Propylene Glycol: Is This Common Food Additive Safe?

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Wellness Mama » Blog » Health » Propylene Glycol: Is This Common Food Additive Safe?

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” (along with artificial food dyes).

Have you ever seen propylene glycol on a nutrition label and wondered, is it safe? Me too, and here’s what I found out!

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).

About 55% of this is metabolized into lactic and pyruvic acids, while the remaining is eliminated by the kidneys (source).

These lactic and pyruvic acids make the blood more acidic. At low doses, the kidneys can immediately re-balance the blood alkalinity. But higher doses of propylene glycol can acidify the blood, injure the kidneys, and cause toxicity. This is why consistent consumption in large amounts is a bad idea.

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).

While it is possible to achieve this dosage level by ingesting it, this reaction is typically only reported when it is administered at a very high dose of over ~2 grams (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.

Cells exposed to propylene glycol become more permeable to other molecules (source). (This is why the safety of e-cigarettes containing propylene glycol together with nicotine and cancer-causing substances is very questionable).

Currently, there is no study that directly tests whether propylene glycol causes leaky gut and the inflammatory health problems caused by the leaky gut. However, in a test tube study, propylene glycol even at low concentration destroyed some gut cells (source).

Those who struggle with leaky gut, autoimmune diseases, or digestive issues, may want to consider avoiding propylene glycol for these reasons.

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.

Irritates the Skin

Propylene glycol has been reported as a skin irritant that can cause dermatitis, an eczema-like rash (source). When added to skin, body care, and cosmetic products, it can really aggravate skin problems. (Ironically, it is often an ingredient in topical medications to treat these skin conditions! How does that make sense?!)

When to Avoid Propylene Glycol

Some people are more sensitive to the side effects of propylene glycol than others. Those who are generally cautioned to avoid it are:

  • People with liver or kidney problems, because the liver and kidneys are responsible for eliminating propylene glycol and its byproducts
  • Pregnant women, babies, and infants as they have reduced ability to handle these types of ingredients (source)
  • People with inflammatory health problems because it can irritate cells and cause leaky gut
  • People with digestive problems because it will further irritate the gut cells

Fortunately, it is possible to avoid and/or reduce your exposure to as much as possible.

How to Avoid Propylene Glycol

Unfortunately, this additive is in a lot of common products, so it takes some diligence to avoid it! A few tips:

Avoid Processed Foods

The best way to avoid foods dangerous ingredients such as propylene glycol is to eat home-cooked meals the majority of the time. Fake ingredients are not necessary to make food delicious. It is possible to replace the effects of these types of additives with other, natural ingredients, such as gluten-free starch or gelatin as a thickener or stabilizer.

Read Labels and Buy from Trustworthy Brands

Always check the labels of your food ingredients and other household products for propylene glycol and its synonym, propane-1,2-diol.

I like to use brands that never put such dangerous ingredients in their products, like Primal Kitchen for mayonnaise for sauces and dressings.

Check Your Skincare, Body Care, and Home Care Products

Propylene glycol is everywhere in conventional products that people put on their skin every single day. Not only that, these skin products often contain other toxic chemicals that will be more readily absorbed through your skin because it makes your skin more permeable.

Instead, rely on organic products or make your own beauty products instead.

Use Air and Water Purifiers

Despite best efforts to avoid propylene glycol in foods and other products, exposure is still possible in the air or water in your home. Good ventilation (including opening windows to air the house out), a good air purifier in sleeping rooms, and a water filter for drinking and shower water are important.

We’ve tried several filters over the years and I’ve given my review of the best air and water filter options we’ve found.

Have you ever had a reaction to propylene glycol? Which food additives do you say “no” to for your family? Please share with me in the comments!

Propylene Glycol Infographic

Sources
Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. WellnessMama.com is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.

Comments

46 responses to “Propylene Glycol: Is This Common Food Additive Safe?”

  1. Martha Fregia Avatar
    Martha Fregia

    I first noticed a problem after using Mio. I couldn’t sleep. My insides felt like they were vibrating and I had to urinate frequently. I joined Weight Watchers and began having the same issues after using their products. I began reading labels. Yikes! Little Debbie, Nestle ice cream products, eye drops…and the list goes on.

  2. Kerry Avatar

    I’m allergic to propylene glycol (PG), so I’ve done quite a bit of research in order to know how to avoid it. There are many “hidden” sources: 1) because labeling is not required, it’s very likely found in most commercial cleaning products (I only clean with vinegar and baking soda); 2) anything “modified” is likely to have had PG used in the processing of it; 3) it’s also very likely to be found in “natural flavors” since they can contain between 50 – 100 different ingredients; 4)it is in MANY pharmaceutical products–OTC and prescription; 5) PG is even sprayed on some produce to make it shiny and be an anti-fungal; 6) nearly all carbonated beverages contain PG because it helps to inhibit bacterial growth and it evenly distributes fatty acids for flavor consistency; 7) it’s used in the processing of sugar beets; 8) flavored coffee may have PG in it and decaffeinated coffee may have had it used in the decaf processing; your article mentioned ice cream (where it’s used as an emulsifier) and it’s also used on cows (to make them lactate) and it is put in their feed to prevent freezing. Propylene glycol is literally EVERYWHERE!!

