What Are Pegs & Are They All Bad?

Happy New Year! With the start of a fresh new year (we’re ready for ya, 2022), there’s no better time to start clean. And we are talking clean ingredients.

Maybe you’ve already kicked some of the conventional hair care toxins from our Hair Crimes List to the curb, like synthetic fragrance and pthalates. Today we’ll fill you in on PEGs and why you don’t want them in your hair care.

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What are PEGs?

Polyethylene glycols (PEGs) are a combination of petroleum-based chemicals commonly used in cosmetics, including hair care. Polyethylene is a type of plastic and when glycol, a viscous liquid, is added to it, it turns into a thick, sticky substance. These chemical ingredients are added to cosmetic formulas as thickeners, solvents, softeners, and moisture carriers. PEG in cosmetics makes a product feel rich and creamy, and gives skin and hair a soft, smooth feel.

PEGs are water-soluble, so they not only mix well into water-based products, they dissolve easily when rinsed from the hair. That’s why you’ll often find them in conventional hair smoothing products.

PEG cosmetic ingredients show up in shampoos as surfactants (which makes the product produce a foam), in conditions as emollients (for that soft, silky feel), and in hair products of all types as a humectant (to draw moisture to strands for a feeling of long-lasting hydration).

Why Are PEGs Bad in Cosmetics?

So, why are PEGs bad? The main problem with petroleum-based ingredients in cosmetics is that they can contain toxic contaminants—1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide—due to a process during manufacturing called ethoxylation, a reaction between ethylene oxide and other chemicals. Ethoxylation is used to make certain chemicals milder but can leave behind contaminants 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide in the finished product, both of which have links to breast and other cancers.

So, it’s an easy decision to steer clear of them in your hair care products, right? That’s where it gets tricky.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t require cosmetics manufacturers to list 1,4-dioxane or ethylene oxide on product labels because they are produced by the manufacturing process. This means you have to know how to spot products that may potentially contain them.

Another hazard with PEGs, and related ingredient propylene glycol, is that they are considered penetration enhancers, making it easier for other compounds (like those contaminants we’ve talked about) to absorb into the skin and potentially reach organs and the bloodstream.

And PEGs have been known to cause skin irritation, hypersensitivity, and allergic reaction. Even worse, irritated skin with a disrupted barrier also makes it easier for chemicals to pass through to deeper layers of skin.

Are All PEGs Bad?

Before we move on to how to spot PEGs in the products you shop, it’s important to understand whether or not all PEGs are bad. The thing with these ingredients is this…it’s not so much the ingredients themselves that are harmful. It’s the contaminants that they contain. And it’s not only bad for your body, but the environment, as well. Pollution from manufacturing plants and the chemicals being rinsed down the drain after use means these contaminants end up in the air, soil, and water.

Can the contaminants found in PEGs be removed? They can. But the problem is that most cosmetic manufacturers don’t take the steps to remove them and it’s difficult to identify PEGs that do not contain contaminants.

There are many natural alternatives that provide the super-smooth feel PEGs deliver in hair care products without the issues that come with PEGs. Natural plant oils and extracts offer emollient and humectant benefits and are also used as surfactants in clean hair care. When in doubt, check brand ingredient commitments to see if they are dedicated to making hair care products that are PEG-free.

How to I.D. PEGs in Your Hair Care

We are mainly covering PEGs in hair care, here. But this class of ingredients shows up in all types of cosmetics and personal care. You’ll find them in skincare, deodorant, hair dye, sunscreens, bath products, body lotions, shaving products, and make-up.

You won’t see 1,4-dioxane or ethylene oxide on a product label. But you can learn to spot PEGs on product ingredient listings. Here’s how:
PEGs often appear notated as “PEG” followed by a number. For example, you might see “PEG-40” on a product label. In U.S. personal care nomenclature, the number represents the number of moles (aka the amount) of ethylene oxide added to the compound.

Another way PEGs show up on product labels is “PEG” followed by a number and another ingredient name. For example, “PEG-20 cocamine”. This represents a complex PEG compound – polyethylene glycol combined with another ingredient.

Perfluorononylethyl Carboxydecyl (PEG-10) is a soluble fluoro silicone that gives water-based products a foamy consistency, often used in shampoos. Look for siloxanes and silicones, 11-(2-(nonafluorononyl)ethoxy)-11-oxoundecyl methyl, 3-hydropoly(oxyethylene)oxypropyl methyl, dimethyl (10 mol eo average molar ratio) on product labels.

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