Propylene Glycol – Brake Fluid on Your Skin?
Vegetable glycerin and grain alcohol…they are two natural compounds that don’t sound all that hazardous, but when created synthetically and then combined to create Propylene Glycol, they are transformed into a particularly nasty chemical that appears in a long list of skincare products. As one expert has written:
Mention Propylene Glycol (PG) to most people and they will probably tell you that it is a toxin. On the other hand, PG comes in more than one formulation, so it needs to be clarified as to which formulation is meant.
And what you discover as you delve into the issue of “formulation” is actually a lot of controversy and debate. In this report, we are going to look at the harmful formulation of Propylene Glycol in skincare and its potential risks to your health. We’ll also explore just why it continues to appear in so many products and what you can do to begin avoiding it.
A Bit of Science
Before we delve into the issue of Propylene Glycol, its side effects and whether or not it is a toxin, let’s spend a moment looking at the chemistry of the compound. As we said, it could be the by-product of a chemical blend of innocuous agents like mineral oil and alcohol. However, it is not so benign.
In fact, one specialist describes it like this:
Propylene glycol is the third ‘product’ in a chemical process beginning with propene, a byproduct of fossil fuel… Propene is converted to propylene oxide, a volatile compound used frequently in the creation process of polyurethane plastics… Propylene oxide is considered a ‘probable carcinogen.’ Finally, through a hydrolyzation process …you get propylene glycol.
It is a colorless liquid with a creamy texture and it is used in scores of cosmetic products and processed foods in addition to medications and even e-cigarettes. All of these products rely on it to provide a smooth texture and some stabilization.
So, it is not so innocent as a product made with mineral oil and grain alcohol, and the research around it is full of inconsistencies and arguments. This is because of that formulation issue we mentioned at the beginning. Essentially, this boils down to the percentage of solution in which it is used.
And though experts say that reactions or risks decline with lower percentages, there is plenty of evidence that it does cause problems. Let’s consider that next…
Propylene Glycol Side Effects
Now, to begin with, let’s get a bit of clarity around the issue of Propylene Glycol side effects. These will happen because it is a toxin, no matter what you might read or hear. It does not matter in the least if it is at its weakest solution or its most intense. It is toxic.
However, it is (as we learned) a mineral oil or vegetable glycerin and alcohol product that actually allows it to appear in some snack foods. Yet, it is also this same Propylene Glycol that appears in hydraulic and brake fluids. Yes, as the title of this article implied, Propylene Glycol can be something you might find yourself applying to your skin. So, there is a bit of truth in suggesting that you are putting an ingredient in brake fluid on your body.
Technically, it is designated as a form of carbohydrate when it is in one grade, and as an industrial compound at another. There is the industrial grade that is the one you’d find in everything from that brake fluid already mentioned to such places engine coolants, airplane de-icers, antifreeze, paint or varnishes, polyurethane foams and in any number of surfactants and solvents.
Then, there is the pharmaceutical grade of Propylene Glycol, and it is far less concentrated. However, it is not without its detractors because it is still a toxin and still being used in products you might coat your skin with or even eat. It is used in such products as topically applied compounds, oral or injectable drugs and many snack foods.
So, what’s the big deal? Is Propylene Glycol safe for your skin or is it a risky ingredient?
This is where so much of the debate around Propylene Glycol seems to focus. The U.S. FDA has repeatedly labeled it “safe” or Generally Recognized as Safe (its GRAS designation). Some lab studies have shown that laboratory animals fed Propylene Glycol did not develop cancer, which allowed certain cosmetic ingredient agencies to say that it was okay to use in beauty products and cosmetics. The current concentration permitted by such agencies is a 50% or less solution.
So, it doesn’t cause cancer…that’s a good thing, right? Of course, but that does not mean that there are no risks associated with Propylene Glycol. After all, it takes moments of researching it to see such issues as:
- Propylene Glycol dermatitis – Studies have repeatedly shown that one of the most unrecognized causes of contact dermatitis is the presence of Propylene Glycol dermatitis in the product’s formulation.
- Propylene Glycol allergy responses – People with eczema or skin allergies typically respond very badly to compounds with Propylene Glycol, even when the concentration is well below that 50% threshold.
- Skin, liver and kidney damage – The MSDS or Material Safety Data Sheet for Propylene Glycol specifically mentiones that direct contact with the compound (which it describes as hazardous) can cause an array of damages to the skin, liver and kidneys.
- Propylene Glycol skin irritation – Additional studies published in the National Institutes of Health showed that Propylene Glycol may be a good solvent “which has, simultaneously, moisture-regulating, antiseptic, and preservative effects” but that it also creates skin reactions of an allergic nature – these include hives and blisters in addition to the eczema like allergy responses mentioned above.
