What's Up With PEGs?

Illustration for article titled What's Up With PEGs?

PEGs are a group of chemicals that are usually included in the “Dirty Dozen”—a roundup of 12 chemicals that watchdog agencies and environmental groups want you to avoid. But if you haven’t heard of them, join the club. Sharima Rasanayagam, P.h.D., the Director of Science for the Breast Cancer Fund says that PEGs are hard to talk about and hard to understand, because, well, like all your Facebook relationships, “They are complicated.”


And she adds, “The problem with PEGs, isn’t really PEGs, it’s their contaminants.”

But, before we go there, let’s back up and find out what a PEG is and why the hell it shows up in your make up. So, first of all, PEG stands for polyethylene glycol and it is one of those chemicals created in a lab. Which doesn’t necessarily make it suspect. After all, Elton John made his babies in a lab. 2015 is a whole new era. Plus, no one knows how to kill like Mother Nature.

But, the problem with PEGs, according to the Breast Cancer Fund, is how they are created. Rasanayagam and her colleague from the Breast Cancer Fund, Connie Engel, Ph.D., who works as the Science and Education Manager, were kind enough to science-splain PEGs to me.

As it turns out, PEGs are part of a family of compounds that the Breast Cancer Fund has had their eyes on for a while. These chemicals are created by ethoxylation, which is a chemical process where ethylene oxide is added to an alcohol or phenol to make a surfactant. Okay, don’t let your eyes glaze over.

A surfactant is one of those things that helps oil and water mix so that you can clean your greasy hippy hair. A sulfate is one such surfactant. But we are talking about PEGs, so focus. Polyethylene glycol is made by ethoxylation to help stuff that doesn’t mix with water very well to mix with water. (Kind of how guacamole helps you handle Monday’s better.) And PEGs are used in your creams and lubes. PEGs are also in toothpaste, where they keep xanthan gum in line, so it doesn’t glop unevenly all over your teeth. In sum, your PEGs help mix up liquids that won’t mix, they help soften, soothe, clean up oils...they do a lot. And there are a lot of them. Talking about PEGs is like talking about the Duggars. Who can keep track of them all? In fact, there are a wide variety of uses for PEGs even outside cosmetics that include the repairing of damaged nerves. But, we are a site of beauty, so let’s stay there.

PEGs: cheap to make, help your creams and lubes work better. So, what’s the problem? Ethylene oxide and 1,4 dioxane, to be specific.


Remember how I said that PEGs are made from ethylene oxide? Well, ethlyene oxicide is a known carcinogen. There seems to be very little disagreement on that front. Also, ethoxylation (the process that makes PEGs) can create 1,4 dioxane as a byproduct. Remember 1,4 dioxane our old friend? We met him when we talked about sulfates. 1,4 dioxane is one of those chemicals that people quibble over. So, some watchdog groups like the Breast Cancer Fund call it a “known carcinogen.” While the EPA and FDA say, “Ehhh, it seems all right in small doses.”

But as Engel points out, there is no reason for even a hint of these contaminants. “1,4 dioxane can be stripped from products in one easy extra step that would cost companies virtually nothing.”


So, why don’t they? “Money,” Rasanayagam tells me. “And if consumers don’t demand something, companies aren’t going to force the issue.” The FDA has said 1,4 dioxane seems fine in small doses, there are no armed hordes rising up to demand its elimination, so it stays.

But what about the ethylene oxide? Well, if you recall, Rasanayagam and Engel tell me it may be in PEGs. It’s possibly in there. So, if that’s a gray area, I asked. Why get worried about it? Well, as Engel and Rasanayagam also expertly argue there is actually no need for PEGs. Engel tells me that if you leave them out some products would suds less and in other products PEGs can be replaced with some natural oils.


“Sure,” Rasanayagam tells me, “You will inhale more carcinogens starting your car than you get from PEGs. But our concern is over cumulative exposure over a person’s life. And if those chemicals don’t need to be there, why are they?”

Except, it might not be so simple. Perry Romanowski, Vice President at Brains Publishing, founder of Chemists Corner, The Beauty Brains and the author of Beginning Cosmetic Chemistry, disagrees: “PEGs are used to make other ingredients compatible with water and to improve the aesthetic feel and function of cosmetics. They make possible some formulations that would not otherwise be possible. They also can help reduce irritation of natural ingredients. Sure, you can make basic formulas without using PEGs but the formulas would not work as well and would not be as pleasant to use. There is no natural oil that a formulator can use to replace PEGs.”


Romanowski, also points out, that a review of PEGs showed absolutely no concerns with cosmetic products that contain them (and this that includes their potentially carcinogenic entourage).

And here where are again. One side says “this chemical is bad”, another side says “Not bad at all.” I asked Rasanayagam and Engel why this happens. After all, this is science. It’s not interpreting a lump of clay in a modern art exhibit. It’s science! But they noted, to paraphrase, that in order to prove a causal link between PEGs and cancer, they would have to conduct studies that are unethical—testing on humans. I also asked Romanowski the same question in an email and he wrote, “If there was a population study that showed people who were exposed to PEGs for their entire lives were suffering some disease that people who weren’t exposed to weren’t getting then that would be convincing. If there were animal tests that showed high levels of exposure caused problems then that would also be convincing.”


(Side note: Rasanayagam and Engel say there are studies that show a link to cancer from ethylene oxide.)

So, where does that leave us? Well, I personally, wouldn’t mind seeing cosmetics made without PEGs, after all if they aren’t necessary, why have them? But, Romanowksi thinks this is all just a ploy to sell expensive make up. Which, okay, I have to admit, during the process of writing this article, I went online to buy face cream. (Don’t judge me! I live in Iowa and I have Amazon Prime and two kids, if I don’t have to put on pants, I won’t.) And I scoured the internet for PEG-free products and by and large they were $10 more than what I usually spend (which is not a lot). Although, the “Yes To Carrots” brands of lotion looked affordable. But I’ve bought their stuff before and not really liked it.


In any case, the accusation of money grubbing can be made on either side here—to the big cosmetic companies for penny pinching, or to the natural makeup companies for price hiking. It makes me think that being cancer free is just for the rich and well-read.

Bottom Line: I’ll probably take my chances with PEGs and not because I’m cheap. I found this pretty convincing and even the Environmental Working Group, rates this product as a 3 on their threat level scale. But if you are starting to worry about cumulative exposure and becoming a human test subject for PEG exposure, test some PEG-free products and let me know what you think.




A surfactant is one of those things that helps oil and water mix so that you can clean your greasy hippy hair.

I’ll have you know, my hair’s hips are in perfect proportion to the rest of it!


(Kind of how guacamole helps you handle Monday’s better.)

Handle Monday’s what?

I’m sorry, I just can’t take the piece seriously when clearly nobody proofread it even once. There may be errors of real substance in here, too. Obviously those wouldn’t have been caught either.