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What is it - PEGs

October 2, 2013 Reviewed by admin 35 Comments

Take a look at the back of any of your favorite skin care products. Chances are that you will invariably notice a few PEGs thrown in.  But do you know why? Or why some lines tout PEG-free products as favorable to others that don’t?

A quick Google search brings up some conflicting results that need a bit of Truth in Aging perspective.

You might find, amongst others, the following phrase: “Polyethylene Glycol (PEG): Carcinogenic petroleum ingredient that reduces the skin’s natural moisture. Increases the appearance of aging and leaves you vulnerable to bacteria. Used in spray-on oven cleaners and cleansers to dissolve oil and grease.” Source.

Alarming, isn’t it? These sentiments, however, are not entirely accurate — both for its over-generalized and unsubstantiated claims, on top of several very key pieces of information that’s left out.

So, let’s get to the bottom of this.  To begin with, let me just quote a few studies to set your mind at ease:

“Overall, it is concluded, that the PEGs covered in this review are safe for use in cosmetics under the present conditions of intended use… Taking into account all the information available, it can be assumed that these compounds as presently used in cosmetic preparations will not present a risk for human health.” Source: “Safety assessment on polyethylene glycols (PEGs) and their derivatives as used in cosmetic products,” Toxicology and Preclinical Affairs, 2005.

"Studies have not shown these chemicals [propylene or the other glycols as used in cosmetics] to be carcinogens" Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, within the Public Health Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

So, why all the confusion? And are there any legitimate concerns about the inclusion of PEGs within your skin care products?

Yes, there are legitimate concerns about PEGs, and these include: an enhanced penetration effect, possible formula impurities, and complications for damaged skin. But before we get into that, let’s just get to know what we’re really talking about when we’re talking about PEGs.

PEGs, PEG 100s, and PEG 100 Stearates… What does it all mean?

PEG, which is the abbreviation of polyethylene glycol, is not a definitive chemical entity in itself, but rather a mixture of compounds, of polymers that have been bonded together. Polyethylene is the most common form of plastic, and when combined with glycol, it becomes a thick and sticky liquid.

In cosmetics, PEGs function in three ways: as emollients (which help soften and lubricate the skin), as emulsifiers (which help water-based and oil-based ingredients mix properly), and as vehicles that help deliver other ingredients deeper into the skin.

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 As you may have noticed, PEGs are almost always followed by a number after their name, such as PEG 100.  This number represents the approximate molecular weight of that compound.  Typically, cosmetics use PEGs with smaller molecular weights.  The lower the molecular weight, the easier it is for the compound to penetrate the skin.

Often, PEGs are connected to another molecule. You might see, for example, PEG 100 stearate as an ingredient. What this means is that the polyethylene glycol polymer with an approximate molecular weight code of 100 is attached chemically to stearic acid.

Now just to clear up a few misperceptions... PEGs are not found in anti-freeze; that's ethylene glycol, NOT polyethylene glycol.  And yes, PEGs are found in some spray-on oven cleaners, but those PEGs are quite different in both molecular weight and structure than the PEGs found in your cosmetics.

Penetration enhancing effect

The most important thing you need to know about PEGs is that they have a penetration enhancing effect, the magnitude of which is dependent upon a variety of variables. These include: both the structure and molecular weight of the PEG, other chemical constituents in the formula, and, most importantly, the overall health of the skin.

To note, independent of molecular size, PEGs of all sizes may penetrate through injured skin with compromised barrier function. So it is very important to avoid products with PEGs if your skin is not in tip top condition.

This penetration enhancing effect is important for three reasons: 1) If your skin care product contains a bunch of other undesirable ingredients, PEGs will make it easier for them to get down deep into your skin. 2) By altering the surface tension of the skin, PEGs may upset the natural moisture balance. 3) PEGs are not always pure, but often come contaminated with a host of toxic impurities.

Skin penetration enhancing effects have been shown with PEG-2 and PEG-9 stearate.

Impurities

According to a report in the International Journal of Toxicology by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) committee, impurities found in various PEG compounds include ethylene oxide; 1,4-dioxane; polycyclic aromatic compounds; and heavy metals such as lead, iron, cobalt, nickel, cadmium, and arsenic. Many of these impurities are linked to cancer.

To draw attention to the most notable:

Ethylene oxide (found in PEG-4, PEG-7, PEG4-dilaurate, and PEG 100) is highly toxic—even in small doses—and was used in World War I nerve gas.

And then there is 1,4-dioxane (found in PEG-6, PEG-8, PEG-32, PEG-75, PEG-150, PEG-14M, and PEG-20M), which, on top of being a known carcinogen, may also combine with atmospheric oxygen to form explosive peroxides—not exactly something you want going on your face.

