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.