- Risky to pregnant women and children – One thing that the research around Propylene Glycol does way is that its effects vary from person to person. This is why it is just best to avoid using it (as it is so readily absorbed by the skin) if pregnant, breastfeeding or on infants. Infants in particular may be at risk because their bodies do not have the ability to break down toxins at the same rate as an adult. This is why chemicals must never be used if and when at all possible.
On top of the Propylene Glycol skin allergy symptoms and other harmful responses, there are certain agencies that describe it as a “moderate hazard”. For example, one website notes:
The Cosmetics Database finds Propylene Glycol to be a moderate hazard ingredient and has concerns regarding cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, allergies and immunotoxicity, irritation and enhanced skin absorption, and organ system toxicity. Lesser concerns include neurotoxicity and endocrine disruption.
The same sites notes that another group recommends that anyone with eczema avoid using products that contain it and that it can enhance the penetration capacity of other agents. This is just as great a risk since it can mean that toxins, unwanted chemical ingredients and potentially harmful compounds in a product are able to be absorbed far more readily and wreak much more damage.
The Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. also warns anyone working with the compound to avoid skin contact as it may result in “brain, liver, and kidney abnormalities”.
Still, the FDA does allow it to appear, and there are many cosmetics products containing Propylene Glycol at the 50% concentration or less. This should be of interest to those concerned about the safety of anything with Propylene Glycol. This is because other parts of the world, particularly throughout Europe, it is limited mostly to non-food items and even then in smaller amounts.
It is important to note that it is not what is known as bioaccumulative. What that means is that it does break down in the body. This is unlike many of the most unwelcome and harsh chemicals in cosmetics and beauty products. Instead of building up in the tissue, it actually breaks down and passes out of the body within 48 hours. If you have compromised kidney or liver health, it may be slower, but it never builds up in the body or tissue.
Unfortunately, such staid and reputable groups as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have done studies and also held with the FDA, claiming there are not “major” health issues found. Yet, that same group also said that there are no actual studies to prove whether there are “respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, hepatic, renal, endocrine, dermal, ocular, or body weight effects in humans, or musculoskeletal, dermal, or ocular effects in animals after oral exposure to propylene glycol.”
In other words, they are giving it a green light though they are unable to point to studies demonstrating that it is safe. In fact, the research that does exist in the CDC’s files includes only that done on lab animals, and most of these studies are more than 60 years old.
However, the CDC does give Propylene Glycol a thumbs down where neurological issues are concerned and there were a number of subjects found to suffer everything from convulsions to “mental symptoms” when exposed.
So, regardless of the obvious signs that Propylene Glycol might be better off removed from anything applied to or ingested in the human body, it is still out there and in widespread use at many different concentration levels.
Does that mean you won’t find Propylene Glycol free cosmetics? No, actually, there are many Certified Organic cosmetics and Certified Organic skincare that promote their chemical free status. Do be aware that you are always going to want to scout out Propylene Glycol free skincare products, and not products that do feature it but at a lower quantity.
As one expert on non-toxic cosmetics has said:
The question comes down to more of a quantity issue. In small amounts, used infrequently, propylene glycol may not have negative health effects. If one wants to be on the safe side, though, there are alternatives.
Those alternatives are the many all natural cosmetics created to help you avoid the harmful chemicals in cosmetics.
Enjoying Chemical Free Cosmetics
As we just said, the use of Propylene Glycol is a bit controversial. This is due entirely to the fact that official agencies like the FDA have said it is generally safe at that recommended concentration. Yet, groups like the EPA warn against direct skin contact NOT because of irritation but because the exposure may lead to major issues with the health of the brain, liver and kidneys. We also learned that many of the CDC studies are out of date and not done with human participation.
This just all points to the need for anyone concerned with health and well-being to seek out chemical free cosmetics, and especially those without Propylene Glycol of any kind. The non-chemical cosmetics industry is well aware of consumer demand for such goods and makes any number of skin washes, shampoos, bath products, health and beauty aids and cosmetics without it.
Dr. Axe. (2017). Surprise! You’re Eating a Component of Antifreeze! (And Here’s What it Does to Your Body). [online] Available at: https://draxe.com/propylene-glycol/
NaturalNews. (2017). Propylene Glycol: The Good, the Bad and the Alternatives. [online] Available at: http://www.naturalnews.com/023138_propylene_glycol_products_natural.html
Truthinaging.com. (2017). Propylene Glycol. [online] Available at: https://www.truthinaging.com/ingredients/propylene-glycol