What It Is
It may seem odd that I combined two entirely different chemicals into one post, but I promise that all will become clear by the end of this post. In the mean time, I will provide (as always) a basic description of each ingredient.
Polyethylene glycol and its many related compounds (PEGs) are petroleum-based thickening agents that are often used as softeners and moisturizers. They come in a massive range of forms, but can generally be identified by the acronym “PEG” in an ingredients list.
Sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)–along with its close relative sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS)–is used as a detergent in skincare, hair care, and household products due to its capacity to make products bubble and foam.
Where It’s Found
PEGs are most often found in cream-based products, ranging from moisturizers and cream cosmetics to sunscreens and deodorants. PEGs are also known to be used in some pharmaceutical products, such as laxatives.
SLES is an extremely common ingredient–it is said to be found in almost 90 percent of personal care and cleaning products. While it is most commonly found in shampoos, body washes, and facial cleansers, its use appears to know no limits. SLES is present in cosmetics, hand soaps, bubble baths, hair relaxers, face masks, toothpastes, hair gels, eye creams, and more.
Is It Bad?
This is where PEGs and SLES find common ground. On their own, the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database rates each ingredient as a 3, meaning they have a relatively low toxicity level. Both have been generally regarded as safe for use in cosmetics due to a variety of scientific tests conducted by Environment Canada and the Cosmetic Ingredient Review. But what they have in common has the potential to be very dangerous: they are both susceptible to contamination by both ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane.
Ethylene oxide has been banned in Canada due to its high association with cancer, specifically of the organ system. The International Agency for Research on Cancer and the NTP Report on Carcinogens have both classified ethylene oxide as a known human carcinogen, and the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics and the EPA for Hazardous Air Pollutants have both classified it as a known human respiratory toxicant. To top it all off, the European Union also classifies it as a known eye, lung, and skin irritant. Need I say more?
1,4-dioxane is also banned in Canada due to its association with–you guessed it–cancer. It has many of the same issues as ethylene oxide, all proven by the same organizations, so I won’t bore you by repeating the details. Long story short, these ingredients are not to be messed with.
So why are they still a risk? Well, these ingredients can arise during manufacturing as a byproduct of an ingredient processing method called ethoxylation, which is used to reduce the risk of skin irritation for petroleum-based products, such as–again, you guessed it–PEGs. So put simply, in trying to reduce the toxicity of one ingredient, manufacturers can create an even worse ingredient that causes cancer.
All this being said, PEGs and SLES are only questionable because of their risk of contamination by other banned ingredients. I unfortunately cannot find much information on how widespread this risk is, or whether it happens all the time or only in a few rare cases. What you have to decide for yourself is whether you’re willing to take the chance.
While these ingredients are extremely common, it is certainly possible to avoid them if you so choose. As I have always said and will always say: the safest thing to do is check the ingredients list every time. I have found both PEGs and SLES in even some of the most ethically advertised brands. It can take some time, but a leisurely browse through your drugstore’s personal care aisles in search of ingredient lists that don’t include “PEG-“, propylene glycol, polyethylene glycol, sodium lauryl sulfate, or sodium laureth sulfate can be rewarding. The reach of these ingredients is so vast that I cannot account for every type of product in which they are found, but here is a list of some of my favourite alternatives that I have switched over to:
– Sukin Cream Cleanser: https://sukinnaturals.com/collections/cleanse-exfoliate/products/cream-cleanser
– Sukin Rosehip Hydrating Day Cream: https://sukinnaturals.com/collections/moisturise/products/rosehip-hydrating-day-cream-new
– Green Beaver Deodorant Stick: https://greenbeaver.com/en/products/deodorants/citrus-natural-deodorant-stick
– The Body Shop Almond Milk & Honey Soothing and Caring Shower Cream: https://www.thebodyshop.com/en-ca/body/body-wash-shower-gel/almond-milk-honey-soothing-and-caring-shower-cream/p/p002344
– Be.Better Pure Argan Oil Shampoo: https://www.rexall.ca/inspired-beauty/haircare/be-better-hair-care/pure-argan-oil-shampoo