Dangers of PEG Compounds in Cosmetics
Women at Increased Breast Cancer Risk?, from
One of the ingredients savvy cosmetic shoppers will want to watch out for is
listed on cosmetic labels as polyethylene glycol and abbreviated as PEG.
Whenever you see ingredients such as PEG-6, PEG-150 and other similar
ingredients on cosmetic and personal care product labels, these are all
immediate members of the PEG family or close chemical cousins.
Polyethylene glycol compounds have not received a lot of attention from consumer
watchdog groups. They should. This family of synthetic chemicals functions in
cosmetic formulations as surfactants, cleansing agents, emulsifiers, skin
conditioners, and humectants. Cosmetic manufacturers who rely on them
extensively—and many do—are getting away with what we believe to be a conspiracy
of negligence to increase consumer cancer risks, including women's risk of
Only companies like Aubrey Organics have gone the extra step of insuring their
products are completely free from PEG compounds.
PEG Hazards Remain Ignored by Cosmetic Companies
According to a report in the International Journal of Toxicology by the
cosmetic industry's own 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. PEG compounds also appear to be highly toxic to persons
with damaged skin. In spite of these concerns, the CIR concludes that many PEG
compounds "are safe for use" in cosmetics but adds that such PEG compounds
should "not be used on damaged skin." In spite of these known contaminants, PEG
compounds remain commonly used in cosmetics and personal care products.
The Rest of the Story
As mentioned, PEG compounds often contain small amounts of ethylene oxide.
According to experimental results reported on in the National Toxicology
Program's Eighth Annual Report on Carcinogens, ethylene oxide increases the
incidences of uterine and breast cancers and of leukemia and brain cancer.
According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer Working Group,
occupational exposure to ethylene oxide during its production, processing, or
clinical use has been related to an increased incidence of leukemia. Other
cancers related to potential ethylene oxide exposure include esophageal cancer,
stomach cancer, pancreatic cancer, bladder cancer, brain and central nervous
system cancer, neoplasms of lymphatic and hematopoietic tissue, and Hodgkin's
Increased breast cancer rates have further been found among health care workers
exposed to ethylene oxide gas used as a sterilant. Noteworthy was the finding
that this "group as a whole appeared to be largely free of known risk factors
for breast cancer." Users of PEG-containing cosmetics are exposed to small
amounts of ethylene oxide. Equally disconcerting, shoppers who indiscriminately
purchase such products support companies whose own workers are exposed to these
PEG compounds contain polycyclic aromatic compounds, also known as polycyclic
aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). It has been known since the early 1960s that
polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons cause breast and other cancers.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are produced by incomplete combustion of
organic material, particularly coal and petroleum. Several PAHs, including
benzene, benz(a)pyrene, DMBA, and 1-nitropyrene, are known to be potent inducers
of breast cancer.
The 1,4-Dioxane Scandal
Perhaps most troubling is that PEG compounds are routinely contaminated with the
carcinogen 1,4-dioxane. Surveys of cosmetic raw materials and finished products
for the presence of the carcinogen 1,4-dioxane have been conducted by the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration since 1979. The carcinogen 1,4-dioxane was found in
raw materials at levels up to 1,410 parts per million (ppm), and at levels up to
279 ppm in cosmetic finished products. Levels of 1,4-dioxane in excess of 85 ppm
in children's shampoos indicate that continued monitoring of raw materials and
finished products is warranted, according to FDA researchers. In a 1991 study,
48 percent of the total cosmetic products investigated contained 1,4-dioxane at
levels from 7.3 ppm to 85.9 ppm. Studies show that 1,4-dioxane readily
penetrates human skin.
According to the National Toxicology Program in its Ninth Annual Report on
Carcinogens, "1,4-dioxane is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen."
In experimental studies, the contaminant increased incidence of liver and lung
tumors and carcinomas of the gallbladder. As a promoter in a two-stage skin
cancer study, the compound caused increased incidences of skin tumors.
Industry Failure to Clean Up PEG Compounds
The carcinogen 1,4-dioxane can be removed from cosmetics through vacuum
stripping during processing without an unreasonable increase in raw material
cost. Doing so is not mandatory but should be. The cosmetic and personal care
product industry has shown little interest in doing so. Testing commissioned by
The Doctors' Prescription for Healthy Living has confirmed that
approximately 50 percent of all PEG-containing cosmetics and personal care
products contain significant amounts of 1,4-dioxane. Such contamination
therefore is a real and common problem.
Even Found in Natural Cosmetics
You would think that natural cosmetic manufacturers would avoid PEG compounds,
especially in products for sensitive or damaged skin since its use can cause
sensitization and kidney damage. Yet, members of the PEG family are routinely
used in even natural products. Sadly, most manufacturers don't even know about
the information in this report. Hopefully, this report will sensitize such
manufacturers to the seriousness of this situation. At present, there is not
enough information shown on product labels to enable you to determine whether
PEG compounds are contaminated. While occasionally, consumers may have favorite
products with such ingredients, our recommendation is to avoid using cosmetics
with PEG compounds whenever possible.
Aubrey Organics Produces PEG-free Formulas
One of the few companies today that has long known about the hazards of PEG
compounds is Aubrey Organics, of Tampa, Florida. The company has never used and
never will use PEG compounds in its formulas. "There are natural glycols that
will do the job without polluting or contributing to the chemical manufacturing
complex," notes Aubrey Hampton, founder of Aubrey Organics. The Aubrey line
relies on natural vegetable glycerin as both a moisturizer and emulsifier.
"Vegetable glycerin makes an excellent wetting agent," Hampton continues. "It
does the job naturally and effectively, without any toxic side effects.
Remember, a little less suds is a better alternative than allowing potential
carcinogens to be absorbed into your body through your skin and scalp."
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safety assessment of PEG-25 propylene glycol stearate, PEG-75 propylene glycol
stearate, PEG-120 propylene glycol stearate, PEG-10 propylene glycol, PEG-8
propylene glycol cocoate, and PEG-55 propylene glycol oleate." Int J Toxicol,
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studies)." January 1992.
Scalia, S. & Menegatti, E. "Assay of 1,4-dioxane in commercial cosmetic products
by HPLC." Farmaco, 1991;46(11):1365-1370.
Stolley, P. "A preliminary report of cancer incidence in a group of workers
potentially exposed to ethylene oxide." Clinical Epidemiology Unit, University
of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, April 25, 1986.