What's The Story With Propanediol?
In my last post, I wrote about how harmful ingredients end up in our food and personal care products unbeknownst to us because of how the manufacturing industry disguises them in feel-good terms. You can read more about that here.
There is also another trend. It’s the asterisk affect. It’s when an ingredient is listed that doesn’t look or sound natural, so to deal with that, the ingredient is followed up with an explanation, which is often denoted with an *.
Another version of this practice is when you see an ingredient that clearly is not something any reasonable person would call natural and then in parentheses next to it, you see, “from plants,” or “derived from corn,” or “made from seaweed,” or something to that affect. This is deceptive. It’s meant to arrest any suspicion in its tracks, and instead, reassure you with words that make you feel better.
This practice also leaves out a lot of other key information, like what else is in there to make it do what corn, seaweed and other plants would never be able to do on their own? Just because something is derived from a biological source, in no way makes it wholly natural, nor does it fully inform us of the chemical reality of the end product.
Propanediol is one such chemical. It is used primarily as an alternative to propylene glycol, even though, to look it up is to discover it is actually synonymous with propylene glycol, which is already confusing - and it gets worse. There are different versions of propanediol. Some is made from petrochemicals and some is said to be a chemical made from sugar- sugar derived from starch (corn) to be exact. This is where the natural claim comes from.
But this raises questions. They say it’s natural? And it’s a chemical? Can you have it both ways? Can it be a chemical if it is derived from corn and can it be natural if that corn is then further (chemically) altered and comes from genetically modified corn? (Which we know, most likely, it does – DuPont ((now DowDuPont)) is the primary producer of propanediol and also the world's largest chemical company.)
Of course you can, because regulations are rife with opportunities to convolute the meaning of words as they relate to ingredients. It’s normally not about what an ingredient actually is, it’s about what you can say it is. Read my post about the tricks played in labeling here in my article about Gywneth Paltrow and how Goop got ensnared in the claim game.
And then there is the question of process. In the case of corn-derived propanediol, it's possible (even probable) that it is made by introducing a microorganism to the corn starch for fermentation purposes. It is also possible, (even probable) that the microorganism is genetically modified bacteria. You’ll notice we never hear about the role, nature and effect of the microorganisms.
So the question is, do the chemical processes involved in turning corn into an ingredient that lubricates metal, delivers other chemicals deeper and faster into the skin, aids in preservation, acts as a solvent, etc…, essentially chemicalize the ingredient beyond what most people would consider “natural?”
And, if it isn’t organic corn, which we know it probably isn't, you have the pesticides, such as Atrazine to think about. Atrazine is a chemical used heavily on corn crops. It has been shown at very low doses to turn a male frog into a female frog with perfectly viable, reproductive eggs! And that’s just one of many chemicals sprayed onto conventional crops. So to try to pass any of this off as natural is beyond ridiculous.
But companies still label it as natural, and by extension, imply it's safe.
Based on what exactly though?
It is not enough to say that propanediol is made from corn, and then from there, come up with an all-natural claim. The corn is only a very small part of the story.
The bigger problem is that we don’t have all the information we need to assess the safety of propanediol. The truth is, no one does. If you take a look at the safety data sheet on propanediol, a portion of which I have included below, you can see that the record itself shows no proof of safety. On the contrary, on key toxicological points, there is “no information available.”
In absence of the details that would paint a full picture for consumers, companies have a responsibility to disclose not that it’s made from corn, but what the potential effects their products will have on our bodies. And if they don’t know, they should refrain from claiming it’s safe until they actually find out.
Corn is natural. I’ll admit. Assuming, that is, that it has not been genetically modified or doused in toxic chemicals. But what that has to do with the end product and its effects on human health is a question that needs to be answered before we put it on our skin and potentially into our bodies.
In fairness, it does appear that corn-derived propanediol is not the assault on the environment that petroleum based products are. And while important, that is a separate topic for another day. We are talking here about the health effects of the propanediol in, and on, our bodies, not the environmental cost.
All in all, it's very confusing, and virtually impossible to ferret out the truth. The technical answer that explains the difference between 1,3-propanediol and propylene glycol is that they are exactly the same molecularly, but structurally, they are different. Though, how that further translates into its effect on our bodies is, quite literally, anyone's guess.
We shouldn't have to wait 20 years for them to experiment on us and then, millions of dollars later, say, "Oops. Sorry."