Propylene glycol
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Propylene glycol

Propylene glycol is a petroleum oil-derived compound that has many different uses in the commercial industries. It is odourless and has no taste description.

General uses

Propylene glycol is used in the food, cosmetic, pharmaceutical and plastic industries. It is also commonly used to create the artificial smoke or mist often seen in discotheques, theatre and television productions.

Reported tobacco industry uses

Propylene glycol is reportedly used as a ‘humectant’ in cigarettes i.e. a substance that traps water to keep the tobacco moist, thus preventing the cigarette from drying out.

Propylene glycol is applied to either the filter or the tobacco and makes up to 2.4% of the total weight of the tobacco used in one cigarette (for cigarettes produced and sold in the EU). In the Netherlands, the average amount added is reported to be 1.3% of the total weight of tobacco in a cigarette, with a maximum of 5.0%.

Harmful health effects

Most of propylene glycol is transferred to smoke at levels that are high enough to irritate the eyes and airways. It is also present in the smoke coming from the lit end of the cigarette, so both non-smokers and smokers can be exposed.

Exposure to propylene glycol is considered to be a potential health problem because in addition to the irritant effects mentioned above, the additive also produces harmful substances when it is burnt. These include the chemical propylene oxide, which has been classed as a possible cancer-causing agent by the expert cancer organisation, IARC (i.e. the International Agency for Research on Cancer).

There are currently no studies providing information on whether propylene glycol affects smoking addiction. However, propylene glycol helps to make the smoke less harsh and thus more tolerable. In doing so, the tobacco industry ultimately creates a more appealing and palatable cigarette that is easier to smoke and more attractive to consumers. This encourages the smoking habit, and can ultimately cause smokers to be exposed to higher levels of the toxic substances contained in cigarette smoke.

This text of the factsheet on the tobacco additive propylene glycol is written by the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM). You can find the original in English on the RIVM website

This initiative has received funding from the European Union in the framework of the Health Programme.