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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Comments

  1. Rachel says:

    Great info! Just wanted to say thanks for really getting down to the nitty gritty on product ingredients. Trying to research ingredients in products makes me eyes start to glaze over even though I think its really important. I’m guessing that happens to a lot of people and that’s how product makers keep getting to make claims that aren’t very accurate. It’s enough to make me want to dump 95% of the products in my house! I am totally second guessing some products I’ve never looked twice at because of their natural/green labeling. Gonna have to add you to my blogroll!

  2. Kathy says:

    Just found your site after perusing Mom-101′s blog… I was intrigued when she wrote that you can “fold your tongue in the shape of a clover” as I can too… I always called it the triple roll (I can do a double too) but it looks like a clover for certain. Anyway I am SUPER excited to find your blog/site. I’m about 50% through my Everyday Bliss experiment and have been thinking my next project will be an Everyday Green one and I am sure you will be a great resource!

    Looking forward to reading EVERYTHING! Thanks for the inspiration.
    Kathy over at Everyday Bliss

  3. Celina says:

    Thanks for the honest piece of info – Too many companies are getting away with murder – For example : a MOUTH WASH I bought and reads on the front label : “Nature’s Miracle, does not contain Sugar, Alcohol, Flouride, Colorants” and at the back under “contents”, guess what? we have PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil! amoungst other ingredients!

  4. Amy Manoza says:

    why manufacturer still use peg40 castor oil if its harmful in health of people?

  5. Amy Manoza says:

    peg 40 is used in perfumes right?…

  6. Hey smart mama that sure is a smart low-down on PEG 40. Its the common sense of plus expertise of your post that’s so good; so the PEG40 is supposed to be pure of poisons, but why bother with that stuff in the first place when we can use pure raw ingredients most of the time. Usually turns out is for a long shelf life or purely superficial reasons like not wanting a natural golden colour of natural vegetable oils. Lovers of raw body care products love the natural smell and colour that means there are live enzymes inside. Like the excellent Greenman Shave Oil, made by me! But seriously I will be reading lots more from your site, come post on mine.
    R

  7. Mildred says:

    Thanks

  8. Jim says:

    This site, like many others is just trying to scare people. If you look at the article you say that the castor plants themselves contain a ‘Toxin’ so, even natural products are not truly safe either. So what is your point, that we all just run around not shaving, bathing, grooming, bushing our teeth or driving just because it MIGHT cause cancer or some other problem. From what you hear on the web, NOTHING IS TOTALLY SAFE. Someone, (Usually with an Agenda) has found something wrong with EVERYTHING. So, until someone PROVES that this product causes some kind of problem in in more than just a small percentage of the population, I think I just won’t worry about it. (Strawberries, Milk, Chocolate & Peanuts cause more problems – And I don’t think they’re going to ban them anytime soon.)

  9. kitty says:

    I really do not get it! My cream says PEG40 and I find it to be marvellous! There are reputable beauty houses and clinics that are using creams containing PEG40?!
    And people I know are very happy with the products.eg: ROC… I would appreciate an opinion on this!

  10. Amanda says:

    Thanks so much for this info! I’m bummed–just spent $60. on two Aveda hair styling products, both of which list this and other nasty ingredients. Everytime I use them, I get these horrible red bumps on my forehead and scalp! Ew. Just goes to show you, you HAVE to read ingredient lists, no matter what the company tells you in all the expensive advertising. Will return for a full refund and print out your article for their reference. Maybe if more of us speak up, “green” companies like Aveda will listen and stop with the “green washing.” I’m fed up with this.

  11. Janine J says:

    Bravo! A post explained in ways everyone can understand.

    Jim, castor beans have a toxin that is REMOVED. You jumped on a bandwagon that has left town.

    I make green products but don’t label them as green. I make herbal skin care. I tell people what is a chemical and what isn’t. I tell them why I use it. Most of my products do not have chemicals.

    People tend to go overboard when learning something new, then find a balance after a bit. It IS daunting to read up on ingredients. It is for me too.

    Kitty, there are a lot of products, I would say most of them, that contain chemicals and they feel SUPERB on the skin. The bottom line is what do you want to PUT on your skin? Are you just interested in the FEEL or do you care about your health?

    It’s the size of the molecule that determines what can penetrate deeper in to the skin than most surface stuff.
    Cyclomethicone and dimethicone are two nasty products with a small molecule size. So whatever they have in the products will be allowed to go deeper into your skin than some others.

    I prefer to at least TRY to put stuff ON my skin that is healthy. Well, I do more than try. I use my products. If I am going to use some other company’s products, I just tell myself I’m going too and I don’t read the ingredient label. However I also don’t use a lot of it.

    For instance, Japanese Cherry Blossom lotion from BBW. I LOVE that smell. BUT, I don’t use it after I’ve shaved my legs and I don’t apply much when I do. And it’s not the fragrance oil that’s so objectionable in quantity for me, it’s the awful ingredients they use in their products.

    Which brings to mind fragrances. Essential oils are from the plant. Period. MANY companies are telling the public that peach is an essential oil. It is NOT. Or they say it’s a ‘natural essence’. As long as John Q Public listens and believes what she/he is told from ANY corporation, without investigating on their own and DEMANDING better ingredients, they will get what they’ve always got because big corporations don’t care about people, only the money.

    Big corporations have jumped on the ‘natural’ bandwagon, using that term and others.
    For me, I was herbal, when herbals weren’t cool.

  12. Emilie says:

    Aveda is owned by Estee Lauder (along with COUNTLESS other brands…Clinique, Prescriptives, etc)

  13. JULIE says:

    THANKS MUCH FOR THE VALUABLE INFO. ON PEG 40. WHAT OTHER CHEMICALS ARE USED IN
    COSMETICS THAT CAN BE TOXIC.

