Understanding Labels: PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil & Greenwashing

The personal care/beauty product industry is rampant with greenwashing. Of course – more than 70% of us say we will buy something if we believe it is “natural.” Why wouldn’t the beauty industry try to capture our dollars by marketing their products as natural?

Natural is not a defined legal term. It has no regulatory meaning. So the Food and Drug Administration isn’t policing “natural” claims on cosmetic products (although the Federal Trade Commission may be looking at green claims).

To be honest, the FDA isn’t policing much of anything when it comes to beauty products. The FDA does not conduct premarket testing or reviews of products to determine if they are safe. That is probably the biggest myth of all – that if a product is on the shelf, some government agency must have tested it to make sure it is safe.

So, in any event, basically a company is free to slap that “natural” label on any product. And the companies do.

One of the favorite tactics is “derived from.” As in, this ingredient is derived from coconuts. On the list of ingredients, you’ll see some long sounding chemical name, like ethylmethyldeath, followed by a innocuous name in paranetheses.  So, ethylmethyldeath (coconut). And you think to yourself that it must be totally natural and okay because, well, it comes from coconuts – the company just had to put this chemical name for some reason.

That isn’t always the case. Often, the ingredient is a long way from its natural root.

Take PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, often identified as PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil (Castor Oil). And you think, okay, well it is castor oil. You think, well, that’s nasty to swallow but I know it is natural. Castor oil is obtained from the castor seed. (By the way, did you know that the castor seed contains ricin, an extremely toxic protein removed during cold pressing and filtering. Harvesting castor beans is risky – allergenic compounds on the plant can cause permanent nerve damage. Workers have suffered harmful side effects when harvesting the plants.)

In any event, while castor oil is natural, the PEG-40 in front of this ingredient changes things. As it does with PEG-30 castor oil, PEG-33 castor oil, PEG-35 castor oil and PEG-36 castor oil. These compounds are polyethylene glycol derivatives of castor oil. And, well technically, PEG-40 hydrogenated castor oil is a polyethylene glycol derivative of hydrogenated castor oil.

What that means is that the castor oil is ethoxylated with ethylene oxide, a petroleum based chemical. Ethylene oxide comes from ethylene (ethylene is oxidized to produce ethylene oxide), and ethylene comes from petroleum via steam cracking. Petroleum may be natural, but it probably isn’t what you meant by natural. And it certainly is not a renewable resource.

As a by-product of the ethoxylation process, the carcinogen 1,4 dioxane may be present as a contaminant unless it is controlled and removed. You won’t see 1,4 dioxane on the ingredient list because it is a contaminant, not an ingredient. But you won’t be able to tell from the product’s label whether the 1,4 dioxane was removed or not – you’ll have to contact the manufacturer to find out.

In terms of safety, absent the carcinogenic concerns with the 1,4-dioxane contaminant, PEG-40 hydrogenated castor oil is relatively safe on the scale of things. You should know that it isn’t safe for use on injured or damaged skin. It gets a 4 to 6 on EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database because of the contamination concern, because of some limits on use, and because of limited evidence of sense organ toxicity.

But the point is is the PEG-40 hydrogenated castor oil just isn’t natural – it can’t be with the use of ethylene oxide to produce it. So any product containing it claiming to be natural is just a bunch of hogwash. Or greenwash.

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