Responsible manufacturers do make efforts to remove these impurities, however.  So just make sure that your PEGs are coming from a respected brand.

Irritation, sensitization, and damaged skin…

Yes, PEGs may cause irritation or skin sensitization. BUT, the reasons why are usually dependent on other factors—mainly on one’s skin condition and the presence of other substances and/or medications applied simultaneously to the skin.

The main takeaway for PEGs is that they should be avoided if you have broken or damaged skin, or if they are accompanied by other undesirables in your products ingredient list.

In sum, let me just quote the final conclusions of the 2005 Toxicology and Preclinical Affairs report:

"The PEGs produce little or no ocular or dermal irritation and have extremely low acute and chronic toxicities.  They do not readily penetrate intact skin, and in view of the wide use of preparations containing PEGs, only a few case reports on sensitization reactions have been published, mostly involving patients with exposure to PEGs in meds, or following exposure to injured or chronically inflamed skin.  On healthy skin, the sensitizing potential of these compounds appear to be negative.”

There you have it.

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  • September 12, 2017

    by Linda SFG

    What about people ingesting Polyethylene Glycol as a laxative on a daily basis?

  • August 19, 2017

    by Nurcan

    Hi, what about the Pegs that used in medicines? Nearly all vaginal suppositories have PEG-32 and PEG-20. They are used for treating bacterial vaginosis and surely there would be soreness abd damaged skin there. It is so hard to avoid these.

  • July 9, 2017

    by Marta

    Hi Maria, there has been independent testing by The Doctors' Prescription for Healthy Living that claimed half of all the products tested with PEGs had toxic impurities. So there would be a 50% chance of risk with the product you are considering. I would say it is a personal decision knowing what the risks are, but I would certainly avoid any products with PEGs on skin that has been injured.

  • July 9, 2017

    by Maria Alejandra

    Hi, So if you put on your face or in your hair products with PEG 8 cocoate,,from a serious company, are they harmfull ?

  • March 3, 2017

    by Susanne

    Well in reality we shouldn't put anything on our skin which is pretty depressing.

  • December 23, 2016

    by Amateur Chemist

    The confusion over PEG numbers has a simple answer- American companies refer to the molecular weight, Europeans count the number of PE monomer units. The numbers under 20 are monomer units, the higher numbers are molecular weights.

    MW = 18.02 + 44.05n g/mol where n is number of units


    N MW
    1 62
    2 106
    3 150
    4 194
    5 238
    6 282
    7 326
    8 370
    9 414
    10 459
    11 503

    So PEG-4 and PEG- 200 are the same things, PEG-9 and PEG-400 also match. I think molecular weight is the more reasonable method, used for thousands of other chemicals, while n-counts are specific to PEGs and give unrealistic expectations of precision. (It's difficult to make *just* n=4 PEG, you always get some 2,3,5,6 in the mix. Citing an average MW is more honest, IMHO.)

    "Standards are like toothbrushes. Everybody wants one, but nobody wants to use someone else's.

  • December 20, 2016

    by Todd

    Hi Marta but you have two conflicting replies about the number following PEG and the penetration effect.

    see below

    September 5, 2016

    by Marta

    The higher the number the lighter the molecular weight and more likely to penetrate. But really, its simpler to just avoid them,


    then on September 3, 2016

    by Marta

    Hi Buffy, we do explain the meaning of the numbers in this article. I have copied it again here for you:

    PEGs are almost always followed by a number after their name, such as PEG 100. This number represents the approximate molecular weight of that compound. Typically, cosmetics use PEGs with smaller molecular weights. The lower the molecular weight, the easier it is for the compound to penetrate the skin.

    Which is more penetration? for example a PEG 9 or PEG 40

    cheers

  • December 17, 2016

    by Estell

    Hi, ive been researching skin care ingredients and i came across this article. I was hoping you can clear something that has been confusing me.

    I read elsewhere that PEG can be "bad" for the skin in the long run, because while it moisturizes the skin by forcing moisture from deeper layers of the skin onto the surface; but never replenishing the forced out moisture.

    However, wont the other moisturizing ingredients replenish the moisture the PEG forced out? Hence, its not exactly "bad"?

    I hope im not being too simple minded about this. Thanks in advance!

  • September 5, 2016

    by Marta

    The higher the number the lighter the molecular weight and more likely to penetrate. But really, its simpler to just avoid them,

  • September 4, 2016

    by Buffy

    Thanks for answering but I'm still unclear. Is peg 10 more penetrating than 100? So 10 is worse because it is delivering into the skin more? Or do I have that backwards. I've done 5 hours of research on many chemical formulas so Im just getting confused.

