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What is polyethylene glycol?

Polyethylene glycol (PEG) and its derivatives are widely used in cosmetics as surfactants, cleansers, emulsifiers, skin conditioners and moisturizers. In addition to their use in cosmetics, many PEG compounds have other applications.

Polyethylene glycol (PEG) is a biocompatible synthetic hydrophilic polyether compound with a variety of applications, primarily in the medical industry, but also in chemical and industrial fields. The structure of this compound is called H−(O−CH2−CH2)n−OH.

The synthesis of PEG is accomplished by polymerizing ethylene oxide (the main component of antifreeze) using a ring-opening technique that allows the creation of a range of molecular weights and molecular weight distributions of PEG. This weight range makes it suitable for a variety of uses.


Polyethylene glycol was first produced in 1859 by Portuguese chemist AV. Lourenço et al. heated ethylene glycol with dibromoethane and separated the resulting ethylene glycol oligomers by fractional distillation. French chemist Charles Adolphe Wurtz independently synthesized the compound around the same time. CARBOWAX was one of the first commercial products based on polyethylene glycol, a water-soluble wax introduced in 1940 by the American manufacturer The Dow Chemical Company.

Polyethylene glycol properties

Although changing the molecular weight of PEG may have a slight effect on its properties, primarily its shape and physical appearance, PEG has many properties. It is non-toxic, colorless, inert, odorless and non-volatile. In addition, it is highly soluble in water and organic solvents such as benzene, carbon tetrachloride and chloroform.

Making PEG species of different molecular weights relies on constructing PEGs with chains of different lengths. Larger PEG molecules have more structural repeats than smaller PEG molecules.

Use in the medical industry

PEG has a wide range of applications in the medical industry, and the number of applications continues to grow. Due to its nontoxicity and high solubility, it is suitable for many pharmaceutical and biomedical applications.

First, perhaps the most common application of PEG in the medical industry is its use in laxatives. Because PEG can exert osmotic pressure, it can draw water into the waste, thus acting as a laxative.

In similar situations, PEG is often used for whole-bowel irrigation to prepare the gastrointestinal tract for examination or surgery. PEG is also used in many pharmaceutical creams, ointments, and medical solvents.

Peptides, proteins or oligonucleotides are used as drug targets for various diseases. PEG can be used to bioconjugate itself to a target, optimizing the pharmacokinetic properties of drug treatments by coupling itself to the target molecule.

PEG can be used as an inactive substance and as a carrier for drugs. The drug delivery process relies heavily on PEG because the compound links antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs) together. It can also improve systemic drug delivery by adding it as a surface coating on nanoparticles. In biomedicine, PEG is also used to slow the clearance of coated proteins from the blood.

PEG hydrogels are also used in drug delivery as well as tissue engineering. PEG hydrogels are polymer networks created by cross-linking reactive PEG end groups, resulting in gels that are resistant to protein biodegradation and adhesion. These properties facilitate tissue engineering and drug delivery.

In vitro assays have also become reliant on PEG, using it to simulate crowded cellular conditions, allowing researchers to study the intracellular environment outside the body.

Protein analysis is another biomedical field that utilizes PEG for a variety of applications. The compound is used as a precipitating agent in DNA isolation and cell crystallization, helping to reveal the atomic structure of proteins.

Gene therapy uses PEG to encapsulate vectors such as viruses to protect them from being inactivated by the immune system and off-target in organs, preventing their potential toxic effects.

PEG is also particularly important in blood banks where it is used to enhance the significance of antibodies and antigens.

The future is likely to see more medical applications of PEG developed. One of the current research focuses in this field is exploring how PEG can be used for spinal cord and peripheral nerve injuries by using PEG to fuse damaged axons.

Use in chemical industry

PEG plays a variety of roles in the chemical industry and is also widely used in other industries. First, it is known for its use as a binder and dispersant, as it improves particle separation and prevents clumping.

Additionally, because PEG is hydrophilic, it has been found to prevent nonspecific adhesion of proteins in studies using single-molecule fluorescence.

Additionally, because the compound is non-toxic and deemed safe by the FDA, it can already be used in a variety of coatings to achieve lubrication in a variety of situations.

Preservative applications have also found use for PEG, where it is now used to prevent and slow down damage and shrinkage in flooded wood. It was used to protect the Vasa warship in Stockholm, displacing trapped water in the wood to prevent warping and shrinkage.

Another famous case of using PEG is the restoration and preservation of the Terracotta Warriors and Horses. A PEG preservative was developed specifically to preserve the colors painted on the Terracotta Warriors and Horses from the Qin Shi Huang period.

As with the medical industry, chemical applications for polyethylene glycol are likely to continue to grow.

Which household products contain polyethylene glycol?

  • Products containing polyethylene glycol
  • baby bubble bath
  • Bath oil/salt/soak
  • Shower gel/facial cleanser
  • conditioner
  • facial cleanser
  • Facial Moisturizer/Treatment
  • Base
  • Hair spray

What does polyethylene glycol do to the body?

Polyethylene glycol is a medication used to manage and treat constipation. It belongs to the laxative class of drugs.
Polyethylene glycol can prevent and treat occasional constipation. It works by increasing the amount of water absorbed by the intestines. This softens the stool and makes it easier to have a bowel movement. It also increases pressure, prompting the intestinal muscles to move stool.

What is another name for polyethylene glycol?

PEG is also known as polyethylene oxide (PEO) or polyoxyethylene (POE), depending on its molecular weight.

Is polyethylene glycol dangerous?

OSHA Hazard Communication Standard This product is not a "hazardous chemical" as defined in OSHA Hazard Communication Standard 29 CFR 1910.1200. Potential Health Effects Eye Contact: May cause minor temporary eye irritation. Corneal damage is unlikely .

Why is polyethylene glycol banned in Europe?

Although propylene glycol is "generally considered safe" by the FDA, the EU has not hesitated to ban the chemical due to harmful side effects associated with high doses, such as the central nervous system depression this man experienced after ingesting it . Many whiskeys contain propylene glycol.

Why should you avoid polyethylene glycol?

Depending on the manufacturing process, PEG may be contaminated with detectable amounts of ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane. The International Agency for Research on Cancer lists ethylene oxide as a known human carcinogen and 1,4-dioxane as a possible human carcinogen.

Who should not use propylene glycol?

Patients with a less effective or impaired alcohol dehydrogenase system (e.g., children under 4 years of age, pregnant women, patients with liver disease, and patients receiving disulfiram or metronidazole), patients with epilepsy. Burn patients receiving extensive cutaneous application of propylene glycol.


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