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Dangers of PEG Compounds in Cosmetics
Women at Increased Breast Cancer Risk?, from Healthy Living

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 breast cancer.

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 disease.

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 chemicals.

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."


Black, R.E., et al. "Occurrence of 1,4-dioxane in cosmetic raw materials and finished cosmetic products." J AOAC Int 2001;84(3):666-670.

Dao, T.L. "The role of ovarian hormones in initiating the induction of mammary cancer in rats by polynuclear hydrocarbons." Cancer Research, 1962; 22: 973.

Johnson, W., Jr. & Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel. "Final report on the 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, 2001;20 (Suppl 4):13-26.

National Toxicology Program. "TR-415 toxicology and carcinogenesis studies of polysorbate 80 (CAS No. 9005-65-6) in F344/N rats and B6C3F1 mice (feed 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.


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