Ingredient Watch List: Butylene Glycol, Another Questionable Petroleum Product

Butylene Glycol

I published a post a couple weeks ago about propylene glycol, a petroleum product used in a lot of cosmetic formulations that tends to dry out your skin. On the whole, I'm usually cautious about any of the “glycols” in skin care, so I wanted to tell my readers about another one that's often talked about along with propylene glycol—butylene glycol. Unfortunately, this is another ingredient typically derived from petroleum, which gives it the “ew” factor, and makes it something I don’t really want to use on my skin. It is, however, generally considered safe.

What is Butylene Glycol?

Butylene glycol is a chemical compound (1,3-butanediol)—a colorless organic alcohol used in the following ways:

  1. as a solvent (helps other products dissolve in water),
  2. as a viscosity-decreasing agent (to thin creams and gels so they're easier to use),
  3. and as a conditioning agent.

You can find it listed on the product labels of hair care products, moisturizers, foundations, sunscreens, eye creams, mascaras, and more. It's also used as a food additive to add flavoring—it has a sweet flavor and a bitter aftertaste—and in the manufacture of polyester plasticizers, structural material for boats, custom moldings, and sheets and boards for construction.

When placed on the skin or ingested, butylene glycol is absorbed and broken down into “gamma-hydroxybutryic acid,” a naturally occurring compound found in humans. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), the FDA, and the World Health Organization have all found butylene glycol to be safe.

Does Butylene Glycol Cause Harm to Skin?

Manufacturers of skin care products use butylene glycol because it works as a humectant. It has the ability to take moisture from the air and retain it, keeping the product from drying out and making the formulation more resistant to high humidity. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about 10 percent of the total production of the chemical goes into personal care products.

In sensitive individuals, butylene glycol may be irritating to the skin, eyes, and or nasal passages, but it is the least potentially irritating of all the glycols. In addition, since this ingredient is in so many of the products we apply on our skin every day, the concern is that over time, our exposure may be adding up to something that could be potentially harmful to the health of the skin and body. So far, however, scientific studies have shown no harmful effects from the ingredient at current levels and exposures. In fact, this glycol has not been linked to any organ-specific toxicity and is not considered to be carcinogenic, unlike ethylene glycol.

My Recommendation

As someone who wants to apply only natural, nourishing ingredients to my skin, I would recommend that you avoid butylene glycol, mainly because it is derived from petroleum, and doesn't really add to the health of your skin. (Kind of like eating a Twinkie—may not hurt you, but certainly isn't going to help you.)

Watch for this ingredient on labels, and for truly healthy and vibrant skin, choose products that are packed with plant-based moisturizers, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. I invite you to try my Anti-Aging Serum—completely free of butylene glycol, and full of goodies like aloe vera, gingko and rosemary leaves, comfrey root, fennel seed, plantain leaves, and more!

Do you avoid butylene glycol? Do you think your skin is healthier for it?

Sources:
Celanese Limited, “1,3-Butanedial, USEPA HPV Challenge Program Submission,” July 14, 2003, Toxicology and Regulatory Affairs, http://www.epa.gov/hpv/pubs/summaries/13butane/c14133rt.pdf.
Photo courtesy BFactoryUK via Flickr.com.

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  1. Rness says

    Just a note: Butylene Glycol could be any one of these four compounds: 1,2-Butanediol, 1,3-Butanediol, 1,4-Butanediol, and 2,3-Butanediol. 1,2 is used in making resins, 1,3 is used in food coloring breakdown and hypoglycemic medicines, 1,4 is used to synthesize plastics and can be used as an illegal drug, and finally 2,3 which is a precursor to plastics and some pesticides but is found naturally in various plants and in cocoa butter. Which one the cosmetics industries use (as they are NOT all the same in any way) will determine whether or not you should use it.

  2. MermaidCollins says

    Sooo…I you’ve presented an issue but not a solution….except to buy other people’s …and your products.
    What if you are making your own products? What’s the alternative ingredient to using this chemical?

  3. virginia grogg says

    My questions is regarding the Ingestion of Propylene glycol in things like “miralax”. I feel as though I am ingesting pure oil?. However my body and physician continue to insist that I need this in the treatment of my bowl disease?

    As with other petroleum products, I prefer to stay away but as I try I have not been able to find another product that helps me, including all natural and probiotics ?

    Any suggestions?

    Virginia , Concerned

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    this article presents pleasant understanding even.

  5. Alvin says

    Too much use of chemicals is appalling for skin. I’m suffering from skin infection from last three years due to usage of fairness creams.

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  7. Experienced user says

    In this article glycol are said to be petroleum-derived compounds. However, the structure on butylene glycol as well as other glycols are alcohols. Butylene glycol (more often 1,4-butylene glycol) can be found in some plant products like cocoa butter. However, it never exist in petroleum products. Of course petroleum-derivated products can be used in Butylene Glycol synthesis, but it’s the same with practically all organic molecules including vitamins and other vital and natural compounds. It’s true that butylene glycol in cosmetics are synthetic products, because in nature it exist so tiny amounts that separation it from natural fats is not economically feasible. Anyway, structurally it’s much more natural product that petroleum-derivated product. It decomposes to gamma-hydroxybutyric acid which was mentioned in article. However, there was not mentioned that this compound is metabolized further yielding acetyl-coenzyme A, which is vital and important compound in cellular level energy production. As a humectant, butylene glycol is not as adhesive as glycerin and feels much better in skin and have similar moisturizing properties. Very few can get allergic reaction, but generally butylene glycol is very safe. My favorite cream contains butylene glycol and I’m not worried about it.

    • Annmarie Skin Care says

      Hi there,

      Hyaluronic acid is a humectant, which means that it pulls water and hydration from the air and from within the skin to balance out the water content in the skin. We use it in our serums, which are aloe-based (so water based) products. Because hyaluronic acid is all about water and hydration, we don’t really use it as on oil soluble product, though it’s great to use before using an oil because the oil will help lock in the hydration!

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