Read the label: Detergents

| 7th February 2008
No one should have to choose between looking good and being healthy, which is why each month we will be taking a critical look at the active ingredients in personal care products and asking why manufacturers continue to choose toxic ones over safer alternatives.


If you regularly use modern cosmetics and bodycare products, then you are regularly exposing yourself to harmful chemicals. On average we each use nine different products, with a total of 126 unique chemical ingredients, daily. Ninety per cent of these have never been fully evaluated for safety. Your skin can’t protect you from these chemicals. Individually and in combination most can quickly and easily penetrate the normally protective barrier of the skin and be absorbed into your body where they are linked to a range of human health problems including cancer, birth defects and central nervous system damage. This is not acceptable.

We challenge the cosmetics industry to produce products with:

  • No potential carcinogens, neurotoxins and reproductive toxins
  • No petrochemicals
  • No synthetic perfumes
  • No synthetic colours
  • Ingredients with full safety data
  • Ingredient label on the product
  • Internationally standardised ingredient names
  • Packaging that minimises the need for preservatives
  • Organic ingredients

What we can do as intelligent consumers

  • Read and learn to understand the label
  • Buy fewer products
  • Use less of what we do buy
  • Dilute
  • Ignore label hype (e.g., ‘scientifically proven’, ‘visible results in seven days’)
  • Make our own
  • Report adverse effects to manufacturers
  • Challenge stockists to sell safer products

Body washes, shampoos, bath foams, baby wash and shower gels, facial washes and scrubs – all the foamy stuff we use in the bathroom relies on complex modern detergents to wash away simple dirt.

Detergents are part of a larger group of chemicals called surfactants (short for ‘surface active agents’). Surfactants interact with water and change its properties, for instance lowering its surface tension and making it ‘wetter’ and better able to interact with other additives in the mixture. Detergents have similar properties and may, in addition, add foaming ability.

Anionic detergents are the most common detergents used in cosmetics and bodycare products. They are popular with manufacturers because they work quickly and well in both hard and soft water and they foam and rinse well. But anionic detergents such as lauryl sulphates, sarcosines and sulfosuccinates can also be harsh – so much so that they are prized in industry for degreasing engines and heavy duty cleanups.

Detergents, which replaced simple soap in our hygiene routine soon after WWII and which form a major part of most bath products, were originally developed for industrial use in hard water areas where they were thought to clean more efficiently. Since then research has shown that simple soap and detergents perform equally effectively in most types of water, although hard water appears to increase the potential of both types of cleaners to irritate the skin.

Manufacturers also boast that, unlike soap, detergents do not produce precipitate – the scummy substance that floats on the water or sticks to the side of the bath or shower. This is not strictly true since all washing products produce some degree of precipitate and claims about precipitate simply serve to illustrate how much manufacturers rely on aesthetics rather than effectiveness to sell their products.

Rich foamy lathers are another case in point. Foam adds no cleaning ability. However, manufacturers constantly add more detergent and additional foam boosters to produce the foam they believe consumers can’t live without. The increased concentration of detergent creates the need for conditioners and other additives, generating a much more complex cocktail of ingredients in the attempt to limit any skin reaction to the detergents.

Anionic detergents meet all the performance and aesthetic requirements of product formulators and while a detergent on its own is unlikely to be directly toxic, a harsh detergent can strip the skin and hair of protective oils, increasing the risk of dry skin and the absorption of other chemicals into the bloodstream.

Detergents can be harmful in other, less direct ways. Some, especially those with names ending in eth (ITALS) (as in sodium laureth (eth in itals) sulphate), can be contaminated with the carcinogen 1,4-dioxane. Others, such as DEA (diethanolamine), can interact with other ingredients in the mix to form carcinogenic nitrosamines.

DEA and its related compounds, such as TEA (triethanolamine) and MEA (monoethanolamine), can invariably be found in products that foam, including bubble bath, body washes, shampoos, soaps and facial cleansers.

Once added to the product these chemicals readily react with any nitrites present to form the carcinogenic nitrosamine, NDELA (N-nitrosodiethanolamine). Nitrosamines are also among the major carcinogens in cigarettes and cured meats.

Nitrites can get into personal care products as contaminants present in raw materials. They can also be the result of additives such as formaldehyde-releasing or formaldehyde-containing chemicals such as 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (also known as BNPD or Bronopol) and Padimate-O (octyl dimethyl PABA), DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolindinyl urea and quaternium 15.

Stored for extended periods at elevated temperatures, nitrates will continue to form in a product, and surveys in the US and Europe have shown that between 42 and 93 per cent of all detergent-based products contain nitrosamines.

What you can do

Soap is a simple, effective and largely natural cleanser. Detergents can only be produced synthetically and the damage they can do to skin, hair, eyes and mucous membranes varies according to how harsh and denaturing they are. If you are determined to buy detergent-based bodycare products, you can make safer choices by choosing those made with ingredients that have a milder action on the skin and/or don’t contain potential carcinogens.

Go into your bathroom and look at the labels of your favourite products. Do any of them contain the following detergents?

  • Ammonium laureth sulphate
  • Ammonium lauryl sulphate
  • Cocamide DEA
  • Cocamide MEA
  • Cocamidopropyl betaine
  • DEA olet-3 phosphate
  • DEA-cetyl phosphate
  • Diethanolamine (DEA) lauryl sulphate
  • Glyceryl laurate
  • Lauramide DEA
  • Linoleamide MEA
  • Monoethanolamine (MEA) lauryl sulphate
  • Myristamide DEA
  • Oleamide DEA
  • Sodium laureth sulphate
  • Sodium lauryl sulphate
  • Stearamide MEA
  • Triethanolamine (TEA) lauryl sulphate

If your regular products contain any of the ingredients below you should print these pages, highlight the worrying ingredients and write to the manufacturer’s customer services department asking them why, given that milder, safer and equally effective detergents such as those below exist, they are using these ingredients in their product. Ask the manufacturer to send a copy of their reply to the Ecologist (ITALS), or failing that pass the reply you do get on to us, as we will be monitoring all feedback for future investigations and campaigns.

  • Amphoteric-2
  • Amphoteric-6
  • Amphoteric-20
  • Cocoa betaine
  • Cocoa glucoside
  • Cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine
  • Decyl glucose
  • Decyl polyglucose
  • Lauryl betaine
  • Lauryl glucoside
  • Polysorbate 20
  • Polysorbate 40
  • Sodium cocoyl isethionate
  • Sodium lauraminopropionate
  • Sorbitan laurate
  • Sorbitan palmate
  • Sorbitan stearate

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2006

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