What are they?
PEG compounds are substances made with Polyethylene Glycol. They are very controversial ingredients in the cosmetics industry. PEGs are used for a variety of reasons: viscosity controlling, solubility, moisturizing, etc.
NOTA: Polyethylene Glycol should not be confused with Polyethylene (PE) which is one of the most used forms of plastic, together with PP (Polypropylene). Neither should it be confused with Ethylene Glycol.
PEGs were originally petroleum based but they can also be created from natural sources.
Are they dangerous?
In themselves, PEG compounds are not dangerous. Most of them are well tolerated by the skin and are generally considered safe. Even ingestion is possible (in reasonable amounts) as they can be used in laxatives.
The problem with the PEGs lies somewhere else.
- Pollution: The process to create PEGs involves ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane; substances that are not only very dangerous but also strong pollutants.
- Contamination: It is feared that toxic impurities from the industrial process might leave traces in the PEG compounds that would be later absorbed into the skin; especially since PEGs are absorbed very well by the derma.
For these reasons, PEGs are not accepted in certified organic cosmetics in Europe.
Are there alternatives?
Yes there are.
In some cases (cleansing formulations, for example), they can be substituted with polyglyceryl- ingredients (which can be accepted in eco certified cosmetic formulas). Among other properties, these ingredients will allow oils to become water-soluble.
Otherwise, natural ingredients can be combined to fill in for the PEGs multiple other uses.