Earlier this year, I wrote an article for IJR about extreme behavioral changes children had experienced after their parents gave them the constipation medicine MiraLAX.

Philadelphia’s WPVI Action News investigated claims made by several families in which after giving their kids MiraLAX (often at the recommendation of a doctor) the child’s mood and overall demeanor, if not entire personality, changed. Sometimes irreversibly.

One mother and daughter story stood out in particular.

Jeanie Ward was advised by a doctor to give her 3-year-old daughter MiraLAX for constipation. Within 10 days, Nicole Ward was behaving like a different child. Jeanie explained her daughter suffered: “Near psychiatric events with paranoia, mood swings, aggression, rage,” as she told WPVI.

Nicole, now a young woman, explained her behavior stayed that way well into childhood:

“I was a very, very happy child. When I was two, I was running around playing. In second grade I started hating everybody. I wanted to kill everybody. I’m mad that this happened to me.”

The root of concern over the product MiraLAX was the ingredient PEG 3350 — which is in the polyethylene glycol family (PEGs).

As IJR previously reported, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) testing found MiraLAX to contain small amounts of ethylene glycol and diethylene glycol — two chemicals derived from PEG 3350 — and also toxic chemicals found in antifreeze.

At the time, the FDA had received 160 reports of adverse effects in children following the consumption of MiraLAX and a study was underway at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

MiraLAX bottles state the product is not intended for use by children under 16 years of age, although parents such as Jeanie Ward alleged the family was advised by a doctor to administer the medicine to their children. Moreover, though the product is not labeled for pediatric use, MiraLAX’s manufacturer, Bayer, reportedly confirmed that PEG 3350 is safe for long- and short-term use in pediatric patients.

Parents Against Miralax (PEG 3350)/Facebook

Nearly 5,000 people had joined the Facebook group “Parents Against Miralax” when I wrote my story in February. The group now exceeds 21,000 members. It’s no surprise that Jeanie Ward’s story, and others like it, put parents on high alert over the over-the-counter constipation relief medicine.

Fast-forward to Wednesday night when I was brushing my teeth. I ran out of my regular toothpaste but luckily had a travel-sized tube of Sensodyne on hand. Surveying the packaging while I let my electric toothbrush do the work, my eyes narrowed in on one of the inactive ingredients: PEG 8. I also noticed the packaging said, “Children under 12 years of age: Consult a dentist or doctor.” 

You’ve got to be kidding me.

Arek Olek/Flickr

I wondered if this ingredient was similar to what reportedly caused adverse side effects in children from taking MiraLAX.

The answer, my friends, is a doozy.

According to an article on Medium, a consumer safety app for cosmetics, CosmEthics, explains PEGs are a compound that forms when polyethylene, the most common form of plastic, mixes with glycol (an alcohol). The result is a thick, sticky liquid. The numbers that follow PEGs represent the molecular weight of the compound. The lower the molecular weight, the easier it is for the compound to penetrate the skin.

The article states that in cosmetics, PEGs work as emollients to soften and lubricate the skin, as emulsifiers to help water-based and oil-based ingredients mix properly, and to help deliver other ingredients deeper into the skin:

The most important thing to know about PEGs is that they have a penetration enhancing effect.

In toothpaste, PEGs reportedly work as a humectant and solvent. It’s important to note that some toothpastes are regulated as cosmetics and others as drugs, depending on the manufacturer’s claims, under the FDA.

And as Medium writes, if a cosmetic contains PEGs, it could possess other potentially toxic ingredients, too (emphasis added):

According to a report in the International Journal of Toxicology by the cosmetic industry’s own Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) committee, impurities found in various PEG compounds include ethylene oxide; 1,4-dioxane; polycyclic aromatic compounds; and heavy metals such as lead, iron, cobalt, nickel, cadmium, and arsenic. Many of these impurities are linked to cancer.

PEG compounds often contain small amounts of ethylene oxide. Ethylene oxide (found in PEG-4, PEG-7, PEG4-dilaurate, and PEG 100) is highly toxic — even in small doses — and was used in World War I nerve gas. Exposure to ethylene glycol during its production, processing and clinical use has been linked to increased incidents of leukemia as well as several types of cancer.

Finally, there is 1,4-dioxane (found in PEG-6, PEG-8, PEG-32, PEG-75, PEG-150, PEG-14M, and PEG-20M), which, on top of being a known carcinogen, may also combine with atmospheric oxygen to form explosive peroxides — not exactly something you want going on your skin.

Even though responsible manufacturers do make efforts to remove these impurities (1,4-dioxane that can be removed from cosmetics through vacuum stripping during processing without an unreasonable increase in raw material cost), the cosmetic and personal care product industry has shown little interest in doing so.

Surprisingly, PEG compounds are also used by natural cosmetics companies.

At a drug store I found other toothpastes containing PEGs include: Crest Pro-Health Advanced (PEG 6) and 3-D White (PEG 6, PEG 20M, or PEG 23M); Colgate Enamel Health (PEG 12); Arm and Hammer Peroxicare and Complete Care (PEG 8), Aquafresh Extreme Clean (PEG 8) and Parodontax (PEG 8).

The drug store sold one natural toothpaste, Tom’s, which didn’t contain any PEGs.

Dearly

However, the information surrounding PEGs is mixed.

As it pertains to PEG 8, specifically, according to CosmeticsInfo, a Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel concluded PEG 8 and polyethylene glycol ingredients were safe for use in cosmetics and personal care products.

Furthermore, according to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep catalogue, PEG 8 has a ranking of “low” under health concerns of the ingredient, however, maintains a “high risk” for its contamination by other ingredients — ethylene oxide and 1,4 dioxane. 

So, what is anyone to do with this information— and why should people care?

Paula Begoun, a “nationally recognized” cosmetics expert, may have the last word. As her skincare product website, “Paula’s Choice” explains, PEGs are used in cosmetics and purified for safety. The compounds have been “extensively tested” and are considered safe for use in cosmetic products.

Based on my findings, it appears that when it comes to clinically tested PEGs, such as PEG 8, experts generally agree putting them on your skin is OK. Yet, it sort of gives you pause to think about putting them in your mouth, doesn’t it?

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