What Is Propylene Glycol?

Propylene Glycol found in packaged foods and skincare may be harmful

Scrolling through some articles recently, this one on Propylene Glycol over on the Wellness Mama site caught my eye. I’ve know for years that Propylene Glycol wasn’t good for us to consume, and that it’s in many processed foods and skincare products but didn’t exactly know why. I’d just been told “Don’t eat it. It’s not good for you”. I like to know at least a little of the why, and you probably do too.

From the sound of its name, it’s probably no surprise that propylene glycol is a synthetic chemical. (It’s actually the main ingredient in antifreeze!) And although its safety is questionable, it’s an incredibly common food additive that the FDA considers “Generally Recognized As Safe”

What Is Propylene Glycol?

Propylene glycol is derived from petroleum and is a viscous colorless, odorless substance with a sweet taste. Food makers value it for its ability to keep a substance moist, maintain texture, and mix with almost anything (oil, alcohol, and water). Because of these properties and because it is generally recognized as safe, it has become a common food additive in processed or ready-made food items.

Processed food items containing propylene glycol are typically foods that require thickening, emulsifying, or stabilizing properties. These include:

  • Salad dressing
  • Liquid artificial flavoring
  • Ice cream
  • Artificial sweetener
  • Icing
  • Soft drinks
  • Soups
  • Puddings and desserts
  • Sauces and dips

Propylene glycol is also often added to body care products, cosmetics, and medications.

Is Propylene Glycol Safe?

The safety of propylene glycol depends on the dose and individual susceptibility. So it is possible that if you are 100% healthy, exposure to small amounts once in a blue moon might be okay.

Unfortunately, when people consume the processed foods listed above, they usually consume a sizable amount on a regular basis, which is definitely not healthy.

Physiological Side Effects of Propylene Glycol

Consumption of propylene glycol has many known effects … here are the biggies.

Acidifies the Blood

Propylene glycol absorbs very quickly in the small intestine with peak levels detected in the blood about an hour after ingestion. It is also quickly eliminated (almost 50% of what is consumed is left after 4 hours).

In a large enough amount it can acidify the blood to the point that it requires emergency medical care. There are a few case reports, including in the New England Journal of Medicine, when patients injected with psychiatric drugs containing propylene glycol were shown to quickly develop acidosis that can cause a coma and kidney failure. Propylene glycol toxicity can also result in similar symptoms to sepsis or severe inflammatory response syndrome (source).

Contributes to Leaky Cells and Leaky Gut

Like soap, propylene glycol is a surfactant, which means it can break the barrier between fat and water. Our cell membranes are made with thin layers of fat molecules, which can be easily disrupted by surfactants like propylene glycol.

Pharmaceutical companies capitalize on this property by mixing or chemically binding drug molecules to propylene glycol to increase the drug absorption rate (source). This is the case for both drugs that are taken orally and topically.

Increases Risks of Childhood Allergies & Asthma

And if that’s not enough, it may affect our kids as well.

As a volatile organic compound (VOC) emitted from building materials, furniture, paint, carpet and the like, propylene glycol can aggravate the immune system. In a study evaluating the effects of propylene glycol and glycol ether vapors in the air on preschool children’s health, the authors found that the presence of such chemicals in a child’s bedroom air is associated with:

  • 1.5-fold increased risks of asthma
  • 2.8-fold increased risks of allergic rhinitis (hay fever)
  • 1.6-fold increased risks of eczema (source)

A good air purifier can help remove airborne chemicals and is a great idea in any sleeping space.

Wow! I’ll be checking labels a little more closely now. Do you avoid things with Propylene Glycol in them?

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