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What is it: Propylene glycol

April 24, 2008 Reviewed by Marta 3 Comments
I have recently come across a couple of products that boast that they don't contain propylene glycol. Given that the vast majority of products do, I began to wonder what propylene glycol is and whether it deserves to be boycotted . After all, paraben phobia is only partially warranted - since the research linking them to cancer is apparently flawed..

The Agency For Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says "propylene glycol rarely causes toxic effects, and then only under very unusual circumstances" such as "excessively large or rapidly infused intravenous injections". The agency points out that it is less toxic than ethylene glycol (used in anti-freeze), but toxic it most certainly is. On the hand, the FDA says it is safe for use in deodorants, cosmetics and toothpaste.

So what's a girl to do? The FDA claim is based on the amounts of propylene glycol in cosmetics being so miniscule as to cause no harm. As far as I can discover, that seems to be the case. A rat study found it to be non-irritant. However, it should not be used on damaged skin. Even the oral toxicity of propylene glycol is very low. In fact, the body metabolizes propylene glycol into lactic acid (something that occurs naturally when we exercise).

Having said that, high levels of consumption results in the destruction of red blood cells. Humans exposed to high levels of propylene glycol mist experienced sore throats and eyes. 50 humans known to be sensitive to allergic reactions showed only mild irritation from contact with it. Propylene glycol has not  undergone rigorous testing for links to cancer, so that potential hazard remains unknown.

So what's the bottom line? A large number of cats, mice, rats, dogs and rabbits have been donated to the cause of establishing that is safe in normal use. Just don't drink your anti-freeze (or indeed splash it on your skin) and remember the jury is still out on the cancer issue until there is more data.
  • July 15, 2017

    by Olga

    No wonder they conduct research on propylene glycol and its link to cancer. Because propylene glycol was found inside cancer tumors. You need to understand that pg is a low-molecular agent. It means it penetrates into ones blood stream very easily. And gets removed by kidneys and liver - but v e r y slowly. By now we don't know how much pg is needed to facilitate cancer cell formation but I prefer to stay away from all kinds of Glycols, including Butylene etc.

  • May 28, 2017

    by Rose

    I have a severe skin irritation to Propylene Glycol, causing plaque psoriasis on contact with products containing it. It took years of special testing to finally find the ingredient in soaps and other cosmetic products that was causing the problem. I'm suspicious that many more people than believed are sensitive to it.

  • September 21, 2011

    by Smashbox Photo Finish SPF15 with Dermaxyl | A Girl's Gotta Spa! (sm) Top beauty blog, spa, hair care, makeup, beauty trends, skin care

    [...] such as leaving out the retinyl palmitate and finding alternatives to phenoxyethanol and propylene glycol. But until then, Smashbox has given its cult primer a nudge in the right direction for those of us [...]

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