  • September 3, 2016

    by Marta

    Hi Buffy, we do explain the meaning of the numbers in this article. I have copied it again here for you:

    PEGs are almost always followed by a number after their name, such as PEG 100. This number represents the approximate molecular weight of that compound. Typically, cosmetics use PEGs with smaller molecular weights. The lower the molecular weight, the easier it is for the compound to penetrate the skin.

  • September 2, 2016

    by Buffy

    So I'm researching my cosemtics because I am 5 weeks pregnant. I'm also a skin care specialist and work on others all day, absorbing more things through my hands each day.

    As I research I find conflicting info, particularly about certain ingredients that of I only used one time each day maybe wouldnt be so bad, but it's in so many makeup items I use (eyeshadow, foundation, eyeliner, mascara, lipstick) ive been applying these chemicals daily for the last 15 years!
    My main question is about the peg nimbers. Am I correct in assuming that peg 10 is molecularly larger than peg 100, therefore being absorbing deeper in to the epidermis is less likely that 100? If someone could answer this I'd be most grateful.

  • July 25, 2016

    by K

    It is also important to note that more and more of us are becoming sensitized and/or allergic to PEG, PPG, and other Glycol family members. This is partly why some companies tout the PEG-Free bit.

    Sensitivity to PEG/PPG/Glycol has symptoms that often resemble eczema or dry skin. When the reaction is due to a skin moisturizer, the cycle can get quite ugly.

    Beware, be informed, be careful.

  • July 5, 2016

    by Pawel

    One must remember that the chemical industry represents more than 10 % of the global economy.

    Profit and money controls the market. The other aspect is that we know very little about the long-term effect of using all the products we expose ourselves to. That and the cocktail effect.

    The rise in people affected by i.e. allergies, respiratory illness and more is also a concern. This is due to a uncritical use of chemicals by the consumers.

    The companies work to better their products however in order to keep profitability its mostly business as usual.

    As a consumer one has to be aware and do some research in the mean time. Not all products contain questionable ingredients but one must have a open eye.

  • April 18, 2016

    by Sam

    Hey Blaine, I actually am an engineer at a glycol plant. The EO reacts with water thru a non catalytic reaction using high pressure and temperature to create glycols (mono-, di-, tri-, and poly). I assure all of the EO is converted. If not, our distillation columns would be over pressurized due to the presence of ethylene oxide. There are very strict standards that we must follow for our safety and everyone else's.

  • March 17, 2016

    by Vanessa

    Hi just read about PEGs. My concern also is how biodegradable this ingredient is for the safety of the environment and getting into the food chain. Latest news concern is products containing microbeads that cannot be broken down and get washed into the sea and food chain. I've just bought a skincare product with Peg 7 in it aswell as Propylene Glycol which is a plastic.

  • March 14, 2016

    by J

    I noticed a lot of people are posting what brand contains "unsafe" ingredients... I just want to point out, and quote "Responsible manufacturers do make efforts to remove these impurities, however. So just make sure that your PEGs are coming from a respected brand"
    Maybe we don't have to be so scared? I really doubt big cosmetic companies just want to poison us all....

  • February 6, 2016

    by Pad

    PEG-115M, PEG-7M,PEG-100 and much more is part of the Gillette Mach3 Turbo shaver(Rasierer)

    Don't use it!

  • September 18, 2015

    by Chris

    PEG-8 is in Pronamel toothpaste. What are the implications of PEGs going in my mouth, being scrubbed around my gums, and, in small amounts, swallowed?

  • April 30, 2015

    by colleen

    I have just bought Environ, a SA based very "reputable" product created especially for the SA environment. Due to also having recently had pen needling of the face my skin has a couple of minor abrasions on it, so I amtaking that into consideration. But i am dismayed to see that the product has PEG100 and PEG40 in it besides Mineral Oil (Parrafinum Liquidum). Can someone tell me catergorically, can i safely sue this product or should i return it? (not opened yet)

    I also see that Nivea that I have been using has products in it as well considered toxic - wow... its really a worry... and one wonders why these things land up in these skin products?

  • December 29, 2014

    by Amanda

    I think people get carried away in all this 'beauty industry is trying to poison us' hype. Ethylene oxide is dangerous in large amounts, yes. It's actually used to sterilize medical devices. It's also something FRUIT gives off naturally and needs to ripen.
    I never understood the whole "it's found in floor cleaners!" kind of argument either. Yeah, so is water but we aren't getting upset about that are we?

