycol. 1,4-dioxane is a known carcinogen. It can also combine with oxygen to form explosive peroxide, which is not something you want happening on your skin.

While manufacturers can remove these impurities, very few do. To complicate matters even more, it is often hard to tell whether a manufacturer has removed the impurities or not.


Learn more about Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) in this video from Live Breathe Happy:

Avoid using PEGs if you have broken or sensitive skin. You should also avoid using polyethylene glycol if you are concerned about the possible health problems they may cause. Opt for organic skincare products instead. For more information on polyethylene glycol, its effects and alternatives to PEGs, consult with your skin care professional.

Do you read product labels? How do you select your skin care products? Let’s talk about healthy beauty practices in the comments below.

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