What is it?

Polyethylene glycol (PEG) is a polyether compound with many applications from industrial manufacturing to medicine. PEG is also known as polyethylene oxide(PEO) or polyoxyethylene (POE), depending on its molecular weight.” Wikipedia

What are the effects?

This substance belongs to the groups:

In our database we have gathered a wide variety of different polyethylene glycols (PEGs) compounds under this substance. What they have in common is that they all of course contain PEGs, but also that their only area of concern is that they might be contaminated. As a general, PEG compounds with multiple effect areas will get separate pages.

The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) writes that “PEGs may contain trace amounts of 1,4-dioxane, a by-product of ethoxylation”. Ethoxylation is the chemical reaction that occurs when ethylene oxide is added to make ingredient less harsh and instead milder.

A study by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) analyzed “natural” and “organic” products and found 1,4-dioxane as an impurity in 46 of the 100 products analyzed.

The David Suzuki Foundation writes that “depending on manufacturing processes, PEGs may be contaminated with measurable amounts of ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane”. They have also found data showing that “PEG compounds themselves show some evidence of genotoxicity and if used on broken skin can cause irritation and systemic toxicity.“

It is common that PEG substances contain palm oil. Preferably it is stated on the product if it is “palm oil free” or contains “organic palm oil”, but in most cases you have to ask the manufacturer if and which kind of palm oil is used. However, since palm oil is a controversial ingredient, it is common for products to clearly state if they are free from palm oil or contain organic palm oil.


Even though it is not listed on the ingredient labels, products with PEGS may also contain impurities from:

  • 1,4- dioxane – linked to cancer
  • Ethylene oxide – linked to cancer, organ system toxicity, genetic defects and irritation
  • Palm oil – linked to environmental destruction

How is it used?

The most common type of plastic in the world is polyethylene (PE) and it is being used for all kinds of packaging of products. But to make PE “fit” inside of products glycol is added to make soluble. This turns the somewhat hard polyethylene (PE) plastic into a liquid called polyethylene glycol (PEG). These PEGs can be found in many variations and are commonly found in cosmetic products*, medicines, household products, foods and inks for printers.

The PEG compounds are petroleum based and are not a definitive chemical in itself, but a mix of chemicals. Some examples of polyethylene glycol-based compounds are ceteareth-20 (polyethylene glycol ether of cetearyl alcohol), PEG Stearates (polyethylene glycol esters of stearic acid) and PEG-10 sorbitan (also called polyethylene glycol 500 sorbitan monolaurate). Other chemical compounds that contain PEGs are ammonium laureth sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, and octoxynols.

PEG’s functions in products are as varied as its different applications. They work for example as solvents, cleansing agents, emollients (softens and smooths the skin), surfactants, cleansing agents (removes dirt, bad smells, bacteria) and solubilising agents (makes the product formulation more soluble/loose), and as emulsifiers (helps mix non-miscible liquids, like oil and water). Perhaps the most important property of PEGS, in context of toxicity, is that they are “skin penetration enhancers”. In other words, the PEGS are increasing the skin’s absorption and makes it easier for other ingredients to go deeper into the skin. This is something to keep in mind when looking at the rest of the the substances in the same products as PEGs.

PEGS can be found in found in cosmetics such as skin lighteners, moisturizers, anti aging products, hair colors, depilatory products, sunless tanning products, and many others.

We use the European Commissions definition of Cosmetics:
“Cosmetics range from everyday hygiene products such as soap, shampoo, deodorant, and toothpaste to luxury beauty items including perfumes and makeup”.

Did you find this ingredient in a product?

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