  • December 14, 2014

    by berta

    FYI - PEG 6 is the second listed ingredient in Bioderma Sensibio H2O !!!!!! will never buy this product again.

  • September 5, 2014

    by Toni Mitchell

    Anything found in death dealing poisons like War 1 Nerve Gas should be absolutely banned from ANY product used on our bodies. The skin is a carrier NOT a barrier!!

    There are too many safe natural products that are harmless and have wonderful youthful results.


    Sadly the majority of people are not going to know the difference nor do the research on their personal care products to know IF the OK PEG,s and the other ones such as PEG-4, PEG-7, PEG-dilaurate, and PEG-100 that as you quoted are HIGHLY toxic- even in small doses are in the products they trust would not have such ingredients in them.

    These products are cheaper because of adding these toxic ingredients and are misleading with often Organic written on the label because they have a minute amount of a plant based or
    vitamin ingredient in them.

    Its all about making money to keep the product cheap and SEEMINGLY effective short term.
    Sorry but my blood boils as I see parents purchasing so called safe gentle on skin Baby products which are FULL of nasty dangerous ingredients!

  • February 13, 2014

    by Rafael

    I just want to thank for this text. I will always consult these informations about the cosmetics ingredients before purchase them. It is a public utility. Congratulations for the editor (s).

  • May 26, 2013

    by Dorothee

    Thank you so much for this information. I'm trying a new product for my skin that has PEG 150 Stearate in it. From what I gather above, it's ok to use as long as my skin is not broken.

  • April 3, 2013

    by Kait

    Fantastic. peg-8 is the second listed ingredient in my toothpaste. Get them impurities into that there bloodstream!!

  • December 4, 2012

    by Elizabeth

    Question : polysorbate 60 : i read conflicting reports on the safety of this as an emulsifier. Is it actually a PEG ? Some reports claim that its made up with ethylene oxide. ?? please advise >> otherwise, what would be the safe emulsifier to look out for.

  • October 23, 2012

    by Marta

    Hi Jennifer, to be on the safe side cracked and peeled skin would be considered "broken".

  • October 23, 2012

    by Jennifer

    Firstly thank you so much for posting all this info!

    I have just started using L'Occitane cuticle & nail cream which contains PEG-30 Dipolyhydroxystearate. The information on this page and in your ingredients list suggest avoiding use on broken skin but I am wondering how broken is broken? Should I be avoiding use on my nail beds if they have cracked and peeled in some places? Or is it okay provided the damage isn't so deep as to have drawn blood?

  • October 20, 2012

    by Italiano

    Musgo Real After Shave has these ingredients,do i need to worry?

    Alcohol, Aqua (Water), Aloe Barbadensis (Aloe Extract), Parfum, Glycerin, PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Sodium PCA, Hamamelis Virginiana (Witch Hazel Extract), Echinacea Purpurea (Echinacea Extract), Bisabolol

  • July 26, 2012

    by Lola

    I was about to use De La Cruz sulfur ointment all over myself (which is what you have to do for Scabie :( Now I'm not so sure after I've been reading about PEG. The ointment contains just 10% sulfur and PEG, so it's 90% PEG. Jee. now not sure what to do. It's sold for ACNE, and sposed to leave on for just 10 minutes, but not sure that would kill the mites anyway. and it has to be full body. probably not going to use. Thanks for the good, balance info.

  • April 8, 2012

    by Marta Wohrle

    Hi Sarah, most of the concerns about PEGs regard whether they contain impurities. PEG150 is specifically one that may be contaminated. Given that you are using a rinse off product, it is likely OK to continue using it.

  • April 8, 2012

    by Sarah

    I want to know about peg-80 and peg-150 bcoz its in y daily exfoliate face wash by johnsons plz tell is it save ???????

  • May 18, 2011

    by Blane

    Are you kidding me? You guys must be selling something that has PEG ingredients in it. Because PEG ingredients are anything but suitable for use in body products of any sort. Polyethylene Glycol is essentially created from ethylene oxide, a petrochemical. For anyone wanting to stay clear of harmful chemicals, avoiding petrochemicals is a must. On top of that most PEG ingredients are contaminated with carcinogens as you indicated unless a very costly removal process is used.

  • July 29, 2009

    by jennifer langan

    I looked into the ingredient PEG-40 and stopped using Eucerin cream as I had a feeling that was why I had rash, itchy skin, tingling and numbness in my face. I have damaged skin on my legs. I now am better after 2 months of not using anything with PEGs in them.
    To me it is toxic.

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