Polyethylene glycol, PEG

Many cosmetics products are based on Polyethylene glycol. Polyethylene glycol is commonly referred to as PEG in INCI names. It is hard to even find a product on the supermarket shelf that doesn’t have this mystical ingredient. Are the PEG compounds safe and why they are used in cosmetics is a common concern?

This article is part of a series of “dirty dozen in cosmetics”. In the series, I present to you 12 meanies of cosmetics. I have written earlier an article about formaldehyde releasers. Why have PEG compounds ended up in a dirty dozen? Are PEG compounds really harmful? Let’s find out now!

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What is PEG or polyethylene glycol?

Polyethylene glycol is a synthetic chemical that is made in chemical plants. It is a polyether refined  from crude oil. Thus, PEG does not belong to natural cosmetics nor to vegan cosmetics. PEG is not just one compound. It has been used to make thousands of different variations. PEG compounds are widely used by several industries

  • In the pharmaceutical industry, including vaccines and laxatives, as well as films on tablets
  • In the chemical industry
  • In the cosmetics industry, skin creams, lotions, toothpastes, mouthwashes, deodorants among others. PEG compounds are very common in all cosmetics products.
  • In cleaning chemicals such as laundry detergents, laundry rinse aids, dishwashing detergents, general detergents, etc.
  • In paints and dyes
  • In the food industry, like as an antifoam in beverages

How do I know if a product contains PEG compounds?

PEG compounds are widely and plentiful used in the cosmetics industry and for very different purposes. There are 1464 of them in the INCI list. It is self-clear that no-one can remember them all. However, PEG compounds are quite easy to find in the INCI product list. The INCI name for PEG compounds always or almost always includes the abbreviation PEG.

Why should PEG compounds be a concern?

PEG compounds alone are completely non-toxic. They have been found to be safe excipients even for vaccines and foods. Indeed, the problems with PEGs are related to their potential impurities. PEG compounds are prepared by a complex process. Depending on the manufacturing method, polyethylene glycol may be very impure. Toxic ethylene dioxide and 1,4-dioxane may be found in a low-quality product.

Ethylene dioxide

Ethylene dioxide is a carcinogen to humans. It has been linked in some studies to breast cancer. It has also been found to damage the human nervous system and cell development. Ethylene dioxide is very harmful when inhaled. Therefore, sprayable detergents should never be used. Many cleaners and housekeepers have been diagnosed with lung cancer due to inhaling cleaning chemicals. Ethylene dioxide is also absorbed very well even through clothing and shoes, causing irritation and dermatitis.


1,4-dioxane is a substance that is toxic to humans. 1,4-dioxane damages the liver and kidneys. Inhaling and swallowing it causes malaise, vomiting, drowsiness and even unconsciousness. 1,4-dioxane is very easily absorbed through the skin into the body. Dioxane is not easily biodegradable but accumulates in groundwater.

Dioxin is highly soluble in water and ends up in the water systems and seas. The fish in the Baltic Sea have been rich in dioxins. The good news is that dioxin levels in fish have declined as much as 80% in recent years thanks to the vigilant environmental authorities. The study shows that current restrictive measures have been effective.

PEG compounds enhance the absorption of other substances into the skin

This is a desirable effect but it  can also be a disadvantage if the product is very impure. The effects of impurities in PEG compounds are multiplied if applied to broken skin. For example, if your skin has a rash, abrasion or other irritation, you should use products that are as clean as possible.

It is also possible that dioxane may also end up in cosmetics through some other way than impurities in PEG compounds. That is why I always recommend you to use and make only natural cosmetics.

PEG compounds may cause allergies

Another concern is the potential allergies caused by PEG compounds. Because PEG compounds are so common in foods, detergents, and cosmetics, the potential for sensitization is obvious. Indeed, PEG antibodies have already been detected in 72% of the US population.

How many of us have considered PEG compounds to cause the allergy to cosmetics?  You can test your sensitivity to PEG compounds yourself by leaving them out of your cosmetics, detergents and diet for a while. The medicines you use may also contain PEG compounds. You can only change medicines by consulting your doctor.

The purity of PEG compounds is closely monitored in the EU

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The European Union pays special attention to the safety of chemicals. In Europe, PEG compounds are also closely monitored. So you don’t have to worry too much about the levels of 1,4-dioxane or ethylene dioxide in the products you use, provided of course that you purchase your cosmetics from the EU.

My main concern would be the products ordered online from outside the EU. In them, the concentrations of harmful substances can be anything.

In this context, I can again warmly recommend you the DIY cosmetics. By making your own cosmetics, you know what chemicals are in your product. Also, domestic Natural Cosmetics is also very high quality and free of all potentially harmful chemicals.

Do you avoid PEG compounds?

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