It’s crazy when you think about all the ‘ingredients’ we tend to consume on a regular basis without really knowing what exactly they are, or where they come from.
These days people are becoming increasingly aware of things like aspartame and high-fructose corn syrup, the notorious artificial sweeteners casually present in the majority of processed foods. Only recently I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that palm oil has about a bazillion different potential names!
But what about mysterious substances like diethanolamine and ethanolamine that most of us come into contact with nearly every day?
I mean, what is diethanolamine? Is it safe? Should we be using it at all?
Here’s everything you need to look out for when it comes to diethanolamine and its uses.
What is Diethanolamine?
I’m nearly certain that pretty much everyone reading this sentence uses soap on a daily basis? Probably shampoo, perfume, sunscreen, floor polish and all sorts of other cosmetics and cleaning products, too? Well quite often, these kinds of products will contain diethanolamine, also known as iminodiethanol or DEA, or in chemical terms: C4H11NO2.
Diethanolamine is an organic chemical compound which is both a secondary amine and a dialcohol. Being a secondary amine, diethanolamine has two carbons bonded to its nitrogen atom, as opposed to the single carbon that would be bonded to the nitrogen atom of a primary amine. Being a dialcohol, diethanolamine also has two hydroxyl groups in its molecule. A hydroxyl group is a ‘functional group consisting of a hydrogen atom covalently bonded to an oxygen atom.’
As well as being present in substances like laundry and dishwashing detergent, cosmetics, shampoos and hair conditioners, etc, the DEA chemical compound is also used in textile processing, industrial gas purification and in various agricultural chemicals. But why the heck are we putting diethanolamine into such a wide array of different products?
According to Dr. Amit Roy, MD, an internal medicine physician in New York, and medical advisor for eMediHealth, because diethanolamine is ‘hydrophilic,’ meaning it is attracted to water, it has the ability to act as a surfactant and emulsifier. These terms mean the chemical compound can reduce the surface tension of a liquid and increase its spreading and wetting properties. It is this ability that gives many shower gels and shampoos that creamy, sudsy quality we’re all used to, and that makes many cosmetics so smooth and glossy.
Dr. Roy added that diethanolamine also helps to neutralize the acid content of these products by stabilizing their pH, making them less harsh on the skin.
So clearly diethanolamine has its uses, but can it be harmful to us?
Is Diethanolamine Hazardous?
If we use products containing diethanolamine in the wrong way, it can be very hazardous for our health.
Diethanolamine is toxic and harmful if swallowed, so it is certainly not advised to eat or drink any products containing it! The chemical can also cause serious eye damage, so make sure and keep diethanolamine-containing products away from your eyes at all times. If you do get some in your eyes, make sure and wash it out immediately with water.
It’s very important that we use any products containing diethanolamine solely for their intended purpose. Even then, we need to be wary of the possible health issues involved. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), limited information is available regarding the health effects of diethanolamine on humans, but they do offer some advice.
In the short-term, they warn that ‘acute inhalation exposure to diethanolamine in humans may result in irritation of the nose and throat,’ so it’s best to try and avoid breathing in the fumes from any cleaning products that contain it. The EPA also states that dermal exposure to diethanolamine may irritate the skin. If you’re using any skin-based cosmetics that contain diethanolamine and you’re having skin-related problems, it might be best to try and find a DEA-free alternative! Here is a selection of DEA-free Public Goods products for hair and body that might be of use!
According to the EPA, there is no conclusive information available regarding the long-term effects of diethanolamine in humans, but this may be due to a lack of research. Neither the EPA nor the FDA has classified diethanolamine as carcinogenic for humans, and both organizations consider the chemical safe for use in consumer products.
With regard to the potential carcinogenic properties of diethanolamine on humans, cosmetic chemist and founder of Freelance Formulations Vanessa Thomas suggested that “more studies need to be conducted on this ingredient, but in the meantime, it may be safer to use an alternative.”
Sounds like smart advice, but you might be wondering, “What exactly are the alternatives to diethanolamine, and where can I find them!?”
Here’s a little more detail about what exactly the DEA chemical is used for, and how you can find alternatives.
What is Diethanolamine Used For? And What are the Alternatives?
The list of products that may contain diethanolamine really is quite an extensive one. As well as the products mentioned above such as cosmetics, detergents and cleaning agents, DEA may also be present in numerous agricultural products, automotive care products, water treatment products, plastic and rubber products, and many others. It also has various industrial and pharmaceutical uses.
The reason this versatile chemical is added to such a wide variety of products differs depending on the product in question. As we discussed earlier, diethanolamine can reduce the surface tension of a liquid and increase its ability to spread, which is often what makes our shampoos all nice and foamy and our cosmetics all smooth and shiny. It is also diethanolamine that helps neutralize the acid that’s included in many cosmetics and cleaning products to make them more hospitable. In agricultural use, the chemical’s emulsive properties can be used to increase the dispersibility of agricultural chemicals.
So it’s easy to see why diethanolamine is such a popular and far-reaching ingredient, but as we have seen, it may not be completely safe. If you’re concerned about using it, and you’d like to be able to identify what products contain diethanolamine, it may be listed under a number of different names. Diethanol, iminodiethanol and DEA are just some of the possible trade names for diethanolamine. Here is a list of names to look out for.
If you’re looking to avoid DEA all together, Dr. Amit Roy suggests searching for products that contain saponins, or alkyl polyglycosides, which are both natural alternatives to DEA with similar surfactant properties.
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