Friday, August 27, 2010

Esters: PEG or polyethylene glycol esters

You've seen these esters around, with names like PEG-7 olivate or PEG-12 laurate, but what the heck are polyethylene glycol esters?

Point of interest: What we've been taking a look at for the last week are called alkyl esters, just one of the many types of esters! There are a ton of different types - I can't cover them all as this will become the "ester blog", but we'll go over the major categories!

PEG stands for polyethylene glycols or ethylene glycols, which are esters that have undergone a reaction with polyethylene glycol to create an ester that is water soluble and might behave as an emulsifier. This process is called ethoxylation and is an industrial process in which ethylene oxide is added to a fatty acid or fatty acid alcohol, and in the end non-ionic surfactants are produced. (Remember that surfactants are not necessarily foamy or lathery - there are many categories.) Surfactants have a hydrophilic (water loving) head and a lipophilic (oil loving) tail, which means they can help emulsify themselves or other oil based ingredients we might want to include in our water based products.

Generally, a PEG ester is named like this - PEG-# something-ate. The # stands for the number of polyethylene glycol molecules that have been reacted and the something-ate is the fatty acid with which it was reacted. So if we see something like PEG-12 laurate, it means 12 molecules of polyethylene glycol has been reacted with 1 molecule of lauric acid (C12 fatty acid, generally from coconut oil or palm kernel oil). The number is important - as the number increases, the water solubility increases. Something like PEG-8 oleate will be more water soluble than PEG-6 oleate, and PEG-10 would be more water soluble still.

Most of what we see are low ethoxylated esters like PEG-7 olivate, PEG-7 glyceryl cocoate, and PEG-12 laurate. (We will see higher chain lengths in things like PEG-150 glycol distearate when we get into the glycol and glyceryl esters, which tend to be used as thickeners, opacifiers, and emulsifiers.) These PEG esters behave as emollients, moisturizers, anti-irritants or mildness increasers, and can confer slipperiness to things like shampoo, body washes, and bubble baths! Some of them behave as very mild cleansers, which is why adding something like PEG-7 olivate to a make-up remover works so well!

The neat thing about using PEG type esters is the impact they have on our products. They don't hydrolyze in water and don't support mould growth, which makes them a great inclusion in any product where you're using water. (Hydrolysis is one of the mechanisms of rancidity, so having something that doesn't hydrolyze means you are less likely to see rancid oils and icky products!). They also form clear solutions with your surfactants - you won't get that when you emulsify that little bit of oil with something like polysorbate 80.

So when you see something called a "water soluble oil", it's probably a PEG ester (or possibly a PPG ester, which is a polypropylene glycol ester, which we'll be discussing soon) derived from that fatty acid or triglyceride.

There are PEG esters that are called an ethoxylated triglycerides and they're similar to the PEG esters, but they tend to be named things like PEG-20 almond triglycerides. You'll also see things like PEG-7 glyceryl cocoate, which are glycol or glycerol esters, which are created through a different process. And we have things like polysorbate 20 or 80, which are alkyl carbohydrate esters. All of these are considered water soluble surfactants and solubilizers or emulsifiers. We'll be taking a look at these shortly. 

Let's take a look at one of favourite PEG esters tomorrow - PEG-7 olivate!

As a final thought, why is it everything I do comes down to surfactants, even when I don't plan on it? I guess I'm just a surfactant junkie!


Topcat said...

This is something I really wanted to know, thank you for the explanation and I am looking forward to learning more :)

Luci Lee said...

You explained this very well - thank you!

Luci Lee

少英 said...

Is there any way to homogenize or solubilize PEG-10 ester with oil? Simple mix, high temperature or other approaches? Thanks.

Hazyann said...

hi! thank you for the info... may i know your reference for this:

The number is important - as the number increases, the water solubility increases. Something like PEG-8 oleate will be more water soluble than PEG-6 oleate, and PEG-10 would be more water soluble still.

it will really help me in my research. :>

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Hazyann! You can find this information in a variety of places, but I've posted this article (Oil Ethoxylate Project Article) so you can read it. What research are you doing?

woitS said...

I'm so glad finding your writing about PEG. Well, some articles on the internet said that PEG-something is something to avoid in skin care for it's dangerous ingredient. What do you say about that?
Thanks :)

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi woitS. I don't think PEG ingredients are dangerous. I wouldn't suggest them to the readers of this blog or use them on my family and friends if I thought they were dangerous. I know why they think they are dangerous, but I'm curious to know what you read.

glamaris said...

Hi Susan,

I'm wondering if you could share any information on what it means when an ingredient list just says "PEG-#"? A product I'm thinking about trying to duplicate has "PEG-8" as an ingredient. When I go to search for ingredients to buy, I find a variety of things, like PEG-8 Beeswax, PEG-8 Dimethicone, and so on, but I haven't seen anything just called PEG-8. The EU INCI lists it as valid ingredient name though (

Do you know if PEG-8 is a generic term that applies to any PEG-8 something-ate product, or if it is a distinct substance? If it's a generic term, is there any way to know what the actual ingredient is for duplication purposes?

Thanks for your fantastically informative blog!


glamaris said...

Hi again, just figured out that your blog has a search tool and tried searching, sorry I didn't see that before. I found this post for duplicating the Korres Milk Proteins 3 in 1 cleansing emulsion ( in which you say "PEG- 8: Not enough information to figure out which PEG-8 this is." So I guess that's my answer. Boo.

Thanks again for making all this info available!


Steven said...

I'm wondering if something like PEG-5 glyceryl stearate is able to be produced at home. I know you said ethoxylation was an industrial process, so I doubt I'm able to.

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

Hi Steven. I'm thinking not... Why not just buy it?

Steven said...

There's only 1 PEG-5 glyceryl stearate product (Nikkol TMGS-5V), but it's not an easily accessible ingredient that you could just buy from Lotioncrafter or MakingCosmetics or something. I could just substitute these 2 ingredients for any trademark name of an emulsifying blend that contains glyceryl stearate and PEG-100 stearate, but it wouldn't create as stable of an emulsion if I had used the PEG-5. Maybe Lotioncrafter could make their own PEG-5?

Lili R said...

Dear Susan thank you very much for all you have done to create this informative blog. I have a question about PEG impurities.
I am a bit concerned about the impurities coming with PEG like ethylene oxide, 1,4-dioxane and heavy metals and also suppliers don't provide purity of products. Would you please tell me if I should be concerned about this issue or basically that impurities are in small percentage so can't cause any problem for skin.
I appreciate your help in advance.

Susan Barclay-Nichols said...

HI Lili! I can't tell you how to feel, but I would like to suggest that some of the sites that talk about these kinds of things - Skin Deep, EWG, Suzuki Foundation - are not offering the most accurate information at times. There are no concerns about 1,4-dioxane in ethoxylated products any more as they can get rid of it so easily. Health Canada is on top of things like heavy metals, and none of the ingredients I use have any red flags that way either.

In the end, you have to make up your own mind. I'll share with you this - I have used every ingredient I mention on my blog on someone I love or me, and I wouldn't recommend them if I thought they were dangerous. I know that's not a scientific take on things, and you have to make up your own mind, but it's how I feel. I appreciate that you're seeking knowledge, and I'd love to help you with that, so please let me know what I can offer!