PEGs: What They Are and How They Work

Here at Glow Recipe, we’re always challenging ourselves to formulate products that are efficacious yet safe for skin. You might have already heard the rumblings about PEG, or polyethylene glycol, in your beauty products. While it may not have the same name recognition as ingredients like parabens or sulfates, this polymer is a growing cause of concern for some people. Never heard of it? Just curious? Either way, we’ll break down what PEG is, why it’s in your beauty products, and whether you should use formulas without it.

What Are PEGs

Polyethylene glycol is a polyether compound created when water and ethylene oxide are combined. It comes in a variety of molecular sizes, but tends to be small enough to penetrate skin. There are a ton of different PEG derivatives, so PEGs won’t necessarily show up as “polyethylene glycol” on any given ingredient list.

How PEGs Work

You can find PEGs in a variety of consumer products, from medications to toothpaste. In skincare, “it’s used in a product to act as an emollient, emulsifier, or as a vehicle to help deliver ingredients into the skin, with lower molecular weight compounds being able to penetrate more easily,” says Marisa Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York, NY. For that reason, PEGs are a common ingredient in cleansing balms, since they can give formula a thick, velvety texture and, as an emulsifier, keep the formula properly blended.

Why You May Not Want PEGs in Skincare

PEGs are widely considered safe for use in skincare products. There used to be concerns around contamination by ethylene oxide (a known carcinogen) and 1,4 dioxane (a possible carcinogen), which are byproducts created when manufacturing PEGs. However, better purification standards means that that’s not really a worry in high-quality formulas.

That being said, research shows a small risk of sensitivity associated with PEGs when used over time with continued use. PEGs “should be avoided in areas of damaged or disrupted skin,” says Garshick. And although it’s not a common allergen, “some individuals may develop irritation with products containing polyethylene glycol,” she says. “It is generally good for those with sensitive skin to be mindful of this.”

What We Use Instead

As the facial skin and eye area are delicate and cleansing balms are used to help remove makeup, we found it best to formulate the Papaya Cleansing Balm without PEG — which means yes, you can absolutely use it to remove stubborn eye makeup (in fact, it’s ophthalmologist tested and safe for contact wearers and those with sensitive eyes). In the case of our Papaya Enzyme Cleansing Balm, you’ll find sorbitan oleate instead of PEGs. Sorbitan oleate is a solubilizer extracted from olive; it works alongside other oils to effectively remove your makeup.

for this part let’s keep it focused on the fact that we made it PEG-free as we knew the formula would be used intensively around the delicate eye areas to remove make up. It’s already really well written but I’d like to keep the focus on the eye area, since it’s so specific to this formula.

PEG versus PE

Polyethylene glycol and polyethylene sound like close relatives, but that’s not actually the case. Polyethylene glycol is, as we mentioned, a polyether compound. PE, or polyethylene, is a polymer, and those polymers are much larger than PEGs. PE serves its own purpose in skin-care products, too. “In a blended formula, it can be used to help hold ingredients together or act as a thickener in personal care products,” Garshick explains. “it can also help to form a film on the surface of the skin, which can help with moisture retention in the skin.”

While PEGs certainly have the potential to be absorbed into skin, that isn’t a concern in the case of PE. “In general, the size of polyethylene used in cosmetics is thought to be large and as a result, is not thought to have significant absorption into the body or systemic exposure,” says Garshick. Since they can’t penetrate skin, they’re considered very safe.

The polyethylene in Papaya is a safe, cosmetic-grade polymer in liquid form and is different from the polyethylene that makes up common, everyday household plastics or microbeads. We do not believe in using the form of polyethylene used for plastic microbeads. Due to the large size of cosmetic-grade polyethylene, there is no concern of toxicity to the body, and this ingredient has an EWG Skin Deep rating of 1 (which means that it is classified as “low hazard”).

Bottom line: While PE is in our cleansing balm — due to its binding and moisture-retaining abilities, we’ve left PEG out.

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