Today’s toxic chemicals are ethanolamines, specifically DEA (diethanolamine), MEA (monoethanolamine) & TEA (triethanolamine). All of the products pictured below contain these chemicals.

Method soap-ogx shampoo-bliss body butter

Ethanolamines are a chemical group comprised of amino acids and alcohols with links to cancer and other health problems. They are clear, colorless, have an ammonia-like smell and are used as solvents, ph-balancers, emulsifying agents and detergents. Ethanolamines are organic compounds, commonly derived from soybeans or coconut oils, but “when they are used in the same product as certain preservatives that break down into nitrogen, they can form nitrosamines, [which] the International Agency for Research on Cancer lists as possible and known carcinogens” (source).

  • Products that commonly contain these ingredients: products that foam, including bubble baths, body washes, shampoos, soaps, and facial cleaners. They’re also found in eyeliners, mascara, eye shadows, blush, make-up bases and foundations, fragrances, body lotions, hair care products, hair dyes, shaving products, and sunscreens (source).
  • What to look for on the label: Cocamide DEA, Cocamide MEA, DEA-Cetyl Phosphate, DEA Oleth-3 Phosphate, Lauramide DEA, Linoleamide MEA, Myristamide DEA, Oleamide DEA, Stearamide MEA, TEA-Lauryl Sulfate, Triethanolamine
  • Health Concerns: These hormone-disrupting chemicals have also been linked to cancer, eye, skin and lung irritation, and organ system toxicity (prolonged exposure can result in kidney, liver, or nervous system injury). “…Animal studies with DEA and MEA have shown a tendency for these chemicals to encourage the formation of tumors and to cause developmental abnormalities to an unborn fetus” (source).
  • Regulations: Ethanolamines are already heavily regulated or banned in Europe but are still used in U.S. despite the fact that we may be exposed to them 10-20 times per day (source). The European Commission prohibits diethanolamine (DEA) in cosmetics, to reduce contamination from carcinogenic nitrosamines (source). The World Health Organization lists DEA as an unclassified carcinogen (source).
    • ” The FDA became aware of a National Toxicology Program study (in 1998) that found an association between the topical application of DEA… and cancer in laboratory animals. Despite this, (and according to the FDA’s website, which acknowledges the NTP study), “the FDA believes that at the present time there is no reason for consumers to be alarmed based on the use of these substances in cosmetics. However, consumers wishing to avoid cosmetics containing DEA or DEA-related ingredients may do so by reviewing the ingredient statement that is required to appear on the outer container label of cosmetics offered for retail sale to consumers” (source).

So the FDA is aware of the dangers, makes the information about DEA’s potential as a carcinogen available to us via limited resources (you have to specifically search for it in their database), and then basically says ‘buyer beware’ rather than implementing any actual restrictions or stricter regulations. 

I absolutely agree with consumer education and encouraging everyone to read ingredient labels and know what is in all of the products they are using. I even understand that the FDA can’t possibly regulate and enforce laws on every single self-care/beauty/personal product on the market (hello lady who sells handmade soaps at the farmer’s market). I do think that laws should be written and enforced especially on giant companies and in certain industries when links to cancer have been found. My biggest problem is with companies who, rather than spending time and money on making packaging and ingredients safer and more transparent to consumers, are actually deceiving people and using keywords on packaging that actively dissuade them from doing their own research:

Dermatologist Tested/Recommended/Approved

Sensitive Skin

All Natural

Active Naturals

Medical Skinare

Safe for Baby/Baby Formulation

None of these are necessarily outright lies (although I would argue against many ‘sensitive’ and ‘baby’ categorizations based on some of the ingredients they often use). They are, however, misleading and giving buyers a misplaced sense of comfort and trust in the products despite the fact that they may contain very harmful and toxic ingredients. There is a term for intentionally misleading consumers when it relates to environmentally friendly or ‘all natural’ products and it is greenwashing. For example, a company may advertise a product as Natural, Cruelty-Free, Vegan, or emphasize that packaging is recyclable, but said product may actually be made with many toxic chemicals that are harmful to our bodies and/or the environment. I will do a post on greenwashing in the future, but the bottom line is the same: read and research ingredients and make choices for yourself about what you want to put in and on your body.

With that in mind, here are some alternatives to the toxic products pictured above:

I know that it can seem overwhelming to be super diligent about checking ingredient lists for everything that you buy, especially when some of them are so long and the terms are so scientific/confusing sometimes. I hope that information like this can help demystify some of the ingredients you might see and especially raise red flags when you see the chemicals that I discuss in my Toxic Tuesday posts. I promise that it gets easier and quicker to scan labels, and as long as you do your best most of the time, when you accidentally (or purposefully) buy or use an occasional product with one questionable ingredient, the toxic load on your body won’t be nearly as heavy of harmful. I just want to make sure we are making informed and deliberate decisions about most of the products and chemicals we use. If everyone became just a little bit more aware, imagine how much of a difference it could possibly make for our collective health and our environment!

Xo, Edie


Format and info of my Toxic Tuesday posts adapted from Campaign for Safe Cosmetics website