Imagine living in a world where you could pick up any product off a grocery store shelf, read the ingredients list, and instantly understand every little chemical that product contained.
Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, these days, it pretty much is impossible!
Sometimes even simple goods like jam, bread or peanut butter seem to contain a whole list of funny-sounding ingredients that don’t come across as entirely natural. Monosodium glutamate, sodium nitrate, xantham gum; the list goes on.
It feels as though we’d have to spend a lifetime researching all these different chemicals and additives to even begin to understand what they do and where they come from.
To save you a little time regarding one particular ingredient common in many household and beauty products, this article will cover everything you need to know about ethanolamine.
What is ethanolamine? Where does it come from? And why is it present in so many everyday products? Read on for the answers!
What is Ethanolamine?
According to the Hazardous Substances Data Bank, ethanolamine is “a colorless thick liquid with an unpleasant ammonia-like odor.” This chemical can become a solid below 51 degrees Fahrenheit, and is very soluble in water.
Surprisingly, ethanolamine exists naturally in all living species, and is present in both human and animal urine. It is also a naturally occurring compound present in food items such as lemongrass, caraway, daikon radish and muscadine grape.
Ethanolamine is also known as 2-aminoethanol, monoethanolamine or, in chemical terms, C2H7NO. It can also be referred to as MEA.
One of the most common uses for ethanolamine is as a commercial chemical for removing carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide from natural gas and other various gases. The compound is also modified to produce other substances such as soaps, detergents, surfactants and corrosion inhibitors.
The MEA chemical can be found in machining fluids, hydraulic fracturing fluids, household cleaning products, polishes, hair coloring products, and has many other commercial and industrial uses.
According to Dr. Vikram Taruga M.D, a Florida-based gastroenterologist and CEO of Detox of South Florida, ethanolamine helps to neutralize fatty acids in soaps and cosmetics, and works as an emulsifier in household and commercial goods, making these products much more effective and desirable in the process.
So it’s clear that ethanolamine plays a significant role in producing many of the products we all use on a daily basis.
But should we be worried? Are there any hazards involved with ethanolamine?
Is Ethanolamine Hazardous?
Well obviously, if we don’t use ethanolamine-containing products as intended, they can be very hazardous for our health.
The chemical can be very harmful if swallowed or inhaled, with inhalation causing cough, sore throat, headache, shortness of breath and drowsiness. Ingestion of the chemical will lead to a burning sensation, abdominal pain, and eventually shock or collapse, so make sure to always use products containing ethanolamine only for their intended purpose.
As tasty as some luscious looking face creams and fruity-colored cleaning agents may appear, it is probably (definitely) better not to eat them, drink them or smell them up close!
Ethanolamine has been known to pose certain dangers even when it is used as intended, so it’s important to be ultra-careful with this omnipresent compound. The vapor from ethanolamine can cause irritation to the eyes and nose, and the liquid can cause injury to the mouth, throat, digestive tract, skin and eyes.
According to the International Labor Organization, short-term exposure to ethanolamine may even cause effects on the central nervous system, which can result in a lowering of consciousness. This risk is more in relation to occupational use of the compound, but it is still very important to limit your exposure as much as possible when handling products containing ethanolamine in the home.
For cosmetics and skin products containing MEA, this caution means only applying the recommended amount. For household cleaning products that contain the chemical, it’s best to wear some sort of mask while using them. Breathe in as little of the vapors as possible.
Ethanolamine has also been linked to the development of allergies like asthma and dermatitis in occupational settings; another reason to try and limit your exposure to this MEA chemical in your home. Here is a selection of ethanolamine-free cleaning products, hair/body products, and laundry detergents from Public Goods that might help you do just that!
Vanessa Thomas, cosmetic chemist and founder of Freelance Formulations, claimed ethanolamine is considered safe for use in cosmetics, and there is no confirmed risk involved relating to cancers or developmental toxicity.
She does, however, mention a permissible exposure limit for ethanolamine, issued by the United States Department of Labor. It is clear that too much exposure to ethanolamine is not something to be advised.
When ethanolamine is present in products that also contain preservatives that can break down into nitrates, the chemical may form something called nitrosamines, which are a known carcinogen.
So after all this you’re probably thinking, how the heck do I cut ethanolamine out of my life? What are the alternatives?
Here’s a more detailed look at why ethanolamine is present in so many products despite the potential risks, and how you can find some safer alternatives.
What is Ethanolamine Used For? And What are the Alternatives?
Ethanolamine can be found in a wide array of everyday consumer products. Cleaners, degreasers, detergents, soaps, cosmetics, hair dyes, auto products and shampoos often contain the MEA chemical.
Its industrial uses are also quite extensive, with the compound finding applications in non-pesticidal agricultural chemicals, solvents, functional fluids, corrosion inhibitors, anti-scaling agents and various other production-enhancing mediums.
Because ethanolamine is a weak base — meaning it doesn’t disassociate completely when dissolved in water — it is a very effective compound when it comes to removing carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide from certain gases. This property explains some of its many industrial applications, as ethanolamine can be employed as a ‘scrubber’ to remove these harmful components from various fossil fuels that are often used to power industrial processes. The idea is that by removing environmentally harmful compounds such as CO2 from these energy sources, fossil fuel-powered industrial processes can be rendered more environmentally friendly. Hopefully, this imperfect technology will become irrelevant soon, as renewable energy such as solar and wind take over.
Ethanolamine also has the ability to neutralize fatty acids to form specialty soaps, which is why it is included in so many cosmetic products. Due to its emulsive properties, the chemical can also be used to improve the effectiveness of household cleaning products, polishes, detergents, etc.
Being such a versatile, functional chemical, it’s easy to see why ethanolamine is included in such a wide array of different products, both industrially and commercially. But as was very clear in the previous section, ethanolamine is not entirely safe, and overexposure to this chemical can cause all sorts of potential health issues.
Although there aren’t really any obvious alternative ingredients you should look out for as a replacement for ethanolamine, make sure to only purchase products that do not have ethanolamine on their list of ingredients.
To take this precaution, you will need to be on the lookout for a whole host of different terms that can be used to represent ethanolamine. Monoethanolamine, 2-aminoethanol, MEA, stearamide MEA, and 2-aminoethyl alcohol are just some of the terms to watch out for. If you can manage to find products containing none of the ingredients on this list, you can be quite confident that these products are ethanolamine-free.
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