  14. twilight says:

    nice article

  15. Steve says:

    I always try to keep the knowledge that if i would not ingest it then why would i use it in my skin. I mean our skin is our largest organ of our body 70 percentage ish….. not sure i want petroleum products in me.
    They should be kept for autos and even then what about greenhouse gases??? we all need to dig a little deeper as to what we should and shouldn’t put into our bodies as well as what gets washed down the drain into our waterways. Maybe that is why many sealife are genetically being modified without even having to rub on some PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil.

    Plant a garden :)

  16. Gav says:

    This is a good article however you are actually mistaken, it is actually possible to get PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil from natural origin ingredients. It depends how it is made, certain ways of making it can create a toxicity other ways, with natural origin ingredients their is no level of toxicity higher than say brown bread from the supermarket or gasses from a house plant. There are a lot of well respected companies that will use the PEG-40 with an asterisk * next to the name, below the ingredients it will specify the natural origin of the ingredient and how it was formulated. L’Occitane en Provence is one such company that uses only natural based ingredients and organic oils. If you are going to also dissect the natural origin ingredients then you may as well dissect every pill we take, coke, Starbucks, tooth paste, the bleach used in toilet paper etc it’s virtually impossible to live completely toxicity free in the day and age, but thankfully some companies such as L’Occitane provide as natural a formulated product as possible with complete traceability to its growers. They are pricey but everyone who helps create the ingredients from the farm to the factory are paid well and above average. It’s called fair trade. These days I’d be more concerned about the toxicity of the mind and ignorance than PEG-40 hydrogenated castor oil from natural origin ingredients, especially when it’s almost the last ingredient on the list if some higher quality products and the 3rd ingredient on cheap crappy products.

  17. Clive says:

    I wish you hadn’t referred to Skindeep. That web site is full of pseudo-science mumbo jumbo and is not a credible source.

  18. jennifer Langan says:

    I had neurological disorders on my face, numbness and scalp, sore and tender, and felt terrible. After months I noticed a rash on my thighs. I went to my bathroom counter, looked at the cream, Euceren, and its ingredients and decided I did not like the sound of PEG-40, the shampoo had it as well. I stopped my shampoo and searched for PEG-40 free body cream. Ever since ..no more Neurologist visits. I have damaged skin and the more I used the cream, the worse I got.
    Now, I see many creams have stopped using PEG-40.
    People rolled their eyes when I told them to watch what is in their cosmetics.

  19. Gisela Robinson says:

    Excellent article, I kept an article dated back 09/03, Dioxins from Ethoxylated chemicals eg SLES, PEG, TEA,DEA etc all poison. Why I looked it up, my sister left me a hair styler gel and my comb lost it shine and my hair too. Then I though look up the ingredients. sure PEG 40. Thank you again for your article,
    One can not thrust any more, I am 75 now and think it is terrible.
    Kind regards
    Gisela Robinson

  20. I ran across your very educational post while researching the ingredients in the Pampers Sensitive Wipes product, which contains peg-40 hydrogenated caster oil. You noted that it isn’t safe for use on injured or damaged skin. Yet here it is in a product for babies whose tender little bottoms very often suffer from diaper rash– the very definition of damaged skin. I’m betting this is not the only questionable ingredient in that product.

  21. Corinn says:

    Thanks for the post! Your explanation was well written in lay terms
    and exactly what’s needed for the general public to understand
    how product labeling is deceptive.
    I personally cannot handle products with HCO,
    they clog my pores, cause break outs and rashes and weigh my hair down.
    I also try to stay away from silicones for the same reason.
    A good rule of thumb I am trying to live by, eat and use products
    that don’t have a long shelf life- they contain the least amount of preservatives and chemicals.

  22. TJ says:

    I think it’s important to point out that ethylene doesn’t necessarily come from “petroleum by steam cracking” as you indicated…

    In the journal called “The Plant Cell: American Society of Plant Biologists,” Doctors Wang, Li, and Ecker state with lots of scientific references that ethylene is a plant hormone, produced by plants, in plants, and for plants. Here is the first paragraph of their article published in 2002 in that journal:
    “Despite its simple two-carbon structure, the olefin ethylene is a potent modulator of plant growth and development (Ecker, 1995). The plant hormone ethylene is involved in many aspects of the plant life cycle, including seed germination, root hair development, root nodulation, flower senescence, abscission, and fruit ripening (reviewed in Johnson and Ecker, 1998). The production of ethylene is tightly regulated by internal signals during development and in response to environmental stimuli from biotic (e.g., pathogen attack) and abiotic stresses, such as wounding, hypoxia, ozone, chilling, or freezing.”

    And here is the reference information for that article:
    Wang K, Li H, Ecker J (2002). “Ethylene Biosynthesis and Signaling Networks”. Plant Cell 14 (Suppl): S131–51. doi:10.1105/tpc.001768. PMC 151252. PMID 12045274.

    Caution should be exercised in both directions of claiming “natural” or “not natural.”

  23. Jonathon says:

    Awesome article! ANY hydrogenated oil is harmful to our bodies. Even applications to skin! Trans fat (the unnatural, terrible kind) is created through hydrogenation of any oil. I used a soap for 1 year before realizing the strange cellulite on my ribs (i was 29, very fit and athletic, and puzzled) was caused by hydrogenated ingredients in the soap. I stopped using it, switched, and had no cellulite on my ribs about 6 months later. Scary stuff, how it is marketed as healthy. It’s very dangerous to good health.

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