Hair Care

By Kathryn Holl


Free radicals, carcinogens, toxic chemicals and even lipoproteins seem to be everywhere we turn. McDonalds’s, Wendy’s and the entire city of New York have banned trans fats. You can’t step outside without sunscreen for fear of getting skin cancer or premature aging due to free radicals. The air we breathe in the Big Apple can hardly be considered “fresh.” But have you ever thought to check your shampoo for cancer-causing agents? If you thought it was the last place you’d find them, you may want to think again.

Unfortunately our shampoos and conditioners are not impervious to containing hazardous ingredients and many of us use these products on a daily basis. Diethanolamine (DEA) is a chemical extensively used for its emulsifying properties and provides the rich lather in many shampoos. David McDaniel, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at Eastern Virginia Medical School, confirms that there are no serious safety issues with DEA itself but if contaminated with the cancer-causing carcinogen nitrosodiethanolamine or NDEA, an issue arises. NDEA is readily absorbed through the skin and contamination is more likely if the shampoo also contains Bronopol.

The National Toxicology Program (NTP) completed a study in 1998 that found an association between the topical application of DEA and certain DEA-related ingredients and cancer in laboratory animals. A two-year skin-application showed to cause liver cancer in rodents. The study did not establish a link between DEA and the risk of cancer in humans.

You may be wondering why DEA is still allowed to be used as an ingredient in cosmetic products if it was found to cause cancer in lab animals. While the FDA can make recommendations to the cosmetics industry in regards to ingredients and formulations they have little power to enforce them. A year after the NTP completed their study, the FDA released an Offices of Cosmetics Fact Sheet that claimed no reason for consumers to be alarmed based on the use of DEA in cosmetics and stated that if consumers wish to avoid products containing the ingredient they should review product labels prior to purchasing. In 2006, the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) / Office of Cosmetics and Colors revised the FDA’s 1999 report to note that DEA and DEA-related ingredients are used less frequently in cosmetic products then they were when the NTP completed their study in 1998.Regardless, DEA is still used in various shampoos and cosmetic products.

Unfortunately there is no way for consumers to know if their shampoo has been contaminated with NDEA. According to, consumers can reduce any potential and hazardous risks by rinsing the product thoroughly after use and using cold water when shampooing as it can reduce the amount of NDEA absorbed through the skin. Another way to protect against shampoos that may be contaminated with NDEA is to avoid purchasing products containing the following ingredients:

– Cocamide DEA or Cocamide Diethanolamine
– DEA Lauryl Sulfate or Diethanolamine Lauryl Sulfate
– Lauramide DEA or Lauramide Diethanolamine
– Linoleamide DEA or Linoleamide Diethanolamine
– Oleamide DEA or Oleamide Diethanolamine
– Any product containing TEA or Triethanolamine

Billy Lowe, Beverly Hills hairstylist, who has worked with celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres and the cast of Desperate Housewives, says that more and more professionals are choosing products that are plant and botanically based, free of free of carcinogens, and that contain anti-oxidants and/or natural sun-blocks. “Many manufacturers look to cut costs and instead of using quality (more costly) products, they cut corners and create a cheaper product, using cheaper ingredients; many of them toxic. For example, sunflower seed oil is a natural sun protector, yet probably more costly than using “chemicals” in products,” says Lowe. Billy recommends using lines that are plant based, developed with zero sulfates, carcinogen free and 100% vegan.

Like most things in today’s day in age, you have to be careful about what you put in and on your body. While we will never be 100% immune to toxic or hazardous chemicals we can at least take small measures to make sure we are doing the best to protect the one body we have.

Originally published June 2007



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