  3. Leigh Avatar

    I had a severe reaction (mental fog/confusion, swollen tongue) to propylene glycol in carpet shampoo that was used on our carpets after smoke damage from a wildfire. What a nightmare! It took a while but we finally figured out what caused the reaction (went to a specialist in the Environmental Medicine Dept at our local hospital). I then started reading all labels and was surprised to find PG in almost everything I checked (shampoo, sunscreen, angel food cake, butter braids, etc. etc.). My daughter has eczema so we are very diligent about not putting anything with PG on or in our bodies. Thank you for the excellent article!

  4. Jinger Wadel Avatar
    Jinger Wadel

    I had a severe reaction from using a pool noodle. Who knew a pool noodle could contain such a harmful substance .Then not knowing it was in the topical cream I used to soothe the burn….the symptoms further inflamed. It is in so many products and the names for many glycols are masked. This is a learning process as I am trying to eliminate all glycols from my skin and diet. Thanks for the information.

  5. Sabrina Avatar

    I try 90% of the time, to avoid all products with propylene glycol even if it is hair/body wash or food. The most recent place i found it, was not surprised. A road trip out of state found us at popular chicken chain, (cows are the mascot). My kids dip of choice was, polynesian sauce. 2nd ingredient was prop. glycol! My go to first rule, is no more than 4 ingredients, 2nd, no corn syrup. And 3rd, if you cant pronounce it, its spelled like a chemical name, don’t eat it. So, i wrote a letter to corporate to educate them on this substance and I received a letter of apology, and a 10 dollar gift card. Thats it, they didnt adress issue at all and just said sorry you werent happy with your order. We have since eaten there and we use organic ketchup from my purse Ha ha

  6. Jackie L Morian Avatar
    Jackie L Morian

    Katie, I try to avoid propylene glycol because I try to avoid artificial ingredients when possible. I agree with everything that you said in the article but for a healthy person, it is not a big worry for me. My dad was in the airline industry and exposed to huge amounts of antifreeze (spraying down airplanes in freezing weather). His health problems in old age are common in his family (none of the ones you listed) and he is the only one exposed to high amounts of this chemical. Basically, when spraying down aircraft in windy conditions, he would breath it in and get it blown back in his face (yes, it does taste sweet). He sprayed this chemical every winter for decades and while it probably didn’t do him any good, it doesn’t seem to have harmed him either.

    I agree that it should be avoided when possible, especially by women of childbearing age and children. Most research has been done on white males so I am always a bit skeptical when something is deemed safe for consumption since both women and children are smaller than adult males and have a higher ratio of body fat. So, what is safe for adult males may not be safe for women and children.

    In spite of this, I do not believe that occasion consumption is cause for concern in healthy people. I just don’t want people to beat themselves up if they have been using products with propylene glycol in them. Avoid it when you can.

    Jackie

  7. Sarah Avatar

    Hi Katie,
    Amazon is advertising bottles of propylene glycol for purchase at the bottom of this article! Ick! Just wanted to let you know <3
    PS – I think you're amazing!

    1. Wellness Mama Avatar

      Thank you for the heads up, Sarah! And so sorry about that. The ads generate automatically; and while we tailor them as much as possible, sometimes the “ick” ones show up :/ Thanks again for letting us know!

  8. Jer Avatar

    At the very beginning you start with a huge scare tactic about it being the main ingredient in anti-freeze. This is a common scare tactic used against vaping and while it’s still not a great product I do find that this scare tactic to be a bit extreme especially with the current vape drama (because we all know how wonderful smoking real cigarettes is, right?).

    I do feel that you usually are good about explaining things but not explaining why PG is in anti-freeze is leaving a lot more to the imagination of already scared people. Water is a main ingredient in a lot of very dangerous products too. Also, antifreeze has had a chemical make over and is no longer that same stuff people used to put out to poison their neighbor’s cats.

    You have a good following, a wonderful blog, wonderful recipes, and so on. You don’t need scare tactics to increase followers or keep followers.

  9. Brittany Avatar
    Brittany

    I just had this conversation with some family members after I noticed PG as an ingredient (along with about thirty others) in muffins they had purchased at Costco. Gross! And also very disappointing for Costco shoppers.

  10. Terri Bandenburg Avatar
    Terri Bandenburg

    I have been avoiding propylene glycol for the last 12 years. I began having Meniere’s Disease like symptoms. I was dizzy, and “fuzzy headed.” Even my vision seemed impaired. I had an MRI, which came back negative but began to think there was something seriously wrong. This went on for 6 weeks. One day I woke up and realized my symptoms were completely gone. I knew I had changed something in my diet or routine. Then I realized I had run out of my leave in hair mousse. PG was the only ingredient I could identify as suspicious. I avoid it at all costs.
    Terri

  11. Jeanneaz Avatar
    Jeanneaz

    It’s in most popular brands of mouthwash. My dentist recommended fluoride mouthwash, but it’s difficult to one without propylene glycol.

  12. Kristen A Avatar
    Kristen A

    About six years ago, when I became pregnant with my first child, I developed many allergies to chemicals. This is one chemical that my body has a severe reaction to, and the allergist I’ve worked with rates it as something I absolutely cannot have interaction with. The size of the hives/blisters that it gives my skin is so disturbing. And they take at least three weeks to go away. Back then I thought I knew about what was wfpb, and healthy skincare. Turns out, many food, household, and skincare items were given away I’ve been very careful since then to make sure read labels. And you’re right, most of the time it is the main ingredient to any topical medicine. It’s such a bummer. My dermatologist and allergist are at a loss of currently being able to actually find any topical treatment for an unrelated reoccurring rash. And this is not the first time.

  13. Kyung Avatar

    Hi Katie, can you do an article on what supplements you and your family take? I was trying to comment on your teeth whitening article but it looked like it was closed from further comments. You mentioned that your husband’s teeth color improved with his diet and supplements so I wondered what and how many kinds he and anyone else in the family takes.

    Also , could you post more pictures of your teeth ? I’m curious how white they are today compared to the ones you posted in your other article.

    Thanks!

  14. Carla Avatar

    Excellent article! This additive has been popping out at me on everything I touch. I’ve dropped the items like hot potatos!

    Thank you for being a source of information that helps me make wise decisions concerning my health and the health of my family.

  15. Julia Avatar

    It is also a major ingredient in sun block lotions. I am so allergic to it when exposed to the sun that until I knew what it was that made my skin burn like fire with a blistered rash, I had to cover myself head to toe. I now use only aveeno lotions as it does not have pg.

  16. Allie Avatar

    I’ve seen it added to processed meats, such as bacon I would like to buy at the farmer’s market. Which is very frustrating, because here’s this great pasture raised meat I’d like to eat and then the butcher adds all these weird ingredients to it. When I mention it to the farmers, I hear over and over again that they are frustrated too but it is so hard to find a good butcher because of regulations.

  17. Jane Parks Avatar
    Jane Parks

    I tested positive in allergy testing to ALL glycols after having anaphylaxis to a salad dressing containing propylene glycol. I’ve talked to chemists all over the US – glycols are prevalent in inactive ingredients in many, many medications. They are in food dyes, and shampoo, lotions, makeup – virtually every aspect of our way of life. I’ve learned to only eat what I prepare myself, and to check everything that touches my body.

    1. Bob Avatar

      My daughter has the exact same story. After she experienced anaphylaxis and ended up being taken to an emergency room by ambulance, she was tested for allergies. The highest allergent was propylene glycol. Since then we’ve been keeping track of ingredients to foods she’s had reactions to and it seems that any glycol, glycerin, or poly-alcohol organic compound can cause her to have a reaction. What’s worse, she reacts to aerosols with glycols, so she’s learned to avoid busy public bathrooms (perfumes, e-cigs, etc.). PG anaphalaxis by inhalation appears to be rare and isn’t well studied yet. We’re waiting for it to become better recognized. The very good news is her diet is extremely healthy, not by choice, and she’s likely to avoid the diabetic and cholesterol issues that run in both sides of the family.

  18. Jacqui Avatar

    Were you aware that Propylene Glycol is the main ingredient in KY Jelly? I use PG diluted in water as a retardent to the drying time of artist-quality acrylic paint, but if I don’t have any left I happily sub in KY Jelly. I don’t eat any processed food, so not too much of a problem as far as diet goes but I’ll keep my eyes open from now on.

  19. Barb Avatar

    Oh, did I ever get a case of dermatitis from ecig liquid!
    Couldn’t figure it out for the longest time and the doctors didn’t have a clue. I took 2 back to back courses of oral anti-fungal and antibiotics, plus skin cream…didn’t touch it.
    I finally figured it out and switched to a veg glycerin base, and it began to clear. This process took close to 2 years!
    I don’t generally buy any processed foods, make my own cleaning supplies and keep it organic as best I can.
    I. Had. No. Idea!

  20. Lisa L. Avatar

    Wow, what a well written article! Yes, this is one of the things I see and wonder what it is. Fortunately I only eat whole foods and scrutinize any skin or even cleaning products. I don’t use anything with stuff I can’t visualize. But it’s pretty messed up to know they are happily putting this in our food supply. Especially the part about it dissolving the fat between our cells in some unnatural way. I’m glad for this article so that I understand better what it is and to stay alert.

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